New Jersey is not exactly college football country.
Unlike Alabama, where they have zero professional sports teams – which tends to bring all the focus to college and high school athletics – my home state is spoiled with options; not only do we have pro teams in every sport, we typically have 2-3 to choose from. Growing up, we weren't exactly debating about whether to support Montclair State or Rutgers.
Then, at 17, I moved to the New Brunswick area. A few years later I got a job at The Daily Targum, the Rutgers University newspaper. I didn't exactly cover sports, but it was my responsibility to edit and layout those articles. Combing over the stories line-by-line, already a giant sports fan to begin with, it didn't take long for me to become a proper, dedicated fan.
I really took notice at the beginning of the Greg Schiano era. After going 12-34 in his first four years as coach, the Jersey football savior finally lead Rutgers to a bowl game in year five, due in no small part to the efforts of veteran running back Brian Leonard and his counterpart, freshman Ray Rice.
Then, in 2006 I was part of an experience I'll never forget. Rutgers took on third-ranked Louisville at home, late in the season, and beat them on a field goal with 13 seconds left. It sent our red-clad fans spilling onto the field and our team into the national title hunt. Pandemonium in Piscataway.
As the night production manager, I had to stay until the bitter end of the newspaper process. It was a late game and nationally televised, so the stories wouldn't be submitted until after midnight…meaning the paper wouldn't go to press until at least 2:00 a.m. The old office was on down on Easton Avenue, and the second Jeremy Ito kicked the game-winning field goal, I heard what I thought was a riot.
Having a cigarette out on the street I saw a college town explode. I saw what looked like Columbus or Austin or Tuscaloosa on a game night. I saw a real team, with real fans and an explosive energy after a dramatic win. That's when I was officially hooked. Watching the sea of red swim down Easton, singing the fight song and climbing the streetlights.
It's been mostly downhill since then. Schiano left for the NFL and now it's the Kyle Flood era…after a 2013 with no wins over bowl teams, and Rutgers joining the Big 10 Conference, I'm cautiously optimistic about this season. I expect a huge year out of a veteran offensive line and exciting tight end Tyler Kroft. I'm hoping the secondary can pull it together, especially with the offenses they're about to see. I'm nervous and hopeful, everything a fan should be…and it will be cool to see the Michigan Wolverines playing on River Road. Hopefully, for our sake, another sea of red ensues.
Benny Horowitz plays drums in the Gaslight Anthem. The band's new album, Get Hurt, is out now.