THE EARLY LEAD | A deep, vacant hole fulfilled by a successful trip east
By Brandon Hurley
I was finally home.
My long-awaited return to the Cathedral of Midwestern sports became a reality Nov. 13.
Surrounded by various suffocating shades of black, chilled by a brisk wind and overcast skies and empowered by the delectable noise only thousands of red-blooded football fans can produce, I experienced a euphoric rush of adrenaline years in the making.
The wait was over. I was back.
Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City, home of the Iowa Hawkeyes football team was the site of my latest sporting endeavor, my first visit in two full years.
And boy, was it perfect.
Because of last fall’s truncated pandemic season I was unable to attend an Iowa football game for the first time in decades. No fans were allowed inside the historic bowels of Kinnick in 2020 - a devastating realization that didn’t fully hit until the Hawks’ season came to an abrupt end.
Twenty-four excruciating months had passed since I last joined 65,000 of my close friends in a celebration of everything that is right in America, free of any stay at home mandates or capacity restrictions.
My return trip – with Iowa hosting the Minnesota Golden Gophers – had all the makings of a memorable day.
My fandom and utter infatuation for Kinnick Stadium is no secret – I’ve shared this tidbit in the sports pages of the Jefferson Herald prior, but for those who aren’t as tuned in, the home Nile Kinnick built is far and away my favorite place in the world.
There’s nothing quite like it.
The infrastructure is rather simplistic, but that’s what makes it so beautiful. It’s a rectangular open-air temple, home to some of the most electrifying displays of athleticism this side of the Mississippi River. The fans are packed in neatly, with little space to maneuver, very few extra bells and whistles – just football, fandom and appreciation.
There are plenty of bone-headed mistakes and play calls that occur regularly within Kinnick (I’m not that naive)l, but I like to believe the good always outweighs the bad.
I rarely leave Kinnick disappointed. Even when the Hawks lose (not every time), I feel as if my time was well spent.
The stands are remarkably close to the field, with the parallel seats on each side of the field mere feet from the bench. There also isn’t a bad seat in the house. Pristine angles of the on-field action can be found anywhere, even in the top row, which isn’t nearly as faraway as one would imagine.
For those of you who I’m sure are quickly coming around to, the new Jefferson Herald editor has a bit more sporting flair than others of the past.
Get used to it. Sports bring us together, creating some of the most heart-warming and gut-wrenching lessons life has to offer.
With that said, my love for Kinnick goes way back.
I grew up attending Saturday games at Kinnick Stadium with my dad, making the two-hour drive east from Ames, always intently tuned to the pregame show on WHO Radio, gaining all the knowledge we could before heading out into the tailgating masses, hoping to score cheap tickets from the scalpers.
Without being too exact, I’d say I’ve attended close to 100 games in Iowa City over the years, which includes many incredible victories as well as a number of devastating and frustrating defeats.
I was there when Drew Tate secured Iowa a Big Ten title with a win over Wisconsin. I was also present for Iowa’s stunning, last-second upset of undefeated Penn State in 2008. But, I also vividly remember the crushing disappointment of a season-ending loss to Western Michigan, a moment which felt like the Ferentz era could soon come to a close (it certainly didn’t).
I also was stung with disbelief when Penn State prevailed on a last second touchdown a few years back, easily the most-humid and heated night game I’d ever witnessed.
No matter whether Iowa won or lost, my dad and I would make the long trek back home, listening to callers either squeal in glee or moan in despair as they phoned into WHO radio.
Our infatuation with the Black and Gold didn’t end in Kinnick, it only began.
More recently, I’ve picked up a newer companion in my girlfriend Sarah, who has already witnessed four Iowa victories.
Now, back to reality.
Saturday’s tailgating atmosphere wasn’t up to its usual par thanks to a bone-chilling wind and the coldest game day temperatures to date this fall, but the buzz was still there. The electricity inside the stadium was certainly still as intoxicating as always, with a near capacity crowd eagerly awaiting a showdown with the somewhat despised Gophers.
Normally, I scalp, but to cut down on the stress, we purchased tickets ahead of time. As we made our way through the gates, the mission had yet to be fully realized. We still had to find our seats.
My companions for the day instantly regretted tagging along, as I nearly sprinted up to the third level of the stadium, taking leaps of two concrete steps at a time with ease, half-expecting to miss the opening kick-off, only to realize 10 minutes remained on the pregame clock, with my friends nowhere to be found.
I was a bit excited, OK?
This over-eagerness allowed me to take in one of the greatest traditions in college sports (I may be a little biased, but it is quite wonderful) – the Swarm. The Iowa athletes walk down a dimly lit, yet colorful hallway as AC/DC’s “Back in Black” booms out of the stadium speakers, giving even the most strenuous of doubters some type of a chill.
The university has even stepped up the theatrics over the years, incorporating more frequent fireworks displays, even during in-game pauses, which added to a pregame, fighter jet fly-over in honor of the recent Veteran’s Day holiday and we were in for a special treat.
There were several moments throughout the day in which I found myself basking in the sheer beauty of live, college sports, not even cheering or clapping, just observing in silence. A stadium jam-packed with rabid Hawkeye fans - nearly 70,000 of us screaming our heads off, pulling for a victory, hoping for passionate play and big plays – both of which we were blessed with on several occasions.
It was a perfect storm of relief and excitement, and I couldn’t help but reflect on so many wonderful memories the place has created.
Saturday’s trip reaffirmed my love for college football and Kinnick Stadium as a whole. It was a pleasure to return, to be amongst my people once again, thousands of fans who understand and appreciate good football.
The longing has vanished. I’ve found my sporting peace.
Hopefully, two years don’t pass between visits.