In a world of bitter political debates, supposedly declining college football attendance, alleged tensions between the generations and the ongoing charges increasing collegian apathy, there it was: the official attendance total of the Colgate/Lehigh game of 9,255.
There were a multitude of reasons why people wanted to go see the game. Perhaps it was something good to do with the family on Family Weekend. Maybe it was a concerted effort to get students into the games, and keep them there, with new policies and new promotions. Maybe it was a thumb-your-nose effort at the fans who come for cocktails but don't go enjoy the game. Maybe it was individuals, all as a unit, wanting to come out and see if this high-flying, record-setting Lehigh football team is for real.
Or maybe it was all of them; I have no idea, but I know it required a whole lot of planning and a huge amount of effort from a whole lot of people, and I'm glad they did.
Because it felt like something special was brewing in Bethlehem - and not just from the team making everyone pay attention to them on Saturday. It was the whole thing - the team, the fans, and the atmosphere. On Saturday, for the first time in a long time, it felt like "it" was back.
For fun, I went back through the attendance numbers from the last few years to compare last weekend's game to others that I remembered.
|(Photo Credit: Lehigh Athletics)|
"As beautiful fall days go," I wrote of that game, "it was hard to beat this Saturday's homecoming game at Murray Goodman when it came to weather, atmosphere, or color. Unfortunately for Lehigh, it was also hard to beat the Fordham offense that showed up on homecoming in terms of physicalness, efficiency, and big play ability."
There were some thrilling games that drew very well, like Lehigh's win over New Hampshire in 2013, 34-27. In that game, both teams were nationally-ranked, and featured a boatload of local football players whose roots were the Lehigh Valley, which contributed to a great turnout. But it was less than last weekend's game - 8,998 was the official total - and it lacked that extra drama that only a conference game can provide.
"There was no grumbling about strategy in the stands you could hear in the open air of the press box," I wrote of that game, "angrily asking to bench anybody. As the players believed, so did the folks in the stands. They knew some magic was going to come from somewhere. It was just a matter of where.
I think you have to go all the way back to 2004, twelve years ago, to find a game which had the same level of crowd level, conference stakes, and environment.
|RB Marques Thompson, Lehigh vs. Colgate, 2004|
I had an idea I wanted to pitch to a guy I knew running a national FCS football website: I would attend a game and talk about all the aspects of it from a fan's perspective, rather than the viewpoint of a professional reporter from the press box.
I called it a "I-AA Diary", and I would note everything that happened in and around the game that I would observe. The side discussions of fans around me, the kids throwing up outside the stadium, whatever happened, that's what I'd talk about, of course with the particulars of the game as a backdrop, trying to focus on the funny stuff when the game ended up lopsided, or focusing on a thrilling game if it was important.
They were interesting narratives, but they were uneven, mostly. Some of the games happened to be instant classics, and other games were not as competitive, and tackled some interesting subjects. But they were long, and took a long time to craft. Looking back at some of them now I want to take a hacksaw to them to save the good bits and throw the rest out.
They also usually appeared on the internet late Tuesdays or early Wednesdays, well after the emotional impact of the games had faded away. They were fun to create into longform essays, and of course very fun to experience, but even back then I knew its shelf life might be limited.
The first game I picked to do was a really important matchup of nationally-ranked teams, Lehigh and Colgate. It was a golden opportunity to introduce Patriot League football to a national audience to give people in Montana, Iowa and North Carolina a bit of a taste as to what an important game at Murray Goodman was like, with some warts, but mostly in a positive light.
And what a game I picked.
It was a Lehigh defensive struggle with a Colgate team that had been to the national championship game a week before, and still had RB Jamaal Branch, who had won the Walter Payton Award (or Heisman of FCS) the prior year.
|LB Anthony Graziani (c/o Lehigh Athletics)|
The unit only gave up more than 21 points three times in 12 games, and only yielded 14 points to the eventual national champions, James Madison, in a thrilling 14-13 game. Not really headlined by one big star, overall as a group they were a great unit.
On this day the crowd was thoroughly into the game, standing up on third downs, imploring the defense to pressure Colgate QB Chris Brown or to stuff Jamaal Branch at the line.
There was an energy in the air for that back-and-forth game, and I wrote that down somewhere, as I munched on complimentary hot dogs and shivered on the cold aluminum bench.
The highlight of the game came when Colgate drove to about the goal line, down 21-14 with under a minute to play, and S Julian Austin jumped Brown's passing route in the center-right part of the end zone and picked off the pass. I can still see that play today, at the end zone under the same scoreboard that has since been refurbished three or four times, and I remember the fans on their feet so elated. And I was elated with them - I was one of them at that time.
But I also remembered the bands, the mood in the stands, the feeling in the air that this was a very important game and that this game was the only game that mattered at this very moment anywhere in the world. The people that were in the stadium seemed to know they were watching two very good teams. In fact, the whole stadium had a buzz to it in the old definition of "buzz" before the internet ruined its definition - an real, honest emotion that something real good was happening inside of that stadium on that day, hard to put into words, but just a feeling in the air.
|The Stop (Doug Kilpatrick/Morning Call)|
"Buzz" of course now is different. It was up to a sportswriter to bottle those feelings, write them down, and publish them in a newspaper article or two, or on something online. It got out when it got out. Technology was a limiting factor rather than the enabling factor it is now, where the visceral reactions are captured at the near-instant they are experienced.
In fact, the crowd reaction at first to me seemed a bit confused - it seemed like the crowd was sitting on its collective hands in the building, unsure whether to totally get behind the football team or head back to the tailgating area for cocktails. Like the weather, which looked like it could possibly start storming at any second, most fans seemed like they were uncertain to flee or stay.
Then that stop happened on the goal line, with freshman FS Riley O'Neil, senior LB Pierce Ripanti and senior LB Colton Caslow stopping Colgate RB Keyon Washington from getting that two touchdown lead that not only would have made it much harder for Lehigh to come back, it might have driven a significant number of fans to the exits, too.
Then, at least partially feeding off the energy of the crowd, the floodgates opened - and the crowd started to feel like that 2004 crowd all over again, at least to me.
It felt like it when the fumble was forced by sophomore SS Sam McCloskey, and an alert O'Neil would grab it and send the fans out of their seats. It felt like that when Shafnisky would find a diving junior WR Troy Pelletier for an amazing, athletic touchdown to go up by two scores. And it came again in a big way, of course, when Casey would grab a kickoff and take it 93 yards to the house, really deflating Colgate and aborting their comeback effort.
And more than ever, fans can access a good chunk of that on their phones as the game is going on. They may not smell the cigar smoke and taste the fall air next to South Mountain's beautiful fall colors, but they can see and hear the action in a lot of ways.
Its too many people to list individually, but you get the idea. It's a staggering amount of people just to get the environment set up just so people can start to have a good time.
And it's the folks that bring their tailgates to the Murray Goodman parking lot and bring their Lehigh beanbag toss, or invite a bunch of friends and host a clambake, or have some cocktails, or toss a football around. They could have stayed at home and worried about rain, but they were all out in force.
It all works. And it really worked this Saturday. There was that special feeling in the air, something you can't capture on a phone, in a tweet, or in a blog posting. Something good is happening with this team.
After a couple of games on the road, Lehigh will come back and play Fordham at home. Some fans will make one or both of the trips to Georgetown and Worcester to see the Mountain Hawks face off at Georgetown and Holy Cross, games Lehigh will need to win in order to make the Fordham home game meaningful.
I can't wait.