CHICAGO — Illinois fan Brian Lee bought Northwestern season tickets this year just so he’d have access to the historic game at Wrigley Field, then shelled out $150 a piece for two seats in the east end zone.
“It’s a great venue,” Lee said as he watched Illinois players warm up in the end zone before the game Saturday, the best look he got at the Illini offence in its 48-27 victory over Northwestern. “It just would be nice to see some action coming in this direction.”
Billy goats, black cats, Bartman and now the forbidden end zone. With Wrigley Field playing host to its first college football game in 40 years, something wacky was bound to happen. And no, painting the famed Chicago Cubs marquee purple doesn’t suffice.
Despite months and months of planning for the Wrigleyville Classic, Big Ten officials announced Friday — less than 36 hours before kickoff — that the schools had agreed to run all offensive plays toward the west end zone because of safety concerns. Turns out, the Friendly Confines were a little too cozy, with the east end zone hugging the brick wall in right field so tightly there wasn’t even room for a standard goal post.
No matter if Illinois or Northwestern had the ball, all offensive plays headed toward the third-base dugout Saturday. Kickoffs went the other way and, after the change in possession, referees repositioned the ball so it was pointing west. The only quality time anyone spent at the east end of the field was when Northwestern safety Brian Peters returned an interception 59 yards for a score midway through the first quarter (more on that later).
It was like the pigskin version of “Groundhog Day.”
“I really don’t think it changed the game. It didn’t feel like it,” Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “After seeing it in practice, the right move was to go west the whole game. I think it worked out fine.”
NCAA spokesman Bob Williams said Friday that, to his knowledge, no game has ever been played under similar circumstances.
Wrigley Field is the second-oldest stadium in baseball, as big a contrast to those behemoth modern parks as can be. It’s a mere 368 feet to the wall in left-centre, and fans in the bleachers are so close they can have conversations with the outfielders between innings. There’s so little extra space in the quaint old park that bullpens are located right alongside the base lines.
So there aren’t many options for where to put a football field.
Back when the Chicago Bears called Wrigley home, the field was laid out north-to-south. But there wasn’t much room then, either, and it’s even more snug now that the Cubs have added seats along the first- and third-base lines to baseball’s second-oldest stadium. That’s why placing the field between home plate and centre field wouldn’t work.
No, an east-west layout was the best way to go. To help protect the players, thick padding — decorated with ivy, of course — was put up along the wall behind the east end zone.
But the more school and conference officials looked at it, the more concerned they were that players wouldn’t be able to contain their momentum and would go crashing into the bricks at full speed.
“It would be nice to see it (played) at both ends,” said Bobby Carzoli, a Northwestern freshman who paid $58 for his tickets in the right-field bleachers.
“But at the same time, you don’t want to see any of the guys get hurt. It’s all about their safety.”
With no time to alter the configuration of the field, the schools agreed to play the game the way kids have been doing it in the backyard for years. “OK, we’ll get grounded if we trample Mrs. Smith’s flowerbeds again, and Dad is still taking money out of my allowance to pay for that window I broke. We’ll just go in the same direction and keep switching sides.”
“Yeah, ’losers walk.’ It’s classic old-school, when-we-were-kids football,” Patrick McDermott said.
“So what if they’re all going the same direction?” Marty Kearney added. “Who cares?”
Of course, McDermott and Kearney had tickets in the good end zone. Former Northwestern player Jeff Baer wasn’t so lucky.
Baer, a nose guard for the Wildcats from 1997 to 2001, paid $175 for his seat in the east end zone and wasn’t happy at the thought of watching the backs of jerseys all afternoon.
“I probably wouldn’t have bought these tickets,” he said. “I would be here, but I wouldn’t be in the end zone.”
Northwestern students Shannon Smith and Alex Frank didn’t mind so much.
“We can see all the action,” Frank said. “At Northwestern, we’re not this close to the field.”
And the Wildcats, being good hosts, did give the fans in the east end zone something to see.
Midway through the first quarter, Peters picked off a pass and sprinted for the foreign territory. Linebacker Nate Williams, who had raced alongside Peters keeping the Illini at bay, continued his bodyguard duties in the end zone, hauling down Peters a foot or two short of the brick wall.
“It was a great, great atmosphere,” Illinois coach Ron Zook said. “They enjoyed the opportunity to play at Wrigley Field. It’s something they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.”
Thanks to the latest twist in Wrigley Field lore, everyone will.