Editor's Note: ESPN.com is sending senior writer Wayne Drehs to six bowl cities in 10 days to find the people, places and one-of-a-kind experiences that make the college football bowl season unlike any other time on the sports calendar. Wayne's final story won't run until after the Allstate BCS National Championship Game, but you can read about his journey right here on his bowl trip blog.
Jan. 5 -- Toronto, Ontario (International Bowl)
You would have thought their older brothers played at Rutgers. Or perhaps they were somehow related to Scarlet Knights coach Greg Schiano. But no, the six teenagers from Buffalo, N.Y., (Williamsville East High School) were merely International Bowl fans. Yes, I said International Bowl fans.
A year ago, when the inaugural game was played here at Rogers Centre, the group drove up from Buffalo and randomly went all-out in their undying support for the Cincinnati Bearcats, painting their chests, dying their hair and doing everything they could to cheer Cincinnati on to a 27-24 victory over Western Michigan. Their theatrics even made their way onto the promotional video that runs on the International Bowl Web site.
After the two teams were announced this year, they decided they were going to cheer for Rutgers.
"I have family in New Jersey," said Nate Davidson. "And besides, we just didn't feel right painting the word, 'Ball' on our chests."
So instead they painted the word, "Rutgers," with one of the six squeezing both the "u" and "t" on his chest. But this year's show of support went beyond the face and chest paint, the red and black dyed Mohawks and the baggy jeans that seemed to hang halfway down their backsides. This group spent several hours transforming a Buffalo Bills helmet into a Rutgers helmet. They went online to find pictures of Rutgers helmets and then used a computer program to replicate the exact decals, from the "R" on the side of the helmet to the "Riddell" and "27," for Ray Rice, on the back.
The whole process took a couple hours, time well spent for the group that went to bed at 3:30 Saturday morning only to wake three hours later so they could begin the two-hour drive to Toronto and arrive in plenty of time for the noon kickoff.
"A lot of people think we're nuts, but coming up here is a chance for us to see a big-time bowl game," Davidson. "You could say we're helping take American football international. And besides, it isn't like we have to stay home to watch the Bills in the playoffs."
So what's the interest level for a bowl game in a winter climate in a foreign country? Well, the Globe and Mail newspaper outside my hotel room Saturday morning didn't feature a single article about the game. Instead, the front page stories were about the Canadian junior hockey team's 4-1 victory over the U.S. at the world under-20 hockey championships as well as a profile of Tampa Bay Lightning's Vincent Lecavalier.
Still, an estimated 30,000 fans filled the majority of the Rogers Centre's 100 and 200 levels. And several Toronto sportswriters commented that the bowl game atmosphere was far more electric than that of a Toronto Argonauts Canadian Football League game. Even before the game, the longest lines on the concourse weren't for the concessions or restrooms, but rather the souvenir stand, where Rutgers and Ball State faithful filed four and five deep to purchase International Bowl sweatshirts and T-shirts.
"It's a collector's item," said Angie Pearson, a Rutgers fan from New Jersey. "It isn't every day that you get to play a bowl game in Canada. So we had to be here and I had to buy a couple T-shirts to take home to some friends. Why not?"
Between shaking hands and receiving hugs from an endless stream of Rutgers faithful, the woman in the No. 27 Rutgers jersey, the one that says, "Ray's Mom" couldn't help but be in awe of her surroundings.
Sure, she had attended bowl games in Arizona and Houston in the past. But never did she think her son's college football career would take her to another country. And for good reason -- last year's International Bowl was the first college bowl game played outside the United States since the 1937 Bacardi Bowl in Havana, Cuba.
"There's one word I can use to describe what this whole experience has been like: extravagant," Janet Rice said. "We've been to the shopping malls, we're going to the CN Tower. I just can't believe we're in another country."
On a personal note: After six cities, 10 days, some 4,600 frequent flier miles and more than 7,600 words, the journey is over. It started by flying around the Lowe's Motor Speedway in excess of 170 miles per hour and ended by watching the one and only college football game played in Canada this year. I saw barely-clothed beauties on Bourbon Street and tightly-bundled Canadians on Toronto's Younge Street. I watched the Sugar Bowl from the president's box, the Orange Bowl from the Florida Marlins bullpen and the International Bowl from one of the Rogers Centre's famed, "field view" hotel rooms. All along the way, I met tons of great people -- from Jen at the Wildhorse Saloon, who tutored me on the history of the famed Nashville concert venue, to Ian, Miles, Melissa, Jim and so many others at the Orange Bowl who made sure I didn't embarrass myself as a volunteer ambassador. As I've said all along, this blog is a teaser for my wrap-up story that will run later this week, where you'll be able to read about my visit to Atlanta's Martin Luther King Museum with Clemson's Scott Cooper, preparing for game day in New Orleans with Sugar Bowl president Ray Jeandron and getting an earful from a Z.Z. Top roadie at the Orange Bowl. Look for it later this week. And thanks to everyone who followed along throughout the trip.
Jan. 4 -- Toronto, Ontario (International Bowl)
My hotel rooms on this journey have overlooked Atlanta's famed Peachtree Street as well as Fort Lauderdale's inner harbor. But at no point was I more excited than when I opened my hotel room door than here in Toronto, when I discovered that my room overlooked the Rogers Centre playing field.
Sure, the Rose Bowl may have its history, the Superdome it's goosebump-enducing story of triumph and University of Phoenix Stadium is equipped with seemingly all the amenities of a modern-day rocket. But there is no other bowl venue in the country where your hotel room can overlook the playing surface.
As a long-time stadium junkie who has never before visited Toronto, I just might keep the blinds open and sleep next to the floor-to ceiling windows all night.
Rutgers coach Greg Schiano, on the other hand, likely didn't match my enthusiasm when he stepped onto the field for his Friday afternoon walk-through. For all Schiano had to do was lift his head up to see four floors of hotel rooms -- not to mention a restaurant and bar overflowing with football fans -- looking down on his practice.
So it shouldn't have been much of a surprise that a member of the Rutgers program was stationed in the hotel restaurant, to keep fans from taking pictures.
"Lucky for me they're mostly Rutgers fans so they understand," the guard said. "Because otherwise, who am I to tell some family they can't take a picture of their kid with the field in the background?"
Playing a bowl game in a foreign country presents all sorts of unique challenges, perhaps none more glaring than the challenge of obtaining passports. As of last February, every American passenger arriving in Canada by air requires a passport. So, after checking with the NCAA and realizing there were no potential violations, International Bowl executives encouraged players on all teams within the Big East and Mid-American Conference, the two conferences with tie-ins to the International Bowl, to obtain passports.
Rutgers and Ball State, bowl personnel said, did just that, making the transition to Toronto that much easier.
"Part of coming to this game is that it's a learning experience," International Bowl executive director Don Loding said. "For many of these kids, they've never before been out of the country. So they learn about currency, they learn about different customs and traditions, and they learn about obtaining a passport."
On a personal note: I travel frequently so it isn't unusual for me to hop on an airplane and show up in a different locale a few hours later. Yet there was something strange about leaving South Florida, where the sun was peeking out and people were returning to the beaches on Friday and three hours later land in Toronto, where piles of ice and snow line the streets and pedestrians are bundled in hats, gloves, scarves and hoods. It hardly felt like a bowl destination until I walked into the hotel lobby and almost got ran over by a group of 20 or so Rutgers fans.
I attended my second, "Battle of the Bands," in less then a week. Only this time, there was no flame-tossing baton twirler or Wildhorse Saloon in the background. Instead, the bands were surrounded on one side by Toronto's majestic City Hall and on the other side by a bustling ice skating rink. For me, it felt like a scene straight out of "A Christmas Story," minus, of course, those freaky monkeys. I think the only thing missing was a cup of hot chocolate.
Jan. 3 -- Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (FedEx Orange Bowl)
Their work already finished for the day, the three Navy fighter pilots stood in the Florida Marlins bullpen and soaked up the first quarter of the Orange Bowl. Some 10 minutes earlier, "Puck," "O.B." and "Sting" directed their F-18s over Dolphin Stadium, bringing a bone-rattling, eardrum-stinging conclusion to singer Katharine McPhee's national anthem.
"We don't hear a thing," pilot John O'Brien said. "You have to realize -- the noise is almost entirely behind us."
At an event in which every detail is scripted down to the second, the art of the pregame flyover may be the most meticulously planned of all. It started with O'Brien and fellow pilots Ken Hockycko and Duane Boren attending McPhee's rehearsal Thursday morning, timing how long it took the vocalist to sing the anthem.
"We had it down to 1:51," O'Brien said.
Then, Thursday night, a bit before they were needed, the three pilots, who flew down earlier Thursday from Virginia Beach, Va., headed 15-20 miles out over the Atlantic Ocean where they waited for their cue.
Once McPhee started to sing, the pilots left, having already calculated the speed they would need to travel (300 knots) to reach the stadium at the precise time. As McPhee sang, a spotter on top of the scoreboard watched for the arrival of the three F-18s while timing McPhee's performance to see if she was ahead or behind of the 1:51 time.
"Most of the time," O'Brien said. "The adrenaline gets going when people are performing it for real and they sing a little bit faster."
Such was the case on Thursday night, when McPhee sang ever so slightly too fast, causing the timing of the flyover to be off by a couple seconds. Not that anyone noticed, especially Hockycko, who was tickled to be flying over the Orange Bowl before Virginia Tech, the school his father and sister attended, were to take the field.
"It was awesome," Hockycko said. "Absolutely, positively awesome to look down and see Virginia Tech."
Stadium security representative Jeanette Eggleton had the challenging task during Thursday's game of guarding the FedEx Orange Bowl championship trophy, a glass bowl filled with oranges that seemingly everyone wanted to grab.
"You wouldn't believe how many people walk by and just start grabbing these oranges," she said. "Everybody wants to throw them around. But of course I'm not allowed to let them."
After the game, the trophy having already been presented to the Kansas Jayhawks, Eggleton still sat at her post, next to an empty wooden crate.
"They gave away my trophy," Eggleton, a Virginia Tech fan, joked. "And they gave it to the wrong team."
On a personal note: I spent Thursday's game embedded as an Orange Bowl ambassador, where I was asked to do everything from help set the stage for ZZ Top's halftime performance to pass out goodie bags for fans before the game. I'll have plenty to share about my experiences in my final wrap-up piece, but I do have one funny tale to tell now. After the game, one of the stadium operations individuals asked for five ambassadors to give him a hand. I did just that, running over in my orange ambassador polo, eager to provide whatever the man needed. But then he took us to the championship stage, where Kansas was celebrating, and asked us to form a human wall. "Your goal," the man told me and the four others, "is to keep the media out. Don't let any media get behind you." Talk about ironic. I had been on the other side of that wall, desperate for a quick interview so many times in the past. Now I was being asked to form the wall. Needless to say, I couldn't do it. So as soon as the man left, I inconspicuously slipped away, leaving a tiny gap in that wall.
Jan. 2 -- Fort Lauderdale, Fla. (FedEx Orange Bowl)
The sign in the airport read, "Welcome to Ft. Lauderdale." There were palm trees, beaches and I swear I saw the Atlantic Ocean when our airplane came in on its final approach.
And yet there I was Wednesday night at Dolphin Stadium, huddled with hundreds of dancers, band members and Orange Bowl ambassador volunteers, freezing my way through the final dress rehearsal for the pregame and halftime shows for Thursday night's Orange Bowl.
The temperature was 43 degrees -- a number that my wife back in Chicago laughed at when she heard me complain. But coupled with 20 mile-an-hour winds, the wind chill had to be in the 30s. And nobody -- save for a few band parents who draped themselves in blankets and a couple volunteers who brought along gloves and a ski jacket -- was dressed appropriately.
My biggest sympathies went out to the 400 or so high school dancers who will perform with ZZ Top during the Orange Bowl's halftime show. After one walk-through in sweats, the choreographer asked that the girls perform in just their silver sleeveless tops that they will wear for the performance. If you've never heard 400 screeching teenage girls before, I wouldn't recommend it.
ZZ Top performed for all of 15 minutes before they retreated to the cozy comforts of their tour bus. Meanwhile outside the stadium, a group of high school bands practiced, waiting for their turn to step on the field. Their parents looked on nearby, covering themselves in fleece blankets while taking turns getting in and out of a handful of heater-friendly parked cars that were sitting nearby.
If the Music City Bowl is known for its music and the Sugar Bowl is known for its convenience and French Quarter debauchery, the Orange Bowl is known for its weather. You know, South Beach? The average temperature this time of year is 76 degrees. On New Year's Day, the high reached a near-perfect 82 degrees.
Yet forecasters were predicting a Wednesday night low in the mid 30s, almost a 50-degree drop from 24 hours earlier.
"Didn't you watch the weather?" Orange Bowl volunteer Jim Harmon asked a fellow volunteer who showed up for his duties Wednesday in shorts and a polo. "You're going to freeze."
Sure enough, within a half hour, the volunteer had borrowed a pair of sweatpants and a fleece jacket to help him stay warm. Harmon, meanwhile, covered himself in gloves, a ski cap, a hooded sweatshirt and a Miami Dolphins lettermen's-style jacket.
"I came prepared," Harmon said. "I just hope it's not this cold tomorrow."
Forecasters are predicting temperatures in the upper 50s for game time with gusty winds and a slight chance of rain.
On a personal note: When I checked in at the media hotel on Wednesday and asked for my credential, a nearby Orange Bowl representative almost did a back-flip welcoming me. "Oh!!!" she said. "You're the guy who's going to be embedded as an Orange Bowl ambassador!!" Apparently the Orange Bowl folks are very excited about my assignment here in South Florida, as am I. If you've ever wondered how all the little things get done at a bowl game, on Thursday I'm going to don the Orange Bowl ambassador polo (the rest of us would probably call them volunteers) and find out. For those who e-mailed so many suggestions for fine dining, my travel and game schedule is starting to get in the way. Tuesday night's dinner was shrimp and crab cakes in Sugar Bowl president Ray Jeandron's Superdome suite and Wednesday's meal was three pieces of cold Papa John's pizza, on the floor of a room inside Dolphin Stadium, with the rest of the Orange Bowl ambassadors. On Thursday, game day, I'm visioning an Orange Bowl boxed lunch. By the way, on Friday I leave for Toronto and the International Bowl. I will have one night in Toronto and would love to hear some suggestions on a can't-miss bar or restaurant that should be rocking and rolling this Friday night. Send your suggestions to email@example.com.
Jan. 1 -- New Orleans (Allstate Sugar Bowl)
At five minutes past midnight, when he finally helped hand Georgia coach Mark Richt the Allstate Sugar Bowl trophy, Sugar Bowl president Ray Jeandron had one thought.
"I've reached the halfway point," he said. "One more game to go."
Jeandron arrived at the Superdome at 2:30 Tuesday afternoon; his day began with him signing paychecks for the officials and statisticians. Some 10 hours later, there he was on the stage for the trophy presentation, offering a handshake and a congratulations to Richt and the Bulldogs.
In less than a week, he will have to do it all again, next time helping to crown a national champion. It won't be easy. After attending the Georgia after-party at the team hotel, Jeandron didn't expect his head to hit the pillow until 3 Wednesday morning. Ohio State was scheduled to touch down in New Orleans seven hours later.
"Our goal is to just make sure we can get the Hawaii and Georgia student-athletes out of the hotels in time for the next teams to arrive, " Jeandron said. "The maids know that those rooms have priority. But you never know -- that's what we're worried about right now."
For the past week, Jeandron has worn a red striped Sugar Bowl tie that he designed for himself and his 85 committee members. When he wakes up Wednesday morning, he will put on the yellow BCS Championship tie he also designed.
"That," Jeandron said, "will be the signal that we have to do all this one more time."
Just in case there are any problems with the hotel rooms, Jeandron's staff has planned an arrival party for Ohio State and LSU to help buy some extra time.
"We're going to feed them for about four hours," he said.
As Jeandron watched Tuesday night's game with his family in a Superdome suite, his only hope was that a close and competitive game would keep viewers tuned in. But with Georgia jumping out to a 24-3 halftime lead, Jeandron didn't get his wishes.
At halftime, he admitted, "I'm not sure how many TVs are on right now," and then talked about how he was going to have to change his postgame speech.
"I wanted to tell both teams thank you for a great game, but the way this game has gone, I'm not sure I can say that anymore," Jeandron said. "Actually, I can't say that anymore."
Jeandron and his staff are helping operate the hospitality suites at the hotels for various VIPs and officials from the universities. And the Sugar Bowl staff was blown away by the entertaining ways of the crew from Hawaii. One committee member said the Sugar Bowl had to buy three times as much alcohol for Hawaii as it did last year for LSU.
"The Hawaiians have proven that they're pretty good at partying," Jeandron said. "More than we expected. They've enjoyed every single minute of being here. And that's the way it should be."
On a personal note: With the close of the Sugar Bowl, the trip is now two-thirds finished, with stops in South Florida and Toronto remaining. A late night on Bourbon Street coupled with an early afternoon appointment with Jeandron kept me from getting out much Tuesday. But it was fascinating to spend the day with the president of a major bowl game; expect much more from my day with Jeandron in my wrapup piece after the bowl season. Next, I fly to Fort Lauderdale, where the FedEx Orange Bowl Committee is going to embed me as an ambassador for the halftime show. I've already warned them -- no sequins.
Dec. 31 -- New Orleans (Allstate Sugar Bowl)
When the 757 finally came to a stop at Gate D8 in Louis Armstrong International Airport , 22-year-old Stefanie Lum exhaled.
"Finally," she said. "Finally, it's over. I'm here."
Some 20 hours earlier, the diehard Hawaii fan had departed Honolulu by herself on a cross-ocean, cross-country trip to New Orleans, where her beloved Warriors will face the Georgia Bulldogs on New Year's Day.
She will spend almost as much time flying and making connections in airports (35 hours) as she will on the ground in New Orleans (40 hours). And she wouldn't have it any other way. Lum purchased three one-way tickets -- from Honolulu to Los Angeles, Los Angeles to Atlanta and Atlanta to New Orleans -- in order to get her airfare down to a digestible $1,200.
Her flight back to Honolulu will depart at 6:30 the morning after the game, taking her to Dallas and Maui before she reaches home. She is scheduled to land at 9:30 that night -- and will be expected at her job as an operations analyst for a Honolulu credit union at 8:15 the next morning.
"If I heard about someone else doing something like this, sure, I'd think they sounded pretty crazy," Lum said. "But the way I look at it, it's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Hawaii may never play on a stage like this again. And I just had to be there."
Part of the joy of bowl season is doing whatever it takes -- digging in couch cushions for spare change or perhaps begging Mom and Dad for a loan -- to descend on a bowl destination and support your team. One group of Illinois fans reportedly purchased an aging school bus for the drive out to Pasadena for the Rose Bowl.
But perhaps no group of fans has had to travel further or deal with more headaches than those of the Hawaii Warriors. Some 4,200 miles -- the Pacific Ocean and four states -- separate Honolulu from New Orleans. While Georgia red dominates the French Quarter landscape, the Hawaii turnout is impressive.
Even on Lum's flight from Atlanta, an one-hour trip that, understandably, was filled with Georgia fans, there were six people who had made the trip from the islands, including one father and son who held up a sign that read, "Respect is Earned -- Not Given. Go Warriors."
Every one of them has a story like Lum's. Her flight from Honolulu to L.A. was delayed five hours, eventually arriving at LAX at 2:30 in the morning. She then had to change the rest of her itinerary, but she was lucky enough to find a 4:30 a.m. flight to Atlanta that eventually got her a connection into New Orleans around 2 p.m.
Upon arrival, she planned on meeting her boyfriend, who had a two-day pit stop in Las Vegas en route to the Big Easy. She didn't have such free time. In fact, she wouldn't even be going to the game, she said, without the support of her co-workers, none of whom are big sports fans.
But when she asked her boss if she could take Jan. 2 off work, and her boss then asked the rest of the company if anyone had issues with Lam taking a personal day to attend a football game, they all said no.
"You have to write that," Lam said. "You have to put in there that I wouldn't be going to this game, I wouldn't be experiencing any of this, without them saying it was OK. I owe them so much."
On a personal note: If the college football bowl season is an excuse to party, then New Orleans, the Sugar Bowl and obviously Bourbon Street are the bowl-partying capitols. On one of the biggest party nights of the year, on the eve of the 2008 Sugar Bowl, New Orleans didn't disappoint. Bourbon Street was littered with what you would expect -- short skirts, low-cut tops and enough beer consumption that the Budweiser Clydesdales should have little trouble continuing to eat like kings. There were police on foot, police on horses and police hovering above the street in some sort of robotic arm. Chants of "HA-WAI-EE" and "IT'S GREAT TO BE A GEORGIA BULLDOG" filled the air. A few blocks away, in Lafayette Square, the chants of "L-S-U" were already beginning with a week until the Allstate BCS National Championship Game.
There were fireworks choreographed to both school's fight songs, with Georgia blasts exploding in red and black, and Hawaii's in green and white. But perhaps the highlight of the night was the cross section of people, from suit- tie- and jacket-wearing alums to one guy whose T-shirt perfectly summed up the Bourbon Street vibe: B is for Brewski.
On New Year's Day, I'll be hanging with Sugar Bowl president Ray Jeandron, bouncing from party to party and event to event, while making sure all the last-minute pregame details are falling into place. Got a story idea? Heading to New Orleans, South Florida or Toronto? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dec. 30 -- Nashville, Tenn. (Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl)
Much like eating contests, street festivals are the norm during bowl season. From the Valero Alamo Bowl pep rally, where a Texas A&M yell leader opened a few eyes earlier this week, to a block party in Tempe, where the Barenaked Ladies will play New Year's Eve, you can't visit a bowl city without stumbling into a "Fan Fest," or something of the like.
Nashville's version is called "Battle of the Bands," a hybrid event that's part pep rally, part parade and part dueling pianos. The marching bands from both schools start at opposite ends of Second Avenue and march toward one another until they meet at Commerce Street. Chaos ensues.
On Sunday night, there were the Tomahawk Chop and the Kentucky Wildcat mascot. There were cheerleaders, pompoms and enough tubas to please even Lawrence Welk. There were moms pushing their Kentucky-clad kids in front of television cameras, purposely blocking the view of the Florida State cheerleaders. And there were the velour sweat suits worn by the Kentucky dance team.
But it was a baton twirler -- yes, a baton twirler -- who stole the show. Twenty-one-year-old Karrissa Wimberley, a Seminole junior, lit up the crowd -- literally -- by flipping three fire-lit batons between her fingers, knees, hip, mouth and the back of her neck. She made it look as easy as tying a scarf.
Even the Kentucky fans looked on in amazement. And for good reason. Wimberley currently is the National Baton Twirling Association World Champion.
"This is so much fun," Wimberley said after Sunday night's performance. "I'm used to these competitions where everybody is staring at me and analyzing my every move. Or I'm on the football field, where the fans are so far away. Doing something like this, in the middle of downtown Nashville, with the fans right up in front of you, was just a blast. It makes it so much more personal."
Wimberley didn't even find out she was going to perform until Sunday morning. Even so, her biggest challenge this weekend wasn't catching three fire-lit batons with her knees, but finding a place to store her gasoline-smelling batons and her gas jug.
"You have to be kind of discreet with a gas can," she admitted. "But if I would have kept it in my hotel room, the smell never would have gone away."
So she put the batons and the gas can in the hotel hallway, writing a little "do not disturb" note about who she was and why there were flammable liquids in the hallway. Wimberley versus the smell of gas is a battle she said she seems to be fighting constantly.
"When I go to the gas station, I think of football season," she said. "And during the season, my car just wreaks of gas. And I get terrible, terrible headaches. But you get through it."
The hottest spot to watch "Battle of the Bands" is the fifth floor of the parking garage at the corner of Commerce and Second Avenue. There, the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl hosts what has to be the only VIP bowl party in a parking ramp.
"When you tell people, 'Join us in the parking garage,' they sort of look at you like you're nuts," said Music City Bowl CEO Scott Ramsey. "You have to tell them, 'No, no, no. Join us in the VIP area located in the parking garage.'"
A year ago, diehard Kentucky fan Bruce Tinsley, creator of the popular syndicated comic "Mallard Fillmore," drafted a strip that encouraged long-suffering Cubs and Clippers fans to buck up, now that the Wildcats had won a bowl. The comic eventually got into the hands of the Kentucky coaching staff, and on Monday, Tinsley and his 10-year-old son, Burke, will be guests of the Wildcats at LP Field. And just for good measure, Monday's strip will mention Kentucky and the Music City Bowl again.
On a personal note: Many thanks to Georgia fan Matt Smith from Atlanta and several others who e-mailed to recommend Rotiers, the famous burger stop in Nashville. Unfortunately, none of you warned that Rotiers, just like Chick-fil-A, is closed Sundays. Oh, well -- I instead opted for a sandwich at the Wildhorse Saloon. And as someone who knows very little about country music and even less about line dancing, the pure magnitude of that place blew me away. Three floors of music entertainment heaven. And a dance floor big enough for a touch football game (which a few kids actually attempted Sunday afternoon). Expect a shorter update tomorrow, as I'll spend most of the day traveling to New Orleans, the fourth stop on this journey. I'm anticipating some New Year's revelry on Bourbon Street. Got a story idea? Heading to New Orleans, South Florida or Toronto? Drop me a line at email@example.com.
Dec. 29 -- Nashville, Tenn. (Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl)
The cell phone rang almost the second my plane touched down in Nashville on Saturday afternoon. On the line was Kentucky's director of media relations, Tony Neely, with a story idea he said had long been overlooked by the national media. "What about a piece about the passion Kentucky fans have for their football team?" Neely said. "People know the love our fans have for basketball, but football is pretty amazing as well."
I stopped, thought for a quick second and then yawned, telling Neely I'd call him back. But then, on my trip into downtown Nashville, a funny thing happened. I couldn't escape Kentucky blue and white (a phenomenon I'd later learn is called, "the Kentucky mist.") Even though the Music City Bowl was still some 48 hours away, even though the Wildcats had played here last year, Kentucky fans seemed to be popping up through the cracks in the road. Driving in cars and walking on sidewalks downtown, riding the elevator and escalator in my hotel. Popping in and out of the bars and honky tonks on Music Row. Even attending the Nashville Predators game Saturday night.
The school expects some 50,000 Kentucky fans -- similar to the turnout last year -- to make the three-hour trek to Nashville between now and Monday's kickoff. While the Music City Bowl's ticket allotment is 11,000 seats, Kentucky requested an additional 16,000 and sold all of those tickets during a presale to UK season-ticket holders. In fact, the entire game was a sellout before Kentucky coach Rich Brooks had even talked to the media about his team's bowl destination.
"We had no problem taking them for the second year in a row," said Music City Bowl VP of marketing and communications Brian Fulton. "When their fans come to town -- be it for a bowl game or an NCAA basketball game -- it's a sight to see. They call it the Kentucky mist for a reason. All you see is a sea of blue."
Perhaps the most telling scene of all on Saturday was at the corner of Commerce and 2nd Ave., right in the heart of downtown, where one street vendor was hawking Music City Bowl merchandise. Shirts with the Music City Bowl logo and the name of both schools were for sale in two colors: blue or white. "Those colors just seem to sell better," the man behind the table said. Of course they do.
Halfway through my trip, gluttony seems to be an ongoing theme, so I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the Music City Bowl rib-eating contest that took place at the Wildhorse Saloon on Thursday night. In two minutes, a Kentucky team of Andre' Woodson, Steve Johnson, Jason Leger and Josh Winchell ate 41 ribs, 10 more than Florida State's Rodney Hudson, Geoff Berniard, Evan Bellamy and Kendrick Stewart. For the entire night, bowl officials said the two teams combined to eat 1,200 pounds of food. Joey Chestnut would have been proud.
On a personal note: After canceling my original flight to Nashville, Delta rebooked me and a handful of other passengers on an empty 757 that was on its way to Nashville to pick up the Tennessee Titans and take them to Indianapolis for Sunday night's game against the Colts. The Titans, one flight attendant told me, are one of several teams who pay to have the same crew work every team charter flight. As we boarded Saturday, the flight attendants were studying the 2008 Pro Bowl rosters to see who they should congratulate during the boarding process. "It's a pretty fun gig," one crew member said of flying with the team. "We get to actually know these guys a bit and of course want them to win."
I've attended less than a dozen hockey games in my life, but was thoroughly entertained at the Nashville Predators game Saturday night. The music was deafening, the fans were into it (the Nashville Predators are on the POWER PLAY!) and I saw something I never before knew existed in hockey: a dance team. There were even a handful of Kentucky and Florida State fans in attendance. Sunday night, I'll be smack in the middle of the Music City Bowl's Battle of the Bands, an event that's expected to draw some 15,000 fans to downtown Nashville.
Dec. 28 -- Atlanta (Chick-fil-A Bowl)
It's not unusual for teams to cross paths at various events during bowl week, but Friday night's gathering between Clemson and Auburn at the Delta Football Feud might have provided a bit of extra motivation for Auburn come game day.
For there was Clemson junior quarterback Tribble Reese, in the middle of the "Family Feud"-like game between the two schools, coming up with the following answer to which historic coach he would most like to play for:
"The coach for the best school in Alabama," Reese said. "Bear Bryant."
The answer drew a mix of cheers and boos from the split crowd. But perhaps it was Auburn defensive end Quentin Groves who had the best response. He just shook his head and stared at Reese. And when asked the same question later, Groves had this response:
"He coached the best school in South Carolina," Groves said. "Lou Holtz."
The Clemson offense defeated the Auburn defense 389-70, after which Auburn quarterback Brandon Cox told the Hilton ballroom audience, "Our defense does that to us once in awhile." But the Auburn offense didn't fare any better, losing to the Clemson defense 410-0.
The bowl season has long been famous for eating contests between two teams -- case in point, the 52-year running of the Lawry's Beef Bowl in Beverly Hills. But here in the South, organizers of the Chick-fil-A Bowl conducted their own little eating experiment earlier this week.
No, they didn't ask Clemson and Auburn players to scarf as many Chick-fil-A sandwiches as they could. Instead, they took both teams to Fire of Brazil, an all-you-can-eat Brazilian Churrascaria in downtown Atlanta and invited them to enjoy themselves.
Little did the teams know the restaurant was keeping tabs on what each team ate. The results were staggering. Clemson's players stuffed some 570 pounds of meat and 130 desserts in their mouths, while Auburn ate more than 700 pounds of meat and 160 desserts.
Each team ate more meat in its 90-minute sitting than the restaurant serves on an entire Saturday, restaurant manager David Navarro said.
"Our gouchos had it pretty rough," Navarro added. "I've never seen people eat meat so quick in my life. We had to put two cooks on the grill and add a third from the basement. I've never seen anything like it."
It was 30 years ago this season when Clemson fans started one of the more unique bowl traditions, bringing Tiger paw-stamped $2 bills with them to Atlanta for a nonconference game against Georgia Tech.
The stamped $2 bill idea carried over to that year's Gator Bowl, and ever since, Clemson fans have headed for each bowl destination with wads of stamped $2 bills in hand. In fact, one teller manager at a Wachovia branch in Clemson told The Greenville News she expected orders for $3,000 to $5,000 worth of $2 bills leading up to the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
For those of you interested in reading about my touching tour of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site with Scotty Cooper and Clemson teammate C.J. Spiller, you'll have to wait for my wrap-up story after the BCS Championship. Yes, I'm saving the best for last.
On a personal note: The run of fine dining continues. Hit my second-favorite fast-food stop Friday (nothing can top In N' Out Burger) when I grabbed a Chick-fil-A sandwich. Say what you will about the shameless plug for the bowl sponsor; I don't care. Saturday, I'm off to Nashville with my eyes set on Music Row. Headed that way? Have a great story idea? Drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dec. 27 -- Charlotte, N.C. (Meineke Car Care Bowl)
Apparently, Connecticut coach Randy Edsall doesn't like to lose. Not on the football field. Not in a basketball arena. And certainly not in a coach-versus-coach, tire-changing contest as part of Lowes Motor Speedway Day at the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
After Edsall defeated Wake Forest defensive line coach Keith Henry (who was subbing for a supposedly injured Jim Grobe), he raised his arms high above his head and basked in the thunderous approval of his players as if he had just been given a pay raise.
"I was worried what was going to happen with my players if I would have lost," Edsall said. "I wouldn't have heard the end of it. Especially after what happened at the basketball game last night."
Monday night, when both teams were guests at the Charlotte Bobcats' game, junior cornerback Darius Butler unofficially tried out for Jim Calhoun's Huskies basketball team. Butler, 5-foot-11 and 185 pounds, brought the Charlotte crowd to its feet when he finished the anchor leg of a three-man relay contest against Wake Forest with a Spud Webb-like windmill jam.
"I didn't care at all about the contest," Butler said later. "I knew we were going to win. I just wanted to get that dunk down. Now I can tell people I dunked in an NBA arena."
Thanks to Edsall and Butler, the Huskies enter Saturday's game against the Demon Deacons undefeated in pre-bowl competitions, which should have as much of an effect on the outcome of the game as the color of Grobe's socks.
The highlight of the day for both teams was undoubtedly the 170-mile-an-hour laps each player was invited to take around the Speedway, courtesy of the Richard Petty Driving Experience. But you'll have to wait to hear more about that in my wrap-up story. A tiny teaser: Picture 55-year-old Wake coach Grobe in a firesuit.
On a personal note: Excited to finally have this adventure underway. So far, three flights and no delays. My fingers are crossed. Despite colleague Pat Forde's weekly culinary tips in the Forde-Yard Dash, I've spent the past two nights eating Papa John's pizza and Hooters wings in my hotel room while working. I need to get out more. Friday, I will be in Atlanta, where I will be touring the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site with a pair of Clemson Tigers. Have a story idea for my trip? Heading to Nashville, New Orleans, South Florida or Toronto? Drop me a line at email@example.com.