Thursday, September 24, 2009

OH YEAH – THEY ALSO PLAY FOOTBALL THERE

Standing in the full parking lot on a mid-September Saturday afternoon, next to an actual tailgate, I could hear the marching band coming across campus, the cheerful punch of bass drum cut with brass and timpani, the sound and the feet beneath it charting the course toward the new football stadium.

The sun was warm in the way apple pie is warm: the bees were drunk on it. These are lush, leafy afternoons that seem exclusive to Ohio in the early weeks of football season, and exist specifically to answer any question of why one would choose this place as home.

This is my alma mater, the University of Akron, an urban campus I attended some two decades ago and where I now teach. When I started college here, the only thing making its way through the middle of campus was a busy city street that bisected the cobble of lecture halls and occasionally sent a slow-footed co-ed to the emergency room. In the time since I graduated, and especially in the past 10 years, the place has been transformed into something I hardly recognize, with lush gardens and lawns and sculptures flanking a brick promenade where the street once ran, fanciful clock towers at the portals into campus and so many new buildings that I still sometimes stop to recollect if I’ve seen this one before.

A brilliant mirrored polymer science center anchors one end of campus; a student rec center with a lazy river and rock climbing wall anchors the other; there’s a new student union at the center with a bowling alley and a grand piano and a Starbucks, all set off with recently constructed residence halls and academic buildings, prompting a recalibration of the campus of my own memory.

But this has become old news in Akron, in the way that everything remarkable settles eventually into its context.

So it’s been especially interesting to me just how remarkably remarkable the addition of this new football stadium has been. It’s not like it’s the only recent improvement. Far from it. But it seems to be the one that has drawn all the others into their full context.

College campuses are communities and communities are bound to their campuses. The old football stadium, harmoniously named “The Rubber Bowl,” was a Depression-era concrete donut six miles from campus. So this new complex (the cacophonously named “Summa Field at InfoCision Stadium”) has achieved a kind of dual magic in bringing the atmosphere of a college football Saturday directly onto campus, and bringing the wider community together to experience it.

As I stood in that parking lot, I heard someone call my name and looked over to see a friend, someone I went to high school with, someone I run into maybe every couple of years. We exchanged hellos and the common astonishment over how much things have changed and he told me that one of the freshmen in yonder marching band was his son, drawing the facets of this random meeting into high relief.

Later, in the stands, I found myself in a near constant state of recognizing old faces and waving across the way to people I knew. And I was only one of 30,000 people there that day, doing the same thing. “If nostalgia is a hangover,” I thought, “this is the bloody Mary,” and I wondered if that made as much sense as I think it did.

I don’t know what will happen when this place too settles into context, but I do know that the context has been changed forever and for good.

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