NY Sports Day

The Bronx Is Bowling

John Salavatore

There’s something almost unsettling about college kids rocking candy striped overalls. And middle-aged adults in the same outfit is just downright inappropriate. Especially in the Boogie Down. Especially while at Billy’s Sports Bar (actually more of a night club) in the Boogie Down. But there they were. College kids, recent grads and not-so-recent grads alike. All looking like they could have been extras in Weird Al’s White & Nerdy video. All acting like they had called each other up beforehand. In at least one case, a father & daughter duo, they did make sure to coordinate first. Sitting together on a black leather couch facing the main dance floor the two were killing time while trying to make it through an obnoxiously loud Kendrick Lamar beat.  

 
Moments earlier it wasn’t Lamar, or Cardi B, or even Weird Al that got them and everyone else in the room to their feet. That honor belonged to the University of Wisconsin Marching Band. From under the River Avenue elevated they marched in alongside cheerleaders, the dance team (they’re not the same thing), and Bucky the Badger (somehow, a proud creator of this Wisconsin fashion faux-pas), while taking over the club for a mini pep rally. Everything inside turned red & white as cornfed Badger fans virtually transformed a small section of the South Bronx into their native Madison stomping grounds.
 
The dad half of the duo was David Owens, a CEO from Philadelphia. Having lived on both coasts, Owens considered himself fairly urbane and worldly. Yet, there he was, sporting overalls bright enough to make even Andrea Bocelli turn away. College football can make people do strange things. Even in New York which abandoned its claim as the sport’s mecca over 70 years ago. Chances are back then no one came in costume. Either way, especially during the “Game of the Century,” there was no doubting New York’s position atop the college football world. Oddly, that particular game, a battle between #1 Army and #2 Notre Dame turned out to be the beginning of the end of big-time college football in the Big Apple. 
 
The two defenses teed off on each other for 60 minutes until the clock struck zero. It matched the zeroes on the scoreboard as both squads left the field looking as if they had been through war. Coincidentally, it had been the mother-of-all-wars which elevated Army’s football program. Particularly West Point’s mission of granting every single one of its students four full years of officer training, thus exempting them from being drafted into WWII. Instantaneously, star players from across the land wanted to transfer to the Hudson as the Black Knights became the country’s top power. Notre Dame saw what had traditionally been a one-sided series suddenly flip as Army took the upper hand. The Cadets utterly demolished Notre Dame in 1944 and again in 1945 before the “Game of the Century” tie in 1946. With that, Our Lady decided to cancel their annual pilgrimage into Yankee Stadium. Instead they’d play in South Bend or not at all.  
 
The problem for Army was that they were starting to lose their WWII recruitment advantage. They were no longer in position to challenge the Irish, especially not while on the road. After the 1947 affair hosted by Notre Dame, the series went on hiatus as the schools would not meet again until 1957. They would not meet in New York again until a 1965 encounter at Shea Stadium of all places. And they would not meet in The Bronx again until christening the new Yankee Stadium’s gridiron in 2010. Close to 60,000 came out for that one, still a college football record for the new Stadium. 
 
By then however, the contest was simply serving a nostalgic purpose. College football in New York would never again reach its 1946 zenith. By the early 1960s Army was no longer a national power. Even Notre Dame took a few steps back while adjusting to football in the TV Age. A decade earlier dwindling attendance took its toll on the locals as both NYU and Fordham dropped their programs. Columbia deemphasized the sport from within their Ivy League bubble while New Yorkers began gravitating towards the NFL. It’s been a pro-sports town ever since. 
 
Big-time college football tried returning to Gotham in the early ‘60s with the creation of the Gotham Bowl. After two unspectacular editions it was scrapped. The Garden State Bowl, played at the then brand new Giants Stadium, came along in the late ‘70s and did did better. Still, after several bitterly cold contests promoters realized they could make a bigger splash by starting the season at the Meadowlands instead. Thus, the mid-December Garden State Bowl was replaced by the late-August Kickoff Classic. The Classic too was eventually dropped once everyone began playing 12 game schedules and kicking off their seasons early. Finally, in 2010, the New York Yankees decided to take their stab at bringing big time college football back to the area. Aside the aforementioned 2010 Army-Notre Dame contest, the new digs would also host the newly created Pinstripe Bowl. 
 
It’s hard to say whether that bowl has been a success. Unless Notre Dame or Penn State are in town the Pinstripe Bowl generally draws about 37,000 per game. Better than other relatively new bowls in places like the San Francisco and DC areas, but not near the 60,000 more established bowls in places like Orlando, Memphis, San Antonio and San Diego get. Not to mention one of the New Year’s Six Bowls (Rose, Sugar, Orange, Cotton, Fiesta & Peach) currently used as part of the playoffs series. On the other hand, it’s hard finding many college fans unhappy about being in New York during the holidays.
 
Owens in particular, who has seen his Badgers play in Pasadena, found New York to be the perfect setting for a bowl game. With its many Manhattan drinking holes dedicated to different big-time teams, he and his daughter first stepped into a Badger-friendly locale (the Mad River Bar & Grille on 82nd and 3rd) before hopping on an Uptown 4 train to the Stadium. Having those options, instead of being herded inside some never-ending and overpriced parking lot, was a cheaper and more enjoyable experience than the hours of pregame tailgating he had been accustomed to. Others, like Dave and Kristin Pann of Jamesville, Wisconsin, agreed. Although lifelong fans, the Pinstripe Bowl was their first visit to any bowl game and that trip was made specifically to also see “crazy and chaotic” New York. The end of the pep rally and return of dance music blasting from the DJ’s speakers probably only added to the chaotic feel.
 
On the other hand, Miami fans seemed more at ease with the pregame club scene. Especially since most were subway alumni from different corners of the tri-state area. Instead of being filled with school spirit, the Hurricanes crowd seemed more filled with themselves. Many repped oversized, gold “turnover chains” seemingly designed by Flavor Flav. They thumped their chests out the way Iron Mike Tyson fans once did during fight nights. Like Tyson, the ‘Canes dominated the 1980s. Like Tyson they did so while also being the baddest of bad boys around. Still, like Tyson, that era is long over. There was almost a sad feel to their fans inflated sense of importance. John Scheldrup, a Penn State student in town supporting Wisconsin, joked that “Miami guys like to brag about spending more on bottle service than Wisconsin dudes do on tuition.”
 
Still, and maybe because of the pep rally at Billy’s, most Miami fans congregated down the block at Stan’s, a more traditional sports bar. Instead of Rae Sremmurd’s Black Beatles, Stan’s played more classic rock including the actual Beatles, Stones and Springsteen. Surprisingly ’80s one hit pop wonder, a-ha, made it to Stan’s playlist. More surpassingly, Miami’s too-cool-for-school group took on the Take on Me anthem and made it their own while using every opportunity in belting out the chorus. Although a certain level of irony was at play there, many Miami fans seemed genuinely happy to be bowling in The Bronx. Although not a Notre Dame or Penn State crowd, bartender Joe Mondi was happy to have them. Even while stressing that nothing can ever beat late-summer Yankee crowds. 
 
While The U took a chunk of support from locals, some were actually Miami students too. At least one, Jamie Gordinier, had also been a player. The former linebacker had his career cut short due to injuries. Although not being able to play, the Jersey native was still happy that many of his teammates got to check out New York for the very first time. Not to mention becoming a part of Yankee Stadium’s rich tradition.
 
Chances are Gordinier was referring to baseball tradition. But whether it be Army-Notre Dame, Columbia winning the 1933 Rose Bowl, NYU fullback Ed Smith posing for a statuette that would become the Heisman Trophy, Fordham’s Seven Blocks of Granite, and later, their 1941 Sugar Bowl winning club, New York once led the college football game as well. Perhaps today’s Pinstripe Bowl is simply a novelty act. Just a year ago Wisconsin and Miami faced off as Top-10 sides playing at the Orange Bowl in front of nearly 70,000 ticket goers. With both teams stumbling to 7-5 records this season, the buzz was much lighter this time around. And yet there was no doubting the positivity from the fans. Novelty or not, both groups appreciated being in what Scheldrup called “The Capital of everything.” Even if that “everything” hasn’t included college football since the Truman administration. 
 
Coincidentally, both Wisconsin and Miami had played in New York City before. Wisconsin took on Columbia back in 1940 and lost, 7-6. Miami was a 20-0 loser to Fordham back in a 1953 game played at the Polo Grounds. The ‘Canes followed that with a 36-34 loss to Nebraska at the 1962 Gotham Bowl. With the combatants a combined 0-3 inside the five boroughs, something had to give this time around. That something was Miami’s offense which committed 5 turnovers while collecting only 6 first downs. Wisconsin jumped to a 14-0 lead before most could even find their oddly positioned seats and never looked back. Fortunately for Hurricane fans, the terrible sight lines made the misery easy to miss. Not that anyone but The U’s front seven could miss Jonathan Taylor. The New Jersey native rushed for 200+ yards while making himself an early hopeful for next year’s Heisman. Backup quarterback, Jack Coan didn’t add much but the Long Island native made few mistakes in easing his Badgers to a 35-3 victory.
 
Back at Billy’s and Stan’s the candy striped overalls crew partied the night away while flatscreens stayed on ESPN for all the postgame highlights. Smack between the two establishments, Justin’s Pizzeria. The all-Latino staff had Univision on as if completely oblivious to any Pinstripe Bowl happenings. They took tons of extra orders but, unlike Billy’s or Stan’s, they’re always open regardless of what college football game is being played at the Stadium or not. Perhaps that scene at the pizzeria best shows where New York now is in terms of college football. They’ll take care of whomever shows up from the game, but for most of New York, the Pinstripe Bowl just ain’t big-time enough to garner extra interest. It’s certainly not what previous generations of New Yorkers had been accustomed to. Not that this generation of New Yorkers even knows that the biggest of big-time games were once played here. Not that the out-of-towners care much either way. For Badger fans simply being in the “Capital of Everything” while getting to bust out candy striped overalls for an extra game is reason enough to celebrate. 
 
Maybe that’s the right take. After decades of nothing, New York is firmly back in the bowl business. It’s not what it was but it’s something. Something unquestionably corny but something unquestionably fun too.


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