With my family, including my mother and father visiting Murray Goodman stadium for the first time in a long time, I spent most of the game experiencing most of the game in a place where I haven't been in a while: the "stands".
When you cover a team, it's a bit too easy sometimes to take refuge in the press box, hermetically sealed from the rest of the fans out in the fresh air. Too often, too, that's what I do: plop in the press box, not to emerge until after the clock reads zero.
This time around, though, I had the incredible experience once again to enjoy most of the game in the stands, thanks to my family, and it couldn't have been a better one, thanks to the best efforts of the other fans.
The picture above was taken on my phone, from where I was sitting on Saturday.
My mom and dad don't always get a chance to come down to Murray Goodman to catch a Lehigh football game with their son.
Like me, their schedules are very, very busy, busy, and there's not always a window where we can all come and watch a game together.
I remember the first Lehigh game I ever attended with them was on freshman parent's weekend, where Lehigh played Towson in the early days when Murray Goodman stadium opened.
I've attended some others with them through the years, most notably those when my dad's alma mater, Dartmouth, came to Bethlehem. (Watching the Brown and White's 30-28 win over the Big Green in 1991 was a particularly sweet memory.)
But it wasn't until this Saturday when the moon and stars aligned to get us all back to Murray Goodman together - finally.
I can't say that anything really unusual happened in the morning getting ready to head up to Bethlehem with "the rents", as they used to be known by me. In fact, what stood out was how routine it felt - like it was something we did every weekend, even though it had been over a decade since they went to a game.
My family and "the rents" got the sandwiches together for a mini-tailgate, sort of, piled in the car, and drove in what can only be described as perfect mid-October football weather - not too hot and muggy, not too cold and moist.
I've been to a lot of football games at Murray Goodman over the years, as anyone casually reading my blog already knows. But I was not prepared for seeing an overflow of cars and tailgaters going well into the vacant fields in the parking lot usually reserved for Lehigh/Lafayette tailgates.
Lunch was provided at Stabler Arena, and later, a dinner at Mountaintop campus allowed my parents to mingle with the parents of my new friends at Lehigh.
It happened to also be a pretty exciting game, representative of many future thrilling games against the Tigers.
On this particular day, backup QB Jim Harris would find WR Rich Clark on the last play of the game to give Lehigh a 27-22 win over Towson, one where Harris would pass for four touchdowns in the second half.
"Most of the 6,000 in attendance were shocked to see Clark fall over the goal line with the ball in his hands with 12 seconds left in the ball game to give Lehigh the hard-fought 27-22 victory over the Tigers," the Brown and White beamed.
I probably wouldn't have admitted it at the time, but it was a really good thing to see my parents that weekend, only a few weeks into the brave new world of college and living away from home - a small reminder of where you came from.
What really sticks out about that weekend, though, is how distinctly I remembered the fact my parents were there.
I didn't remember all the details of the game. I don't remember what we ate in Stabler Arena, I didn't remember the stone path to and from Murray Goodman Stadium, and I don't remember what was served for dinner up at Mountaintop. I don't remember words of wisdom, any judgments, or any sage advice.
I remember them joking about me with the friends of my parents, but that's about it. I have vague memories of my mother heading to the car as it got colder that day. That's always the way it was, you see: once it got below a certain point, she'd run for the warmth of the car. It was always like that.
But most importantly I do remember that my parents were there. It was important that they were there and showed me support by being there. And the fact that they were there during a football game, and a cold football game at that.
I can't say that this particular game with my parents was the one, only reason I, so many years later, would keep these games in my heart and keep coming back again, year after year, to Murray Goodman. But there's no question that sitting in the "stands" with them, along with some new friends and their parents, was a time freshman year that I was truly happy.
There's be plenty of time for the tiny tragedies to unfold freshman year - the unraveling of the long-distance relationships we all had, the intensity of the academic workload, the inevitable personality conflicts, pranks gone out of hand, the factions that would ultimately form in that freshman dorm.
But I wouldn't remember that on this day. I remember a good day, a happy day, with Lehigh football being a big, positive part of it.
Fast forward to this Saturday in 2013, where the "Family Day" crowd in the parking lot was overflowing. (Yes, it really was "Family Day".)
It was not easy to find a parking spot - a problem, as a Lehigh fan, I was all too thrilled to be dealing with.
I couldn't help but flash back to an earlier time, too, before iPhones and TV everywhere, when coming back to Lehigh for an impromptu reunion and tailgate to watch football was a common thing for me.
It was real easy to flash back to me showing up on a lot of fall afternoons like this, grilling some burgers and dogs on the hibachi, cheap, cold beer in plastic cups, rolling into the game - whenever.
At every game there are lots of people who do this, and not just the regulars: people that make it to that one special game, the ones that say, "hey, it's a nice day, so... what the hell?", who don't necessarily know that senior WR Lee Kurfis is on the brink of 1,000 receiving yards upon entering his 6th game of the season. They do know, though, that Lehigh is good, they're playing a team they're likely to beat, it's a beautiful, 60 degree day in the fall, and it's a perfect day to eat grilled food outside, while next weekend there might be a blizzard. Tomorrow is unpredictable. Today is today.
Even though I go to a lot of games, I too frequently forget what that is like sometimes.
There are times over the last few seasons when the casual tailgating and the sight of so much grilling and tailgaters feels like an era that would never, ever return.
Attendance of football games across the country, from Georgetown's tiny field to the huge college football temples of the SEC, is down. Athletic departments need to be more creative than ever to come up with new ways to get people to come out. At particularly suffering places like New Mexico State and Georgia State, things like cash drops and the lure of cash prizes are used to get people to show up. Yet even with financial incentives, a lot of people are staying away in general.
Trying to divine the reason why has become a guessing game among national and local sportswriters and fans alike. Is it lack of Wi-Fi? It is because it's too expensive? Is the Jumbotron not big enough? Is it too loud? Is it those gosh-darned MTV Video Games?
Whatever the reason for that trend, declining attendance certainly wasn't the case at Lehigh this Saturday. For me, it was a unexpected, pleasant trip back home to a different era, but with smartphones. The same sights, the same sounds, but with smartphones.
It's almost as if I took a wrong turn out of Stabler in the 1980s with my parents, and happily showing up at a different Lehigh football game.
I thought to myself: when was the last time I walked through these green fields of tailgate area on a non-Rivalry weekend?
More and more, my trips to Lehigh football games become more businesslike. It's not on purpose, but when you take anything seriously, the business creeps in. Inevitably, coming to the game has to become more about heading to the press box, getting the laptop set up, making sure to get out the all-important tweet that says "We. Are. Underway!"
Yet it's not technology that changes things, not video games, not distractions. I think those people fretting about technology ruining the gameday experience have it wrong.
At its essence, college football is college football. They are games that are unpredictable theater. If you set the right stage, people will show up. And oddly enough, the more fans you get, the bigger the theater. It's a strange sort of positive feedback loop.
In that environment, technology accentuates rather than robs. You can read my tweets, listen to Matt Kerr, Matt Markus and Kody Fedorcha on ESPN 1320 call the game on the radio while grilling bratwurst in the parking lot, or watch the game on your TV or laptop with Mike Zambelli and Mike Yadush calling the game. But it's not a replacement for being there and feeling it all.
It must have helped that it was a beautiful afternoon without rain that it was so crowded. It also must have helped a lot that Penn State, the perennial competitor for the time and energy of the casual college football fan, was not playing this weekend, undoubtedly freeing up some people.
But going into this game, with my mom and dad, my wife and family, it felt different than coming into a Lehigh game for business purposes.
The old feeling was back.
The sights, smells, even the hue of the grass encompassed the fan experience I had enjoyed for so many years. What's amazing, too, is that I had no idea if it would ever come back.
Even better, they were timeless-feeling sights, smells and an experience I could share with wife at my side and my son, wearing his Lehigh sweatshirt, walking up to Murray Goodman.
The picture I took on my phone of the "stands" show, in most of its glory, exactly what an attendance of 9,866 can look like at Murray Goodman stadium on a Saturday afternoon.
To me, it was remarkable for quite a few reasons.
First, on the home side, it looked like an awful lot like a Lehigh/Lafayette crowd. It wasn't a wall-to-wall sellout that Lehigh/Lafayette generally is, but it was packed. (The last time a non-Lehigh crowd looked like that, I remember, was back in 2004 when Lehigh beat Colgate 21-14 in a critical Patriot League game.)
Second, the number of 9.866 came with only moderate support, in my estimation, from Georgetown.
Sure, there was a contingent of people that traveled up from the District to see their 1-5 Hoyas.
But there were far fewer of them, from my eyes, than there were New Hampshire supporters that came to Murray Goodman to cheer on their Wildcats in September.
To me, the New Hampshire game earlier this season with an announced attendance of 8,998, consisted of a reasonable Lehigh fan turnout which was buffered by the increased number of friends and family that supported the Wildcats - many of whom live in the local area, because New Hampshire has historically recruited a large number of kids from here.
This crowd on Saturday was different than the one that showed up against New Hampshire.
There was more Brown in the stands. More people checking out the Mountain Hawks. More Lehigh Nation in the stands, watching the show.
More Lehigh energy.
Think I'm just making this up?
Here's something else to consider: two years ago, in a game no less important featuring the exact same teams, Lehigh clinched the Patriot League championship at home against Georgetown in front of an announced crowd of 6,044.
That is a lot of extra fans in the "stands" to watch this weekend's game- more than 50% more in the span of two years.
The circumstances were, to be fair, a bit different. The Georgetown game that season came the week before Lehigh/Lafayette, a historically tough game for some to justify attending with The Rivalry the following week.
But one thing that was constant was that then, as now, Lehigh has been enjoying success on the field.
The Mountain Hawks are in the midst of enjoying an incredible run of winning success that few FCS programs across the country can match.
In the past three seasons including this one, Lehigh has gone 37-7.
To put this in perspective, if head coach Andy Coen can win just three more games on the schedule this season, he will have the most wins in a four-year span of any head coach in Lehigh football history. (Former head coach John Whitehead from 1977 to 1980 went 39-7-2, including a Division II National Championship.)
Maybe it's not just winning, but just being around the winning, that causes attendance and tailgating to happen around a football game. Maybe one good year could be a fluke; even two. But once you get to four years of success, people show up expecting victory, and expecting a good bit of drama on the stage.
When I got there with my family, I didn't anticipate having to look around a lot to find a spare strip of seats all together for them to sit, but that's what I happily had to do.
As great as the "stands" were, I did need to put my stuff in the press box, where I was surprised to see my friend David Coulson, who I wasn't expecting to see. "There's not a single college football game anywhere close to the area," he explained, also potentially explaining the bump in attendance.
After putting out some token tweets and Lehigh with a 3 touchdown lead, I ran back down to my family to warm up my wife, who was already starting to get a bit chilly from the breeze that was coming in, and talk football with my parents, especially my dad, who had just come from Dartmouth homecoming last week.
I'd joke with my mom about her not lasting through a lot of these football games, either, and she made no bones about how once the temperature dipped below 45, forget it - she'll be in the car with the engine running.
My wife and I would point out the Marching 97 to our son, and make a point to show him the trombones, since that's the instrument he's chosen to play in school.
Down there, you could feel the crowd when senior RB Keith Sherman would make another big run, animating the area of the "stands" where we were.
It reminded me of an era when I was around my son's age, and my dad took me to the Yale Bowl to watch Dartmouth upset the Eli. (I'm not sure where my mom was. She may have been in the car, staying warm.)
Thinking of that, it made me hope my son remembers the rumbles in the crowd last Saturday, when senior RB Sean Farrell bulled into the end zone for yet another touchdown.
I'd take my son on a tour of the stadium, walking all the way around the vendors, past the marching band, around the grassy area where we've watched many a Lehigh game together, next to the inflatable hoops where he could score some baskets, along the sidelines, close to the players.
I'd even try to let out a cheer in the "stands" for old times' sake. (Hey, you're not allowed to cheer in the press box.)
Ultimately there wasn't a lot of drama on the field. With a 38-3 halftime lead, the game was never really in doubt - it was all smiles and congratulations from everyone. The writers in the press box probably had their pieces all done by the 3rd quarter, and the TV and radio guys were probably studying the numbers of the second string players on the field, making sure they could pronounce their names correctly.
On the way out, I ran into two Lehigh friends I hadn't seen in a while - completely unexpectedly.
One, Steve, I hadn't seen in almost a year. The other, Jeff, I hadn't run into in more than a decade. The last time I saw him was most likely during a Lehigh/Lafayette game many years ago.
Both my friends brought their families, too on this Family Day to enjoy the game in the "stands". Interestingly, they didn't look like they'd aged a day from those tailgates all those years ago, even though they, like me, got married and had kids.
It was that sort of day last Saturday - one where it didn't feel like there was any sort of time, or eras.
A day where a crowd of nearly 10,000 people came to enjoy a tailgate and watch a Lehigh football game, and, for one day, anyway, an entire history of fandom in the "stands" at Murray Goodman stadium.
And the most remarkable thing about it was how it all seemed to me to flow seamlessly together, those games I went to as a freshman, those tailgates I attended as a young alumnus, my trips to Murray Goodman in the noughties, and my trip to Murray Goodman stadium this Saturday.
My time in the "stands" this weekend felt more precious than gold.