Football Fandom in Northeast Ohio

This past weekend was a Fall tradition in that my brother and I took a football trip. Schedules lined up best in Northeast Ohio as that destination allowed us to cram four games in three days. Things got started on Friday, as I drove to Rochester and picked up Eric. So that I didn’t have 9 hours of driving in a day, a good stop-over was Erie as Mercyhurst University was playing their hockey home opener. The Lakers are part of Atlantic Hockey and having seen RIT, Bentley and AIC earlier in the year, I wanted to keep adding notches on the belt. It’s really hard to believe that this was a DI game because the Mercyhurst Ice Center is no more than a community rink (despite being on-campus). Seating for just 1,500 is all on one side of the rink and the bleachers are so few that there isn’t a spot to get a decent vantage point. The hockey was good however, as Saint Lawrence came to town and they took the home team to overtime. In the extra session, Steven Ipri finished an odd-man rush for the Lakers and they got the win. Let’s see if the ‘Hurst can get to the NCAA Tourney this year as they already knocked off Arizona State to start the season. For the Saints, watch Keenan Suthers. I was mesmerized watching this 6’8″ forward (yup, forward) as he also had speed and stick-handling, which helped him score a goal.

After the game, we drove an hour and stayed in Paynesville, then finished the drive to Canton so that we could get to the Pro Football Hall of Fame as it opened at 9 AM. The entire Complex is undergoing a huge expansion, but work has stalled. That is evident when driving in as you see a lot of dirt and fenced-off areas, but no construction vehicles. The HOF itself has changed little from when I saw it seven years ago and it’s mind-boggling that the zillion-dollar NFL doesn’t step in. Don’t get me wrong, Canton is worth a visit, it’s just that the HOF isn’t as enjoyable as the other big sport ones in Cooperstown, Springfield or Toronto. One thing that was renovated: the Hall of Fame Stadium. The late Saints owner Tom Benson contributed mightily and that helped create a gorgeous stadium for the annual induction ceremonies and exhibition game. The stadium also hosts high school, college and playoff football. We checked out a game with Walsh University, a Division II school that has played here for 25 years. They took on Findlay and the morning rain showers gave way to a sunny sky, which helped to take some bite away from the blustery chill. It was a close game going into the fourth quarter, with Findlay up six…then we saw why the Cavaliers were 1-4. Conservative play-calling allowed the Oilers to take a nine-point lead, then we watched the worst set of plays I’ve ever seen. With under a minute left, Walsh ran the same exact play four times, a 10-yard out route to the same receiver. On the fourth time, Eriq Fadahunsi jumped the route (obviously!) and picked it off. Yes, the game was in hand, but it provided a good laugh on the way out.

It was a short turnaround for Game #3 as we drove an hour to Youngstown and a 6:00 PM kickoff against third-ranked South Dakota State. The Penguins came in to the game at 4-1 and it was homecoming, adding up to some palpable buzz. From a stadium experience viewpoint, there was good and bad. I thought the school does a poor job to direct newcomers as we drove into the M-30 parking deck, which is listed on the website as an option for football parking, only to find it gated to student passholders only. Signs for closer parking was scarce and we found the M-60 deck, an incredibly tight garage with a clearance of only 6’3″. We walked up the hill to a behemoth of a seating deck that went from field to top in 70 rows with no break, I was disappointed to find that you can’t switch sides once inside and I needed to do some clever maneuvering to get photos from the east sideline. The main structure on the west side is certainly antiquated with narrow steps and mold growing in the corner of the underneath concrete for each first row seat. Then we had to contend with the nearby students who couldn’t handle their alcohol (leading to us quoting Will Ferrell “I remember when I had my first beer”). There were some enjoyable aspects at Stambaugh Stadium though, most especially the endless view of the Mahoning Valley from that high seating structure. With a great view of the field below and the surrounding view, the setting was quite nice. The Penguins use a steam whistle and it gives the team a unique touch, even if it is overused. I thought the crowd was into it as they were the loudest and most vocal that I’ve seen at the FCS level (out of 16 teams). Would have liked to seen more than the 10,000 – 12,000 there and many left before the game was decided, but still the ‘Guins have good fan support. It was a tough loss for the home side as they blew a 21-9 lead. The Jackrabbits scored 28 in the fourth quarter and while it looked like a Youngstown rally was coming, SDSU finished off the game as their quarterback ran 63 yards for a killer touchdown with less than a minute left, giving the visitors a 38-28 win.

Our main course was Sunday, where we drove an hour to Cleveland as the day started chilly and finished quite pleasant. Parking was easy downtown in the AECOM garage, but I wished I found one with an easier egress as it took us 30 minutes to leave. If you want to experience a Browns tailgate, check out the Municipal Lot east of the stadium as that is where it is at. We got to FirstEnergy Stadium pretty early as I toured the facility and took my usual photos. In the meantime, Eric decided to run the 40-yard dash three times at their fanfast. He would pay for that in the morning. Many NFL stadiums can be clustered into the same category as the overall design is quite similar to what I’ve seen in Philadelphia and Baltimore. It’s too bad FirstEnergy Stadium does not have more openings to enjoy the great setting as downtown skyscrapers pop up over the south side, while Lake Erie is only visible in corner peeks on the north side. The orange seats give the stadium some flavor and I thought sightlines were solid throughout. Despite spotty empty orange seats dotting the upper deck, nearly every fan in attendance had Browns apparel on and they were LOUD. On the opening kickoff, Dontrell Hilliard nearly ran it back for a touchdown and the upper deck was literally bouncing underneath my feet. The roar was something I’ve only experienced in a few places. Through the game, the crowd was pretty good and made plenty of noise, only to leave disappointed once again as Russell Wilson’s mastery was on display as Seattle escaped with a 32-28 win. One fan angrily shouted out upon leaving “I’ve been making this sad walk out since 1999”. Yes, it’s been a long 20 years for Browns fans, but I’m astounded how many have their heads in the clouds, coming off as both arrogant and unrealistic (even coming in at 2-3). I know it’s an unfair generalization, yet it did not stop me from quietly enjoyed the home loss and subsequent walk out of the stadium. Expect full, detailed stadium reviews to be completed over the next few weeks.

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