The sky is black; the roads are empty; and I’m driving five hours across my home state, riding west toward Charlotte—the Queen City—to see my first-ever live NFL game. I’ve taken my wallet out of my back pocket, which is something I do on long car rides—otherwise the wallet’s bulk cuts into my bony butt and makes me sit at a slightly tilted angle, which isn’t necessarily noticeable in everyday life, but which can cause extreme discomfort after five hours. Every thirty minutes or so, I change up the music: it’s all Big Boi and Run The Jewels and FKA Twigs tonight, with a bit of NPR thrown in and, much later when the talk shows have gone off-air, classical music. There’s some quality about long car trips taken by yourself at night—it’s a bittersweet feeling. Alone and sometimes lonely, yet not totally isolated from everything. Maybe it’s just that you get some time to yourself without it being so long that it wears on you. When I drive, I do this weird thing where I clench my teeth whenever the front of my car touches that dotted white line in the middle of the highway. So I’m just doing that, listening to the controlled sounds of my car, and trying to find that comfortable speeding zone in which you drive fast enough to feel like you’re shaving time off your trip, but slow enough to escape the cops’ interest.
My plan is to meet with my good friends who live in Charlotte. They’re housing me for the night so that I can go to the game tomorrow by my lonesome. They just recently bought—and started remodeling—a house in Charlotte, and I’m pretty keen on seeing it for the first time. I’m at that age where my friends are buying houses. This is something new for me. Though I was the first to get married amongst my friends, my wife and I have two children and my degree is in English—Creative Writing. So we’re not exactly at the house-buying phase yet.
About halfway through the trip, I get a text from my friend saying that he and his wife are going to their local game store to play Dungeons and Dragons, and I should meet them there. If you’ve never played D&D, rest assured that it isn’t demon worship like you’ve heard. This is D&D: a bunch of nerds (and I use that term as one of them, endearingly) sit around a table with paperwork that describes each of the characters they’ve created while one of them (the Dungeon Master / DM) gives them all a scenario. It’s a roleplaying game in which you imagine that you’re this other character and you try to do cool things. Battles happen, mysteries get solved. It’s basically just a form of group story-telling, and it can be incredibly fun.
When I arrive at the store—which is named Your Local Game Store, and I find this somewhat funny and yet also somewhat pandering to the current “ironic” temperament of my generation—the clock tells me it’s slightly after midnight. I made decent enough time, given that I stopped for gas and for food. My friend is outside. He’s been on the phone with me for the past mile or so, directing me. I’m notoriously terrible with directions. Probably the only reason I’m able to make trips like this at all is because some genius invented smartphones and decided to give them GPS capabilities. Inside, my friend’s wife is DMing the one-off campaign in the far corner of the store. There are like six players altogether. I’m invited to join up—the store clerks apparently have some character templates at the ready for anyone who wants to play—but I’ve been driving for five+ hours and I just need some mental rest.
Perhaps it’s a bit rude, but I spend some time alternately sitting at the table and walking around the store, browsing the aisles. They have some cool boardgames here—some that I’ve been eyeing for a while now—but Christmas is coming up and I’m not supposed to be spending too much money on myself. So I just look. At one point it becomes apparent that we’re going to leave the store and head back to my friends’ house to play some games for several hours, and so I’m going to need some energy. I purchase a small can of Coke—like one of those half-can things—and since I’m paying with my card and there’s a four-dollar limit for card purchases, I use this to justify buying the Batman version of a card game called Fluxx. When I return to the table, the gentleman to my right is wearing a rubber horse mask and a beanie. So things are going well. I will later learn that his name is Aaron and he’s one of my friends’ Charlotte friends. He knows a lot about boardgames. He’s kind of a connoisseur.
I have several games in my car, but we decide (when the D&D session ends around one in the morning) that we’re going to take advantage of the store’s new boardgame rental system to play some new and exciting games. It takes a while to fill out the necessary paperwork, and then I have to get some gas and we need to do a beer run—because if there’s one thing I know about late-night/early-morning gaming sessions, it’s that you need at least a little bit of alcohol. Charlotte at one a.m. is a lot quieter than I have imagined. Charlotte’s a city, and since I come from a small town, cities in my mind are alive and thriving at night—there should be crazy neon lights and hobos walking around or something. We see none of that coming back from our Walmart beer escapade, but perhaps we’re just in a residential part of the city. (Although we do see, a few blocks from my friends’ house, a car that obviously has taken a curve a bit too quickly and is lodged—upside down—in the center of a church building. It has taken out a big chunk of wall, and the area has about eight cops and firetrucks surrounding it. The yellow tape is already out.)
I tell you all of this now, reader, because I want to emphasize that it’s late. I have kids. I get up early to take my four-year-old to Pre-K every day. I’m not used to staying up super late anymore. Those days are almost over for me. But my friends and I—and my new friend, Aaron (he of the horse mask)—stay awake until the sun starts coming up around seven a.m. We play several sessions each of superb games called Cosmic Encounter and Coup. I contemplate just staying awake all night, but I know that I have a five hour drive awaiting me after the three-ish hour football game, so I should at least get some sleep. Reluctantly, we put the game boxes away, Aaron decides just to drive home since it’s already seven-freaking-o’clock, and I cozy up on the couch for four hours.
When I wake, I have about fifteen minutes to take a shower and get ready. Absentmindedly, I pull from my backpack—which is all the luggage I’ve taken for this one-day trip—some bluejeans and a black V-neck. This will later be a source of unease for me—even though I’m a native of NC, my wife’s family first sparked my interest in football, and sort of adopted me into Redskins fandom. The game I’m attending is the Panthers (my hometeam) versus the Redskins (the team I support), and oddly enough—through no strategic planning—I’m wearing Panthers colors. But I don’t think about that at the moment. I just grab my clothes in the painful haze of a four-hour sleep and head to the shower. I’ve forgotten some of my toiletries, so I surreptitiously use my friends’ shampoo and toothpaste. I figure they’d rather I did that than have stinky hair and breath when I have to wake them up. They’re driving me to the game so that I don’t have to pay for parking. There’s an added bonus to this setup, because as we’re cruising down the highway minutes later (having been freshly groomed), I learn that Charlotte has some of the worst traffic in the country. Literally. They’ve done studies on it. Even so, the streets have the gameday air of royalty. The Panthers are currently 10-0, one of only two teams who are left undefeated this season—the other being the reigning Super Bowl champions, the New England Patriots. I think about this as we pass street signs that have little crowns painted on them. Charlotte is the Queen City, but today the crowns are for the Panthers.
The crowd around a sporting event is amoebic and imposing. I don’t like crowds anyway, so it is possible that my distaste for moving en masse colors my view of the proceedings. My friend has dropped me off next to an art gallery downtown. His parting words are something akin to “just walk toward the big stadium.” I follow the crowd, getting absorbed by it, and strange tidbits of conversation assault me. I hear stuff about ticket scalpers, broken relationships, the outrageous price of beer and food in the stadium—normal discussions for people who have been pregaming for a while and are already quite buzzed before they hit the stadium’s doors. I try to check my wallet without looking like I’m checking my wallet. I’ve heard that touching the pocket in which you hold your valuables is a dangerous move in a crowd, because pickpockets will spot you checking and then they know exactly where the goods are. So I try to be careful.
At one point—when I’ve found the stadium but am looking for the will-call booth so I can present them with my information and get my ticket—the crowd thins and parts and I see several street musicians spaced out along the middle of the street. There’s no traffic here other than foot traffic, of course, so the performers have set up in the turning lane. The first guy seems the most professional—he’s got a sound system set up playing some accompaniment while he croons on his saxophone. Most of the folks around here are clad in Panthers colors (other than the occasional burgundy and gold of a ‘Skins jersey) but this gentleman is decked out in a nice black overcoat. It’s cold out, but I can’t see my breath or anything. Some of the women are wearing sheer leggings that seem to me to be far too cold for this weather, but then again many of the folks out here are already warmed by alcohol. The second two street musicians are drummers whose sets consist of various buckets and household items. Drummer #1 is blaring on a whistle as he swivels from bucket to bucket. I can smell marijuana in the air, which I find interesting because there are plenty of cops around here. They seem not to care.
The ticketing process is a bit of a hassle, but a lot of that is probably my fault. Though there are plenty of yellow-jacketed stadium attendants with whom I could converse about what I’m supposed to do, I am reluctant to engage. I feel dumb for not knowing where to go or what exactly to do, and being within a crowd amplifies that emotion. So I walk around three-fourths of the stadium before I work up the nerve to ask a man about my ticket. “I’ve got confirmation on my phone,” I say, “but I don’t know where to go to pick up the ticket.” He’s helpful but brusque, the man, and he directs me back through the shambling crowd toward the will-call booth—where, after standing in line for a few minutes, I’m told that since my tickets are through ticketmaster, I have to go over to Customer Service. In other venues, I’d feel upset about this sort of thing. My time is being wasted (though, sure, I should have arrived earlier). I can hear the roar of the crowd inside the stadium as someone scores the first touchdown—the game has already begun. And yet I’m not upset at all. I feel like I’m getting The Real Experience here, which is going to be just great for my essay. I stand in the Customer Service line next to a couple who are loudly discussing the pros and cons of buying light-up Panthers decals for their car, or something along those lines. I tune them out after a while. The woman has to repeat herself about a dozen times, because the man is drunk and doesn’t understand. He blames it on her “whispering,” which is funny because she’s speaking at a normal volume, but we can still hear the weed-drenched-whistle/drum-guy from here, so I give the man the benefit of the doubt.
Now it’s time to head inside the enormous Bank of America stadium—that’s something you don’t really understand until you’ve been to a game, how incredibly large these sports arenas are. I walk as briskly as I can through the turnstiles; I get wanded with a metal detector by a skinny white woman who looks as if she’s seen some shit. She’s a very no-nonsense sort of woman, I can tell. My seat is in the nosebleeds around the bend, so I try to book it up the escalator and down toward my section without seeming too eager (more of that crowd-induced anxiety). It’s creeping toward 130 p.m. at this point, so I decide to stop at a Bojangles counter to get some grub. I order my usual chicken supremes (like chicken tenders, but spicier, I guess is the difference), thinking that the $7.50 pricetag is a bit more than the combo usually costs. And then I find out that that money is only for the chicken itself. This is no combo. I’m paying more for some chicken by itself than I normally pay for that same chicken, fries, and a drink. Suddenly all that crowdtalk about ridiculous prices seems less like drunk-speak and more like rational griping. I skip the fries and order a sweet tea. And then I have to make the dreaded trek up the coliseum-like stairs to my seat, holding my food and drink, trying not to make eye contact with any of the thousands of people around me who I know are watching the game and yet I can’t fully believe they’re watching anything other than me. I wilt beneath the stares and find my spot right in the middle of a group of fellow Redskins supporters (who, oddly enough, did not come to the game together… I guess we just got lucky).
Games are much more theatrical in person. It feels different and somehow closer to see the real-life Cam Newton down there on the ground, doing his dab thing or his Superman shirt rip, than to see him doing the same thing on TV. This is a bit of a shock to me, because the players are very far away. I can only make out which player is which by their shirt numbers and where they line up. Don’t get me wrong. I went to college and have attended plenty of football games. Heck, I used to be in the drumline in both high school and college, so it was mandatory to go to those games. But this is simply another scale.
For a while, I contemplate how fun this is—how much fun we’re all having in here, in this stadium, watching two groups of grown men hit each other for millions of dollars. It’s not logical in a world that is combating ISIS. It’s a bit surreal to be reminded that it isn’t wrong to have a bit of fun even when the world is falling apart. But more on this in a minute.
About halfway through the second quarter—when the Redskins are getting thoroughly spanked—one of my seatmates gets up and walks silently down the stairs. I figure he is going to the restroom, so I pay it no mind. The guy has a fake moustache on his upper lip to make him look like a certain old football coach, which I find pretty funny. When the half ends, my other seatmate also skedaddles, but I’ve been talking with him intermittently about how my family are ‘Skins fans and so he tells me he’s going to get something to eat. (Note: it’s going to be difficult for me to distinguish the two of these dudes in this essay because there is a sort of tenuous comradery among fans at a football stadium and names are not important. I never got these men’s names. I just talked to them and shook their hands after the game, and we went our separate ways.) When ECU’s marching band is done performing their halftime show for us, the second guy—the one I’ve been actually talking to this whole time—returns. He hands me a Bud Light, which normally I don’t drink. But what the hell, the guy’s being super generous here (I know how much these beers cost at this stadium) and I’m probably too tired from last night to tell the difference between a good beer and garbage. So I take it and we sip and talk for a while.
We start to get a bit worried about our mustachioed friend in the third quarter. By this point, the Redskins have never recovered from a bad “pile-on tackle” call made in the second quarter, and it seems like every time Kirk Cousins steps up the line of scrimmage, he gets sacked and fumbles the ball. So we’re just relaxing at this point. We know the Panthers are about to go 11-0. But Mustache Guy isn’t back yet. Did he get mugged or something? Did he decide to leave the game in disgust? That seems a bit harsh, since tickets aren’t cheap and he drove from Virginia to be here. This question is in the back of my mind in a weird way through the third quarter. I don’t know why I care so much about answering it. Like I said earlier, there are so many terrible things going on in the world. But here I am genuinely worrying about some guy I never met before. Like he’s my friend, when really all that I know about him is that he likes the Redskins and makes strange costume choices.
Remember when I said “more on this in a minute?” We’re to that point now. See, Mustache Guy comes back after a long absence, and my worry subsides. We don’t ask where he’s been. All we talk about are all the terrible plays by the Redskins that have transpired while he has been gone. I look out over the lip of the stadium’s bowl and all I see is blue sky and a few wispy clouds. I can see no other buildings, no landmarks. See, it’s not that we forget everything else in the world when we go to sporting events—it’s not that we don’t still grieve for the ongoing tragedies. It’s just that, for those brief three-ish hours in that isolated stadium, you feel like nothing else exists. You see nothing but the game; you hear nothing but the game. It becomes your world. And now I have a confession to make to you all: I used to sell timeshare for a few months in my life. I got out when I realized just how twisted that business is. But one thing I took away with me is that there are a few industries that thrive when the economy goes into recession. One of these industries, paradoxically, seems to be the vacation industry. It’s like people need an escape when times are hard, even though they know ultimately they’re just throwing their money away. I wonder if, during times of tragic news, sporting event attendance rises. To see the screaming fans, joy and spittle plastered on their faces… it’s almost a balm to the numbness that sometimes takes hold of you in troubled times. It’s vibrant and tactile and real and alive.
Toward the end of the game, the Panthers’ mascot—Sir Purr—travels up to the section a few rows behind me. He has a sign that proclaims “Happy Birthday, Myles,” which he holds aloft for all to see. Then, when we have all engaged in a mangled version of the Happy Birthday song, Sir Purr takes a few bottles of Silly String and unloads on the laughing kid, who I assume is Myles. It’s a moment that fills me with happiness, because that kid seems genuinely fulfilled in that moment. I don’t know what else to say about it, so I’m just going to move on. But at the time it seems somehow important and significant in a way that, after the game, I am unable to articulate.
Just before the final whistle, the cameramen seem to get bored with the game’s outrageous scoreline. The Jumbotron alternates between quick snippets of gameplay and crowd shots in which middle-aged people flash peace signs and other outdated “cool” hand signals to the rest of us. When one young lady is shown on the screen smiling, I hear an obviously much older man behind me say something along the lines of “Unf, she’s a cutie,” out loud to anyone who cares to listen. So I can tell that the game is wearing off and we’re back to our messed up little world again. The three-ish hours of Just Football are winding down, and the people are starting to filter out of the stadium. The guy’s gross outburst reminds me that I’ve had my fun, but the real world beckons. Or maybe it’s just that my Bud Light is wearing off and I’m starting to dread a drive home that will be longer than the time I have slept today. It could be that.
It’s something like 415 p.m. when the game ends, and I start the long, slow trek down the stadium’s ramps with thousands of other spectators. Many of the people must have spent fortunes here, because they’re stumbling drunk, held up only by partners’ gentle hands. Most of these are men, for some statistical reason I don’t understand. The one interesting thing I see is a couple in front of me, hands locked together, wearing red and gold jerseys that are just off enough for me to suspect that they aren’t actual licensed Redskins jerseys. Then I read the names and numbers on the back, and my suspicion is confirmed. His says “King,” hers says “Queen,” and both of their numbers are 69. So, like, I don’t know if they’re really parading around what I think they’re parading around, but it weirds me out a bit. Like I said: I don’t like crowds. I surely wouldn’t want to advertise my sexual prowess to a crowd. To each his own, I guess. Other than that, though, the walk out from the stadium is quite boring. The same musicians are out there playing—I wonder if they ever stopped. Did they have tickets? Probably not, right?
The smartphone saves me again, as I coordinate with my friend who picks me up in the middle of the road downtown. Traffic is at a standstill. I tell him a bit about the game, who won, etc. He tells me that the Panthers’ undefeated streak is really good for the city. There is a sense of cohesion among the people who live in Charlotte that hasn’t been there in previous years. Everyone seems to be a Panthers fan—and while “bandwagon-ing” is frowned upon, it’s still neat to see an entire city bond over a team. As he says this, he yells at some car that is holding traffic up, which I think is another one of those funny juxtapositions that sports brings. You bond, but that bond is kind of severed after the game. Will the win streak have any lasting effect in the city, I wonder. Who knows? We sit in traffic for a long time.
The sky is black; the road is stuffed bumper-to-bumper with cars—many of which have Virginia license plates or Panthers decals; and I am silently raging to my smartphone. I’m notoriously bad with directions, and so I wanted to stay on the I-85 to I-40 route I took to get to Charlotte, figuring that retracing my steps would be a lot easier for me than navigating some new route on little sleep. My smartphone had assured me that though my route was longer than the alternatives, the traffic situation only resulted in a fifteen minute difference. And now that I’m stuck in traffic, literally not moving for minutes at a time, the phone is telling me in red letters that the route I am on is three hours longer, then two hours longer, then fifteen minutes longer, then an hour and half longer. It seems just as confused as me, my phone. So I call my wife and tell her that I will be super late, and I call my mom to arrange for her to take my son to pre-K in the morning (since that’s usually my job). And then I plug in my iPod and listen to some Nerd Poker—a podcast about a group of comedians who play Dungeons and Dragons. Weird, I think, that my football trip is bookended by something so other than America’s most popular sport. Then again, we all need that escape from reality sometimes. Maybe my beloved nerdy games are my own version of football. Or maybe—for the people in the stalled out cars around me—maybe football is their D&D.