Week 4: Duke
It's Never That Easy Though, Is It?
I was fourteen the last time I was a part of a sellout crowd in Memorial Stadium. 2009. I think it may have been the game against Duke, oddly enough, but my memories of the specifics of that era are unclear. I can remember the feeling of being within the massive crowd trying to enter the stadium, the long bathroom lines, and the troubles with trying to park our car, but the two things I’ve missed the most in the near decade and a half since that time are the sound of a tense crowd yelling to unsettle the opposition and the visual of arms waving from the front row to the back after a score. Those are irreplicable without a full stadium, and throughout my time in high school, college, and in the scant appearances I’ve been able to make since graduation, I didn’t get to experience them.
I grew to almost resent the memories of that sound and that sight. During my time as a student, playing in the marching band to sparser and sparser crowds, I wished (and I still wish, as I’m sure we all do about many aspects of our early teenage years) that I’d appreciated it better back then. I didn’t understand and couldn’t have expected just how bad it was going to get, but I wish I had more lucid memories of it all. I might not have missed it quite so badly if I hadn’t seen it in the first place. I might not have been torn quite so deeply to shreds by the program’s inadequacy during my college years if I hadn’t experienced it at its peak when I was so young.
Nostalgia, they say, is bittersweet, and the bitterness became too much after a point. Sometime around when I moved away I changed my mindset: I couldn’t dwell on the past, I could only commit to being there in the future and appreciating everything that I could once the program was back there.
That desire underlay everything I did and saw on Saturday. I lost count, or, rather, I didn’t even start counting because I knew I’d be doing it enough that I wouldn’t be able to keep count, of how many times I caught myself just looking around at the sheer number of people surrounding me in every situation. We got to the parking lot at 9:30 and I admired how we had to be certain to stay behind our two parking spaces, as the others would definitely be taken up. As the band marched down the hill, I looked around and saw so little open space, and I remembered the many instances in which I looked out from the perspective of a band member and saw nothing but open space in front of me.
As I waited in line to enter the stadium, I remembered how short the lines used to be. There was a lot of that on Saturday, keeping myself in check and trying to acknowledge that the many longer lines (for the entrances, for the bathrooms, for the concessions, for seating) were a byproduct of positive development.
This is what I was waiting for. I didn’t expect to see it quite this quickly – I figured we’d build throughout the year if we were fortunate and maybe next year would have it – but I absolutely and steadfastly refuse to look into, and frankly could not even begin to theoretically describe to you the interior of, this gift horse’s mouth.
I felt like a normal alumnus of a normal school with a normal football team on Saturday. We came to Memorial Stadium on Saturday not out of obligation or boredom or tradition or inertia, each of which have been the case for me in recent years, we came out because we wanted to watch our football team win a game over another football team, and we believed that they could, and then they did. We were fully bought in, rapt to every play, we screamed and shouted and cheered and booed: We did what everybody else gets to do every week.
I’ve contemplated this recent down period quite intensely, but seeing the return to form that this game represented for the community surrounding the team exposed many aspects of just how deep-seated the acridity of the past twelve years of Kansas football has been. This crowd wasn’t just larger than usual, there was a different tenor to it than I’m used to, it’s hard to explain: there was an increase in intensity, certainly, but maybe it was just a different set of standards that this crowd brought in, one completely foreign to me after the past twelve years. I heard Lance Leipold sum it up perfectly in a post-game press conference: “They’re expecting to win, not hoping to win.”
I hadn’t even noticed it, but outside of the openers against FCS teams, I’ve only come to the stadium with hope. At best, we’d get an upset. Losses were expected and success for the Jayhawks was treated as a novelty, the students would rush the field and the bright minds of Reddit and Twitter would turn it into a meme and repeat it well past the point when it was funny and right up to the point when it ceased to mean anything. That was as good as it got, we trafficked in cuteness and pleasant surprise.
On Saturday, I just thought the Jayhawks were going to win, and it seemed like most of the people around me did as well. We would’ve been upset, even surprised, if they’d lost. I was reminded of what my teachers in my high school freshman year classes kept saying during the fall that I last attended a sellout KU win: It matters now.
Mike and I got into the stadium about an hour before kickoff, and the interiors were already more crowded than I can remember seeing. Even when I was coming to better-attended games in the later-2000s, I swear the concourses weren’t that congested. It was kind of uncomfortable trying to maneuver around, I could just feel an edge to everyone around me. I’d attribute this to the lines for concessions being so long and moving so slowly, which, combined with the heat, had adults annoyed and children restless.
If I may attempt to turn a personal complaint into a pseudo-analytical statement: Kansas Athletics was not prepared for this crowd. I felt that the crowd of thirteen thousand fewer people for the first game against Tennessee Tech strained the resources offered at Memorial Stadium, and this one seemed to break it. The concession stands were understaffed and the cashless payment system is highly inefficient at best and in practice (per reports, I gave up on a long concession line before the game began and never tried again so I can’t say personally) quit working entirely at some point. If the Jayhawks continue winning, this problem will only persist, which is not that much of an issue for me, as I have no problem planning my meals around the game, but I know I’m not the only one who will be doing so, ergo the athletics program is and will be missing out on the admittedly relatively small reserves of money my employer gives me because of it.1
With all of that complaining out of the way, allow me to say also that I adore Memorial Stadium as it is. It is a completely unpretentious stadium, it is a behemoth of concrete and metal bleachers arranged around a gridiron and nothing more. The stadium is built for fans to watch the Kansas Jayhawks of football and nothing more. I love that you can’t get consistent cellular data or wireless internet service within its confines, I love how they stapled those petit-bourgeois pseudo-suites onto the endzones (just a big ugly deck in the North Bowl end) even though I’d prefer they weren’t there (and I’d prefer they bring back the south bleachers of yore, which from what I’ve been told were free entry to students at the Lawrence high schools). I think it’s a beautiful testament to football and football alone in the same way that our basketball stadium is, and I really hope that the incoming renovations don’t take too much away from that. My favorite aspect of the stadium’s architecture is the feeling I get from entering the grandstands from the concourse up the stairs and through those narrow thresholds. Initially, it’s only a small glimpse, obscured by the bodies of fellow fans, but as I walk through, the image first of the opposite stands (with the hotel in the background, which I know is a controversial object but I kinda like it) hits me, and with every forward step I see more and more of that kelly green field with the massive Jayhawk in the middle, before the entire stadium enters my field of view.
At first I was struck by how far back the student section reached: nearly all the way to the back rows in one section even a half-hour before kickoff. I’ve seen it at that size before, but never with so much time left for students to fill in. Next, I was struck by how difficult it suddenly was to maneuver around the stands. I’ve never had that problem there before, there’s always a little room to wiggle around, but on Saturday, I had to move with efficiency, patience, and purpose to get to my seat. The whole process of speciation has become much more of a hassle thanks to this team’s success, something I kept reminding myself lest my mood start to turn.
I missed most of the pregame show attempting (and failing, as it was on the menu but they weren’t serving it) to get coffee at the little Coldstone Creamery stand on the upper concourse.2 I got back out right in time for the alma mater and the chant, I put my arm around the shoulder of the middle-aged gentlemen to my left before remembering I’m an adult now and other adults value not having some stranger’s arm over their shoulder over getting caught up in the spirit of the alma mater, but I’d already committed and I wasn’t going to be able to pull it back, that would’ve been weirder, so I awkwardly hung on to him for the entire song. Apologies to you, sir, if you end up reading this.
I had one of the central questions posed by this project so far answered shortly before kickoff: Yes, that is an atmospheric remix of Kickstart My Heart that plays during the introductory video. It had been silently bugging me for three weeks, and now I have my answer. The cheer when the Jayhawks ran out, one I’ve heard so often done out of obligation, had an undercurrent of appreciation to it, like we were there not just to support the team but to congratulate them on their success over the past two weeks.
I spent so much time turning my head, first to scan the stadium to examine how big the crowd had grown, then to shake it in astonishment over how big the crowd had gone. I think I said “can you believe this?” to Mike at least fifteen times. I couldn’t!
I don’t know if I can convey how jarring it was to see this stadium so full. It would take years of forcing you, my reader, to only see this stadium with crowds diminishing further and further in size over the course of years. I’ve seen that stadium with crowds of 30, 25, as few as 20,000, much of which was made up of fans of opposing teams, and that’s at kickoff. I’ve seen it with only friends and family of the team and the band during particularly bad blowouts. It hit me at one point that I think of Memorial Stadium, inherently, as a mostly empty place. I’ve had dreams in which I end up there, and it’s always the same: a drizzle overhead, maybe a quarter full, and the Jayhawks are losing badly. I know it so well, but only in that sense, and those memories of progressively emptier and emptier stadiums crystalized that image in my mind to the point that something inside my brain tripped a switch and told me something was very wrong. I’ll remember this game presenting me a low-level anxiety throughout, and I think that (again along with the heat and primarily the sun) was why. It was tamped down over a while, but that unsettlement rumbled around early on, like something was wrong, or at least off from what I’d normally expect. I adjusted to it after a few drives. I’d compare it to the Whitest Kids ‘U Know sketch about skippin’ school in a canoe.
The mood was odd, though. Maybe, again, it’s just something I haven’t experienced before – and I haven’t consulted with anyone else about it so it might’ve just been me – but there was some atypical edge to this crowd on Saturday. The jovial, carnival atmosphere of the first game didn’t carry over here. It might’ve been an edge of desire, maybe bordering on desperation: 47,000 people all wanting so badly for this turnaround to be legitimate. It crossed my mind once or twice at the game’s nervier moments that this was a highly significant game, as a win could further the momentum built up all season and a loss could absolutely shatter it and return the program to the point where they’re hoping to get 30,000 to a game. I suspect that many of the fans who came back for this game had finally let themselves believe again and were worried about getting let down again. It mattered to us more than most games have, maybe more than any games have since the days of fighting for bowl eligibility and AP rankings in the late 2000s. The reputation of the program and the interest of the fanbase were at stake, and the crowd’s emotions ran hotter than I’m used to, particularly in the negative. The refs weren’t just booed after bad calls, middle-aged men around me turned shades of red and screamed until their bodies shook. When Duke scored late in the fourth quarter to cut the scoreline within eight points, the crowd went downright silent, quieter even than when we’d get scored on in blowouts of yore, as many of us would be mid-conversation and half-paying attention. Our hearts were in it, our moods rested in the balance of this game.
I’ve alluded to it before a few times, but here I’ll go into it fully: The sun made itself quite present on Saturday. The sky was, as Brewster M. Higley prophesied, not cloudy all day, and the sun sat directly overhead from kickoff to the final whistle. The heat wasn’t that bad on its own, only around 85 degrees, and it wasn’t humid, but we just couldn’t escape the sun’s unceasing, unfettered presence. Arguably my biggest mistake of the game came during our pregame breakfast tailgate, making what I thought was called a “Russian Coffee” but I now see under the names “Vodka Irish Coffee” and “Black Russian” as I google it: vodka and black coffee, which I assumed everybody knew you could do and wasn’t something that would make me look like an alcoholic any more than drinking at 10:00 AM already did. Anyway, that all amounted to me being uncomfortably buzzed, surrounded by unexpectedly irate people, with the full force of our beautiful celestial goddess fighting with whatever SPF sun cream I borrowed from my mother at the tailgate and winning thoroughly if the pigmentation on my arms in the days after serves as any evidence. All rationality implies that I should have had a panic attack and dry-heaved in the bathroom around the second quarter, but I didn’t let myself slip into that. I couldn’t have pulled myself away from watching these Jayhawks play.
I have only a few times seen an offense as enjoyable as the 2022 Jayhawks’ take Memorial Stadium: Oklahoma in 2017, during Baker Mayfield’s senior season when he grabbed his dick in front of everyone (of course, of course, my attention was averted elsewhere at the moment when he did), Baylor in 2013, when they were running offensive sets spread all the way to the sidelines at the speed of sound, and Kansas in 2007, when they caught everybody off guard with speed and dynamism of a spread offense that hadn’t ever been seen from the Jayhawks in the Mangino era. It’s just fun, every play seems to feature some pre-snap motion, I never know who’s going to end up with the ball, but Jalon Daniels seems capable of fulfilling every option offered to him and there are so many great playmakers that surround him.
As I go back and watch highlights from the game, I find myself wanting to bust out an MS Paint telestrator and play amateur Madden.3 I'm just having so much fun watching it. There’s a play near the end of the first quarter I keep going back to, basically a triple-option out of the shotgun where Daniels keeps on the initial zone read and heads with Devin Neal to the left for a pitch option run on the outside initially, but stops, turns, and finds the fullback, Jared Casey coming loose (after having slipped on his initial get-off) off the line of scrimmage, who he hits for a twenty-two yard gain. It is gorgeous, and executed to absolute perfection. It makes me feel like something’s right in the world after having suffered through a multi-year ride on the Doug Meacham incomplete tunnel screen express and Charlie Weis’s Decided Schematic Advantage.4
With the first touchdown, on another fantastic run-pass option, in which Daniels hit Trevor Kardell in the flat for an easy walk-in score, I found myself in awe watching the students on the opposite side of the stadium engaging in the wheat waving. I was the only one of my college friends who had ever seen KU football at its best in person before arriving as a student, and I so badly wanted them to be able to see the wheat-waving in its ideal form, unbroken from the front row all the way to the back to the 68th. It is an awesome sight to behold,5 and after that first touchdown, it hit me that, for the first time since I was a teenager, I was seeing it again. In a weird way, I felt a little bit of a connection with that version of myself, maybe fourteen or fifteen, feeling honestly optimistic and excited about Kansas football, building Saturdays around it again, developing and rediscovering rituals surrounding it with my family. It means something to me, this whole thing. I used to get ridiculed about it, not heavily or anything, but I’d have friends ask why I still cared so much, and I could point them to that sight of 47,000+ people moving in unison to express a shared jubilation, but I can’t make them understand what it was like to appreciate that sight so much and to have that visual define such important and formative years of life only to have it stricken for over a decade, nor can I express how good it felt to have it back after so long missing it. I made sure after every touchdown to look around and savor the sight for a second. I hadn’t the last time, and I know too well now that I can never guarantee when I will again.
What I hadn’t expected to hit me so hard was the sheer sound of that back-and-forth Rock Chalk / Jayhawk chant led by the cheerleaders after extra points. I could feel the Eastern stands shout when it came to their turn. That same edginess that I felt created discomfort at points earlier on came out here in defiance: thousands of people in unison reciting the words on the cards in front of us but saying, flatly, that we are here, we are back. It must’ve been audible throughout town, from the East where K-10 turns into 23rd street that used to have the butcher shop with the cow on its roof I used as a waypoint to determine when we’d reached Lawrence on gamedays when I was a child, to the apartments on 31st and Iowa where I came back to commiserate with my roommate after each loss of that awful 2015 winless year, to the Northwestern suburbs where my parents live now.
In these moments it hit me how much this meant to me. I felt myself at every age standing in those same bleachers in that same stadium, yearning for the same thing but only now and in scant moments before actually getting it. I needed to appreciate it, if not for my own sake, for theirs, for every version of me that wanted nothing more but to see and hear that crowd in unison again – the angsty high schooler, the nervous freshman trombonist, the depressed super-senior sousaphonist, the confused and lost twenty-something who showed up at homecoming last year hoping for some sense of familiarity again.
I would not have enjoyed this game this much had I not spent so long in the silver bleacher and gray concrete purgatory during my college days. I found myself feeling so happy for the band members and the rest of the people who are obligated to stay in the stadium for all sixty minutes, the cheer squad, the dance team, the mascots, the security people, the vendors, the team staff, they finally have something worth sticking around for. I wish I could go back in time and thank that melodramatic early-twenties version of myself for sticking around through it all. So often back then, I’d ask, out loud but mostly to myself: “Why do I keep doing this?”
If I may answer myself: That sound, and that sight, and the feeling of experiencing it again after so long was why. It was all worth it, every fucking minute, every blowout and halftime show performed to an empty stadium, for the absolute life-affirmation I felt in Memorial Stadium on Saturday.
It was a competitive game, too! Duke’s quarterback is so accurate deep downfield that they never really felt out of it, every time that it seemed like they were cooked, Riley Leonard would make some fantastic play to get them out of trouble and keep them around. They twice came back within a single score in the fourth quarter. Having been part of a crowd that I’ve hopefully established by now had an antsy tinge to them, I would’ve preferred an unquestioned blowout where everybody spent the final quarter deliriously happy, but as time passes I’m just happy to have seen such a good game between two really good offenses and two phenomenal quarterbacks.
I do stress offense there, as it became clear over the course of the game that the defense has the unfortunate potential to serve as this team’s greatest downfall this year. Kansas, again, had a two-score lead in the fourth quarter, and very nearly gave it up again, just like in the West Virginia game. I kept leaning over to Mike and saying “It’s never that easy, though, is it?”6 and Mike kept leaning over to me and saying “It’s still KU football, it’s still KU football,” a statement that I innately understood and one that I imagine other KU people can understand just as well. This team is well ahead of schedule, which is a great thing, but they will stumble at times this year. I left with this understanding: The offense can keep KU in any game they play this year, and the defense can keep the opponent in any game they play this year.
That being said, the game was decided on a defensive play, the second game-sealing defensive stop by cornerback Cobee Bryant this year, who is developing into a genuine star for this team. As the ball hit the ground and the referee (along with Bryant himself) signaled that the pass was incomplete, I found myself frantically scanning the field for flags, or for the down marker to have been wrong, or for anything that could have ruined it and given the ball back to Leonard for another heartbreaking touchdown bomb. None came. Daniels and the Jayhawk offense came out to the field in the victory formation.
I remember the feeling that came over me, a full-body rush not unlike what overcomes you midway through a session on the treadmill7. I slipped into something of a Weberian fugue-state monologue in which I said a lot of things, few of which probably made sense, none of which I can remember, and I sincerely hope the people around me don’t remember them either. It was a cathartic, unplugged sort of yelling that I tried to avoid over the prior hours due to the heat and the sun and the dehydration and the Russian Coffee and my worry about passing out in the stands, if I were animating the scene, I would make my eyes roll back in my head during that bit.
Daniels took a knee and the clock expired. Mike had pointed out to me midway through the fourth that a line of security workers had assembled in front of the student section, again brandishing the rope they’d brought out for the first game.
What followed was one of the more bizarre field-stormings I’ve seen, probably most similar to the 2016 Rhode Island game, in which only a portion of the students seemed to feel an impetus propelling them forward at all, the other section turning for the exit. The rope, while obviously ineffective at stopping the crowd in its entirety, was able to very slightly slow down the first students that jumped the fence, leaving us in a bizarre scene wherein one guy ended up getting under the rope before the rest of them and ended up standing alone in the middle of the field for what must’ve been around ten seconds.
The announcer pleaded with them to return to their seats, saying something like “We expect wins here,” which went unheeded by the students, and a lot of the people around me seemed upset by it. It was a weird scene. I know the first section to fill up is the southernmost section nearest midfield, and it was definitely a charge led from the northernmost section nearest the bowl, so it might’ve been a situation where the most dedicated student fans, the ones who waited the longest for their seats and thus care the most and thus are maybe more likely to feel embarrassed by potential ridicule of our rush-it-every-time tendencies, didn’t hop the fence initially. I don’t know. I’m reading too far into this. The players also didn’t really stick around to celebrate with them, heading right into the locker room, and as there was a triangular coalition of security people guarding both goalposts, there was nowhere for their jubilation to go out towards, so it ended up manifesting as a lot of milling around on the field.
Mike brought up, as we walked out of the stadium, that this brought about his first moment of feeling like an older alumnus, as he felt brief pangs of disappointment about seeing the kids rush the field after beating Duke before coming to an appreciation of the absurdity of it all, a sentiment that I felt as well and just as briefly. It doesn’t matter what I feel, and I do not care about the opinions of the Twitter users or Facebook commenters or what have you, but it was interesting to feel those pangs like “no, don’t! we’re supposed to be above this now!” creeping into me, as if any of them care about that, as if anyone should care about that for that matter.
What I do care about is the fact that the Kansas Jayhawks are 4-0. They have won four straight games to start the season, they welcome the Iowa State Cyclones into Memorial Stadium next Saturday, and I’ll be there for it.
This is a comedic statement if you know who my employer is. I’m sure some contract was signed with whatever cashless payment platform they use and it’s probably very expensive to get out of it, but I’m sure the amount they’re missing without an efficient concessions system would make it up, and any extra difference could be covered by allowing fans to pay a certain fee (five dollars per swing, one might pay) to smash the temperamental little card reader machines with a baseball bat
I am aware this will sound strange as I’ve harped on how the heat affected the mood in the stadium, and it was hot, about 85 degrees, but hot drinks can be good in warm weather! They get the body perspiring, which is something the body needs on a hot day! It’s not weird to drink hot black coffee on a hot day! I’m not a weird guy! At least not in this specific context!
But I have only a rudimentary understanding of football schemes and this entry is lengthy enough as it is.
Which primarily seemed to be built out of a statuesque quarterback throwing absolute darts at his receivers’ feet
And I mean that in the biblical sense
That’s the one that goes He’s gonna get drunk and call you at four in the morning (I know!)
This is one of the tough situations in writing when I came up with something good that I don’t necessarily want to put under my name in the full blocks of text but I’m proud enough of it that I figure it’s worth risking some element of reputation and understanding that my dad reads this to put it in the footnotes that the original line here was “not unlike the aftershocks of an Indica-aided orgasm”
These two half-eaten popcorn bags spent the entire second half in front of Mike and I, tempting us to grab a handful, costing us nothing from our wallets but everything from our collective dignities.