Football

A PERFECT STORM: A Dreamy Tailgate as the Dream Season Hung in the Balance

Allow me to introduce myself: I’m Kyle Oppenhuizen, a lifelong Iowa State fan. I am documenting my journey to attend every game of the 2021 season, with plans to publish a book about the most anticipated season in school history. Preseason expectations, fan excitement at an all-time high, and the ability to attend games after a season of social distancing added up to this being the perfect storm to go all-in on the 2021 season as a fan. Join me on this journey to experiencing every suspenseful, exciting and heartbreaking moment in this Cyclone season. Below is my recap from the UNI game. You can find more blog posts on my website, where you can also sign up for updates.

“Hey Opie, I have a question for you.”

My friend Nancy, who was sitting in front of me with her husband Eric, had just turned around to start a conversation as we sat in our seats at Jack Trice Stadium. I have known them both since college marching band and have tailgated with and sat next to them at games for years (and yes, Opie was a college nickname). They are two of the nicest people I know. In this case, I knew what Nancy was about to ask.

Iowa State was in a slog of a game with Northern Iowa. At this point about halfway through the fourth quarter, the Cyclones were up by only six points, a tenuous lead to say the least. It was a game that on paper favored the Cyclones by nearly 30 points, and in reality, was going to go down to the final minutes.

I knew what question Nancy, who knew I was writing a book, was about to ask. It would have been something like “What are you going to do if UNI wins?” or maybe “Are you still going to write a book if UNI wins?” (That answer would have been yes.)

She was about to ask the question I had been trying not to think about since the first quarter began and it became obvious the Cyclones weren’t going to run away with a 30-point win. What the heck am I going to say if we lose? I had spent eight months telling everyone I was writing a book about this season, and the special feeling could be gone after one game. My anxiety level had been elevated the entire game. The vibes of seeing the stadium packed at kickoff, the feeling of euphoria after being in the stadium for the first time since November of 2019, had long since turned into feelings of restlessness and worry among the sellout crowd of 61,500 packed inside Jack Trice Stadium.

What if we lose? I didn’t have an answer.

“Nancy,” I replied. “I just can’t right now.”

She understood.

The day up until kickoff had been nearly perfect. In fact, the week leading up to the game was full of the traditional hype, hope and anticipation that comes with the opening game, ramped up a notch due to the overall expectations of a special season.

On Monday, the ISU athletics department released a video narrated by former Cyclone and current Green Bay Packer wide receiver Allen Lazard, titled “WE WILL,” a nod to the legacy of Jack Trice, the first black football player in Iowa State history who famously wrote a letter the night before he tragically died in a football game against the University of Minnesota (more on this story to come). Also on Monday, the first email arrived from someone in our tailgate group beginning to make plans for the weekend. It was here and it was real. There was going to be Cyclone football.

To underscore the excitement, on Tuesday, Iowa State declared the first two games would feature sellout crowds, thanks in large part to the more than 49,000 season tickets sold, a record.

On Wednesday, they released the uniform combination that the team would be wearing: white helmet, cardinal jersey, white pants. I’m not going to pretend this didn’t affect my decision-making on gameday attire.

Then on Thursday and Friday, the countdown began. Two more days… one more day…

The first game day of the season is a special occasion. I have found few things in life that match my level of giddiness to go to Jack Trice Stadium for the first time.

The first few minutes of any tailgate remind me of when I was a kid and we all gathered in the living room on Christmas morning to open presents.

You spend days (weeks? months?) waiting, looking forward to this thing you so desire. Finally, the day is here. You wake up in the morning with butterflies. Everyone gathers. The moment is so close you can taste it. And then… someone needs to hand out the gifts. One by one, the gifts are handed out. “This one says it’s to mom. … Here’s one for Kent. … Oh, here’s one for Kyle…”

What takes five minutes feels like an hour. The presents are right there in front of you, piling up. Right there. You can feel the wrapping paper. You can see the slit where, in just a few seconds, you will rip it open to find that Power Rangers toy you put at the top of your Christmas list.

In the same way, once I wake up for game day, I am ready to be, at that moment, standing in the parking lot, looking at the stadium with the first beer of the day in my hand, surrounded by the fifteen-or-so people who I have shared this experience with for more than a decade. Instead, there are still a few steps to take before you can settle in for the tailgate. You have to pack the cooler, pack the car, pick out the perfect outfit, coordinate the carpool, drive to Ames, wait in line to get into the parking lot, and then finally pull into the parking lot of the tailgate.

At this point, I’m bursting with anticipation.

We grab our coolers out of the trunks of our vehicles, set up the tent and table quickly, and then I grab that first beer out of the cooler and slide it into a koozie. The anticipation is over. It’s time to rip open that present.

*Crack*

The first sip… there’s nothing like it. It’s freedom. It’s the signal to my brain: The tailgate has started.

It’s time for fun.

For a night game, this process starts around 12 or 12:30 p.m. Early in the day to start drinking, for sure, but no different really than having a beer at lunch when you are on vacation or just out to eat on the weekend.

For a mid-afternoon game, the tailgate starts sometime between 8:30 and 10 a.m. This is a little more unusual, but you can still convince your body that this is semi-normal. After all, it’s no different than having a mimosa or bloody mary with your brunch.

Then there’s the 11 a.m. kickoff. There’s nothing normal about this.

The tailgate lots open six hours before the game. If you are doing the math, that’s 5 a.m. This means, driving from Des Moines, we need to leave around 4 to meet up with the group. This means we need to be awake no later than 3:30. If you’re anything like me, it’s not exactly easy to get to bed before 10:30, and if I know I need to get up early, I don’t necessarily sleep well. I’ll wake up and look at the clock. 1 a.m. Now it’s 2:30. I’ll never get back to sleep… what’s that sound? Oh my gosh, it’s the alarm? Why? Oh yeah, it’s GAMEDAY!!!

Regardless of excitement level, it’s literally like getting up in the middle of the night.

Between 5:15 and 5:30 a.m., the can cracks open.

Regardless of what time you crack the first beer, it’s easy to lose track of the time. Outside, surrounded by Cyclone fans, not thinking about anything else in the world. My body is on vacation time. It simultaneously feels like we’ve been out there forever and also that the tailgate just began. Time moves at a different speed.

Regardless of the time of day, time of year or type of beer, the first crack of the can evokes a feeling like few other things do for me. The first tailgate of the year, especially, is always like opening that first present on Christmas morning. 

Of course, as we get older, life comes with more responsibilities. That’s how planning for Cyclone football Christmas morning (AKA the first tailgate of the season) began during UNI week. My friend Chris, with who I have gone to nearly every home game since 2011, and his wife Kaci now have a nearly two-year-old son. Due to childcare considerations, they let me know they wouldn’t be able to get to the tailgate until a little after 11 a.m., despite the fact that the lots would open at 9:30.

I had a decision to make. Would my wife, Paige, and I meet up with the early birds in the group to get into the lots as soon as they open? Or would I wait for my best friend and miss an hour-and-half of precious tailgate time? I weighed my options. On one hand, I wanted to be there for every moment of that first tailgate. This would be the first time we had gotten to do this in nearly two years. On the other hand, we hadn’t gotten to do this in nearly two years for a reason. I knew there would be so much extra emotion around this experience, beyond the normal opening game feelings. I thought back to 2020, watching games in Chris’s backyard due to the pandemic, being respectful of each other’s distance. We stood the entire time during the Big 12 Championship and Fiesta Bowl, bundled up and trying to keep warm in the unforgiving Iowa winter. Both of us were taking a cautious approach in regards to the pandemic. It would have been easier for each of us to watch inside, alone, but we wanted to watch together.

When I thought about the entire gameday experience — driving to Ames, talking about the game, pulling into the tailgate lots, cracking the first beer — I knew it would be emotional for both of us. I wanted to experience it together. What’s the point of the journey if you’re not sharing it with the people closest to you? We decided to go just a little later than normal and ride up with Chris and Kaci.

Chris and I got together Friday evening after his son went to bed to talk about the season. I had anticipated being there an hour or two, but we ended up talking until past midnight. By the time I got home and got into bed, it was around 1 a.m. I optimistically set my alarm for 7:30, but it was no later than 7 a.m. when I was awake.

It’s gameday! Time to get up!

As we got ready for the day, I knew I had to wear red. I picked out my new cardinal shirt with the Jack Trice logo: five stripes to depict the design of the jersey worn in the days of Jack Trice. The team was wearing white helmets, but I don’t have any white hats. The closest was a yellow hat with an “I-State” logo on the front. That’s the one.

Then it was time to pack the cooler. I like to bring an Iowa craft beer or two with me to sip on and enjoy early in the tailgate. Today I packed a beer from Peace Tree Brewing called Sunny, and a beer from Exile Brewing Company called Zoltan, both beers that I would describe as light and refreshing for a warm day that was going to be in the 70s. I also packed some New Glarus Spotted Cow, a beer only available to purchase in Wisconsin, which increases its marketability due to its scarcity. And for any drinking games, I packed some Coors Light. (Many Iowa State fans would choose Busch Light for this purpose, I realize. I’ve always been a Coors guy.) I thought about the first sip of beer and decided it would have to be the Sunny beer. To fill out the cooler, we also threw in some water and cold brew coffee. For food, we packed some hot dogs and hamburgers, chips and other snacks. It had been so long, and yet preparing for the tailgate felt like old hat for me.

As the four of us — Chris, Kaci, my wife Paige and I — rode up to the tailgate, we talked about times past. Such as: “Remember when Chris and Paige got into a fight after the first UNI game Paige went to?” We pulled into our traditional grass lot a little after 11 a.m., and the scene was there in front of us. Cars and tents everywhere. Flags flying in the gentle breeze. People playing bags and other such games. Grills fired up. Rap music, country music, oldies, pop hits blaring from all different directions, fighting for attention. Everyone dressed in Cyclone gear, with a handful of Panther fans mixed in.

In the words of the movie “Field of Dreams,” “Is this Heaven?”

We found a parking spot and then rolled our coolers over to the area where our group was tailgating. The cooler was heavy, but I was so close to that first sip I could practically feel it hitting my lips. “At least the cooler will be lighter when we roll it back,” I remarked.

We were about to see friends that we hadn’t seen since before the pandemic. We just had to find them. We rolled the coolers along, and Paige walked in front of us, looking in between parked cars in search of our group. Then she pointed. We had found them. We caught up with Paige, turned to our right, and there they were. The next few moments were kind of a blur of noise and greetings and handshakes and hugs. We were all together again.

Time for that first beer… but before I could even think about taking one out of the cooler, I hear “RICOCHEEEEEET!!” Ricochet is a game we play that involves, well, drinking beer quickly. This was no time for a craft beer. I dug out one of the Coors Lights. A few minutes later, when the first sip hit my lips, in the midst of a game and excitement and adrenalin, I still took a half-second to consciously appreciate that I was now tailgating.

The next three hours were spent catching up with old friends. More people showed up over the course of the day. People who hadn’t been part of this group as long as many of us had, but had at some point or another become integrated in. As one person put it, “I told my other friends that I need to come to this tailgate because it’s so much fun.”

For as long as I can remember, about halfway through our tailgates we throw some pizza rolls on the grill. A few years ago, a local news cameraperson was roaming around the lots and saw us grilling pizza rolls. This made the newscast, and our little tradition became just a little bit famous. “Yeah, we’re the group that makes pizza rolls on the grill.” Pro tip: If you ever try this, DO NOT bite straight into the pizza roll. If you want to taste anything the rest of the day, let it cool down first, and then take a bite off the end to let the steam roll out of the inside.

After the pizza rolls were devoured, I grilled my hot dogs and hamburgers. Standing around the grill as multiple people had multiple items scattered around it, we talked about what we were each making, followed by “Oh that sounds delicious,” followed by “Oh you can have one, I brought extras.” This is a community. A little while later, I grabbed a Spotted Cow out of the cooler. “Spotted Cow? No way!” someone said. “I have another one,” I answered. “Do you want it?”

“Are you sure?”

“Of course.”

This friend later made a point to tell Paige that I am a great guy for sharing my beer and vowed he would pay me back. I told him don’t sweat it. We were just happy to be there. It was a perfect 75-degree day and we were tailgating. What could be better?

There is usually a moment in the tailgate where I begin to transition from fun festival mode to “ready to get in the stadium mode. For this game, knowing it would be a little extra emotional to see the band march and see the team entrance, I wanted to go in a little early. A little after 2:30, we began packing up. We still had to bring our coolers back to the car, and I knew from experience that it is tough to get people to move in the right direction at this point of a tailgate. I had long ago accepted that I don’t always need to be in the stadium for the band’s pregame show, but today I really wanted it. As we arrived back at the car with a couple of other friends who were also storing their stuff in the trunk, the group was still moving with a little less urgency than I preferred. I clapped my hands. “Let’s go!” I shouted.

We walked across the street and approached the gates. I heard the public address announcer reading off the starting lineups. What looked like thousands of people were in line to get in. We’re never going to make it in time… More quickly than I expected we were at the front of the line, getting our tickets scanned. Paige’s bag got checked, and.. we’re in. We’re in the stadium! We took a few steps toward the ramp behind the Sukup Endzone Club that would lead us to our seats. Before we went, I looked back to see Chris and Kaci were just a few spots behind us in line. “Let’s wait,” I said. The four of us walked up together toward our seats in Section M, in the upper deck of the southwest corner of the stadium. Just as we were nearing the entrance of the seating area, I heard the band’s pregame entrance playing. We were going to get up to our seats just in time.

The next several minutes were again a blur of taking in the scene around me. Sixty Thousand-plus people back together for the first time in so long. Clapping to the fight song. Cheering after the National Anthem. Yelling “Cyclone Power.” Watching the Cyclone Weather Alert. My face welled up with tears as Kanye West’s “POWER” came on and the team began its walk from the locker room to the entrance to the field, every step being chronicled on the giant video boards.

The team ran onto the field as we cheered. The loudspeakers blared a pump-up song as the crowd clapped in unison. The crescendo had reached its peak. I looked at Chris, also knowing he would be emotional. We let ourselves feel it for a second. “OK, I’m ready now,” he declared with a steely resolve in his voice. It was time for Iowa State to win a football game.

The crowd was still at a fever pitch as Iowa State kicked off to Northern Iowa. It stayed that way as fans came to their feet to cheer on the Cyclone defense on a third-and-10 play. Will McDonald, who tied as the nation’s leader in sacks in 2020, recorded his first sack of 2021 on Northern Iowa’s Will McElvain. I jumped up and pumped my fist. Football was back, baby!

Unfortunately, nobody told the Iowa State offense, which failed to pick up a first down on either of its first two drives. Not ideal. UNI took the ball for its third possession and faced a third-and-11 backed all the way up at its 12-yard-line. This is when the vibes from the day so far dissipated. McElvain scrambled and found Deion McShane for a 37-yard gain to midfield. (This was also my first irrational moment of the day as I yelled for a penalty. I thought McElvain had crossed the line of scrimmage before throwing his pass. I later realized I was wrong. It was just a very good play.)

Two plays later, McElvain found Quan Hampton, who grabbed the ball just out of reach of ISU defender Mike Rose, broke a tackle and was off to the races for a 52-yard touchdown. As he ran toward our endzone, for the first time that day I really noticed the cheers from the Panther fans, including the people in the row right behind me who I didn’t even realize were there until just that moment. A younger, perhaps college-age or just out of college, fan was yelling at the top of his lungs. “F Yeah!” It brought me back to ghosts of the past and “It’s too easy!” It was a sobering reminder that UNI was excited for the season too, and their fans were also hoping to win today. The offseason hype for Iowa State was now a moment of the past and the real games had begun.

During the timeout between the extra point and kickoff, Chris turned to me. “We’re in a close game now. We need to accept it.” He was right. I did not want to accept it. Despite all the words I wrote earlier in the week about past UNI heartburn, in my gut, I didn’t actually think it would be a close game.

Luckily, Iowa State scored a field goal on its next possession, and then put together a fourteen-play, fifty-nine-yard drive to score its first touchdown of the season and take a 10-7 lead. UNI answered with its own field goal before Iowa State hit another field goal to end the half up 13-10. We were in a close game indeed.

Nothing changed in the third quarter, either in the type of game being played or in the score. Iowa State seemed to be content with playing a conservative offense and relying on its defense, a trend during opening games under Campbell. The problem for me was that the game continued to be much closer than anyone expected. Heading into the fourth, Iowa State’s dream season was very much hanging in the balance. I knew from having watched ISU coach Matt Campbell’s teams for the past five years that he, and the team, were generally very comfortable being in a close game, even if the fans weren’t. Which oddly enough gave me comfort. I doubted they were freaking out on the sidelines, but I was trying to keep from freaking out in the stands. As if to prove just how comfortable he was in this game, Campbell chose to punt from the Panther 39-yard-line to begin the fourth quarter. Behind me, one fan wondered aloud before the play “Will they try a field goal?” To which another fan responded, “You must be new here.” A 57-yard field goal attempt would be much riskier than punting, a risk Campbell was unlikely to take in this instance even if he did have a kicker who could make it.

Iowa State got the ball back a few minutes later for a first-and-ten from its own thirty-nine-yard-line with 11:35 to go. I turned to Chris. “This is where we go down and score a touchdown, and then play the Juicy Wiggle!” The Juicy Wiggle is a catchy little song by Redfoo that has become an unofficial anthem for the Cyclones. It is always played after a second-half touchdown when the crowd is already happy, and we all clap and dance, and for night games turn on the lights on our cellphones. I wanted to experience that feeling on opening day.

Chris looked at me. He has a… gift… of sorts that when he has a feeling something bad is going to happen in the game, he needs to say it out loud. He can’t stand the thought of having to keep it to himself. I recognized from years of knowing him that this was one of those times. “Don’t say it. Whatever you are about to say, don’t say it! I swear I’m going to punch you in the face if you say it!” (I wouldn’t have actually done that.)

“I have to say it,” he answered.

“Don’t do it. Don’t put the negative energy into the world.”

“OK fine. I will text it to myself. Just in case.”

For a while, it looked like I was going to be right and that Iowa State was about to score a touchdown. The Cyclones got down to the UNI 8-yard-line after senior quarterback Brock Purdy scrambled for nineteen yards. Preseason Heisman Trophy candidate and running back Breece Hall then took it down to the three on the next play. C’mon Juicy Wiggle. Nope. The next two plays were stuffed, and Iowa State faced a fourth-and-goal from the four. “Surely they’ll go for it here,” I said. “A field goal doesn’t make any sense.” With less than seven minutes left in the game, UNI’s time was running out, but a six-point lead would be very much more stressful than a ten-point lead. And even if the Cyclones didn’t score on fourth down, UNI would have to start deep in its own end against the stout Cyclone defense. Yep, going for it here just makes sense, I thought.

I groaned as Campbell sent out the field goal unit.

The kick was good, and Iowa State held a 16-10 lead. Northern Iowa was going to get at least one more chance to score a touchdown and win.

This was about the time Nancy turned to me to ask the question I didn’t want to think about. I stopped her before she could say the words I was anticipating. What if we lose to UNI?

The Panthers started what they hoped would be their game-winning drive at the twenty-five yard-line. The crowd came to its feet as UNI faced a third-and-six, and stayed on its feet for fourth-and-two. Get us the ball back, defense. Please. No such luck. The Panther running back moved the chains forward with a four-yard run. Just three plays later, though, UNI faced a third-and-twelve. McElvain threw a deep ball that missed the receiver by a wide margin and was intercepted by Iowa State’s Datrone Young. The crowd cheered thunderously for one of the few times in the afternoon. Iowa State had the ball back with 2:05 left. During the ensuing timeout, the stadium bumped as music played over the loudspeaker. I looked around to the nearly full stadium and took in the scene of people bobbing their heads in some cases, moving their bodies to the beat in some cases, and clapping in rhythm. I saw UNI fans heading toward the exits. It was almost over.

But not quite.

Iowa State predictably ran the ball three times. Northern Iowa was able to stop the clock twice with timeouts, forcing the Cyclones to punt the ball with 1:03 left. A Panther touchdown at this point would essentially win them the game and end Iowa State’s dream season before it could really begin. My friend Eric in front of us, who has a dry sense of humor about these sorts of things, exclaimed “Great! All we need is to screw up once to lose!”

Ughh.

The Panthers got the ball back at their own ten-yard-line, needing to go ninety yards in less than a minute to win. The odds were heavily against them, even as they threw a series of short passes to get to the forty-two. I still held onto some fear. I was imagining UNI getting one Hail Mary play (football speak for a heave to the endzone on the last play of the game.) I did not want to imagine what it would feel like as that ball hung in the air. With fourteen seconds left, McElvain threw in the direction of Hampton on the Cyclone side of the fifty-yard-line, but an Iowa State defender was well-positioned and able to knock the ball down. Six seconds left. Time for one play. Please don’t let something fluky happen. The world stopped as UNI receiver Sam Schnee caught a short pass and ran forward. The Cyclone defense was playing back, protecting the endzone at all costs. Rose calmly made a tackle thirty-three yards from the endzone, and I breathed an enormous sigh of relief.

Iowa State 16, Northern Iowa 10. The dream season lives.

Normally after a win, the loudspeakers play Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline” in celebration. Not today. Nor did they play the Juicy Wiggle. The overwhelming feeling I sensed among fans filing out was relief, not joy.

As we were walking out of the stadium, I finally asked Chris. “What did you text yourself when I wouldn’t let you say it out loud?”

“I said we were going to score a field goal to go up 16-10, and then give up a touchdown to lose.”

Thank goodness he was only half right.

So what if they had lost? How would I have reacted? How would I have continued this journey?

In the moment Nancy was about to ask me that question, in the stands, I really didn’t know the answer. After having time to contemplate it… I still didn’t know the answer. It would have changed the trajectory of this season, and by proxy, my journey through this season in a way that I never truly let my heart believe could happen, even though I knew from an intellectual level that it could.

When I try to answer that question, I just couldn’t. I was mostly thankful that I just didn’t have to.

Kyle Oppenhuizen

editor

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