Image: Meade Stadium Overview vs Delaware by University of Rhode Island Photos (Flickr)
Having been fed a steady diet of the NFL for a few years, I headed off to spend a year in the US at the University of Rhode Island. I was excited – here was my opportunity to watch games live, experience the big crowds and crazy fan bases I’d read about.
I met my new roommate, Devon, in a whirlwind. Having dragged my heavy rucksack to register at Coddington Hall, on the bottom end of campus, he lifted it over his end in one flowing motion and ran up the stairs to our room. He showed me a clean pair of heels and, even bagless, I still struggled to keep up. If this was a cartoon, there would have been a screeching sound and a puff of smoke behind him. My immediate introduction to fellow hallmates was to ask if anyone had seen him race past their door.
Devon, it turned out, was on the football team. Perfect.
I quickly realised that my college football experience was not quite what I dreamed of in sleepy Wiltshire. If Alabama and Ohio State are the Liverpool and Manchester United of college football, URI was more like, well, Swindon Town, a third-tier team with mainly local support. URI is not renowned as a football powerhouse. Its standout programme is basketball, producing NBA stars Lamar Odom and Cuttino Mobley. They now have an 8,000 seater arena and were ranked in the top fifteen nationally two years ago. The home of Rhode Island Rams football was Meade Stadium, capacity 5,180. By comparison, the QB of the team I watched that year, Chris Hixson, played for three teams in the pro indoor Arena Football League, that has sadly since filed for bankruptcy.
Meade Stadium, September 1995
The experience of URI football was, however, drawing me in. I learned you could trade a hall lunch pass for two cheeseburgers at the stadium car park BBQ on game day. This was good. There were male cheerleaders. This was odd. The mascot, the Rhody Ram, looked a little the worse for wear but was a legend at URI, taunting the opposing mascots and whipping up the crowd. At basketball games, he would ride a dining room tray down the stadium steps.
It was all part of what was becoming a consuming experience.
Devon played backup safety on special teams. I was quickly impressed with the commitment college athletes have, even at this level. Devon would be up at 6am most mornings to train, often woken by coaches loudly banging on our door. I was likely waking with a hangover, earned from a frat party we’d talked our way into or a club in Providence the night before.
Devon (#27) on the sidelines vs UConn
His special moment arrived in the biggest game. On Homecoming Weekend the alumni returned to Rhode Island to see their old classmates, reminisce and drink heavily while watching their team play traditional rivals UConn – the University of Connecticut (Ivy League Brown University is the in-state rival). In the spirit of the occasion, my mate Tom and I had smuggled in a two litre Pepsi bottle containing probably three parts Jack Daniels to one part brand of said bottle. Then the heavens opened, but no-one cared. The mood was electric.
Late in the game, a blocked UConn punt saw Devon recover the ball for a touchdown, giving URI an improbable victory over a then Top 10 ranked team. The crowd went crazy as the game ended, culminating in fifty or so people jumping into a lake next to the stadium, Tom and I included.
It was brilliant.
Into the lake after the UConn game
I wish I could say all the games were like that, but watching URI that year started to feed my appetite.