Chapter Nine – Just Add Alcohol and Stir

 

Sunday morning came early to the lavish World Headquarters of the IGTS Tour. As soon as the first rays of light filtered through the blinds, I was wide awake and headed for the executive locker room to shower. What prompted this burst of energy on the sleepiest morning of the week? I was going to an NFL game!

My mind wandered back to the dozens of enjoyable times I’d spent at NFL stadiums in the past—both inside and out, tailgating with friends. And as I thought more about it, I was genuinely surprised to realize that it had been more than a decade since I’d been to an NFL game. Technically speaking, in fact, I hadn’t seen live NFL football since the previous century! My pulse quickened…

Many hours later, I rolled my car slowly back into my garage, shuffled up the stairs to my living room, and wearily sagged into an overstuffed chair. There was no question about it. In the intervening time between my last two visits, the NFL product had…ahem…evolved, shall we say?

It hadn’t taken long to be introduced to NFL football in the new millennium. I was greeted at the gate of San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium by a veritable blanket of security, featuring not one but two checkpoints at which I received a full pat-down. Nothing says “fun” more than being frisked. Twice.

By modern standards, Qualcomm might as well be the Roman Coliseum in terms of appearance and amenities. Discussion of renovating or otherwise upgrading the stadium had been well under way when I had first attended a Chargers game there—in 1999. Those conversations clearly haven’t proved fruitful quite yet.

But there was one big change in Qualcomm that jumped right out at me—the escalation in the number of outlets at which one could buy a beer. At nine dollars a pop. Then again, fans really need a couple of frosty ones to avoid thinking about what they just paid for a plastic bucket seat in an ancient stadium. In my case, it was $74 (plus the usual assortment of “convenience fees”) to sit halfway up a section in the upper deck of the end zone. Otherwise known as the “cheap seats.” I can’t even imagine what it cost to sit in the “Sorry sir, you appear to be over your credit limit” seats.

I was fully aware that the game against the Oakland Raiders was a rivalry game, and I knew that Raiders fans have a reputation for “making their presence known” when they visit another stadium. So I was attuned to the potential for the…exchange of contradictory opinions. A little counterBIRGing, so to speak. But not to worry—everyone seemed to be getting along famously. Did I mention that I was there early?

In the lower concourse, all was calm and harmonious. The Official Chargers Band played, and sporadic bursts of “Let’s go, Chargers!” were offset by shouts of “Raiiiii-Ders!” All in good fun down there. As I ascended the escalator and made my way around the upper ring, though, there was a marked difference in the atmosphere. You could see the tension on the faces of the security guards as they prepared for their afternoon’s work. Up there the exchange of team-supporting chants were more like challenges—people marking their territory.

When I got to my seat I was amazed to find my section almost unpopulated, just 20 minutes prior to game time. Kickoff came and went, and still the upper deck was just over half full. And then the tailgaters arrived.

I know that Commissioner Goodell and the team owners who employ him are intelligent people. Which is why it greatly surprises me that all of them appear to have had the wool pulled over their eyes. See, despite what their good friends at Anheuser-Busch InBev and MillerCoors might have told them, not everybody who drinks beer remains the charming, quick-witted character that populates every beer commercial. Some of them actually become a bit contrary after their first six-pack. And belligerent after their second. Curious, I know.

The first brawl came in the break between the first and second quarters. It was not an isolated incident. Throughout the game the air was continuously full of profanity laced tirades spewing from heavily tattooed bodies and angry mouths. And the guys were even worse. By the two-minute warning of the first half, police were permanently stationed at the foot of each section in my end zone.  On a regular basis, they would wade up the stairs and come back down with some staggering character who was often already in handcuffs.

I wouldn’t say that I ever actually felt threatened, but I did spend the game feeling uneasy and uncomfortable—certainly nothing approaching happy and entertained. Others seemed to revel in the combat. As soon as someone yelled “fight,” everybody was up and rubbernecking for a better view of the stands—no matter what was taking place down on the field. People took cell-phone pictures and videos of every conflict and then busied themselves sending these gems along to their friends. That was probably the most disturbing thing of all.

I truly felt badly for the father who had brought his young son to the game. Arriving well in advance of kickoff, they sat right in front of me and reveled in their surroundings. It was likely the kid’s first NFL game, and his dad was proud to be his host. They were gone by halftime. That got me to thinking. I took a lengthy look at the portions of the stadium within my view and became genuinely surprised at how few kids were in attendance. The next generation of NFL fans, at least on that day, had taken a pass on pro football.

And I myself couldn’t wait to leave.

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