Putting a bow on a unique bowl trip

On the second straight day that South Florida's temperatures dipped into the 40s, 75-year-old Dorothy Santini and her 80-year-old husband, John, huddled in a heated room beneath Dolphin Stadium, trying to rest.

They had spent much of the afternoon checking IDs at the FedEx Orange Bowl tailgate party, serving as the gatekeepers between those who would be served alcohol and those who wouldn't. And now, minutes before the 74th Orange Bowl was finally about to kick off, they were gearing up before they would be needed again.

"Who do you like in the game tonight," someone asked John, thinking he would say Kansas or Virginia Tech.

"Huh?" John Santini responded, cupping his hand over the hooded sweatshirt that covered his ear. "I don't really like football. Dorothy and I are more into square dancing."

"Yeah," Dorothy Santini said. "We love to square dance. Do it five or six nights a week."

So why were they there, braving the elements on these back-to-back January nights to help check IDs, answer questions and help the roadies from ZZ Top set up for the band's halftime show?

"Because of square dancing," Dorothy Santini said. "One of our square dancing friends asked us if we wanted to volunteer and we said yes. We've been doing it ever since."

That was 12 Orange Bowls, two Super Bowls and one life-saving surgery for John ago. Since they started, the Orange Bowl parade was canceled, the BCS took control of the four major bowl games and John nearly died after complications from a hiatal hernia. But in their closet at home, the Santinis have a collection of volunteer polos that would make any sports collector drool.

They are two of the thousands of personalities who make the bowl season come to life. While they migrate from Michigan to Florida for the winter, some 60 college football teams are shipped everywhere from the beach (Fort Lauderdale) to the desert (Phoenix) to Canada (Toronto) for one final game for the season.

Players are rewarded with gift bags that contain everything from GPS devices to high-end video game consoles. Coaches are dragged around to glad-hand on the luncheon circuit while their wives are taken on shopping excursions and their children are entertained at amusement parks or arcades.

The whole system is designed to benefit everyone, except those folks praying for a playoff. The players and coaches are treated like royalty. The fans get to watch their teams in a unique destination. The city makes money. The schools make money. The bowls make money. And the sponsors are given a venue with which to entertain clients and, of course, to make money.

It's a season unlike any other on the sports calendar. Sure, 32 games in two-plus weeks is about cash, ego and television ratings. But it's also about the collection of Orange Bowl shirts that sit in the Santinis' closet. It's about a Sugar Bowl president who waited 12 years for his turn to run the game he grew up watching. It's about a freshman linebacker from Clemson learning more about life in an Atlanta museum than he may have ever learned in a classroom. And it's about the Connecticut and Wake Forest football teams being taken on the ride of their lives.

This bowl season, ESPN.com visited six bowl cities in a span of 10 days to reveal some of the people, places and one-of-a-kind experiences that make bowl season unlike any other time on the sports calendar. The trip covered more than 4,600 miles and some 7,600 words filled a blog that chronicled the excursion. But that was only the beginning. Below you will find snapshots from each stop along our journey.

A New Perspective
ATLANTA -- Clemson freshman Scott Cooper stood frozen. On the other side of the thin piece of glass sat the shiny black shoes the famous man once wore, the bottle of Aramis cologne he once sprayed on his body and the black leather wallet he once carried in his back pocket. Inscribed on the lower right-hand corner of the wallet were the man's initials: M.L.K.

"That's absolutely crazy," said Cooper, who grew up in Lake City, S.C. "I mean, the three letters mean so much to this world. And to him, those were just the initials he was born with."

Cooper, a linebacker on the Clemson football team, was one of about 30 players visiting the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site on this rainy, overcast afternoon as part of the team's week at the Chick-fil-A Bowl. The trip was a team requirement for freshmen and sophomores, but Cooper said he would have been here anyway.

So in and out of the exhibits Cooper walked, constantly pulling out his cell phone to take another picture. First of the giant King mural hanging in Freedom Hall. Then of the Nobel Peace Prize. Then the shoes, cologne and wallet. And finally the picture of the chilling sign that reads, "No Blacks Allowed."

But as much as the exhibits hit home for Cooper, as much as he was in awe of the short "Children of Courage" film he and his teammates watched, it was the words of bowl volunteer Nat Mitchell, 62, who welcomed the Clemson players to the King exhibit, that stuck with him most.

"Some of you will go on to the NFL," Mitchell began. "But how will they remember you? How will you help the kids? That's what Dr. King was all about -- opportunity and enlightenment."

Mitchell then pointed to a little girl who was walking by.

"Look at that little girl -- she's going to grow up someday," Mitchell continued. "What is she going to look forward to? What is her life going to be like?

"My generation has totally screwed this country up. You guys, you are the ones who have to make this country great again. One Nation, under God."

In a bowl week filled with all-you-can-eat steak dinners and the fast-food sponsor's sandwiches, not to mention a trip to the Georgia Aquarium and a Family Feud-style game show between players from Clemson and Auburn, it was those few words that stuck with Cooper most.

"It paints a different perspective on things," the freshman said. "It helps you appreciate the path that Dr. King and so many others paved so someone like myself could chase his dreams and play football. What [Mitchell] said is dead on -- what are we doing for others? What are we doing for the next generation? Those are questions people like myself need to start asking one another."

The Ride Of His Life
CONCORD, N.C. -- When his body was finished flying around the Lowe's Motor Speedway at more than 170 mph, Connecticut coach Randy Edsall could only shake his head.

He had already climbed out of the replica Nextel Cup car, already removed his helmet and flame-resistant fire suit. But the adrenaline was still shooting through his veins.

"That may be the most exciting thing I've ever done in my life," Edsall said. "I ... umm ... I'm going to stick to coaching and let the race car drivers stick to driving. But what a thrill. I thought for sure I was going into that wall."

On this sun-splashed afternoon in suburban Charlotte, Edsall, Wake Forest coach Jim Grobe and both of their teams were experiencing the perk of playing in the Meineke Car Care Bowl: three laps around the Lowe's Motor Speedway in a replica Nextel Cup car.

For all the unique excursions that dominate bowl week for players -- trips that include visits to Alcatraz, SeaWorld, Disneyland and even, at the Houston Bowl, a rodeo -- it's this excursion that's one of the most popular.

"Forget the weather on game day," said Frank Kay, the bowl's media relations director. "I couldn't care less. The day at the speedway is what I worry about. Every year, this is all the players go home talking about."

On this day, player reactions run the gamut, from Connecticut quarterback Tyler Lorenzen, who pumped his fists and screamed and yelled when he exited the car, to defensive back Darius Butler, who really wasn't quite sure what to think.

"When we went into that first turn, I thought I was going to pass out," Butler said. "My stomach dropped to the floor. I've never experienced anything like that in my life. Wow."

When Charlotte started its bowl game in 2002, it needed a hook and, thanks to the speedway and the Richard Petty Driving Experience, which provides the rides, it has one of the best perks in the college postseason. The three laps around the 1.5-mile oval come and go in less than two minutes, but the players don't care.

"This is what the bowl experience is all about, coming out for a day and doing something that most of these guys otherwise likely never would have done," Edsall said. "Our guys put in a lot of hard work for this reward. And if you look at the smiles on their faces, you can tell they're loving it."

A Day With Ray
NEW ORLEANS -- Kickoff was still four hours away, but Allstate Sugar Bowl president Ray Jeandron was already busy at work. He had signed the game checks for the officials and statisticians, visited the Hawaii and Georgia cheerleaders for a pregame photo and had checked the spread in his private suite to make sure the beer was cold and the fettuccine hot. In between it all, he had even caught a few minutes of the Rose Bowl.

Everything seemed to be going smoothly. Until now. Famed New Orleans musician Deacon John, hired to provide the entertainment in one of two V.I.P. party rooms, was irate. The Superdome wouldn't let him park in its loading dock, so he had to haul his equipment to the Dome's fifth level via a maze of elevators, escalators and hallways. Then a green room he said he requested wasn't available. And there wasn't any pre-performance food for him or his band.

After slamming his backpack on the ground, he screamed, yelled and swore to anyone who would listen. Jeandron, a 12-year member of the Sugar Bowl committee in his first and only year as president, stood 10 feet away, indirectly absorbing the meltdown.

"It's always the same thing," John screamed. "And I'm f---ing sick and tired of this s---. Where's my green room? Where's the food for my band? I've had enough. Who's here to take care of us? Who's here to help us?"

Without saying a word, Jeandron stepped away, pulled out his cell phone and called one of his 85 Sugar Bowl committee members. In less than a minute, a handful of Jeandron's staff members are on the scene, taking another round of verbal abuse from John before pacifying the musician. Jeandron calmly walked away without every speaking to John.

"One of those things that just happens," Jeandron said. "That's why you get here so early -- to take care of little things like that which pop up.

"But that wasn't very professional. We've hired the Deacon to do a lot of work for us. He has an impeccable reputation in this town. But I think it's fair to say we probably won't work with him again."

Unlike other bowl games, the Sugar Bowl doesn't use volunteers, meaning the majority of work -- from transportation and hotel accommodations to parties and player goody bags -- is handled by the committee. Though committee work takes as much as 30 hours a week -- especially in the months leading up to the bowl -- nearly every member has another full-time job. Jeandron, for example, is a certified professional accountant for KPMG. In fact, he had a major deal to close in the week between the Sugar Bowl and the BCS Championship Game.

"It isn't ideal," Jeandron said. "I tried to set my schedule so I wouldn't have anything to worry about that week, but it just didn't happen. So yeah, I'll need to go to the office."

But the role of bowl president comes with its perks. Jeandron appoints a head of each of the Sugar Bowl's 25 committees, he designs the official tie that everyone wears on game day, he gets access to a private suite for the game, and he helps present the championship trophy on national television. But perhaps the neatest perk is the services of Timmy Bayard, a homicide investigator for the New Orleans Police Department. On game week, Bayard is part chauffeur, part bodyguard, part personal assistant, his sole purpose to make sure Jeandron, his wife, Mary, and their four kids are where they need to be when they need to be there.

When Jeandron aimlessly wandered the Superdome, trying to figure the way back to his box before kickoff, it was Bayard who turned to him when the elevator reached the eighth floor and said: "This is you, boss." When a security official denied Jeandron and his family access to the press box, Bayard shook the man off.

"Listen, he's the president of the Sugar Bowl with his family," Bayard said. "You're going to just deny him access? Not a good idea."

Jeandron's suite was stocked with everything from shrimp cocktail to chocolate-covered strawberries, not to mention enough beer, wine, champagne and hard liquor to satisfy a rock band on New Year's Eve. Jeandron drank very little, save for a glass of champagne that his wife offered him during a halftime toast.

"To my husband," Mary Jeandron said before pausing, "the president of the Sugar Bowl."

The president's day never stopped, from swinging by Allstate's suite in the third quarter to make sure the title sponsor was happy, to rehearsing the postgame trophy celebration with Fox commentator Chris Rose during the game's final minutes.

The game itself turned out to be a complete disaster, Georgia annihilating Hawaii 41-10, but 13 hours after he arrived at the Superdome, Jeandron left fairly pleased.

"All in all we had a great day," he said. "Sure, you'd like to see a better game. You'd like a game that the people sitting at home aren't going to turn off. But we can't control everything. We did everything we could to put on the best possible Sugar Bowl we could. And I believe we did that. Anything beyond that is up to the two teams."

Music City Madness
NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Some 35 minutes before the show began, the Kentucky fans had begun lining Second Avenue. They were veterans at this, their team having played in the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl a year earlier. So they knew what to expect. They knew where to stand. And even before the Kentucky band had loaded the bus and left the team hotel a few blocks away, the chants began.

"Let's go Cats. Let's go Cats."

A block away, a Kentucky fan shop, dubbed the "CAT FAN-ATIC" had taken over what used to be a Nashville Police Department satellite office. Everywhere you turned there was blue. Kentucky fans outnumbered Florida State fans some 4-1.

Until a frustrated, middle-aged Seminole fan crept under the police line, stood in the middle of Second Avenue and put on a show of her own, screaming to the point that the veins in the side of her neck were shaking:




A few feet away, the two Country Music Television emcees for the event, along with Brian Fulton, the bowl's vice president of marketing and communications, just laughed.

"People get pretty into this thing," Fulton said. "You have no idea what you're in for."

A few minutes later, it began. Both bands marched their way down Second Avenue past B.B. King's, the Wildhorse Saloon and the Hard Rock Cafe before meeting at the intersection of Second and Commerce.

Looking down from the sixth floor of a nearby parking garage, Music City Bowl CEO Scott Ramsey soaked it all in.

"When we started this game, this is what we wanted," Ramsey said. "Fifteen thousand fans lining the streets the night before the game. Two energized fan bases. A sellout on game day.

"I'm not sure if there is any other game which combines the core of what its community is all about, in this case music, and brings it together any better with the great sport of college football."

On this night, there were not only the two bands, but mascots, cheerleaders and dance teams. Florida State did its tomahawk chop. The Kentucky cheerleaders performed a jaw-dropping pyramid. Both band directors were given shiny new Gibson guitars. And the second the event came to a close, most of the 15,000 spectators began to file into the honky tonks, bars and nightclubs that line the streets of this city's downtown.

"I'm excited no matter what game Kentucky is playing in," said 24-year-old Benjamin Latham. "But this is the way the night before a game should be like no matter who you're cheering for. You've got the bands, the cheerleaders and then as soon as it's all over, we all go party in these famous country bars. What's not to like about that?"

O, Canada
TORONTO, Ontario -- College football in Canada is nothing like it is in the states. There are no BCS standings, no big money television contracts and certainly no lavish bowl games.

So two years ago, when Toronto Sports Association president Don Loding went to the Toronto Police Department to talk about a police escort for his two teams -- a practice that's commonplace in every bowl from Shreveport to San Francisco -- they looked at him like he was nuts.

"They pretty much said, 'We escort the queen. We escort the pope. And you want us to escort a bunch of 18-year-old what? American football players?' They didn't quite get it," Loding recalled.

And when Loding went to the city's top hotels and asked each to redecorate its lobby in support of the game and the two teams that were playing, he again got that look.

"These are some of the finest hotels in Toronto," Loding said. "And they just simply said, 'No way.'"

But a funny thing happened last year when Cincinnati faced Western Michigan in the first bowl game between two American teams played on foreign soil since the 1937 Bacardi Bowl in Havana, Cuba: 27,000 fans showed up. And the atmosphere, with the marching bands and two separate fan bases, was unlike anything most locals had seen at a Toronto Argonauts CFL game.

"I just can't tell you how different this is," said Perry Lefko, a longtime Toronto sportswriter and author who works part time for the bowl. "We just don't get this. We don't get this passion, this enthusiasm, these two sets of fans yelling back and forth at one another. And the bands -- we don't have marching bands. People go nuts for this stuff."

The walls of the famed Rogers Centre, known formerly as the SkyDome, are decorated with pictures of major events that have taken place here in the past.

Events like the Toronto Blue Jays' winning the World Series. Bigfoot, the monster truck, soaring over a parking lot full of cars. Mick Jagger screaming his lungs out at a Rolling Stones concert. There's a picture of a Supercross race. An AC/DC concert. An indoor carnival. And a night with Barney and Friends.

Loding hopes that someday down the road, perhaps a picture of the International Bowl will be added. More than 30,000 fans attended this year's game, putting the bowl right on target to hit 35,000 fans next year.

This year, the Renaissance hotel attached to the Rogers Centre was littered with International Bowl signs. One of the front desk clerks told anyone who asked that she would be cheering for Rutgers.

Not bad for a game that began last year when the Big East and Mid-American conferences decided to add an indoor regional bowl game that fans would have easy access to.

"It's only Year 2, but we're learning and loving what we're doing," Loding said. "The goal is to make this seem like any other college football game in the middle of the U.S. And at the same time, to introduce to these people a slice of Canadian culture."

Orange Dedication
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- With 10 minutes remaining in the first half of the Orange Bowl, the time had come. So the 100 Orange Bowl volunteers, who had spent the first half watching Kansas battle Virginia Tech from the Florida Marlins bullpen, bolted to the designated waiting room beneath Dolphin Stadium where they waited for their next instructions.

They had practiced this twice before -- once more than a month ago and again a night earlier. Yet the task was still daunting. The group had 90 seconds to move four stages, 12 speakers and eight sets of spotlights onto the field for ZZ Top's one-song halftime show.

"It's pretty much organized chaos," said Jeff Robinson, who makes hurricane shutters during his day job and has volunteered as part of the halftime show for more than a decade. "My brother tells me I do it for alternate stress. I think he's right -- and it works."

The group was a cross section of Americana. Male and female, old and young, tall and short, not to mention black, white, Hispanic and Asian. Seemingly every segment of society was covered. From the square dancing seniors, Dorothy and John Santini, to 36-year-old Miami Hurricanes fan Ian Kass, who had watched plenty of Orange Bowl shows inside Dolphin Stadium but now, for the first time, found himself in the center of the chaos, draped by one of those garish orange ambassador polos.

"I always saw those people down there in their orange shirts and thought it looked like a lot of fun," Kass said. "I figured I could do that. And now, here I am."

Kass had been thrust into a leadership role in this, his first day as an Orange Bowl ambassador. He'd been here since 8 a.m., helping with everything from setting up for V.I.P. parties to passing out goody bags to fans. For the halftime show, he'd been asked to commandeer one of the difficult to steer smaller stages that would line up next to the big stage on which ZZ Top would play.

"He's just been amazing," said Melissa Moriarty, who'd worked 70-hour weeks preparing for this day as the organizer of the Orange Bowl ambassadors. "There's always somebody who steps up and takes a leadership role. This year it's Ian."

Preparing the field for the halftime show went off without a hitch. The stages were put in place, as were the speakers and spotlights. Afterward, the ambassadors sprinted off the field and gave high-fives to one another. After the halftime show, the field was cleared and some of the volunteers headed home. But not Kass. He stuck around to help with the stage for the trophy presentation. Then he helped ZZ Top's road crew pack and load the band's equipment.

Some 20 hours after his day began, he was heading home, driving his gray 2007 Mustang south on I-95 in Deerfield Beach when a Florida State Trooper clocked him driving 87 in a 65 mph zone.

"In reality I was doing about 100," Kass admitted. "I saw him but I was too tired to slow down. So I moved over to the right lane and he pulled me over."

Before the trooper said a word, Kass apologized, explaining that he had just finished a 22-hour volunteer shift at the Orange Bowl and was hurrying home because he had to be back at his normal job in the morning. The trooper took Kass' license and registration, then spent five minutes in his squad car before returning with nothing more than a warning to slow down.

"It was the perfect ending to a long day," Kass said.

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com. To learn more about Wayne you can visit his ESPN Fan Page at myespn.go.com/wdrehs.