This may come as a surprise — nay, it may shock and even stun — but I, the arts writer, the guy who loves going to a movie on Super Bowl Sunday, the cultural warrior who has never in my entire life watched more than 10 minutes of football on television in one sitting — have sat through a game or 50 in my life.
You don't have to explain that four downs thing to me.
Chalk it up to being in the marching band.
Through four years of band in high school and three in college, I loved game day. College football to me is a wonderful, extravagant party, and when you're in the band, you feel at the center of the commotion. The roar of the crowd, the bracing glare of the field lights, the fight song for the 30th time, the hot dog taste in your mouth, the feel of your hair slicked down from wearing your tall, furry hat — it's all a rush.
But let me tell you about my worst football game-day experience.
I was in the Cal Poly Mustang Marching Band. And we played Fresno State.
Ah, you say. Now we understand why he's writing about football. He's using the occasion of one of Cal Poly's rare matchups against mighty Fresno State to reminisce.
The day was Oct. 29, 1983. My fellow band members and I weren't all that keen on driving over from the coast to Fresno.
You have to understand our mind-set at the time. The year before, we'd traveled to an away game against Santa Clara University, and then our band director kindly bused us up to San Francisco, where we got to stay at Fisherman's Wharf. Over that summer, Cal Poly's Symphonic Band took a tour to Europe.
So Fresno was a teensy bit of a letdown. We put signs on our buses reading: "Cal Poly Band on Tour: San Francisco! Vienna! Rome! Fresno!"
My first ever visit to Fresno was a gray, foggy day. (Ah, if I'd only known then how many such foggy days would be in my future.) We changed into our uniforms and lined up outside the stadium.
Keep in mind that during the 1980s, Cal Poly's football stadium wasn't exactly world-class. Our band used to spell out words on the field, but no one in the small stadium could sit high enough to read them.
So when we walked into Bulldog Stadium, with all those fans and all that noise, it felt like, well, entering the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. I tried not to gasp, but I think I did. We, in the trombone section, tried to play cool. ("Well, obviously, Fresno State spends all its money on football and not, say, academics." College-nerd stuff like that.) Still, we were a little overwhelmed.
Of the afternoon game, I remember little. It's funny how memories rattle around in one's head — how some details get exaggerated over the years. I could have sworn we lost by more than 60 points. But The Bee's archives say the score was 30-7. It wasn't like we were all that surprised. Cal Poly's team was pretty bad that year.
Still, the mood among band members was a little glum, what with the gray day (threatening now to turn into rain), lopsided score and screaming fans, who weren't exactly mean to us, but gave us pitiful looks, which was even worse. We climbed back into our buses for dinner. We got caught in a big traffic jam, which only added to the general crankiness and hunger.
This next part I remember quite clearly. We were bused to The Old Spaghetti Factory, which used to be on Ventura Street. It took awhile for all of us to get into the restaurant. Just after we were seated came a loud noise.
A man driving a car westbound at a high rate of speed on Ventura lost control, jumped the curb and crashed into the southeast corner of the building just feet from where we were sitting, rupturing a gas line.
We were evacuated. Quickly. By this time, it was raining, and it took awhile for our buses to get back from wherever they'd gone after dropping us. I remember the lights of the various emergency vehicles gleaming in the water. It was cold, dark, wet, and I was starving.
Our handlers didn't have a back-up plan for dinner. We finally ended up at a hofbrau — I think it was the Old Fresno Hofbrau just down the street — which of course wasn't set up to handle an entire marching band.
The next morning at the hotel, I bought a copy of The Bee.
And in it, in a short story about the accident, were the two sentences I have recited for decades as I tell this story:
"Among those evacuated were members of the Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo marching band. Band members, who had seen their football team lose to Fresno State University less than three hours before, were in the same corner of the building the car crashed into."
Talk about twisting the knife a little.
So that was Fresno for me — a place where defeat in football even makes it into an accident brief.
I've long since forgiven the city (and The Bee's nameless late-night cops reporter) for my introduction to this football-crazy town. And I do offer thanks that I wasn't blown up, which really would have been an impolite way to treat a visiting opponent. But I did refuse after I moved here to go to the Spaghetti Factory at that old location.
Fast forward several decades. Fresno State plays Cal Poly at Bulldog Stadium this weekend. I remain confident, as I write this Thursday afternoon for the early-deadline Spotlight section, that my alma mater emerged from that contest victorious.
Hey, I know what you're supposed to do in college football: dream.
The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6373, firstname.lastname@example.org and @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.