It's the second quarter of the Brown vs. Dartmouth football game at Fenway Park and the Celtics are losing. I’m in the reception area that leads to the press box with some of the ballpark’s quality specialists, and we’re watching basketball on TV. It’s a better game than the one taking place outside, and besides, it's warmer in here.
Outside these walls, the baseball diamond has been turned into a football field for the Gridiron Series, where college football teams from New England will play this weekend and next. Fenway has flirted with football since World War II, when an enterprising guy named Ted Collins tried to start a team called the Boston Yanks and make Fenway their home field (it didn’t work). A few years ago the park hosted a Boston College game against Notre Dame.
When I first saw field goals on the third-base line of America's oldest ballpark this afternoon, it was like walking into my favorite pizza place and discovering it had started serving bagels instead. There was some serious cognitive dissonance, but, at the same time, Fenway is Fenway. Standing on the field sent the same electricity down my spine that I felt as a 7-year-old when I went to my first Red Sox game.
Tickets were selling during the week, but very few people showed up on this 26-degree Friday night thanks to the windchill that feels like negative bajillion. There are probably only 7,000 people in the 37,000-capacity stadium. Next week, when Boston College plays UConn, the turnout will probably be higher, but who knows by how much.
Pat, one of the guys who works at Fenway on the weekends and teaches high school physics during the week, sits down on a chair next to me. He’s wearing a Patriots winter hat and his official Red Sox jacket. An older man named Sean sits behind the receptionist’s desk. The two work together now, but Sean was once Pat’s high school teacher in Medford. He scolds his former student for not wearing a Sox hat at Fenway. Pat laughs and tells Sean to buy him one if he wants him to wear it so badly.
Then Pat asks me why I’m here. I tell him I’m writing about college football at Fenway, and he rolls his eyes.
“It doesn’t make sense,” he says, gesturing out toward the field where Dartmouth is destroying Brown.
“UMass-UMaine will be better than this,” he continues, his Boston accent softening better to bettah. “But college football around here, who are we gonna root for? BC? And then BC gets trampled? Nah. Fenway just didn’t wanna have hockey here this year.”
“Why do they have to have anything here besides baseball?” I ask.
“Money,” Pat says, shrugging.
A few hours before l meet Pat and Sean and a few minutes after kickoff, I’m standing on the sidelines behind legendary ESPN sportscaster Chris Berman. He’s wearing his famous khaki slacks and leather loafers, watching each play with intense focus. Berman went to Brown, and the school made him an honorary captain for this, the final “home” game of the season. As far as I can tell, the crowd is made up mostly of alumni who live in Boston and families of players. It doesn’t seem like many current students showed up for the game.
To say Brown’s season has been tough is an understatement. They've lost to every other Ivy they’ve played. Berman wanted to speak to the team to pump them up before they took the field tonight, but he somehow got stuck talking to the boosters instead.
“And what good does that do?” he asks an old classmate who’s come down from his seat to say hello. The two chat for a bit, and Berman tells him he made a bet with a different friend, someone who went to Dartmouth. If Dartmouth wins, Berman owes the guy a seafood dinner. If Brown wins, the friend has to send Berman a case of maple syrup. A proper mayor’s bet.
I ask him why playing at Fenway matters.
“It’s something [players] didn't think they'd get,” Berman says. “Playing Ivy League football is good enough, but this is playing at Fenway. This they remember. Even if they aren't from here. They haven’t won an Ivy game yet. But if they win this one ...”
He trails off as he watches one of Brown’s players get tackled. He shakes his head.
“This is one will be in their pocket for 60 years,” he continues, looking back at me. “If they get it at 20, they keep it at 80.”
Brown won't win — Dartmouth will beat them 33-10. There will be hardly anyone left in the stands by 10:30 to watch them lose.
It’s the next afternoon, about an hour before kickoff, and I’m talking to Maine offensive coordinator Liam Coen on the field. He’s very polite and soft-spoken, but he walks away in the middle of a sentence when he spots his old UMass roommate walking toward him. To be fair, so would a lot of other people; Coen’s college buddy is Victor Cruz, the wide receiver who played for the Giants for seven years and is now a free agent.
“Vic!” Coen says, and the two give each other one of those long, genuine, wow-it’s-so-good-to-see-you-I’ve-missed-you-so-much hugs. They’re obviously still close.
“You’re just like, what is this?” Cruz says to me after he and Coen catch up for a bit. Cruz laughs as he looks around the football-ified Fenway. “It’s almost like when you go to London and play on rugby fields. I played in London last year, and I was blown away by how they transformed these places. Initially it’s weird, but once you start playing, I mean, football is football. Draw those lines on the field, get those ticks on the sidelines.”
Josh Mack comes up to say hi to Cruz. Mack is a freshman running back for Maine from Rochester, N.Y., who’s quietly posting impressive numbers; he’s rushed for over 100 yards in six straight games. Mack asks to take a picture with Cruz for his Snapchat, and Cruz gladly agrees. I take it for them. Mack grins when I show him the photo. Then he tells me how excited he is to be here.
“This is my first time being in a major league stadium,” Mack says. He seems a little shy.
"I’ve never been to a basketball game, a football game, a baseball game, or hockey," he continues. "It’s very exciting, even though it’s a football field right now, just being here. Seeing it. My family’s going to be here, too. It’s amazing. If you asked me this last year, I wouldn’t have thought that would be me.”
Coen’s strategy for the game is basically just to give the ball the Mack. The offensive coordinator has been turning the team around, and knows what he’s doing; he has roots in college football that go about as deep as they can in this part of America. His father started the football program at Salve Regina college in Rhode Island, and Coen played quarterback for UMass from ’04 to ’08. He coached there for a few years, too, before joining the staff of the Black Bears last fall.
“I don’t want to say there’s a lack of respect for the game around here,” Coen says. “But maybe there’s a lack of importance at times. Our kids love the game as much as anybody else. Being at Fenway is unbelievable. I grew up going to games here.”
He pauses, looks around.
“Some kids understand what it is, some don’t,” he continues. “I mean, one of our kids just called the Green Monster the Big Green Wall.”
The game starts. UMass scores a touchdown immediately, and then UMaine scores on the next drive. The game is sloppy but fun. The seats have filled up a bit, and people in Minutemen and Black Bear gear roam the concourses, buying beers and hot dogs. The expansive UMass marching band, with its intricate choreography, makes the game feel celebratory, but it also kind of just highlights the emptiness. There are as many band members in the outfield stands as there are fans behind where home plate should be.
“New England has never been about college sports,” says Tom Tasker, a middle-aged guy in a Patriots hat sitting by the Sox dugout from Boylston, Mass. “If this were a Big Ten, SEC, even ACC game — it’d be sold out. I'd say there are 10,000 people here, tops. And we're freezing our asses off.”
We are freezing our asses off. I can’t feel mine, and half of my toes have gone numb. Tasker’s son is supposed to be sitting next to him, but Gillian’s, a bar down the street, is warmer and has cheaper booze, so he’s there instead. Tasker shrugs; this is normal. When UMass has played at Gillette in past seasons, hardly any students went. No one wanted to be stuck watching a bad team two hours away from campus.
“You got the Pats, the Celtics, the Sox, the Bruins. I mean, it's always been that way,” Tasker says. “UMass isn’t good; if they were good, people would rally. But I'll admit, I didn't give a rat’s ass about them ’til my son went there and his friend from high school was on the team. There are only so many hours a sports fan’s day, and only so many dollars in their wallet. If you ask me, this is about the Red Sox making money. I don't mean to be a cynic, but there are no students here.”
By the fourth quarter, Tasker is gone, and I’ve made my way up to the press box to try to seek out any bit of warmth. I’d be surprised if there are even 1,000 people remaining in the stands as the game ends. Those who did stay are mostly families of players.
These games are gimmicks, sure, but many college football games are. Take any random bowl game that doesn’t matter: It’s designed to pull in a profit for the school, venue, and the city. These Gridiron Series games ostensibly are too, though I’m not sure if the ballpark made any money on it. Fenway wouldn’t disclose figures, but in the media dining center earlier today an employee told me that while all the suites sold out for last night’s Ivy League game, hardly any did for UMass-UMaine. Regular ticket sales weren’t great across the board.
Playing not-great college football at a baseball stadium in a part of the country that cares more about professional teams makes no sense. But here we are, and for one game — even if it’s freezing cold and the crowd is small — the stage is bigger than these players are used to. The stage is Fenway, the wooden anchor in Boston’s sea of new glass and steel. We’re in the rickety, beating heart of a city, a state, a region. Whether you’re a player like Mack, who’s never been in a stadium before, or Chris Berman, who’s been in all of them, it’s exciting.
Sure, you can wine and dine alumni here. But these games this weekend have ended up mostly being gifts for college athletes who will never hear the roar of an entire state’s fan base fill a stadium, because that fan base doesn’t exist. Whether they’re from an exclusive institution or part of a public education system, these guys now all share the memory of celebrating a touchdown in Fenway’s outfield. For kids who grew up idolizing the players who smashed home runs over the Green Monster, this is the most home a game can get, and even kids who think it’s called the Big Green Wall can still recognize that today is special. And that it’s theirs forever.