The red clay hills just south of the Georgia line are alive with college football. Tallahassee, Florida’s state capital, is more Athens or Auburn than South Beach or Orlando, home to two universities with what sportscasters call “storied” football programs: Florida State University and Florida A&M. FSU’s Seminoles are the defending national champions; FAMU’s Rattlers have amassed 13 championships since 1938, and FAMU’s Marching 100 is the best band on the planet.
I grew up in Tallahassee watching both the Seminoles and the Rattlers, so in September, with the much-touted grudge match between top-drawer teams FSU and Clemson looming, I immersed myself in the bacchanalia of joy and anxiety that seizes the town on fall weekends.
ESPN’s College GameDay road show was in town. FSU’s Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Jameis Winston had been suspended for shouting a seriously profane Internet meme in the middle of the student union. The whole world was watching us (or so it seemed), and the honor of Florida State University was on the line.
First up, a Friday pilgrimage to FSU’s pigskin epicenter, Doak Campbell Stadium. With its towers and battlements, crockets and pointy arches, it looks like a demented castle — a castle with an 83,000-seat football stadium inside.
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Maybe “cathedral” is more accurate: The Coyle E. Moore Athletic Center on the stadium’s north side displays holy sports relics — the jerseys of Seminole Heisman winners Charlie Ward and Chris Weinke, authentic Native American fringed leather coats and feathered turbans (unlike that NFL team in Washington, FSU has the blessing of actual Native Americans, the Seminole Tribe of Florida, to use their name), Atlantic Coast Championship trophies and the three Waterford crystal footballs awarded to the Seminoles for their national titles in 1993, 1999 and 2013, glittering in the sun as it streams through the great stained-glass window.
Yes, I said stained-glass window: Coach Bobby Bowden, called “Saint Bobby” when he coached the Seminoles in the glory days of the 1980s and 1990s, stands nearly three stories high, gazing out over the gridiron.
I wandered out past the shiny new air-conditioned indoor practice facility to the famous Sod Cemetery, a walled garden with nearly 100 small bronze plaques marking the “graves” of grass from the fields of beaten rivals. In 1962, when the Seminoles unexpectedly whipped the Georgia Bulldogs, team captain Gene McDowell snatched some turf from Sanford Stadium and the head coach entombed it near the practice field. When FSU wins an important road game, players snag a bit of field — even if it’s fake — to take home and bury. When the Seminoles edged Auburn in the 1989 Sugar Bowl, a defensive lineman carved out a piece of Superdome AstroTurf.
Because the day was more or less autumnal, I walked. The area nearest FSU’s football fiefdom used to be a scruffy collection of pool halls, warehouses and artists’ studios. A few years ago, the Seminole booster organization developed the stuffing out of it, turning the place into a beige procession of condos, designer burger joints and boutique bars.
But the eastern stretch of Gaines Street still flies its freak flag, with little galleries, vintage clothing shops and eateries like Voodoo Dog, a purple-painted shack that serves up delights such as the Tijuana, a hot dog with guacamole and sour cream, and the PB&B, a hamburger with bacon, cheese and peanut butter.
Over on the leafy campus of FAMU, a smaller, historically black university, I followed the sound of what sounded like funked-up gospel. The Marching 100 were practicing their moves. No matter the football score (and the Rattlers have struggled this year), the Marching 100 never loses a halftime show. The 100 don’t march in the stiff-backed, quasi-military manner of most bands. The 100 dance; they leap; they prance and twirl. It’s like watching a bunch of musical virtuoso gymnasts trained by James Brown. They have appeared at presidential inaugurations, in television commercials and at the bicentennial of the French Revolution celebrations in Paris.
In 2012, the band became famous for the wrong reason: A drum major died as a result of bodily injury from hazing. The university shut the band down for more than a year. Now reinstated, the 100 would swarm onto the field at Bragg Memorial Stadium tomorrow afternoon, as Joe Bullard, the “Voice” of the 100, intones, “From the highest of the seven hills of Tallahassee, one of the most exciting bands in the world!”
After nearly an hour of listening (and, OK, dancing), I was ready to hit the Downtown GetDown, the pregame street festival Tallahassee throws the evening before home games. You can buy a Seminoles or Rattlers T-shirt, get your face painted garnet-and-gold or orange-and-green, high-kick along with legions of cheerleaders, grab a beer and snag some fried Gulf shrimp, or a deep-fried Oreo — in the event you crave a deep-fried Oreo.
Tallahassee profits from college football, of course: A weekend when both the Seminoles and the Rattlers play at home can be worth more than $7 million to the local economy.
But our football obsession runs far deeper. During the notorious Bush v. Gore presidential vote recount in 2000, Tallahassee hotels politely but firmly booted D.C. lobbyists, spin doctors, $700-an-hour lawyers and even a former U.S. secretary of state out of their rooms. It was the weekend of the game between FSU and the University of Florida, the state’s bitterest rivalry, and those rooms had been booked by Seminoles and Gators a year in advance. So what if the nation was on the verge of a constitutional crisis? This was football!
I met up with some friends for grouper sandwiches at Andrew’s, a sports bar and grill beloved by Florida politicians and ground zero for the GetDown. We sat outside under the magnolia trees, which meant it was hard to carry on a conversation: The FSU cheerleaders were high-kicking and shouting nearby, a band called Tom and the Cats was wailing and a bunch of people at the bar kept belting out the FSU fight song. Still, we managed to air our Seminole paranoia.
Me: “We’re going to lose to Clemson. That backup quarterback looks shaky. And what if it rains?”
My friend Adam: “I’m more worried about FSU’s defense.”
My friend Janet: “There goes the season.”
Saturday dawned clear and sunny. By 10 a.m., every available inch of grass, concrete or asphalt within a mile of Doak Campbell Stadium had been staked out for a party. Florida State tailgates aren’t usually as elegant as ones in the Grove at Ole Miss, where Delta aristocrats set their tables with white linen and silver, or as raucous as those at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where the liquor stores open extra early.
They are, however, exceptionally friendly. Strangers walking past get invited in for ribs and a drink. On my way to seeing how close I could get to the ESPN GameDay set, I took time out for a bloody mary under the shade of a live oak tree and partook of boiled peanuts and some excellent Brunswick stew at a huge tent where nobody seemed to be sure who the hosts were, but everything, including the napkins and plates, the glasses, the chairs, the tablecloths and the T-shirt on somebody’s Labrador retriever, was garnet and gold.
I ‘scuse-me-y’alled my way over to where I could make out the GameDay set on the south end of the stadium near the equestrian statue of a Seminole warrior with a burning spear. ESPN analyst Lee Corso, who played football for FSU in the 1950s (and roomed with Burt Reynolds) picked FSU to beat Clemson. The crowd howled with approval. It was still hours before kickoff and the party was just getting started.
Despite the first-string quarterback’s benching, despite Clemson’s thirst for revenge (FSU beat them bad last year), despite my worry (I’m a football Calvinist, always assuming the worst), FSU won. In overtime and barely, but a win is a win. FAMU, alas, lost. Still, most of Tallahassee rang with joy and smelled of beer. We could all go home to the sweet sleep of the victor – once the traffic cleared out.
Diane Roberts’ book on college football will be published by HarperCollins in 2015.
Going to Tallahassee
Getting there: American Airlines has several nonstops a day from Miami, a trip of about 11/2 hours each way; there are no nonstops from Fort Lauderdale. The drive from downtown Miami is about 480 miles along Florida’s Turnpike.
Football: Boston College is at FSU on Nov. 22. The state’s biggest rivalry brings Florida to Tallahassee on Nov. 29. FAMU has no more home games this season
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Duval, 415 N. Monroe St.; 850-224-6000; www.hotelduval.com. Mid-century modern boutique hotel with lots of glass and marble. The rooftop bar has good views over the city and both campuses. Rooms from $149.
Days Inn, 15375 U.S. Hwy. 19, Thomasville, Ga.; 800-615-3107; www.daysinn.com/Thomasville. Plain, clean and about 40 minutes from Doak Campbell Stadium. Rooms from $61.
WHERE TO EAT
Andrew’s Capital Grill & Bar, 228 South Adams St.; 850-222-3444; www.andrewsdowntown.com. Salads, burgers, seafood and other American fare on the jokey political menu (the “Bob Graham-burger” and the “Marco Cubio” Cuban sandwich named for former and current senators from Florida). TVs tuned to sports channels. Mains from $10.
Voodoo Dog, 805 S. Macomb St.; 850-224-0005; Designer dogs from $3.50.
Waterworks, 1133 Thomasville Rd.; 850-224-1887. Friendly, funny postmodern tiki bar with good wine list, creative cocktails and show-off beer. Terrific meatball sub, eggplant sandwich, pita bread pizza, hummus and perfect french fries. Mains from $6 and cocktails from $7.
WHAT TO DO
Coyle E. Moore Athletic Center, North side, Doak Campbell Stadium; 850-644-1079; www.seminoles.com. See the national championship trophies and other FSU sports memorabilia. Monday-Friday 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free.
The Sod Cemetery, www.fsusodcemetery.com. Near the stadium, open before home games. For the 2014 season, famous former Seminole football players will be giving “Sod Talks” on their important victories.
The Carrie Meek-James N. Eaton, Sr. Southeastern Regional Black Archives Research Center and Museum, Florida A&M University, 445 Gamble St.; 850-599-3020; www.famu.edu/BlackArchives/. Extraordinary collection illuminating African American life from the antebellum period to the present. Monday-Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free.