Eternally Fall: A Football Tradition

When his sons were in elementary school, Charles Marshall promised to take them to a big college game every year for 10 years. Here’s what happened.
by Charles Marshall | photography by Joshua Steadman

On a Saturday in November of 2009, the sights and sounds of Georgia battling Auburn on the television were juxtaposed with my elementary-school-aged kids — Foster was 7, Drake was 5 — slamming doors, tearing apart train tracks, and bouncing balls. Typically, I found refuge from the whirlwind of parenting in the pageantry and excitement of big-time college football on television, those images of sun-soaked spectators smashed together in packed stadiums and an endless sea of tailgaters picking apart chicken and ribs and mixing cocktails with old friends. But something on this particular Saturday made me desperately want to be a part of it all. And I wanted to bring my boys.

Growing up in North Carolina, my life unfolded along a well-worn path between Atlanta and Washington, D.C. — a land where college basketball is king. These marquee college football extravaganzas seemed a million miles away; they took place in remote outposts with curious names like Tuscaloosa, at menacing-sounding stadiums like University of Florida’s “The Swamp.” 

But when I mapped the routes to the meccas of SEC and Big Ten football, I discovered that we could reach most in less than a full day’s drive. If I could grab an unsweetened tea by 6 a.m., my boys and I could transport ourselves right into the scenes I’d spent years watching from my den.

It occurred to me that I only had a decade before the oldest would leave for college. I recalled the allure of the car trips of my youth: AM radio, hotel pools, breakfast buffets, souvenir T-shirts to show off back at school. I thought about the unbroken spells of time where, if you’re lucky, kids talk to you about things that really matter. 

So I made a plan. For each of the next ten years, my boys and I would drive to a different college football game in a different college town to experience some of the richest traditions, largest stadiums, bitterest rivalries, and most exciting game-day environments. 10 years, 10 stadiums, 10 games. Here’s how it went. 

Year One: Alabama 23, Ole Miss 10

Tuscaloosa, AL — I met my friend Britton Stutts when we were both 14 at a summer camp near Brevard. He was from Birmingham and I was from Charlotte. We kept in touch over the years; we were even in each other’s weddings. Since he went to college at the University of Alabama, he was the obvious person to help jump-start our tour. We decked out my boys in ’Bama gear, then rode to Tuscaloosa together for the 9 p.m. kickoff. It was a clear, cool October evening. After a buffet meal at a fraternity house, we strolled through campus’ manicured quads before settling into our seats in Bryant-Denny Stadium. Just myself, Foster, Drake, and 100,000 other fans. Only two of our seats were together, so the three of us crammed into them. 

After the national anthem, during the fevered anticipation of kickoff, I knelt down in front of my boys and promised them, over the roar of the crowd, that we’d do this every year for the next 10 years. They stared at me and nodded solemnly. Alabama’s Greg McElroy threw two touchdown passes. The games were on.

Year Two: Florida 33, Tennessee 23

Gainesville, FL — Foster loved Tim Tebow, so University of Florida was an easy next choice. Without a host family, we would be making it up as we went along. Hotels in college towns cost more than a hip replacement the night before a game, so we stayed in Jacksonville and drove into Gainesville in the morning — without GPS or a clue. We paid $30 to park in the front yard of an older woman’s single-story white house. She took our money from her seat in a lawn chair and, in an act of kindness, let us use the bathroom inside her home. We went off hunting-and-pecking our way through Florida’s sprawling campus, embarking on what would become a long-suffering tradition of watching Drake, the youngest, agonize over what fan gear he would purchase. After sorting through racks at several stores, an orange T-shirt from a stadium vendor that simply said “Gators” made his day. It was mid-September, hot and muggy for the late afternoon, nationally televised game. We watched the sun go down in the fourth quarter over the corner of the orange-colored stadium that said “WELCOME TO THE SWAMP” — and suddenly, being there, in person, seemed surreal.

Year Three: Georgia 48, Vanderbilt 3

Athens, GA — On a spin through Atlanta the night before the game, we ate at The Varsity, a legendary hot dog joint, and the World of Coke, then went to a music festival where we saw the Avett Brothers and Foo Fighters in a crowd of 50,000. Our seats for the September evening game were “between the hedges” in University of Georgia’s Sanford Stadium. We sat behind a colorful array of fraternity kids with an equally colorful vocabulary — but the bigger impression was the cheering for Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, two North Carolina high school standouts who were running backs for Georgia. Foster wondered aloud why UNC didn’t land them before reality sank in: in 2012, this was a bigger stage. 

Vanderbilt was supposed to make the game competitive, but they failed miserably. We left at halftime only to find the car’s battery dead, the biggest disaster of our vagabond decade. It took a good two hours to solve the issue as my boys watched me alternate between problem-solving, frustration, and fury. Once we were on the road, we drove as far as Commerce, Georgia, where we rented a hotel room and watched the end of the Florida State-Clemson game on television while an oversized roach crawled across the ceiling. 

Year Four: Ohio State 31, Wisconsin 24

Columbus, OH — On the way into Ohio, we heard a local sports talk radio host deconstruct in mouth-watering detail how to eat a particular corned beef and pastrami sandwich from a particular downtown deli. Sadly, it was closed by the time we rolled into town, so we had to settle for chicken wings and cornhole in a brewpub across the street from our hotel. In the SEC, tailgaters often bring elaborate spreads of pre-cooked food to avoid firing up charcoal on 100-degree days in an asphalt parking lot — a rookie move that once betrayed my ACC roots. The Big Ten tailgates, on the other hand, are where meat goes to get burned. 

It was bright and sunny as we walked through the Ohio State University campus on Saturday morning, and the tailgaters were already busy. One was serving ribs and brats hot off the grill by 9 a.m. The heavenly odor was everywhere, in the paved parking lots, in grass lots, and floating in the spaces in between. The tailgating particularly piqued the interest of Foster, leading to our own charcoal-cooking experiments at home in the weeks afterwards, testing an array of homemade sauces and rubs on friends and neighbors. 

Urban Meyer was in his second season coaching Ohio State and had yet to lose a game. Among the 105,000 or so fans in “the horseshoe” for the 8 p.m. kickoff was a guy seated right behind us who went on and on about how Meyer couldn’t hold a candle to Jim Tressel as a coach because Meyer “hadn’t scheduled anybody any good.” It was a reminder of the impossibility of coaching college football: you’re undefeated and you’re still a bum.

Year Five: Oklahoma 45, West Virginia 33

Morgantown, WV — I’d heard about the beer, the moonshine, and the burning couches. So why not take the kids to see what the fuss is all about? If Morgantown seemed deserted before the 7:30 p.m. game, it was only because everyone was in the parking lot of West Virginia University Milan Puskar Stadium (better known as the Mountaineer Stadium). We found a tailgate of a friend of a friend of a friend — who wasn’t even there — and I was immediately offered beer and a swig of moonshine, straight out of a mason jar. We were surrounded by amiable strangers sipping from similar jars and spewing profanities about Pitt. “Dad,” one of my sons said to me quietly, “they aren’t even playing Pitt today.” 

The game was as boisterous and fun as I’d imagined. Our seats were on the end of an aisle across from the Oklahoma band. The band would play Boomer Sooner right up to the snap of the ball, but the West Virginia fans angrily accused the band director of playing past the snap. There was a fight brewing and the police were summoned but, overall, the atmosphere was exhilarating — and the fans were warm and hospitable towards my boys throughout the game. Oklahoma was ranked second in the country, and the expectations for an upset were off the rails. 

On the way into town, the local sports radio station was inviting callers to predict the outcome of the game by imagining what the headline in the newspaper would be the next day. The forecasts were creative, funny, irreverent, and wrong. West Virginia put up tons of points, but Oklahoma put up more. On the way out of town, my boys announced that since we had made it through a West Virginia game, “we could probably handle LSU.”

Year Six: Arkansas 24, Tennessee 20

Knoxville, TN — My sons and I thought we were geniuses for picking this game. Both teams had new coaches and were supposedly “on the rise,” and this was to be the year for each. Their favorable schedules made it seem possible that both could come into this early October game unbeaten, making an ESPN Game Day visit to University of Tennessee feasible. But here was Tennessee at 2-2 and Arkansas at 1-3. It rained and rained and rained, but we marched ahead — to Calhoun’s On the River for amazing ribs, chicken, potatoes, and dessert; past the Vol Navy; through campus and “accidentally” through the off-limits practice facilities. (They thought we were boosters on an exclusive tour.) We even stood outside to watch the Vol Walk in a downpour. So, it became an important game anyway. The rain let up for the 7 p.m. kickoff and the teams fought until the last set of downs. 

Year Seven: Penn State 24, Ohio State 21

State College, PA — We invited my father as well as my brother and his two boys to join us. We toured the hallowed grounds of Gettysburg National Military Park the day before the Pennsylvania State University game. Three generations of our family learned about the heroism of the 20th Maine on Little Round Top, walked in the footsteps of Pickett’s Charge, and solemnly listened as the tour guide detailed the mind-blowing carnage on both sides. 

The drive from Gettysburg to State College is a seat-burner. After the farms come long stretches of forest, mountains, and hairpin turns. Beaver Stadium is a mammoth structure, even when judged against the other massive stadiums we’d already visited. We got swept up in the pregame “whiteout” hysteria, where the entire stadium dresses in white. We purchased some last-minute gear and thought it smart to settle into our seats an hour early for the late October game. Wrong: It was in the low 40s, with 20-mile-per-hour winds and rain destined to turn to sleet. We were frigid. The game, though,
was electric. 

It proved to be a breakout for both quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley. By halftime we had been in our seats almost three hours, the sleet was coming down hard, and the hot chocolate had run out. When I suggested we watch the second half from the hotel, my dad was willing to brave the elements, but Drake, dressed only in a sweatshirt, eagerly led the way out. Ninety minutes later, we were in a temperature-controlled hotel room in Altoona watching Penn State pull off the upset of the year. As the fans stormed the field, my son — the same one who had blazed our trail out — was in full denial, blaming the rest of us for leaving and promising he would have stormed the field, too. 

Year Eight: Michigan State 14, Michigan 10

Ann Arbor, MI — During the last hour of our drive to Ann Arbor, we learned the Pistons were playing a preseason game against Atlanta in Detroit. While my boys bought tickets online, I navigated the downtown parking. Within minutes we were inside the arena, enjoying footlong hotdogs, nachos, and some impromptu NBA basketball. On the University of Michigan campus the next day, we stumbled onto a midday frat party in full swing. Boozy undergrads were taking a sledgehammer to an old car that was painted in Spartan colors and logos. When a drunken Michigan State fan tried to intervene and stop the destruction, a fight broke out and spilled into the street. In the midst of this early afternoon chaos and tomfoolery, Drake observed, “I thought it was hard to get into Michigan.” In that moment, I couldn’t think of an answer that would have made any sense. 

The Big House was everything that has been said about it. That evening 100,000 fans sat in a single bowl that had the intimate feel of a giant high school football game. The game quickly retreated into a defensive struggle that ended in an unseasonably warm, October downpour during the fourth quarter. The drive home to Raleigh was long, and somewhere in southwest Virginia, we stopped at a Shoney’s breakfast bar. The waitress brought me a note from an anonymous customer — who had since left — thanking me for spending time with my boys and paying for our breakfasts. My boys were awed by the charity, humility, and anonymity of the act. It spoke more to them than a thousand words from me.

Year Nine: LSU 22, Auburn 21

Auburn, AL — This was our penultimate year and by this time Foster was a junior in high school, so we were touring colleges. My wife, Fraley, and our daughter, Sadler, wanted to come along for this one. We fled Hurricane Florence in North Carolina and arrived at Auburn University for what my wife still refers to as the hottest day she’s ever endured. By this point, my sons were tailgate aficionados. Unimpressed by the companies that do all the setup for you, my boys gave high marks to the families slogging their own gear. 

This was a game played before Joe Burrow was Joe Burrow, but I vividly remember him throwing the ball downfield several times on LSU’s first possession. My sons had fantastic lower bowl seats while the rest of us were five rows from the top of the second level. The young alumnus next to my wife celebrated each successful play with a swallow of bourbon and repeatedly offered her a swig — which she declined. Eventually he had to be escorted out by friends. A few minutes after that, LSU escorted Auburn out with a walk-off field goal to win. As night began to fall, we passed a woman packing her family’s tailgating gear into an SUV. Her crew had undoubtedly spent all week planning the food, drinks, and decorations, cooked all day and night on Friday, and gotten up early to pack the car — only to spend the entire day setting up, hosting, cleaning, breaking down, and now, loading up for the drive home. Maybe those companies aren’t so bad after all.

Year Ten: LSU 58, Ole Miss 37

Oxford, MS — Foster was a high school senior, so this was his year to pick the game. He chose a game at University of Mississippi, and we invited two of his closest friends, plus their dads and younger brothers. We had Friday lunch on the Square, caught a basketball game on campus Friday night, and walked through The Grove — the tailgate area in the center of campus — where SEC Game Day was setting up shop. The next morning, the dads fixed breakfast and sent the boys on foot to see Game Day live while we watched it on television. By lunch The Grove was wall-to-wall tents decked out with rugs, televisions, and button-down shirts with blazers. We knew some North Carolina friends hosting a tailgate with their Memphis relatives and used that as a sort of headquarters. Around 4 p.m., I made up an excuse to march my boys to the stadium three hours early. When we got there, we were greeted with pregame access lanyards and made our way down to the field as guests. We walked around both sidelines taking in the sights and sounds of warm-ups as the atmosphere began to build. Recruits were ushered onto the field, and then the players began coming out in full game gear. 

When the game started, we were back up in our seats. At one point Drake went to the restroom, still wearing his field pass. A fan mistook him for a recruit, and he couldn’t have been happier to tell the rest of us. When I suggested that it would be hard to mistake an undersized high-school sophomore soccer player for an SEC football recruit, he clarified that the fan “thought I was a kicker.” By this game, Joe Burrow had become Joe Burrow, and it was like watching an NFL team. The next day we began a 13-hour drive with the best donuts I’ve ever eaten, on one of the best mornings I’ve ever had.

Before we left home for that final game, I asked my boys if they remembered my commitment to them in Bryant-Denny Stadium: that we would go to a different game every year for 10 straight years. They said they both remembered thinking that I was serious — but that I was unlikely to make good on my plan. It was a fair point; I have always been stronger on the idea side than on the execution.

That winter, my wife and I returned to Tuscaloosa with Foster for a final college visit. It was sunny, in the mid-60s, and we saw Alabama’s basketball team beat a ranked LSU team in the final minutes. After a lively dinner at Taco Mama and another evening stroll through the campus, Alabama was his final answer.

I wondered whether these annual adventures shaped his college choice more than I imagined or intended. Did they make big schools seem less intimidating? Was there something about the first trip to Alabama that held a special foothold in his memory? My son says he doesn’t really know, and in the end, it doesn’t really matter. What matters are the memories that we made together: late nights in tiny hotel pools, the glories of a breakfast bar, listening to a high school football game on the radio, and those long car rides where, just as I’d hoped, my boys began to talk about things that really mattered.  

This story originally appeared in our September 2021 issue.