A funny thing happens when you watch teams win games of high magnitude on television.
When fans go crazy following a ridiculously large play or a big victory, while very excited, it seems like they each still have total control of their faculties at that moment. If the crowd is actually "going crazy," it doesn't completely translate via the broadcast.
But when you're in the stadium (as I was at Kinnick last Saturday) and it's one of the biggest games in Iowa history, and you've been screaming for 3+ hours trying to will Iowa to one of its most momentous wins ever... you're going to lose your mind in the biggest moments. Like, really lose it.
In no moment was this more evident than Nico Ragani's game-winning 44-yard touchdown reception in the fourth quarter. My seat in section 129 at Kinnick Stadium—39 rows up on the 20-yard line on the west side of the field, near the north end zone—provides not only a great view of everything no matter where the ball is on the field, but when teams are driving toward the north end zone it often feels like the action is happening in my lap.
The problem during this play, however, was that as Ragani dove for the pylon in the corner I couldn't see whether or not he actually made it into the end zone, nor if the referee signaled a touchdown on the play.
Why? Because I had already jumped on the back of the guy next to me, Dave, and we nearly toppled over. As if it was choreographed, we both caught our balance, I hopped off his back, we shared a quick laugh, and then we high-fived like nothing happened.
At the moment it seemed normal but I now realize, in a vacuum, that jumping on the back of a complete stranger is pretty crazy. But when you're at a college football game between top-five teams and the Hawkeyes pull off a stirring comeback, you tend to get a lot of crazy during the game and plenty of insanity afterwards. And god bless it.
One goes through an interesting sensation when observing a field-storming in person (as I have twice now). Not only does it feel like time has slowed to a near standstill as members of the crowd gradually cover the playing field, but it's also very wild to see people suddenly start rushing in every single direction with seemingly no plan in sight once they reach the hollowed ground. The whole experience closely resembles watching Jim Valvano's famous "looking for someone to hug" run after the 1983 NCAA title game. Just pure, unadulterated chaos.
As I worked my way down to the Kinnick Stadium turf, a condensed version of the last two hours played through my head. Following a second quarter Nittany Lions field goal handing them a 17-3 lead, Dave looked over to me in despair. The two of us shared an exasperated sigh and a glance—like we both knew the world was hurtling towards the sun but could do nothing about it. Dave then leaned over to me and muttered, "1600 bucks."
"1600 bucks?" I asked.
"A friend of mine at our tailgate said a dude was looking for four tickets and was willing to offer 400 bucks a pop. My friend is an idiot, we could've flipped all of our tickets for $1600. Instead I came to this crap. Typical."
I'd love to say that at that moment I told Dave he was crazy and that he shouldn't have taken the offer in hindsight, but Iowa's offense was so bad up to that point that it didn't feel like they could score 10 points, let alone the 23 they eventually needed to win the game. Still, I was able to mumble out a half-hearted attempt to justify his decision to come, when in reality I wasn't sure I shouldn't have sold my ticket for 400 big ones.
"Well, I guess they'll just have to come back and win this thing then. You never know."
Little did we know that one play prior to the field goal Jack Campbell laid a big hit on Penn State quarterback Sean Clifford who, you may have heard, missed the rest of the game. Fror the remainder of the game, the Hawkeye defense shut down the Nittany Lions' attack, the laboring Iowa offense finally came around in the fourth quarter, the good guys won the game, and chaos ensued.
As endless streams of Iowa fans clogged the aisleways, either heading up to the concourse or down to the party, my only recourse was to hop down the rows from bleacher to bleacher, high-stepping as if I was an Iowa defensive back running back a pick-six. All the while, the scene playing out in front of me was so stunning and somewhat unexpected that I had to pause my descent on occasion and take what was approximately 300 pictures and videos and selfies amidst the mayhem.
Upon reaching the first row I joined a couple of fellow Iowa fans in climbing over the wall where I was greeted by a good samaritan who had set up a folding chair as a make-shift landing step and assisted our entry. I crawled over the wall, planted my right foot on the chair, pushed off and landed on the Kinnick Stadium turf. I trotted out and stopped on the 25-yard line marker painted on the field where I attempted to soak in the moment, doing a 360-scan of my surroundings which was less an observational exercise but more of a "pinch me, is this really happening" moment.
The players were long up the tunnel and into the locker room, but the celebration was still going strong. 25 yards away to my right a cauldron of students was still gathered at midfield, screaming and jumping around as if the game had ended just seconds earlier. To my left, several small groups dotted the north end zone. Several of them were taking turns snapping photos of each other pointing at the scoreboard), lying on the black and gold end zone turf, or just smiling and posing for a picture as if at a wedding.
It was at this moment that I wasn't sure what I was supposed to be doing. Legally, I likely was supposed to exit the playing field immediately—as the Kinnick Stadium announcer had politely asked fans to do about 100 times up to that point. But I was going to milk this opportunity for all it was worth.
So, as if I was talking a peaceful Sunday morning stroll along the Des Moines river, I did just that from the north 25-yard line to its southern counterpart. I witnessed Iowa fans of all ages laughing and hugging in joy. A pair of women had unfurled a large "Hawks by a Million" banner, posing with it for pictures on the north end zone goal line. I laid down on the Kinnick Stadium turf and snapped selfies of myself on the 10-yard line and lying in the end zone. After all, how many chances would I get like this again?
While the pictures are great and all, I still took a moment during my jaunt to just take it all in.
I wanted to take in the fans wandering around the field with no destination in sight.
I wanted to take in the magic of the eastern Iowa sky that rose high above the Kinnick Stadium lights.
Most importantly though, I wanted to take in what was a perfect night for this Hawkeyes team, their fans, and the Iowa football program as a whole.
#3 Iowa beat #4 Penn State 23-20 and now I was standing in the end-zone at Kinnick stadium. It doesn't get much better than that.
Finally, as law enforcement professionals and stadium security started to break up the small gatherings across the lawn, I noticed a tinge of impatience in the PA announcer's voice as he once again asked fans to "please leave the playing field immediately." Sensing it was finally time to leave, I took one last look at the aftermath of the Hawkeyes' biggest win at home in 36 years. Wanting one last keepsake, I pointed my phone up at the Kinnick Stadium scoreboard to capture the final score, but it was too late. The scoreboard had already been turned off.
And so, using another folding chair to assist me, I sprung up into the north end zone bleachers and, with the insane crowds long gone, quickly rushed up the aisle and into the concourse. Later, as I boarded the free Cambus shuttle back to downtown Iowa City, I noticed Dave and his wife sitting near the back of the bus.
"Were you on the field?" he asked me.
"Hell yeah!" I answered. "Thank goodness you didn't sell your tickets."
"Oh yes. It's Iowa football, I should've known better." He said.
"How's your back?" I asked.
Though he was wearing a mask, I could detect the smile in his voice as he replied, "Never felt better."