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October 31st 2020
Published: November 1st 2020
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Perhaps some of my readers will have seen the now-famous photo

of masked fans attending a football game at Georgia Tech in 1918, during the Spanish flu pandemic. This week, I wanted to see the same place as it confronted a new pandemic, just over a century later. As luck would have it, one of my favorite teams, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish, were playing at Georgia Tech on Halloween afternoon. This game was on the calendar before the pandemic, but originally scheduled to take place at the Mercedes Benz Stadium instead, presumably to accommodate the larger crowd expected for Notre Dame. As such, it had been one of my must-see games before the pandemic, and since it’s the only game this season (so far, and most likely will continue to be) that regular fans can see Notre Dame in person, I knew I had to make it a priority. Up till now, only Notre Dame students and the family/friends of players have been able to see them in person.

My readers will remember that this isn’t my first time at Georgia Tech. I attended the rivalry game against Georgia (my alma mater) last year, which was probably my fourth game there overall. It was a very different experience watching another team beat the crap out of the Yellow Jackets in person.

But in all seriousness, I was grateful to have a very short trip this week. I actually got to wake up at a reasonable hour (something rare for a day trip, and especially with this pinched nerve in my shoulder) and even made it back home in time to watch the second half of most of the primetime football games on TV. And since I had walked around a good bit of Tech’s campus before, I didn’t feel the need to explore it. That’s not to say that I didn’t walk around and see new things.

In fact, because of the weird parking situation this year (fewer decks available for visitors), I ended up parking on the complete opposite side of campus from the stadium. So it was a different perspective than in previous years: no athletic facilities until I got to the stadium, no fraternities or sororities, few dorms at all. I did get to see a nice open green space, and it was the only place I could tell that Halloween was upon us; several decorated pumpkins were on the ground or on the ledges of walkways nearby. Around this green space were several classroom buildings, but to the west, it looked like they were constructing a new student center, so it was blocked off. No real problem, since the stadium was on the east side of campus anyway.

One of my traditions for Tech games has ALWAYS been to go to the Varsity, which is across the interstate on North Ave. Due to elevated triglycerides in my latest blood tests, however, I decided to forgo that tradition this time. Plus, that’s more of a Georgia-Georgia Tech tradition, and that’s not even happening at all this year.

Instead, I had eaten a sandwich in the car, hoping to avoid paying for anything inside the stadium. I encountered a decent number of Notre Dame fans at the primary gate on North Avenue; most of them were wearing green. My first thought was, did I not get the memo? It didn’t worry me too much, frankly, since I had other plans. Besides, I really don’t like when Notre Dame wears green; their colors are blue and gold, and those are the coolest combination to me. And for today, since October is breast cancer awareness month, I had ordered a pink shirt from Notre Dame just for this occasion. So even if green had been the expected color, I was still going to disappoint. I was happy to hear several people comment on the pink, though they probably didn’t think I could hear them.

But things quickly demonstrated to me that this was not a regular season of college football. One of the primary differences I noticed this year was the crowd size; Georgia Tech’s Bobby Dodd Stadium holds 55,000 people, but it was limited to 11,000 (20% capacity) due to local and state ordinances. I have no idea how big the crowds are when Georgia isn’t involved, but those games are usually packed.

The reduced capacity wasn’t the only change in the crowd, however. We even had seats blocked off: odd-numbered rows were blocked off by yellow cones at each end; and within rows that permitted seating, sections were taped off. The tape had arrows indicating which side was available for seating. This seemed superfluous to me, since all tickets are numbered with the corresponding seats. Stadium employees circulated through the stands throughout the game with signs reading “Sit in Assigned Seats” as well as “Face Covering Required.”

One of the things people want “in these uncertain times” is any sense of normalcy, or at least the semblance of it. Unfortunately, some people are willing to put others at risk in order to fulfill that fantasy. Many of the people in my section, the lower corner usually populated by fans of the visiting team, disregarded the requirements for face coverings. Case in point: a pair of middle-aged gentlemen struck up a conversation with another pair of gentlemen two rows in front of them, one of whom was the father of a player. They decided to get a photo of themselves together, and they all took off their face masks and put their arms around each other’s shoulders. Mind you, they had never met until this afternoon. Scary behavior indeed.

The stadium, for its part, was trying to help keep us virus-free. And not only with the wandering placard-bearers. Concession stands were open, but everything was cash-less. I ended up with a free drink because the card reader malfunctioned for two different cashiers; I really did intend to pay, and I was excited to use the ‘tap’ function of my new card. But their device just didn’t want to take my money. In their frustration, they told me to “just take the drink.” I obliged.

The fans who attended the game were as loud as ever, though crowd noise was clearly less a factor in the game. It was similar to the game at Texas in that regard. I could, however, hear individual voices cheering or shouting out expletives when a call didn’t go their way. This one ginger lady, a GT fan on the back row of my section, was easily the most vocal, perhaps due to the shrillness in her voice. Or maybe I was just imagining that because I’m a Georgia fan. Strangely, artificial crowd noise was piped in over the loudspeaker when the home team made a particularly good play. It was a bit disturbing, though. Also disturbing was the way the announcer pronounced “Notre Dame”—he kept sounding like he was saying “norter dame.”

But some things never change. While queuing up to enter the stadium, we were all treated to a gospel preacher imploring us to accept our sinfulness. And speaking of sinfulness, one of a trio of maskless fans two rows in front of me accidently let a couple of mini liquor bottles tumble to the ground with a sharp thud when he went to put on his faux letter jacket. He just smiled at the people around him when they looked at him. Don’t ever change, college football fan.

One of the more interesting choices came from the apparel worn by the teams. First off, it’s very odd seeing the ACC logo on Notre Dame jerseys. They’re normally an independent, but they’re in the ACC just for this year so they could have a reasonable chance at a full slate of games. Their jerseys were white, but I was hoping they would be blue, since Tech likes to play in white jerseys at home. No such luck this year. Georgia Tech had busted out special black jerseys, harkening back to earlier days of the so-called “Black Watch” defense from the 1980s. I had never heard of it, nor had I ever seen Tech play in black jerseys at all. But I’ll admit that they looked cool. If I were a Tech fan, I might even have enjoyed seeing the change. But I’m not.

And I may as well admit how I gamed the system to sit in the lower corner where most of the Notre Dame fans were seated. So I bought my ticket for this game back in September. It was the first game that I absolutely knew I was going to attend, pandemic permitting. So I bought the cheapest single ticket I could find. It was in the upper deck. But when I queued up with the other Irish fans at the gate, I was on the opposite side of the stadium from my assigned seat. The ticket scanner—completely hands-free machines—accepted my ticket for this gate, however, and so I went to the same lower corner section where I sat last year. I was hoping to stick around as long as I could before making my way to the top. But then it came to my mind: what if I just look on StubHub and see which seats are still unsold, and I can sit in those seats as long as no one buys them. No one had prevented me from coming into this section, so why would anyone doubt I was supposed to be here if no one else claimed the seats? I found some seats and sat down. This only lasted about 20 minutes, though, since those tickets had disappeared when I refreshed the page. Then I found almost an entire row of seats waiting to be sold on the app, only about 10 rows up from my current spot. So I gathered my things and found the new seats. I continued to refresh the page every few minutes, but by the time the game itself had disappeared from the app, it was the second quarter, and no one ever came to evict me. Besides, those seats were being sold for $60 each, in a group of 4, so with all the stupid fees, it was going to be over $300. Who’s going to pay that much to watch Georgia Tech?

Fun side story: before the game started, I went to the bathroom to avoid having to do that during the game. I ran into a fellow wearing Irish green with a button on his jacket—the button was a yellow jacket within a red circle and red line diagonal through it. I pointed to it and told him I liked it. “Thanks, I went to undergrad at Georgia so I can’t stand Tech,” he replied. “No way, I graduated from Georgia too!” We bumped fists and both said, “Go Dawgs!”

But what about the game? Truly, I’ve never felt less concerned about the outcome of a game that I had a rooting interest in. Notre Dame, ranked fourth in the country, kept the Tech offense from ever getting anything going until the final ten minutes of the game. The Fighting Irish scored more points in every quarter than they allowed the Yellow Jackets to score, and that’s how you win a game. In the first quarter, Notre Dame drove down the field and scored a touchdown on its opening possession in just under nine minutes. Tech got the ball and punted after six plays, but Notre Dame helped them out on the next drive when they fumbled the ball inside the Tech 10-yard line, and a defender scooped it up and took it 93 yards to the house. They reviewed it to make sure the Irish player wasn’t down before the fumble, and at this point, the shrill ginger Tech lady in my section yelled out, “What are you reviewing? He picked it up and run it that way!” Lady, do you not know how this works? Alas. That was the first play of the second quarter, and it gave Tech fans some hope. It was premature. Notre Dame took 4 more minutes off the clock on its next drive, going back up by 7. Fast forward through three consecutive failed drives, and Notre Dame kicked the field goal to extend the lead to 10 points. And that was how they went into the locker room at the half: Notre Dame 17, Georgia Tech 7.

Halftime was absolutely boring. They didn’t even TRY to entertain us. Around this time, the news broke that Clemson would be playing without their star quarterback Trevor Lawrence next week when they came to Notre Dame, and this made the Irish fans happy. But there was still business in Atlanta to take care of before next week.

Tech got the ball to begin the second half, and they proceeded to fumble it in only a minute and a half. The Irish thanked them with a touchdown, extending the lead to 17 points. Most of the rest of the third quarter was boring, except the Notre Dame fumble (again!) that led to Tech trying a field goal. They missed, and Notre Dame took about four minutes to drive down the field for another touchdown just after the start of the fourth quarter. They were up by 24 points now. Tech’s back was against the wall, and they did nothing. At this point, many of the Tech faithful went for the exits. I couldn’t believe they were leaving, but more about that later. Tech managed to force a three-and-out for Notre Dame, and then they finally got an offensive touchdown. They had done the math—they are engineers, after all—as I had, and they knew that 24 / 8 = 3, so they went for 2 instead of kicking the PAT. It failed, but apparently they were wedded to the strategy of scoring three more times in approximately 7 minutes, even though their offense had taken over 52 minutes to score even once. Long story short: they went for the onside kick and actually recovered it. But they only managed a single first down before going for a pass play on fourth down; it was incomplete, so Notre Dame took over and bled the clock for the remaining 5 minutes. They did manage to get the ball down to the Tech 1-yard line, but instead of taking a time out to punch in one more score, Coach Kelly opted for the civil path and let time expire. FINAL SCORE: Notre Dame 31, Georgia Tech 13.

Georgia Tech is an odd place. For one thing, they have “Money Down” instead of Third Down for their opponents. I have no idea where this comes from, but the announcer says it, the big screen says it, and the cheerleaders had signs with it written on there. Some of us started yelling “Money Down” when Tech would have third down since the announcer and scoreboard failed to do so. And lastly, all those fans that left with almost 12 minutes still left in the game! Even in a normal college football season, there’s a limited number of games to be played, so I try to enjoy each one for as long as I can. But these are pandemic times, with fewer games and smaller crowds. It should feel like a huge privilege to attend a college football game, especially in a major conference, and with a highly ranked team. Maybe Tech fans are just accustomed to acquiescing to their mediocrity.

And so, the fourth-ranked Fighting Irish easily handled the home team, sending the Yellow Jackets and their fans home to find other horrors to deal with on this Halloween night.

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