Sept. 20, 2011
By Bob Socci
I awakened just in time to see the sun rising over the Manhattan skyline Sunday morning, as Amtrak's Northeast 150 rolled slowly toward it's next stop, Penn Station.
My ride on the train began a few hours earlier, at about 3:40 a.m., which happened to be a few hours after the Delta charter carrying the Navy football team from South Carolina touched down at BWI Airport. The Midshipmen were headed to Annapolis, so close to returning as conquering heroes after a near upset of the 10th-ranked Gamecocks.
I, on the other hand, was going in the opposite direction, northbound toward Boston. Aware of the my itinerary, one of Navy's team docs, Cmdr. J.P. Rue, M.D. joking invoked one of my all-time favorites, Planes, Trains & Automobiles, to describe my adventure.
Wandering through an eerily near-empty BWI, before circling the airport grounds -- just a shuttle driver, her trainee and me -- I couldn't help but relive some of the funniest scenes of that John Candy-and-Steve Martin classic (Those aren't pillows!).
Chuckling to myself, I welcomed the diversion. Unfortunately, it wasn't nearly enough to take my mind off the longing I had to get back to my wife and son later that Sunday, or the lingering disappointment from Saturday night.
Of course, the former would be satisfied. It was just a matter of miles and minutes. Lots of minutes. Regarding the latter, opportunity had come and gone. No one understood more fully than the Mids themselves.
"We didn't come here for moral victories," Navy head coach Ken Niumatalolo told reporters before leaving Williams-Brice Stadium. "Our guys are heartbroken now."
"I can't get over how pitiful we were at the end of the game," senior co-captain Alexander Teich said. "When you need big-time plays and nobody steps up to make those plays it's just sad."
Teich was overly hard on himself and teammates. Then, that's what one expects of, as Niumatalolo reminded us, a "program that's won a few games, too."
Contorting my body across two seats and between a pair of arm rests, I started replaying scenes from Navy's near miss.
Once more Carolina converted on 3rd-and-15, completing a 34-yard pass before tying the game at 14-14; and the Mids were stopped on 4th-and-2, only to see the Gamecocks take a halftime lead, after a pass for 12 on 4th-and-10.
Again a Navy win seemed inevitable, what with a 16-yard strike from Kriss Proctor to Matt Aiken on 4th-and-15 to keep the Mids' final series alive. After that, I thought, a drive of destiny. Until a pop pass landed incomplete and a last gasp was intercepted.
Viewed through the mind's eye, everything looked the same. Nothing changed. The defending SEC division champ remained unbeaten; the challenger still vanquished despite its valiant effort.
Eventually, I managed to close my eyes and fall asleep. When they reopened, about the time New York City came into view, other passengers rose from their seats, readying to disembark.
One of them, a few rows ahead, across the aisle, was a tall blonde-haired woman; she reminded me a bit of the Betty Thomas character on Hill Street Blues. She walked past, headed for the rear door of our car.
And as if an epiphany, she was wearing a light blue sweatshirt that read "Air Force Falcons." I kid you not.
At the crack of daylight in the Big Apple, it dawned on me. South Carolina was left behind. It was time to move on.
And move on, we will, to the Oct. 1 showdown in Annapolis between Navy and Air Force. But first, I'd like share some of the highlights of the season's first two trips for the totally unofficial faction of the Academy's `Official Party,'
Who or what might that or they be? Well, it's we. And we're the folks who talk on (and off) the radio, shoot video (and the breeze), issue press releases (and opinions) and punch tickets (and push buttons). Some are called support staff; others something else entirely.
Anywhere from 8-10 of us accompany the Midshipmen. But while players and coaches hole up in hotel meeting rooms, we tend to get out and about, experiencing our environs. Everywhere from Michigan City, Ind. to Monroe, La. Or this season, from Bowling Green, Ky. to Columbia, S.C.
As much as I'm tempted to tell all -- I'll save that for the memoirs -- suffice to say that the only musts to survive our get-togethers are a sense of humor and thick skin. If you don't have either at the outset; you'll develop it before long. I'm proof of that, I think. For us, Friday night lights signal a time to eat, drink and laugh; usually at each other's expense.
So, without further adieu, the best and anything-but-the-best from our visits to the Bluegrass and Palmetto States.
DINERS, DRIVE-INS & DIVES
Aside from the game itself, the most important agenda on our weekend itineraries is where to eat the night before.
When not compiling volumes of tidbits about the Mids, dispatching emails or closely monitoring weather conditions, Sports Information Director Scott Strasemeier researches area restaurants. It's an important job; one he rightfully takes seriously.
For Navy's first-ever trip to Western Kentucky, he came up with a place known as Mariah's. Built in 1818, the Mariah Moore House is the oldest standing brick structure in Bowling Green. A restaurant since the late 1970s, inside it has the feel and look of a modern sports bar. There were plenty of games within sight of our table, surrounded by well-known athletes painted on the brick walls. Pete Rose was doing a head-first dive right at us. As tacky as such decor might seem in print, the murals actually looked good.
The competition for best order of the night was heated, in more ways than one. The worst order was no contest. That one belonged to me.
What was I thinking ordering a turkey burger? Not even the avocado, swiss and mushrooms made it work. Worse yet, my `baked' sweet potato had microwave-tough skin. At least it held up well to all the good-natured jabs going around the table.
The top entrees of our night included:
Hot Brown ~ Slow-roasted turkey breast served open face on marbled rye bread, topped off with a white cheddar mornay sauce, crisp brown sugar bacon, grilled tomatoes and parmesan cheese.
Pot Roast ~Tender roast, slowly cooked overnight in its natural juices. Served with potatoes, carrots & onions.
Low Country Shrimp & Grits ~ Six blackened coastal shrimp, served over stoneground grits and Cajun gravy.
For one night anyway, radio producer Frank Diventi, a.k.a. Mr. Baltimore, became a Kentuckian, opting for the hot brown. He did well. And who doesn't love pot roast, especially in our Navy football gang? But the clear-cut winner was shrimp & grits. This should come as no surprise: my broadcast partner Omar Nelson placed the winning order.
What made Omar's the top dish is the dessert that came with it. Something inconsequential, like a vegetable, was missing from his plate. Therefore, the ex-Navy fullback was offered a free dessert. He chose the Galaxy Ice Cream Pie (Oreo cookie crust, Baskin-Robbins Gold Medal Ribbon ice cream and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups topped with chocolate caramel sauce and pecans).
With enough caloric sustenance for all of us, there were spoons for everyone. It sure made that turkey burger more palatable.
Among Scott's suggestions for South Carolina was Pawleys Front Porch. The fact that it was featured in a Dec. 2010 episode of Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives made it a unanimous choice.
Located close to campus -- unlike either our hotel or, it appeared, Williams-Brice Stadium -- Pawleys was packed. Our wait was long, but worthwhile. Guy Fieri did not let us down.
Generally, I don't order red meats. But here, burgers are the specialty. And just as I wouldn't eat pasta in a pizza joint or ask for steak in a sushi restaurant, I had to go with an All-American beef patty.
I made the right call: Kiawah, prepared medium-well with marinated portobella mushrooms, fire roasted peppers and melted brie cheese. Plus, a side of sweet-potato fries, sprinkled with cinnamon; and a taste of New England (Whale's Tail Pale Ale) to wash it down.
So as not to feel so guilty about such a pleasure, I did order a side house salad, while abstaining from both the:
Fried Green Tomato Napoleon (layered with homemade boursin cheese, cajun crab dip and topped with sweet chipotle mayonnaise).
And Fried Pickle Sickles (with buttermilk ranch).
Overall, September's winning dining choice? Hey, at Navy we're beholden to the triple-option and we swear by Triple-D.
SOUTHERN HOSPITALITY DEPENDS ON WHERE YOU ARE
Pawleys may have given Carolina the edge on cuisine -- if I may, considering that we're talking about burgers here -- but Western Kentucky proved a more hospitable place. How so? Well, consider the following:
While dining at Mariah's, our table was approached by a young man who asked if we were visiting from the Naval Academy. Told `yes,` he introduced himself as the brother of Army quarterback Trent Steelman. His other brother was in the corner of the bar and raised a glass to our table. They, like everyone else we encountered in Bowling Green, were pretty cool. Especially considering that they're kin of an arch rival.
Then there was the last memory of our visit to a very pretty campus. We were boarding the team buses, about to pull away from the stadium and head to the airport, when a Western Kentucky student stopped by to thank me -- me, of all people! -- for coming to Bowling Green. Maybe his gratitude was misdirected -- he should have thanked the Mids or someone else, in uniform -- but it was the kind of sincere gesture that greets Navy throughout its travels across the college football landscape.
Until, that is, the Midshipmen entered Williams-Brice Stadium. They were actually booed by the majority of the 78,807 Gamecock fans, waving towels and still harboring resentment over Navy's 1984 upset of then No. 2 USC. The air of hostility rose to the press level, where one expects to encounter, at the very least, a professional ethos.
Omar and I rode the elevator together, chatting on the way up with a very friendly operator who wished us a "blessed day." A good man. There was a third passenger, who remained mostly quiet on the ride. I have no idea what he was doing there -- radio guy, newspaper man? But this I know for sure: he had his game face on, and he wasn't there to welcome the Midshipmen.
The elevator doors separated, Omar and I turned to the left and the odd man out started to the right. He took a step, stopped and looked back at us. In all seriousness, he said: "We're gonna stick it to ya'."
Wow, it's enough to make me look forward to New Jersey next month.