Sep 14, 2019; Ames, IA, USA; Iowa State Cyclone fans welcome defensive back Greg Eisworth (12) to the field before their game against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Jack Trice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sports
I love tailgating, though my experience of it is different than most. It marks my cadence as I stride toward the Jack Trice Stadium gates on any given college football game day. It’s a backdrop for me. It’s a centerpiece for you.
The smoky smell of savory foods wafting from grill to grill, lot to lot, envelopes my senses; each step a fresh delight.
So, too, the throngs bridging multiple generations of Iowa State fans emerge to tell a story. One of camaraderie — folks who pull up chairs, cook, hug and bask in new hope each season. I still see Brock Purdy jerseys. Jake Knott jerseys. Seneca Wallace jerseys. Nostalgia runs deep, but what it signifies defies the passage of time.
Folks gather as a community and that’s the beginning and end of it. The game is a ritual to be relished within that context. It plays out each week in Ames and across the country in a wonderfully mysterious manner that’s rooted in tradition.
No one knows what will happen from week to week. That’s what makes it so beautiful and terrifying.
Now — and for the foreseeable future — this routine has been replaced with an awful sense of unknowing. The novel coronavirus pandemic, which had claimed the lives of 829 Iowans and nearly 150,000 people in the U.S. as of early Monday morning, threatens every aspect of our existence. Our need for human connection and touch. Our ability to discern fact from fiction. Our yearning for fall football diversions and everything that comes along with them.
Iowa State Director of Athletics Jamie Pollard, in a July 13 letter to fans, laid out his department’s concerns in stark terms. And if there’s no football this fall, stark becomes sobering and truly terrifying with respect to fiscal matters.
“Since the start of COVID-19 through August 23, 2020, the university’s revenue losses and costs are estimated to be an additional $73 million,” Pollard wrote.
The athletics department alone, he added, is projected to “incur approximately $40M in unfunded expenses in the next six months” if there is no 2020 football season in the fall.
Livelihoods depend on this great game, it’s traditions, it’s paying and devoted customers. Lives depend on a smart plan that drives COVID-19 rates down, increases testing capacity and is nimble and extensive enough to adapt to the ever-shifting circumstances.
So as I think about what I love about game day — and as of Monday, Iowa State’s Sept. 5 season opener against South Dakota is still on — my ode to tailgates turns into a lamentation, because that walk to the stadium, if I’m allowed to make it, won’t be the same.
“Whatever the university has planned for its mitigation policy — I’ll comply with,” longtime Cyclone fan and ardent tailgater Jon Fleming told Randy Peterson of The Des Moines Register a couple of months ago. “I’m positive that everyone will.”
If and when football is played, of course, social distancing will occur everywhere to some degree. From parking lots to a potentially half-filled Jack Trice Stadium, per Pollard’s plan, to ticket lines, suites and the press box perched high atop the field.
We’re all affected and we all depend on one another to ensure a safe-as-possible experience that allows this fall tradition to continue with modifications instead of being lost entirely for a season.
I yearn to make that walk on Sept. 5 and every day a home game is scheduled. Will it happen? No one knows for sure.
I’m simply certain of one thing: I’ll never take a, ‘Hey, Rob Gray! Good to see you,’ shout from a random Cyclone fan as I wade through the lots for granted again.