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Back home again

September 14, 2009


Members of the marching band play at TCF Bank Stadium.

The University of Minnesota Marching Band, a.k.a. "The Pride of Minnesota," performed before and after Saturday night's game and also at halftime, as the sun was beginning to set over the downtown Minneapolis skyline.

Photo: Patrick O'Leary

Fans savor the experience as Gophers christen TCF Bank Stadium with a 20-13 victory

By Rick Moore

Sometimes it's hard to live up to hype, especially when it's three years in the making. 

Since May of 2006, when the Minnesota Legislature and Governor Tim Pawlenty signed off on a new on-campus football stadium, Gopher football fans have had September 12, 2009, circled on their calendar.

That date finally arrived on Saturday, and by all indications, football returned to campus in grand style.

Shortly after 2 p.m., still four hours before kickoff, the scene along University Avenue's fraternity row—never without some excitement on a weekend—was absolutely electric. Music blared, barbecues flamed, and footballs flew through the air.

Some of the most prolific tailgaters were situated at locations off campus. At a parking lot at University Avenue and 27th Street, there were maroon canopies signaling a number of parties, big and small—some with savory spreads of food so impressive that you wanted to crash the party.



But the most festive atmosphere was on campus. Approximately 8,000 fans visited the Game-Day Party at the McNamara Alumni Center, on the site of the old Memorial Stadium. Dressed almost uniformly in gold and maroon, they ate, drank, and listened to the Pigs Eye Jazz Band. Part of the way through its set, the band was joined by Stan Freese, a U alum and world renowned tuba player who fit in seamlessly with the ensemble.

The crowd filled the outdoor plaza and created a human walkway for the traditional Victory Walk. Shortly after 4:00, with the University of Minnesota Marching Band playing and the Spirit Squad cheering, the Gopher football team walked across the plaza through the masses and crossed University Avenue to their new home.

"It's amazing. I just sit back and I look at all these people, and it's so cool. I haven't been to many Gopher events, so to be out here and to do this is [great]," says occasional fan Brenda Metcalf. "I was just looking at those seats over there (behind the west end zone). They're so close and personal; it's incredible."


Fans old and new were impressed with the game-day atmosphere. "It's fabulous to be back on campus," says John Currie of Faribault, Minnesota, who used to go to one or two games a year at the Metrodome. "We're just delighted," adds his wife, Shirl. "It's the first time we've ever had season tickets, so we're ready to go.

Those who didn't have tickets to the game were able to watch it in four different rooms with big-screen TVs in McNamara. But there were plenty of fans out on the street seeking seats in the stadium, and willing to pay quite a few extra dollars for the privilege. One verbal plea, from U sophomore Patty O'Keefe, stood out among the hand-written signs. "Does anybody have extra tickets?" she pleaded. "We want to pay $3."

Her sarcastic bid belied her desperation; in fact, she seemed almost overcome with emotion and was willing to pay $50 for a ticket. "The atmosphere of the people at the U made me excited, it just gave me something so immense to look forward to," says O'Keefe, who was dreesed in a #7 Eric Decker jersey (she's a big fan), and with just traces of the eye black she had applied much earlier. "It's almost too much to handle, it's so exciting. It's something you can't pass up. It's worth scalping tickets."

Inside the stadium, fans that were visiting the venue for the first time walked to the edge of the concourse where the field comes into view. Their wide eyes and smiles were proof positive that TCF Bank Stadium is a site to behold.

"It's amazing. I just sit back and I look at all these people, and it's so cool. I haven't been to many Gopher events, so to be out here and to do this is [great]," says occasional fan Brenda Metcalf. "I was just looking at those seats over there (behind the west end zone). They're so close and personal; it's incredible."

The excitement continued to build before game time. At the end of pre-game warm-ups, the Gopher players went to greet more than 400 former Minnesota players from years past, who were gathered in the northeast corner of the field.

Then it was the band's turn to put on a show, playing the "Minnesota March" and "Battle Hymn of the Republic" before forming a giant "M" and leading the crowd in an especially stirring "Minnesota Rouser."

As the team captains were gathering for the coin toss, nine honorary captains and one honorary coach—96-year-old Murray Warmath—were introduced in an emotional ceremony in the center of the field. There was a flyover by four F-16s (all piloted by Minnesota natives) and the first playing of the national anthem. At 6:05 p.m. the coin landed on tails and the Gophers elected to receive.

Then, at 6:07 p.m. and with a game-time temperature of 80 degrees, the Gophers' Troy Stoudermire returned the opening kickoff 39 yards to midfield, and with that, football had finally and officially returned to campus.

There were many firsts thereafter, including Duane Bennett's 5-yard run on the first play from scrimmage and Eric Ellestad's 34-yard field goal for the first points ever at the new stadium. And the public address announcer was first with a play on the stadium's name: "Put six points in the bank!" (after DeLeon Eskridge's 7-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter).

The only thing that didn't look secure was a Gopher victory. Through three quarters Air Force, with its impressive triple-option offense, had carried the play and was leading 10-3. But 93 seconds after Eskridge's tying touchdown, Gopher linebacker Nate Triplett picked up a fumble forced by Brandon Kirksey and sped 52 yards for a touchdown to put Minnesota up 17-10, and the Gophers never looked back in a satisfying and hard-fought 20-13 victory.

Again, the announcer pounced on the pun: "And the first win at TCF Bank Stadium is in the vault!" For punctuation, fireworks exploded above the stadium (at 9:12 on 9/12 for the numerologists in the crowd), and the Gopher players celebrated with a victory lap around the stadium, their new home for many years to come.

 

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