By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Jan. 9) – The mother-lode of football parties will occur tonight – likely all night – in a region of the southeastern United States. New Orleans is a given… revelling in the “Big Easy” all but decreed by law, particularly in the wake and recovery of Hurricane Katrina, that nearly destroyed the city in 2005. As they did after the NFL Saints whipped Detroit in a wild card playoff on Saturday, fans will pour out of the Superdome and into the neighbouring French Quarter – having witnessed the championship game of American college football.
Parties elsewhere will be determined by the long-awaited BCS title match – anxiety levels peaking in Baton Rouge and Tuscaloosa, home of the combatants: No. 1-ranked Louisiana State University and its storied rival the University of Alabama.
Never before has college football supremacy been resolved among schools from the same alliance – in this case the SEC, or Southeastern Conference – a product of the arbitrary, highly-contentious method of ranking teams and playoff seeding in the BCS (short for Bowl Championship Series). All we can tell you, with certainty, is that a winner from the SEC will be crowned for a sixth consecutive season – Alabama, oddly favored by 1 1/2 points, vying for its second title in three years; LSU its second in the past five.
Somewhere in Houston, meanwhile, an attractive young lady will be watching the game on TV with family and friends – undoubtedly regretting, here and there, her decision not to blow the bank on a trip to New Orleans. Instead, Leslie Goldberg – a 20-year-old junior studying mechanical engineering at LSU – will try to avoid biting her purple-and-gold-painted nails, having voluntarily positioned herself to be tormented by her father in person.
“Dad loves to bug me,” Leslie acknowledged over the phone Sunday night, feigning anger. “He’ll call or text at a key moment – either just before kickoff or when something bad happens to LSU – and say ‘What’cha doing?’ I guess it’s his way of trying to calm me.”
That may not be possible tonight. Leslie has been, in her words, “addicted” to LSU football since leaving home for Baton Rouge three years ago. I met her briefly at the wedding, last July, of my former colleague at THE FAN-590, Ben Ennis, and his bride, Jessica Treadway – married in a spectacular party setting at Ontario Place. Leslie and Jessica are first cousins.
My connection to the Ennis family actually pre-dates Ben, whose father – Michael Ennis – was a veteran pilot with Air Canada. While returning from my very-first trip covering the Leafs, full time, for the radio station, I visited the Airbus-320 flight-deck and introduced myself to Michael, who was captaining the journey from San Francisco to Toronto. That was back in January 1995, after the Leafs had opened the lockout-shortened, 48-game schedule with stops in Los Angeles and San Jose. Flight-deck tours in North America have been forbidden since the events of Sep. 11, 2001, but Michael and I struck up a friendship; he was an avid FAN-590 listener and a big follower of the Blue and White.
About 15 years ago, he brought pre-teen Ben (or “Benjamin”, as he insists on calling him) up to the radio station while I was co-hosting in studio. Nearly a decade later, Mike’s hulking kid became a colleague and has since developed into an excellent broadcaster and reporter.
Ben’s cousin-in-law bleeds purple and gold – LSU’s colors. Moving up the chain in Baton Rouge, Leslie has been able to pull rank and acquire tickets for home football games at the 92,542-seat Tiger Stadium – opened in 1924 and renovated for the third time last year.
“You have to put your name down for tickets before the school-semester starts in September,” Leslie explained. “I was only eligible for half-a-season in my freshman year and you get priority points for each game you attend [20 per match]. You need 60 points to be eligible for tickets the following year, and that was no problem for me. Now, I go to every game and even a few when the team is playing on the road. I just love LSU football.”
LESLIE GOLDBERG (ABOVE RIGHT) WITH FRIEND ALLISON HARRISON: APPROPRIATELY DECOCRATED FOR AN LSU FOOTBALL GAME.
To properly understand the culture of football in the United States is to study Leslie’s routine on game days. “For a 6 p.m. kickoff, I am all painted up and out of the apartment by 10:30 or 11 in the morning,” she said. “I get the LSU logo painted on my face and sometimes my arm, and I wear these purple-and-gold boots. For a game last year, my friend and I actually decorated our stomachs with paint and glitter, though that isn’t what I normally do. We usually tail-gate on campus because it’s too busy at the stadium, which is only about a mile away. They start setting up tents on campus the day before. It’s an amazing party and we normally walk over to the stadium late in the afternoon.”
LESLIE (ABOVE LEFT) WITH FRIEND LISA CONGIUNDI PRIOR TO LSU FOOTBALL GAME AT TIGER STADIUM IN BATON ROUGE… TUMMIES TELLING THE TALE.
Louisiana State was a perfect 13-0 this season – fueled, in large part, by Heisman Trophy finalist Tyrann Mathieu – affectionately known as the “Honey Badger”. A 5-foot-9-inch powder-keg, Mathieu led his team in tackles; ranked first in the nation with five fumble recoveries from his cornerback spot and second, nationally, with a 16.2-yard average on punt returns, scoring a pair of touchdowns. LSU defeated Alabama, 9-6, in overtime of a stifling defensive struggle at Tuscaloosa, Nov. 5, and hasn’t played since knocking off Georgia in the SEC championship game at Atlanta way back on Dec. 3.
Though collegiate sport in the U.S. was sadly dominated this season by sexual-abuse allegations at Penn State and Syracuse – the former leading to the dismissal of legendary football coach Joe Paterno – LSU hasn’t gone unscathed.
“Oh, we’ve had our own scandals,” Leslie acknowledged, alluding to the arrest of starting quarterback Jordan Jefferson for allegedly kicking a marine in the face during a dust-up at Shady’s Bar in Baton Rouge, Aug. 19. The incident led to an indefinite suspension that was lifted on Sep. 30 after a grand jury reduced charges against Jefferson to a misdemeanor. He sat out four games, during which fellow QB Jarrett Lee performed flawlessly. But, Jefferson’s scrambling ability soon enabled him to wrest the No. 1 mantle from Lee and he looms as a major threat to Alabama in tonight’s championship match.
LESLIE, BUNDLED UP AGAINST THE ELEMENTS (ABOVE RIGHT), WITH FRIEND ERICA MORGAN DURING A NIGHT-TIME FOOTBALL GAME AT TIGER STADIUM AND WITH YOUNG RELATIVES (BELOW) AT ROGERS CENTRE HERE IN TOWN BEFORE BEN AND JESSICA’S WEDDING LAST JULY. WAIT A MINUTE… THEY HAVE ELEMENTS IN BATON ROUGE?
Kick-off between LSU and Alabama goes just after 8:30 EST tonight in New Orleans. The game can be seen across Canada on TSN and on ESPN in the United States.
By midnight, we should know Leslie Goldberg’s caliber of mood for Tuesday and beyond.