What is it they say about timing?
The fact is it probably wasn't from the day I set foot on campus. But probably from the first time I went to a football game in the Carrier Dome, that I've wanted to tomorrow to happen. From the time I saw Tim Sandqvist and Bob Grosvenor patrolling the Syracuse secondary on that old Dome carpet during the fall of '91, my freshman year on the hill, I've wanted to play the school I rooted for growing up. We beat Vanderbilt 37-10 on that Saturday afternoon, and I was convinced at the moment of kickoff, that I was an Orange fan for life.
Gone were my roots. Gone were my allegiances. Gone was rooting for Joe Paterno and the mighty Nittany Lions.
As a kid, I grew up rooting for Penn State. I remember fondly Pete Giftopolous in Tempe, Gregg Garritty on Bourbon Street, and Craig Fayak underneath Touchdown Jesus.
But it all changed that Saturday afternoon, and Kirby Dar Dar's kickoff return for a touchdown on a reverse against Steve Spurrier and the Gators cemented it two weeks later. There was no more Penn State rooting for me, I was a Syracuse Orangeman.
That was better than 17 years ago, (yes, I am that old) and not much has changed. The friendships that I made at Syracuse that have endured the time and the distances have only made my allegiances to the Orange and Blue all the stronger.
And all the while, I've wanted to play Penn State.
Because no matter what, no matter how many of the great football programs that Syracuse beat during those 17 years. And we've beaten our share. Michigan, Ohio State, Auburn, Florida, Texas, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, Miami all among the cherished victories. But that was all just ice cream. For me, Penn State would always be the cherry on the top.
There were times during this period, when I was sure we had the better football program. The national polls, the records, the Lambert Trophy, they all indicated it as well. But without a clash on the gridiron it was all a matter of conjecture. And no matter how many reasons there were for believing that Syracuse had the better program, my Penn State friends (and there are many for which I am fortunate) would simply respond, "Prove it".
To that my only reply was to counter that Penn State wouldn't play the Orange. And they wouldn't. Economically I understand why. Penn State has a huge football stadium that it fills whether they play Coastal Carolina or the defending Super Bowl champions. Those numbers were and maybe still are the one thing that makes me a little bit jealous of the whole Penn State football situation.
So about five years ago it was announced that Syracuse and Penn State would renew their rivalry. Two games, one in the Dome, one in Happy Valley. Fall Saturdays in 2008 and 2009. September 13th 2008 and September 12th 2009 to be exact. I circled the calendars right then and there.
I could not have been happier.
At the time, Syracuse was still a proud program. Struggling a little bit. But still highly competitive and still a match to take down any opponent on any given Saturday. This was going to be fun.
But a lot has happened in the time since. A lot I don't even want to think about. And when Syracuse and Penn State trot onto the Carrier Dome floor tomorrow afternoon, I'll be hoping for the upset. I'll be rooting for the upset. But we're 25 point underdogs at last check. In our own building. This might not be so fun.
Even this summer, when I thought about the upcoming season, I thought if one thing happened, if we beat Penn State, it would all be good. I think at that point, I actually believed it would happen. But now, I'm not so sure.
The Nittany Lion season has started out remarkably well. Their offense has not been stopped, and their defense has not been penetrated (or maybe even tested).
Meanwhile, Syracuse is a shadow of the program it was when I dreamed of this matchup. A program that draws laughs instead of raves from sportscasters around the country. Two losses to meager Midwestern schools to start the season have done nothing to stop the onslaught from fans about the need for change.
So now, something that I desperately wanted. Something that I hoped for years and years upon end would happen, will happen. And I have little or no hope. It's not happening for the reasons I wanted. I wanted validation. I wanted that proof. We're unlikely to get it. Unlikely to come close.
The University is building the weekend up, proud as it should be for the story of Syracuse's lone heisman trophy winner Ernie Davis and his story being told in a movie opening soon, with a premiere tonight in Syracuse, called "The Express".
This is still a big weekend for Syracuse football.
I just expected it to be big for different reasons.
Go Orange! Beat Penn State!