"Ryan, wake up, the Egg Bowl is on ..."
That's precisely how my Thanksgiving college football rivalry weekend started, in a mountain house overlooking Lake Lure, North Carolina, with my legs draped the wrong way over the arm of a leather chair, gravy stain on my shirt, and I'm not sure but I might have been snoring. Can you blame me? I'd made my annual attempt to watch an entire NFL game, and Chargers-Cowboys, combined with a large helping of turkey tryptophan, had been like a tranquilizer dart.
I was not assigned to cover a college football game over the weekend, which was just fine with me. My family hasn't seen me a whole lot this fall, so I'd promised them I'd be there for Turkey Day and beyond. Whatever my wife and daughter wanted to do, I'd do it. I informed my father, who was with us, of that plan. And thus began a four-day balancing act that I am safely assuming those of you out there reading this right now are very much familiar with. You just lived it, too. Walking that fine Saturday -- in this case, Thursday, Friday and Saturday -- line between being family fan and football fan. You love your kin and you love the game, and you will go to any lengths to make sure you get equal doses of both.
BTW who else was doing this over the weekend? Family inside stores shopping & you're sitting outside watching games on your phone. I certainly wasn't alone where I was. pic.twitter.com/umm9Ebj3cO— Ryan McGee (@ESPNMcGee) November 27, 2017
Ole Miss at Mississippi State was the adrenaline shot I needed. My father, a retired longtime official, did what he has done every Thanksgiving of my life and explained obscure rules to me. My wife, raised orange and white in Knoxville, Tennessee, wondered aloud if our alma mater might hire Dan Mullen, though "He seems to yell at the refs a lot, doesn't he, Jerry?" Dad nodded. Then my daughter, the new teenager, looked up from her phone long enough to ask, "Why is it called the Egg Bowl?" Dad texts longtime Mississippi State radio sideline reporter John Correro, who replies because the trophy, which dates back to 1927, was modeled after a golden football of the time, but ended up looking like a golden egg. My daughter laughs. But not nearly as hard as she does at this:
On Black Friday, we descended into the Valley of No Cell Service, me and Dad trailing along behind my wife and daughter as they searched for deals and lunch. All morning long, Pops warned me about Miami visiting Pitt. He'd worked that game many times back in the Big East days, including a couple of Panthers upsets over the Canes back when The U was still The U and not on the long hiatus before becoming The U again this year.
"No way," I told him. I mean, hey, that was years ago. And hey, I'd just seen Miami's rally to beat Virginia the previous weekend, in person. And hey, I'm the national college football writer here! "When we get back up the mountain after lunch they'll be winning. They're the No. 2 team in the nation. You'll see."
We got back up the mountain after lunch and ...
OK, that was it. There would be no more wandering away from the television or into any areas without data delivery abilities. Not today. We watched Houston outlast Navy and I checked in on my 2017 man crush, San Diego State's Rashaad Penny, who followed my 2016 crush, Donnel Pumphrey, to become the first back-to-back 2,000-yard rushers at the same school, ever. Then we watched Bret Bielema fight off tears as he discussed his firing immediately following Arkansas' loss to Missouri and both wondered if our mutual friend, fired Arkansas AD Jeff Long, thought about it all.
Dad lamented, "Man, I'm still waiting for Texas and Texas A&M to come back."
I responded, "Why does Cal play UCLA today and Stanford play Notre Dame tomorrow? Shouldn't Cal play Stanford today and USC play UCLA tomorrow?"
Regardless of who UCLA was playing, our mutual love for college football, baseball and Jackie Robinson caused us to tip our caps to Bruins linebacker Kenny Young.
But in the end, all of the above was mere garnish for what took place in Orlando. Heck, the entire weekend ended up becoming nothing more than punctuation around the War on I-4 between UCF and USF. The Bulls and Knights didn't play the game of the week. It might have been the game of the year. We marveled at the speed of both teams. Dad helped decipher a series of close calls by the officiating crew. We watched UCF safety Khalid McGee commit two personal fouls before the game had hardly started, including a WWE-style body slam, and wondered whether we might be related.
Then, the final five minutes of the game brought us both to our feet as it brought the rest of the family rushing into the room. UCF won, but USF had nothing to be ashamed of, and they joined forces to leave the nation bummed their contest was over -- including a NASCAR superstar whose retirement I'd covered just a few days earlier.
Wish every game was this USF/UCF game.— Ralph Dale Earnhardt Jr. (@DaleJr) November 25, 2017
That game over, we flipped to another contest that Dad worked many times as an official, the Commonwealth Cup between Virginia Tech and Virginia, the team I'd just seen nearly knock off Miami. By the time that 10-0 molasses river was done, I was back where I'd started on Thursday, totally unconscious. Until we are awakened by this. The McGees had successfully navigated Thanksgiving without a fight. But what in the world was happening between Grace and Dylan in Maryville?
Saturday morning dawned with college football promise, College Football Playoff implications and, wait, what was Ohio State wearing in The Game?! Monochromatic uniforms? And, wait, did UCLA just fire Jim Mora on his birthday and then hire Chip Kelly on his birthday? And, wait, what were Louisville and Kentucky up to in the Governor's Cup?!
Let's check in on Rivalry We-FIIIIGHT pic.twitter.com/UqShyNFZsZ— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) November 25, 2017
Dad had to leave. That meant it was up to me to fend for myself, even as my wife and daughter loaded me into the Jeep for some quaint downtown Main Street Christmas shopping.
It was cool. I've been here before. I was armed with satellite radio, two fully charged phones, a brick in case they needed extra juice, and I'd already surfed through Google Earth maps of Hendersonville, North Carolina, and scouted out no less than six places that I knew had TVs tuned in to rivalry weekend. Besides, the early games had all done me a collective solid. Nearly every noon contest hit the second half as a blowout. By the time I'd dropped the girls off at the first boutique, the 3:30 kickoffs were beginning and I had missed nothing. I parked the Jeep, listening to the final seconds of Ohio State's win over Michigan. I stepped onto Main Street while firing up the ESPN app on both phones (no, I don't have a burner phone for starting trouble, I have work and personal devices).
When I finally looked up, narrowly avoiding walking into a light pole, I couldn't believe what I saw before me.
The town of Hendersonville, bless their souls, had lined the sidewalks with benches and sitting areas, one across from every store, no matter if it was a dress shop or a consignment emporium. On every bench sat college football fans, each looking as magically bewildered as me. When what to my wandering ears should appear, but the audio of the UNC-NC State game was being piped out onto those streets. One establishment had turned multiple flat screens out of its windows, showing the Iron Bowl. Another store owner, dressed in a Mountaineers sweatshirt, had rigged up her ESPN app through a video projector and was showing Appalachian State-Georgia State on a wall in her establishment.
A man in an Auburn ballcap gave me a thumbs-up. A woman in an NC State hoodie sipped a fancy coffee and nodded. A guy who looked an awful lot like Santa Claus in an Oklahoma pullover asked me how many plays I thought Baker Mayfield would have to sit against West Virginia. A couple in Clemson gear spotted another in South Carolina clothing. The Tigers husband shouted, "Stores close at 6! Game's at 8!"
But even within the stores, there was a feeling of football. A bakery had a sale on cookies that looked like footballs. I ate two. One store owner had nearly identical Guy Harvey fishing shirts on display, one with the interlocked NC of the Tar Heels, the other with the block S of the Wolfpack. "Whomever wins the game," he promised, "has their stuff go on sale, half off."
In a used book store, I was watching on my phone as Vanderbilt took a 21-14 lead over Tennessee by way of a 30-yard flea flicker. Right on cue, a burly gentleman dressed in orange pushed past me and smacked a book off its display stand. "Screw you!" he said. I picked up the book. It was a biography of the patriarch of the family who built the legendary Biltmore Estate, just up the road from where we stood. Its title: "The First Tycoon: The Epic Life of Cornelius Vanderbilt."
I knew Vols' weekend was going off rails when I was in a Hendersonville N.C. bookstore & some dude in orange slapped this off the shelf and yelled "Screw you!" pic.twitter.com/4TR7NG5RXR— Ryan McGee (@ESPNMcGee) November 27, 2017
A few minutes later, my daughter called me over to a display of ceramic thimbles in an antique shop. "It's a collection of the U.S. states," she explained. Then she pointed to a pair stacked atop each other. "Look, someone took the one from Oklahoma and put it on top of the one from Texas."
Yes, dear, of course they did.
Finally, it was time to go. I'd spent most of the fourth quarter of the Iron Bowl sitting on a bench and watching through the window, listening to a crimson-clad grandpa curse to the point that his wife had to remind him that the grandkids were in the toy store nearby. "Hell, I kind of hope they hear me," he said. "I want them to know how much I love them because I'm here and not at home where I can curse as loud as I want." As Auburn celebrated on TV and as NC State fans celebrated up and down Main Street, my family took my hands and we started walking back to the Jeep.
Then we were nearly run over by a truck that jumped the curb and sped through the crosswalk. At first, I was really angry. Then I saw that the driver was wearing an Illinois hat, and I forgave him. After all, they'd just gotten crushed by Northwestern.
By the time we arrived back at the house, nearly all of the evening games were already lopsided. Clemson-South Carolina, the Apple Cup, the Civil War, all were already out of hand. I was bummed. Such an amazing Thanksgiving weekend didn't deserve to end on such a flat note.
The nation's top two teams had lost. The nation's two most underrated teams had put on the most entertaining game of the season. I'd gotten to revisit my childhood by watching games with my father and gotten to revel in the present by watching games with my wife and daughter.
I'd walked that family/football tightrope for three days, and it had been all I could've hoped for. That certainly called for a much more perfect finale than scrolling through the scores of blowouts.
"Dad! Look!" My daughter rushed into the room, one of my savior smartphones in hand. What she showed me reminded me of the true meaning of the holidays. Already sensing what might be coming the next day, with coaches being fired, hired and, in Tennessee's case, something in between, that lesson felt even more valuable than usual.
We can mend our differences, even by way of football. All the proof I needed was on the screen in my daughter's hand. A moment we can all give thanks for. Grace and Dylan are going to be OK, y'all.