A fan protests a personal foul committed by Western Carolina during the second half.
  • David Fellerath
  • A fan protests a personal foul committed by Western Carolina during the second half.

“The Gulf War did not take place.” —Jean Baudrillard

CARTER-FINLEY STADIUM/ RALEIGH—I arrived at Carter-Finley Stadium an hour before kickoff, for what would turn out to be the longest Saturday night I’ve had in a long time.

I hadn’t seen a live football game in several years, but college pigskin is a bug one never quite recovers from. So, on a lovely Labor Day weekend afternoon, I happily made my way to Raleigh to see the N.C. State Wolfpack open their season against a patsy from the North Carolina mountains, otherwise known as the Western Carolina University Catamounts.

But first, I needed a parking place. My media credential entitled me to a spot in the State Fairgrounds lot on Trinity Road. I found my way there without too much difficulty, despite the wave upon wave of red-clad revelers: “Wolf!” “Pack!” “Wolf!” “Pack!”

Some of the kids were pouring off circulator buses aptly dubbed “Red Terror Transit.” [1] But most of the students thronging the roads were coming from the parking lot I was trying to reach. And so I drove into a massive tailgate, feeling as if I’d arrived on the third day of Bonnaroo. Litter was everywhere, and N.C. State students were stumbling to and fro. A parking attendant assured me, however, that if I kept driving the direction I was going, another attendant would have a spot for me. And so it came to pass, and I was waved into a narrow spot that seemed reserved for discarded Bojangles boxes, beer cans and a Kingsford charcoal bag,

I waded through an inebriated tide of red pride, feeling older and older (“Wolf!” “Pack!”) and maybe a little like Tom Wolfe upon his first glimpse of a game day at Duke. As I finished the 200-yard walk to the end of the lot, I saw a sorry-looking but enraged white undergraduate pinned against a car by a couple of friends who were screaming at him. A second later, I realized he had just received a mighty punch to his left eye, which was bleeding. The ruptured vessels under his eyelid were already swelling, and the kid was bawling and struggling to go after his no-longer-present assailant. I walked on.

Then there was a commotion and a half-dozen state troopers broke from their traffic-directing duties to apprehend someone. He turned out to be the first person I’d seen who wasn’t wearing red. He seemed like an outsider, as he was a slightly older black man wearing a white sleeveless undershirt. He was on his knees, with his hands behind his back. I maneuvered for a better look, but I didn’t learn any more about the incident(s), which will surely be recorded on a list of similar incidents during the day, a list that may be longer or shorter than those lists kept on other football occasions.

It was with some relief that I walked into the stadium where no more alcohol would be available.

I took the elevator to the press box, which is located on the third floor of C. Richard Vaughn Towers. The Vaughn Towers, named for a Mt. Airy construction industry titan, is basically a four-story cruise ship located over the west side of the stadium. Fifty-two luxury boxes are spread over two floors; individual suites can be leased for $45,000 a season.

C. Richard Vaughn with Caterpillar
  • David Fellerath
  • C. Richard Vaughn with Caterpillar

The press box is located on the third floor, and smiling ushers waved me into the observation deck. I walked in, past a painting of C. Richard Vaughn himself, depicted on a freshly bulldozed lot with two Caterpillars in the distance. It was so remarkable in its John Galt-ness that I took a photo (at left, and sorry about the reflections).

After a buffet of barbecue and brownies, I settled into my seat, which afforded me a bird’s eye view of the action. I also had a deaf bird’s sense of the sound below. It was eerily quiet. Just low-key shop talk among the reporters. Someone noticed that the national anthem was beginning and we all stood, even though we couldn’t hear it except when the crowd shouted “OH!”

For the next three hours, I watched a football game. As they say, it was a tale of two halves. But not for the football teams: With the exception of a briefly promising opening touchdown drive by the visiting Western Carolina Catamounts, it was one-way traffic as the N.C. State Wolf! Pack! triumphed 48-7.

No, the two halves were my experience of the game. The first half was one of alienation and bewilderment, and the second half… well, at least I felt like I was present at the event I was covering.

Football is a sport that should be experienced in one of two ways: As part of a live crowd (high school, college or pro), or on television. College football took hold in American culture in the late 19th century, but football—professional and college alike—didn’t really begin to dominate the American sporting landscape until the advent of television (the thrilling, nationally televised 1958 NFL Championship Game between the Colts and the Giants is usually cited as the turning point).

It’s the televised version that defines our perception of the game. With dozens of cameras deployed at ever-more improbable angles, and the subsequent repeated viewings of isolated key moments the networks are able to put viewers inside the action and keep our attention focused on what is actually a rather slow, intermittently diverting affair.

From the press box, you can see but you cant hear.
  • David Fellerath
  • From the press box, you can see but you can’t hear.

Seated as I was, about seven or eight stories above the action, and not having the benefit of a television, I was utterly at sea. There were players moving about down there, but no noise and no atmosphere and no slo-mo replays in super-close-up. It’s the televised images that really define high-level football—that constitute its realness. Without a television, I was helpless to experience this football game.

Still, I was able to stay focused during Western Carolina’s impressive opening drive, in which they confidently kept the Wolfpack defense off-balance. An 87-yard, 10-play drive culminated with a 23-yard touchdown pass from Zack Jaynes to Deja Alexander. 7-0 Catamounts.

And I was focused still as the Pack subsequently went three-and-out. But the Catamounts’ Alexander fumbled the punt in hero-to-zero fashion, the Pack’s Taylor Gentry recovered and quarterback Russell Wilson came back onto the field at the WCU 26. On the first play, he found T.J. Graham all alone in the end zone. 7-7. The Pack were back, and proceeded to score and score and score, eight possessions in a row, until the game reached its 48-7 final tally.

Vaughn Towers, a cruise ship over the stadium
  • David Fellerath
  • Vaughn Towers, a cruise ship over the stadium

But very quickly, I found that I could no longer pay attention up in the hermetically sealed press box. I didn’t have a TV, and I wasn’t in the crowd.

I looked around me. Reporters were checking e-mail and browsing their Twitter feeds. I wished I had my laptop so I could tune it to ESPN’s Game Tracker, as still other reporters did. I did have my iPhone, so I started following the Tweets of @PackPridecom, a more knowledgeable correspondent who was sitting three places down from me. I started experiencing the game through his reception of it. My apprehension of the game improved, but still, although I was present at the game, I was not present.

I needed a tool of mediation. I needed a television. Or I needed to leave the press box.

After admiring the sunset from the top of Vaughn Towers, I took the elevator down to the main concourse. Immediately, I felt the rush of College Football. I smelled popcorn!

Red Terror Alert No. 2
  • David Fellerath
  • Red Terror Alert

I plunged into the throng, the wonderful Midway located under the grandstands. Couples and kids and families walked about, purposefully aimless in that shopping-mall way. I wandered over to the south end zone and found a good spot to watch, where I could smell the smells, hear the cursing fans and wince at the cheesy wolf howls that the public address system blasted every two minutes or so. (During one time-out, the wolf-howling was being played simultaneously with Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll.”)

A roar went up as T.J. Graham opened the second half with a 50-yard return. The pounding continued for two more quarters. Wilson retired to the bench after amassing 306 yards passing and four touchdowns. The Catamounts brought in another quarterback, too.

At this point, I wanted a substitute Triangle Offense correspondent. I was exhausted by the end of the third quarter, two and a half hours into the game. Obviously, the non-competitiveness of the proceedings didn’t help, and fans were well on their way toward the exits by the fourth quarter. There were so many empty benches in the student section of the south end zone that I was able to stretch out and wait out the rest of the game in some comfort. I’ve been on soccer time for for the last couple of years, which means I’m accustomed to setting my watch to the hour and 45 minutes it takes to play a soccer match, not including a few minutes of stoppage time. My soccer clock expired early in the third quarter.

At long last, three hours after kickoff, the game was over. The big story—in addition to the surprise start at left tackle of Rob Crisp, a 6-foot-7 “true” freshman just in from Athens Drive High School in Raleigh—was the exceptional performance of Graham, a 6-foot-0 junior who entered this season opener as Owen Spencer’s backup at wide receiver. Graham was the most dangerous player on the field after Wilson, and he caught six passes for 96 yards and two touchdowns, in addition to his kickoff return (good thing WCU only got to take two kickoffs).

Wolfpack head coach Tom O’Brien told the media assembled in the A.E. Finley Fieldhouse that a light had gone on for Graham—perhaps during last spring’s training—as he worked on running after catches. Indeed, that new-found skill was especially evident on his second touchdown, which required some creative sideline-to-sideline running to make it into the end zone.

I walked back to the State Fairgrounds parking lot, hoping that my car was still intact. I found it all alone in a field of beer cans. Nearby, fraternity brothers were loading their couches onto a flatbed truck. But the egress route on Trinity Road was still jammed, so I walked around the fairgrounds lot. I noticed dozens of full-size RVs plugged into the hookups on the inside perimeter of the lot. Middle-aged alumni decked out in red were sitting out, chatting and enjoying beverages, happily recounting the just-finished romp over WCU. To a vehicle, they had televisions installed in the undercarriage compartment, with portable DirecTV satellites installed on tripods.

The way to watch?
  • David Fellerath
  • The way to watch?

With the exception of one group that defiantly watched a Braves-Marlins baseball game, everyone else had the UNC Tar Heels on the tube and having a good laugh as the scandal-depleted crosstown rivals stumbled through a dreadful first half against LSU.

The deeply entrenched culture of N.C. State football—and college football in general—was impressive. Perhaps the graying alums camped out with their RVs and school colors and televisions had experienced the best years of their lives as undergraduates going to game. And now, here they were, finding a way to relive it without the youthful hazards, the fights and hangovers.

It seemed incredibly pleasant to be seated in a mobile den, surrounded by friends and family, drinking beer and watching the game on TV. Kind of like camping, kind of like going to a football game, kind of like staying home.

I found myself wondering if they had stayed out here for the entire game, whether they’d actually bothered to enter Carter-Finley Stadium to witness the football? Why bother doing so, when so much of the football experience is external to actually seeing the players with your own eyes?

Oh, to bask in the autumnal atmosphere of a college football game day, but while also sitting in front of a television. Maybe next time I’ll skip the press box completely and hang out with the RV crowd.

The Wolfpack take the field next Saturday, Sept. 11, in Orlando, where they will take on the University of Central Florida, before returning to Carter-Finley on Sept. 18 for a game against the University of Cincinnati.

[1] The Wolfpack mascot didn’t come into being until after World War II, when the original Red Terror mascot came to seem politically incorrect. It’s interesting how, decades after Joe Stalin and Joe McCarthy, the color red is associated with Republicanism. Just as interesting, the word “terror” is safe for mascot use nine years after 9/11.