Sibling Rivalry

**Originally written for my Nonfiction Writing class, The American Scene.**

 

Matt and Drew step out of the gray Volkswagen on Forbes Avenue. Matt still wears the dark jeans and brown leather belt he wore to work that day, with the canvas sneakers he always wears when traveling.

“Do they have a table for us?” Matt asks.

“Yeah, but they might not let you guys in,” I reply.

“What do you mean, you just said—” my brother’s voice trails off as I smile and point to his shirt. He nods his head toward two guys walking next to each other on the sidewalk across the street— one wears a Pitt hoodie, the other is in a Penn State tee. “It’s fine,” Matt says, “We’re just showing some spirit for our team.”

Growing up, the two of us rooted for the same pro sports teams and sat side by side at games. Now, our college teams are rivals.

Inside Stack’d, I introduce my brother and his former college roommate to my current roommates and two friends visiting from Penn State. A waitress seats Matt, Drew, and I at a table adjacent to them upon my request. I didn’t know how Matt would’ve felt sitting at the “kids’ table”—he and I made a big deal about being banished to the kids’ table at every Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner when we were younger.

The Pirates game is on the TV screens that wrap around the sports bar, but for a New Yorker living in Wisconsin, a Pennsylvanian living in Texas, and me, who only goes to Yankees games for the overpriced ice cream in plastic souvenir hats, our collective interest in the game is pretty low. The cacophony of chatter, beer glasses bumping tables, and Friday night traffic on Oakland’s main street makes conversation in Stack’d a slight challenge. We add to the din by raising our voices to discuss Matt and Drew’s impressions of Pittsburgh and the differences of going to school in a city versus rural Pennsylvania.

Our waitress comes by to take our drink orders. The guys scan the beer list and make their pick. Drew removes his State hat to reveal his receding hairline as he shows his Texas ID. They’ve been out of college six years now and Drew hasn’t aged since the day I met him. Drew’s just excited to spend time with Matt, drink beer, and watch his team try to beat Pitt tomorrow. For Matt and I, the Pitt-Penn State rivalry is about bragging rights at the dinner table when we go home for holidays.

***

It’s Saturday, September 10th, and all of Oakland is up and shouting into the morning air, the breeze carrying their chants up through our kitchen window on the third floor. I haven’t been awake this early since the last day of high school. My roommates and I stand in front of the mirror outside the bathroom, placing thumbnail sized paw print stickers on each other’s cheeks and arms while rushing to finish our oatmeal. I sit down on the carpeted floor in the hallway to double knot the laces on my hand-painted ocean blue converse. As soon as our breakfast bowls are empty, we drop them in the sink, put on our Pitt hats, and run out the door.

In a few hours, Matt and Drew will be sitting opposite us in the stands, and my mom will be at home sporting a Proud Penn State Parent shirt while my dad wears a Pitt Dad tee, making bets on how long I’ll stay at the game.[1]

After stepping off the bus downtown, my friends and I follow a wave of students across Fort Duquesne Bridge. We walk past scalpers selling tickets and parents toting children and coolers. On the way, we meet two Penn Staters who inform us they don’t care who wins the game, they just want to take part in the festivities (preferably without all the insults regarding the Nittany Lion emblems on their attire). They are two of a number of PSU fans who had splurged on tickets. A few other groups had said they planned to tailgate all day instead of dishing out one to two hundred dollars to see the game live.[2]

I use Google Maps to lead my friends to the coordinates of the parking lot for our tailgate, but when we arrive, we see a small shaded park with wooden barricades blocking the entrance. Under the trees, policemen are pulling on riding boots and vests. Others are tending to the chestnut brown horses, adjusting the polished leather saddles. A similar scene, I imagined, might have taken place the first time Pitt and Penn State’s football teams played each other in 1893. That year, the biggest college game was the Yale-Princeton game on Thanksgiving Day. In pro football, Pittsburgh Athletic Club signed one of its players, halfback Grant Dibert, to the first known pro football contract. With time running out before we would have to go into the stadium, we decide to take an Uber to the tailgate. The five-minute ride costs us $30 as a result of the 4.9-time surge. By the time we make it to the Cardello Lot, it’s nearly 9:30.

I’ve been tailgating at Jets games since before I was old enough to remember, but this is the first real tailgate I’ve attended in quite a while. My family’s tradition in recent years has been to stop at our favorite New York deli to pick up sandwiches on the way to MetLife Stadium[3]. We skip the barbecue grill and the nine different types of potato chips in favor of spending more time tossing a football and playing Cornhole.

My family has held Jets season tickets for years. Last year, I went to a game with my dad, Matt, my oldest brother Jason, and two of his three daughters. My dad set up a folding chair in front of the open trunk of our SUV to watch the rest of us play football. Jason and Caroline, in their hunter green jerseys, jogged a few feet away from us, until their backs were nearly touching a nearby tailgate setup— a white portable tent arcing over a long rectangular folding table filled with hamburgers, hot dogs, six-packs of various types of beer, and Tupperware containers of coleslaw, macaroni salad, and potato salad. Jason tossed the ball to his youngest, Maddie, who returned it just short.

“Come on Maddie, just a little farther. Step and throw, like we practiced, remember?” Jason called out pointers, but Maddie only lasted a few minutes. She returned to the back of the car with a bag of rainbow Goldfish.

“Go long, Caroline!” I called out to her, trying my best to make the ball spiral as I tossed it. She kept her eyes fixed on the ball and let her feet carry her backward. The ball found its way into Caroline’s outstretched arms. She threw it back, her aim too far wide this time. Packages of hamburger and hot dog buns were knocked off the square table of the tailgaters nearest us. I chased after the ball, apologizing to the group of middle aged men and women standing around the table.

Today, every parking lot on the North Shore is filled with fans, from infants to college students to wheelchair-confined elderly. Our tailgate is complete with burgers on the grill, football, KanJam, and speakers blasting the same songs as six other neighboring tailgaters, each in competition for who can sing Closer the loudest. Matt and Drew are hanging around the gray Volkswagen in another lot, presumably having the same experience with a different backdrop.

Under the shadow of the dull yellow bridge, I stand in a lunge with my right arm reaching across my body, hand clutching a Frisbee. I focus my vision on the target, a black cylindrical container the size of a kitchen trash can, with an open top and a slit in the front. I feel a tap on my shoulder.

“Cara, you have to move over. Didn’t you hear us?” I’m not sure how anyone can hear a thing over the music. I tuck the Frisbee under my arm and pick up the target. To my left, an RV is crawling toward us. There’s only one other RV in the lot and not a single empty parking space. In the parking lot of the Jets’ MetLife Stadium, the fans in RVs know to arrive before the cars fill in the vacant spaces. The superfans were always there before my family—the guys in the pickup truck with a flat screen TV mounted in the bed, the groups that painted their RVs green, and the man that painted his body green. Starting four hours before every home game, Jets fans would take part in the Fan Van Party Bus Tailgate in one of the VIP lots. The Fan Van would provide hot and cold food, free beer, a DJ, and the option to stay and watch the game inside the bus on six flat screens.

My KanJam partner seizes the opportunity to take a bathroom break. I set the equipment down next to the grill and walk with her through the parking lot, ducking under tents and stepping over the wooden target of another tailgate’s Cornhole game. She stops to pick up a beanbag and tosses it at the target on the opposite side. It lands on the sloped surface, just missing the hole. The tailgaters, appearing to be graduate students or recent alumni, give both of us high fives as we hurry away. The line for the row of porta potties snakes around the perimeter of the parking lot. My friend is bouncing from foot to foot. She gives it a couple minutes, then decides to go for plan B. I return to the tailgate while she runs around the outside of the parking lot to the woods behind the chain link fence. When she returns, our group is ready to enter Heinz Field.

***

Sixty-nine thousand, nine hundred and eighty-three people flood out of Heinz Field like genies leaving a bottle, free to jump for joy or sulk over misfortune, depending on which Pennsylvania school holds their allegiance.[4] The last Pitt-Penn State game took place on September 16, 2000 in Pittsburgh’s Three Rivers Stadium, with a 12-0 win from Pitt.[5] This time, Pitt claimed another win, with a final score of 39-42. Four Pitt students with shirts painted on are among the last to file down the ramp that clings to the side of the stadium. The one wearing a gold “T” on his blue stomach raises an arm and forms a fist with which he punches the cloud of dense, humid air above his head. His armpits are stained blue from the mixture of sweat and body paint that runs down from his shoulders. He starts the chant, “P-I!” waiting for other giddy fans to join in. At first, only his fellow painted men and a handful of people around him shout back, “T-T!” Now, he raises his voice. “P-I!” His cry is met with a loud, “T-T!” from the throng.

A man with a deep, raspy voice starts the same chant from one level below on the ramp. The band of painted men and the surrounding fans dressed in navy blue contribute to the neighboring melody. Two men in white t-shirts call out in unison, “We are!” There aren’t enough Penn State fans close by (brave ones, at least) to complete the phrase. A man in navy chimes in, “losers!” I try calling Matt on the phone to see if he’s hearing this too, but it goes to voicemail. Maybe he’s still mad about the texts I sent him during the game.

The Nittany Lions have an overall 50-43-4 advantage over the Panthers in the series that began in 1893. During Johnny Majors’ time as coach, Pitt claimed only one win over Penn State, after a 10-year losing streak ending in 1976. That same year, Pitt had a 12-0 record and won its ninth national football championship title.[6] The two schools are separated by 135 miles of farmland, rolling hills and highways. On the ramp, the football fans are closer than they’ve been in 16 years. There’s no genuine dislike in the Pitt-Penn State rivalry; it’s like a fight between siblings. Pitt students have close friends at Penn State, and Penn State students have friends at Pitt. The argument over which team is better will likely never cease to be a topic of debate, but it’s something for fans to get excited about.

Energy radiates through the city into the night as the Panthers and Nittany Lions parade through Oakland’s streets under the Cathedral’s victory lights.

[1] My dad’s wallet would’ve been depleted of $20 at the end of the 4th quarter, except he never shakes hands on bets he’s not all but guaranteed to win.

[2] My brother was thrilled to find a last minute “deal” on StubHub—only $125. My friends visiting from Penn State bought tickets months ago and paid $200 each.

[3] New York’s NFL teams, the Jets and Giants, moved from the old Meadowlands stadium into Metlife Stadium in 2010. The stadium holds 82,566, though the average Jets home game attendance is 78,160.

[4] The game broke Heinz Field’s previous attendance record of 67,234 for the Steelers-Broncos game in 2015.

[5] Three Rivers Stadium was home to the Steelers and the Pirates until it was imploded in February of 2001 in favor of building separate stadiums for each team.

[6] It wasn’t until the ‘80s that Penn State earned its first two championship titles under Joe Paterno. Last season, Pitt finished with an 8-5 record in their first year under coach Pat Narduzzi. Penn State, in their second year under James Franklin, had a 7-6 record last season.

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