Soggy Bears: Keeping up Hope during Pandemic Hurricane College Football

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North America » United States » Alabama » Jacksonville
October 10th 2020
Published: October 19th 2020
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I wasn't sure if I would go anywhere this week, at least when the season began. My undergraduate alma mater, Mercer University, was one of those programs that decided to sit out the full season for 2020. I don't normally go to a Mercer football game every season, but I try to get back every other year. The school didn't have a football program while I was a student there, but I know people who still live in Macon, so it's usually a semi reunion when I get to go back and see Mercer football. I was surprised to find that Mercer actually was going to play football this season; I noticed only after I saw that they were going to be playing at West Point at the end of October. That led me to the Mercer football page, where I saw that they would be playing at Jacksonville State University on October 10th. I was hopeful to score a ticket, but I considered the prospect to be remote, since so many programs are limiting fan attendance or completely ruling out fan attendance altogether. Through the beginning of September, I checked on the secondary ticket markets as well as the Jacksonville State University football web page, but none of them returned any results. By the second week of September, I had given up hope. And then, completely by chance, I saw an announcement randomly—probably Google or Facebook tapping into my private conversations—that said Jacksonville State football tickets had gone on sale a few days earlier. Immediately, I went to their website, where I found the tickets were still available. So I bought one. It's the cheapest ticket I've bought all season, even with the $2 processing fee. And since it was probably going to be the only Mercer football game I would get to see all season, it made me very happy to score a ticket to this game.

I wanted to get to Jacksonville in time to see the campus, get some lunch, and make it to the stadium to find a good seat. My ticket was for general admission, so I wasn't quite sure how many people would be there or what quality the seats and views would be in the area that I had bought a ticket for. (I shouldn't have worried. There was plenty of room and plenty of good views.) I knew that 10:00 was going to be the absolute latest I could leave and get there with enough time to at least eat and find a seat, but I didn't wake up until 9:15. So I did my stretches, took a short shower, dressed, and walked out the door by 9:50.

It really was an uneventful drive all the way to Jacksonville, Alabama. It was my first time to this place, though apparently my whole family has already been because our drum and band director in high school graduated from this college and took the drum line and family members to Jacksonville at some point while we were all in high school. I must have already been in college by that point. Nevertheless, it was mostly interstate there, and once I got off of I-20, it was less than 20 minutes to the campus.

I have to admit that I can't understand what draws someone to want to spend four years in college in Jacksonville, Alabama. I saw nothing that made it stand out to me. That isn't meant to be a dig at the town or at the people who stay there or go to school there; it's just that the campus doesn't have anything outstanding visually, and the town looks like any other small to average size town in the South. It does have nice views of the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, which I'm sure looks really nice in the late fall. So it must be one really good marching band to make people want to come from so far away to attend. More on that later.

The campus wasn't very hard to navigate around, but they did have the main ring road that goes through the center of campus—and thus to all the free parking for the game—blocked off, and therefore inaccessible. So I went down one further street and turned into a parking lot between some more campus buildings that looked rather nondescript and parked my car in front of a building that had been listed as free parking on the gameday website. From there, it was less than 10 minutes on foot to the stadium, and then a further 10 minutes beyond that to several local restaurants and a local campus bookstore. I had passed by all of these businesses on my way in, so I had marked them as something to come back and see if I got the chance. It had taken just under 3 hours to go from my apartment to this campus. This meant that I still had about two hours before the game would begin. It was expected to rain, so I had brought my poncho with me (my only poncho is a red one with a Georgia G all over it). No umbrellas allowed in the stadium.

I did get to see some of the marching band assembling on what I take to be the main quad for campus, and I got to see what I think is the main administrative building on my way to those restaurants I had passed earlier. I was wearing a Mercer cap and a long sleeve Mercer t-shirt / hoodie, but no one bothered me or really took notice of my different color. Mercer colors are orange and black, whereas Jacksonville State colors are red and black. Most people were wearing red, so my orange stood out as I walked through their ranks.

I had hoped that it would not begin raining until I had entered the stadium, because I didn't want to have to walk around with soggy clothes. Once I got to the stadium, I figured I could wear the poncho over my clothes and not worry about getting completely soaked. While I did get my wish about the rain holding off until I was in the stadium, it was far from the perfect scenario of dryness that I had hoped for. More about that later.

I opted to have lunch at the Red Rooster, which was directly across from the parking lots in front of the football stadium. Apparently it was a sandwich shop of some renown until 2019, but now it is under new management and with a new name. But the employees were all university students, and you could even use your university bucks to pay for your meals at the Red Rooster. And it served sandwiches, just like its predecessor, and I hope that its predecessor served better sandwiches than what I got. Again, it wasn't anything bad, but it wasn't worth writing home about. After lunch, I walked back towards the stadium, where I noticed several signs—homemade banners really—that had been erected on the fence around the stadium by what looked to be fraternities, sororities, and other campus organizations all with the same message: Beat Mercer. I had apparently chosen to come to the school's homecoming game. But I guess that makes sense, since this is their only home football game in the fall. They played at Florida State University last week and almost won, and next week they are playing at the University of North Alabama. Then they are going to play a normal conference schedule of football games in the spring, since they are part of the Ohio Valley Conference (OVC), which has postponed all of its official football games until the spring like many of the FCS conferences have done.

That's right, friends, I have brought you all with me to another FCS game. One way you can tell that it's an FCS game is the way an announcer calls first down or any kind of scoring play. If s/he says, "That's an AlaTrust Credit Union Jacksonville State first down," you know you're at an FCS game. The big boys of college football play in the FBS subdivision, the ones that use bowls at the end of the season to reward the good teams. The next level down is the FCS, which uses a bracket system to determine its national champion, like most other collegiate sports. Last year, my lone FCS game was also a Mercer game, but it was a Mercer home game, so I got to see a lot of my friends; it was also a nice break in between attending larger games because Mercer games are cheaper and they're closer to home than most of the FBS schools I would attend for all of last season. This year, despite not being at Mercer, it's still the closest game I have attended all season so far. That will change at the end of October when I go to a Georgia Tech game, but as for the rest of the season, this may be the closest game I attend except for that Georgia Tech game.

I knew it was going to rain today, but I didn't understand the severity of it until it was already upon me. Light sprinkles started sometime while the teams were warming up on the field, and most of the cheerleaders and band members were underneath the bleachers in the end zone until they had to find their seats in the stands. I maneuvered through them to find a concession stand, with $4 souvenir cups. Best deal I've seen on that so far. This end zone was underneath the main scoreboard, and it is also the student section for the stadium. Speaking of student sections, that was a joke. I saw no more than 100 students for the entire game in the student section. This was homecoming, not to mention the only home game you would get to attend all season. I had expected more school spirit. Perhaps it was the rain that kept many of the students away. At any rate, two things about this student section end zone: it's called the “cockpit,” and they even have this underneath the rails at the bottom of the student section: it says, “Welcome to the Cockpit.” On the other side of the student sections end zone, it says “Fear the Beak!” There were times during this game that I felt like I was attending a game at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. For one, the Jacksonville State University mascot is the gamecock which, until I heard about the University of South Carolina, I didn't even know existed. Apparently, this is a more common animal than I ever would have imagined. And so they call themselves the Gamecocks, and they call their stadium the cockpit, which is just like the people of South Carolina. When the team kicks off, they play a rooster crowing over the loudspeaker, which is just like at South Carolina. And at one point, they even began playing that awful song, “Sandstorm,” which is frankly overplayed at South Carolina. So I'm not sure why they have adopted all of these habits from the University of South Carolina, since that is certainly no institution worth imitating, yet they have done it, and they must live with their choices.

I was very happy to find that the general admission section extended for most of the field on the visitor side of the stadium, and I could even go and sit as far down as about the fifth row from the sideline. In front of the 5th row, they had marked off some areas for potential homecoming participants, so we couldn't sit there. I sat in the first row behind this marked-off section, at the 50-yard line, behind the sideline of the Mercer Bears. Another stroke of good luck was that each of the seats had its own back. It even had armrests! So that was very helpful, considering I was concerned about whether my back was going to hold out for a 3 1/2 hour game in what looked like an oncoming hurricane.

I enjoyed getting to see the Mercer Bears football team warming up before the game. They were wearing their all-white uniforms: helmets, jerseys, pants, socks, and shoes, all white. Only the numbers and the Mercer logo on the helmet were in orange. It was very distinctive.

By this time, the Jacksonville State University marching band had entered the stadium. The Marching Southerners, as if that’s a thing. They took up the areas on either side of the entrance for the visiting team, so this meant that any time Mercer players entered or exited the field, they had to pass between two large sections of Jacksonville State students who were not exactly the most pleasant to them. I had been interested to hear how this band would play, since it had a great reputation. They did gain my respect at a couple of points during the monsoon, when they played "Who'll Stop the Rain" and "Let the Sunshine In." I think I would have been more impressed if they had been able to march at all, and in their uniforms, and if they had been able to sit all in the same section to form a larger wall of sound. As it was, they were wearing shorts and T shirts, with white ponchos over their outfit, and they had several spaces in between each student, to respect the social distancing guidelines of our current pandemic. And once they got to their seats, they never left until the game was over.

Speaking of the pandemic, masks were required of everyone attending the game, and so I was happy to sport my new Mercer face mask that I had ordered several weeks ago after I bought my ticket. And I wore it the entire game, with no problem breathing in the slightest. My red UGA poncho, however, was not as helpful as my face mask. Granted, it kept enough of the water off of me once the floodgates opened, but after halftime, I could no longer reach underneath the poncho and reasonably expect to be able to dry my glasses on either my shirt or my shorts. The rains truly began sometime at the end of the first quarter, and it was a steady downpour until the third quarter. But by the end of the third quarter, we were in what the Weather Channel actually called “torrential downpour.” I had never seen that classification on their app, but now that I've lived through it, I am well versed in helping other people decipher what that means.

But what about the game? I'm glad you asked. This was Mercer's first game of the season, and it was Jacksonville State's second. We truly had no idea how this game was going to go; since it was an FCS competition, there were no betting odds or percent prediction of who would come out on top, or over/under, or any of that. I had just hoped that Mercer would not lay an egg, especially since Jacksonville State had almost beat FSU last week before FSU decided they needed to actually win a game. All that to say, the odds were not in our favor, yet I was hopeful. And my hope was well placed, at least for the first third of the game.

On the opening kickoff, Mercer returned it for a touchdown. You can't start any better than that for any team, especially the visiting team. On the ensuing possession by the Gamecocks, Mercer was able to hold them to a field goal, after which Mercer bullied their way down for another touchdown to go up 14-3 by the end of the first quarter. But the Gamecocks were deep in Mercer territory at the end of the first quarter, and they pushed as far as they could at the beginning of the second quarter, only to come up with yet another field goal. We Mercer people were very happy with this result so far, exchanging field goals for touchdowns. But our luck was about to come to an end. As it turned out, water makes a ball more slippery, and after a botched Mercer punt, Jacksonville State had a short field and got their first touchdown to get them to within one point of Mercer: new score, 14-13. The momentum had shifted, and even though Mercer was still technically in the lead, we knew we had to get our act together or face a long and wet afternoon. Frankly, it was going to be wet either way, but it had been an enjoyable wetness while we were clearly dominating the game. The remainder of the second quarter was not good for Mercer, mainly a bunch of three-and-outs. Jacksonville State got two more touchdowns by the end of the half, one of them thanks to a Mercer fumble, which had become somewhat of a normal thing by this time. So at the half, the score was 27-14, Jacksonville State.

At halftime, they had some homecoming presentations, which were very weird, since they were socially distanced and everyone was wearing a mask and were all sporting large umbrellas. In fact, the homecoming King and Queen had already been crowned before the game. Frankly, I'm not sure why they bothered to go through this whole thing since we already could have found the homecoming court and those who had won the King and Queen positions online if we had really wanted to. Nevertheless, they paraded them out before us in what I can only describe as a perfect 2020 Pandemic Homecoming Monsoon Extravaganza.

The second half of the game was a little bit more Mercer-friendly. Jacksonville State got the ball to start the second half, but thanks to some of that slipperiness, Mercer got a turnover in that first possession and was able to convert it into points: a touchdown brought us back into a one-possession game. Unfortunately, the rest of the third quarter was a muddled mess thanks to the increased frequency and volume of Hurricane Delta. No more points were scored, so the third quarter ended with Jacksonville State still on top by 6 points. The fourth quarter was time for desperation. Mercer had been getting quite a few penalties called against them, while the refs seemed to be oblivious of those against Jacksonville State. Nevertheless, Mercer was determined to get some sort of offense going even if it had to be by some trickeration. I was really impressed with the ability of the Mercer offense to continue grinding it out on the ground in the torrential downpour; that was really the only way to go, due to all the rain: you just couldn't trust the ball through the air, either due to the rain slowing down the ball or causing the receiver's hands to be too slippery to catch the ball. But, as was perhaps bound to happen, Mercer lost an unfortunate fumble that was returned for a touchdown. Sixty-four yards out, to the house, if that doesn’t say everything you need to know about how the game was going at that point. Then on the ensuing possession, the desperation really set in and Harrison Frost, Mercer’s quarterback, threw an INT. And that looked like it was going to be the end of Mercer's hope. Jacksonville State was now back up by two touchdowns, but we had 4 minutes of game time left. The Mercer defense stepped up and forced a three-and-out with 2 minutes left, and then the Mercer offense did the best they could. I was really impressed that, after all the hard work they had put in during the third quarter to little avail, they were able to score a touchdown within 72 seconds, and then attempt to onside kick the ball, even though it was an unsuccessful attempt. But at this point, we were back to a one-score game. By then, the rain had relented; the storm had passed, but the football storm was insurmountable. The final 51 seconds ticked off the clock, and Mercer was unable to do anything about it. FINAL SCORE: Jacksonville State 34, Mercer 28.

I was glad to be able to see Mercer play this game, since it's probably the only game that they'll be playing anywhere near me, and that allows fans to attend. I was sad for the outcome, but as I said at the beginning, I was just glad that it was a close game, since that's what I always hope for in a game where I have spent money to attend.

As I was making my way out of the stadium, after most people had already gone, an elderly gentleman asked me what I thought of the game. He was in JSU colors. I told him that I had had a good, but wet, time, though it wasn't the outcome I was hoping for. He then chose to confess that he didn't think the Mercer fumble at the end was actually a fumble. "His knee was already down, I'd be willing to bet money on it." I was grateful for his consolation, but as I told him, "It's a shame they didn't bother to ask either of us to review the play."

Getting back to my car and getting out of town was a breeze, as you might have expected. Jacksonville is not exactly a large city, and the traffic after the game, since it had been limited to only 6000 fans (25 percent capacity), made for very little in the way of delaying me on my way back to the interstate. I will say that I'm glad I’m not dead, primarily since the remnants of Hurricane Delta were passing through Atlanta at about the same time I was. I have never seen such horrendous driving, and I lived in Atlanta for several years in my mid- to late 20s. I am once again very lucky and very thankful that I did not die during my trip through Atlanta on the way back home. I hate driving through Atlanta, but this was a million times worse than normal. I'm not sure if I'll have to go back through Atlanta again for a football game this season, but I hope that I don't have to. I realize that Georgia Tech is in the middle of Atlanta, but it's a very big difference driving to somewhere in Atlanta as opposed to driving through Atlanta. Those of you who don't understand the difference won't understand, no matter how hard I try to explain it.

I've now seen two of my alma mater's in person this year, which is more than I expected, given the circumstances. My two MAC schools are supposed to start playing in November, but they have said that no fans will be permitted for any MAC competition. That leaves UGA, and at the ridiculous prices that are floating around for tickets to any UGA football game this season, even more than the normal season, I just don't see that happening for 2020. Fingers crossed, but I'm not holding my breath.

Lastly, I had hoped that some of my Mercer friends would make the trip to Jacksonville, since it's probably the same distance to there from Macon as it is from Athens. I shouldn't have got my hopes up. This isn't meant to be a slam on any of my Mercer friends, but it appears that Mercer football for them is only a matter of convenience. It's there, so why not do it? But anything extra added is a turn off; it's not worth the hassle if it's not already in front of you. It also helps me that I don't have a significant other or any children to worry about leaving at home, and since we all know that I enjoy a good solo road trip, this is about par for the course for me.

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