Saturday, April 29, 2006

I went to the Jimmy Clausen press conference | by Jay

...and all I got was this lousy photo.

Yeah, I know what you're thinking: what kind of loser gets up at 4:45 in the morning, drives two hours and then waits through a 45-minute delay to see a high school kid announce where he's going to go to college? I was asking myself this very question as I was racing across the Chicago Skyway, popping Advil to fend off a hangover and scrounging around the floor of my car for change for the toll booth. Why would I put myself through something like this?

Here's why: the feeling is back, and has taken hold of me.

Apparently it's taken hold of lots of other people, too. The scene that greeted me at the College Football Hall of Fame was hilarious: a string of reporters seated in the front row, an array of TV cameras, and then three hundred fans chatting and smiling and waiting for JC.

First guy I see is Brian from HRB, and we laughed because, you know, it's really freaking early in the morning for something like this, and what the hell were we doing there? But the reason was obvious, and unspoken: the feeling is back.

8:30 came and went, then 8:45, then 9:00, and still no Jimmy. Some guy did a soundcheck. Then another one. Then another. We started cracking Spinal Tap jokes, as if Jimmy was lost somewhere in the bowels of the building, hoping that a janitor would point him in the right direction. We all kept waiting.

I think the hype actually had grabbed hold of me a while ago, probably at Charlie's first press conference (you know, the nasty one.) Road trip plans for the Pitt game soon unfolded, even way back in December, and started to gather steam. Friends flew in from Chicago and Los Angeles and San Diego and Seattle and Dallas and New Orleans. Our group ended up making a huge, weekend-long party out of it: baseball at PNC Friday night, then closed the bars; Saturday, setting up a tailgater outside Heinz at nine in the morning, breaking for some more baseball (a noon game against the Cubs), then back out to the tailgater until kickoff at 8pm.

Then, our first glimpse of Charlieball, Darius' fifty-yard ramble on a screen pass and euphoria: like Pete said at the time, we all felt like we had just seen the beginning of something special.

That game led to more trips: to all the home games (of course), but also roadies to Michigan, Purdue, Stanford, and finally the Fiesta Bowl. I spent I don't how many thousands of dollars getting myself to every game save Washington (even then, I had a flight to Seattle on hold that I cancelled in the wake of losing to Michigan State). The feeling can make you do irrational stuff, like blow off your family on Thanksgiving weekend to fly out to Palo Alto with your friends, or book rooms for next year's national championship game as you're checking out of your hotel in Tempe this year. (This Thanksgiving is going to be a tougher trick, as my sister is getting married on the Saturday of the Southern Cal game, a game I haven't missed in LA in fourteen years.)

I think back to when I was a freshman in 1988, and that year, the feeling was of course in full swing: every game was a huge party, tickets were scarce, and the team was rolling. I had stayed on campus through Thanksgiving that year, and some sophomores in Morrissey grabbed everyone who was around on Sunday and trekked out to the South Bend airport to welcome the team home from their stirring win at the Coliseum. When we got there, there were maybe three hundred people waiting in the bitter cold, and we all cheered as Tony Rice and the guys exited the plane, high-fiving them and welcoming them back home.

That feeling's definitely back. How else do you explain a sold-out baseball game to see an All-American wide receiver (with his own poster) make a pitching start? Or three hundred people at an early-morning press conference for a high school kid? Or miles-long autograph lines at the players' breakfast later that morning? (Brady Quinn's line seemed to stretch almost all the way around the JACC). Or a record 41,000 fans at the spring game? Or high-rise "Gameday" condos going up in downtown South Bend? (Or, as the rumors have it, a doubling of the alumni ticket application fee, to $200 starting next year?)

Or a Los Angeles kid, the #1 recruit in the country, spurning Southern Cal for South Bend?

So as we waited there at the College Football Hall of Fame for Jimmy Football to walk in, Brian and I chatted about how crazy it all was, how the hype is out of control, how it was all a little presumptuous that a high schooler would choose this venue to make his announcement (the walls behind the podium were covered with portaits of all the college football greats in the Hall; we wondered if Jimmy was bringing his own picture to post up there), how nuts everyone was about ND football. But despite all the witty criticisms and ironic detachment, we weren't leaving. We were caught up.

Suddenly, a door immediately to my left flew open, we jumped in surprise, and there he was. My camera battery had died, and all I had was my crappy cell phone camera, sans flash. I wheeled and clicked. We are pleased to present the first known picture of Jimmy Clausen as a member of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, a BGS exclusive:

And there it is: like a grainy snapshot of Bigfoot, there's that elusive "feeling", actually captured on film.

The Ohio State game is all but a roadbump in the rearview mirror. The feeling is back.