Saturday, September 26, 2009

College football in upper Manhattan

With perfect weather in New York today, I went to Columbia University's first home football game of the season.

Although this isn't a picture of the stadium from today's game against Central Connecticut State, the crowd was pretty similar.

Actually there were 3,000 people in attendance and the stadium, nestled in northern Manhattan in a picturesque setting near the Hudson and Harlem Rivers, is a great place to watch a game. It's Lawrence Wien Stadium, but the field itself is named after Robert Kraft, the owner of the New England Patriots and a Columbia grad who only had to give up $5 million for the naming rights. Technically, the entire complex is called Robert K. Kraft Field at Lawrence A. Wien Stadium at the Baker Field Athletics Complex. With any luck - or a donation from another NFL owner - another "at" could be added along with a fourth name, perhaps a new parking lot or a men's bathroom could be named in honor of the donor.

We live a block from the stadium, which has been home to Columbia football since 1984. Before that the team played near its campus at 116th Street, where a decent future baseball player named Lou Gehrig was a standout fullback for the Columbia football team. But since winning the Ivy League title in 1961, Columbia's had just three winning seasons, although it still managed to become a nationally known program. Between 1983 and 1988, Columbia got sand kicked in its face on a regular basis by fellow Ivy League nerds and lost 44 straight games, a Division I-AA record at the time.

I blame the baby-blue uniforms, which fail to intimidate the opposition and sedate the Columbia players.

A game at Columbia doesn't exactly rival a contest in the Swamp in Florida as far as intensity and atmosphere. Then again, while Columbia hasn't produced anyone like Emmitt Smith or Tim Tebow on the field, Florida hasn't produced four U.S. Presidents, nine Supreme Court justices, 96 Pulitzer winners and 78 Nobel Prize winners. But who's counting?

I went to the game with my friend Chris, a Dutchman who only started watching football the past couple of years. He's already as passionate about the Giants as any born-and-bred New Yorker with a stereotypical accent who paints his face on Sundays and was raised on tales of Y.A. Tittle and Lawrence Taylor. He's become a true football fanatic. This was his first time attending a college game.

We enjoyed $4 hot dogs and $4 cups of soda and found a seat near the 30-yard line, surrounded by no one. The three hours of action that followed were a great representation of five decades of Columbia football. The Lions led 13-0 late in the second half and had dominated to that point. In the first quarter, they stopped Central Connecticut four times from the 1-yard line. Connecticut helped out by calling the same play four straight times - a run up the middle, in an apparent nod to play-calling from the 1950s.

But after going up 13-0, Columbia had its extra-point blocked and returned for a safety. That for some reason turned the momentum and it didn't take long before the awkward-looking 2 on the scoreboard was replaced by a 9 thanks to a late first-half touchdown. Central Connecticut dominated the second half to win going away, 22-13.

In addition to the troubles on the field, the game represented a career low point for whoever the poor soul was operating the scoreboard. On at least a dozen occasions, the exasperated referee announced "Please reset the game clock," as the itchy trigger finger in the booth kept running the clock when he shouldn't and stopped it when it should have kept running. It added a junior high element to a high-level college game but somehow seemed fitting for the poor Lions. Columbia's now 1-1.

The sparse crowd began filing out with about 2 minutes left in the game and the outcome decided. We stayed until the end. It's not big-time college football, but it is live college football and on a day with perfect weather, it didn't make sense to leave early.

I'll go to their other home games this season.

Columbia will fight another day. And on that day they'll probably lose. But there are worse ways to spend a perfect Saturday afternoon in northern Manhattan.

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