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Christine Todd

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Driving across the state of Florida is probably not the most exciting activity imaginable. Lots of cows, oranges and roadkill. But the prize at the end of the drive was more than worth it. Three hours on State Route 60 brought me to Tampa, home of the Outback Bowl. As soon as I arrived at 10:30 a.m., I drove to the Tampa International Airport to pick up former sports editor, current editor in chief Matt Forman. We drove the quick seven minutes to the Quorum Hotel – the bowl’s media hotel – and checked in. I’m the only one of the six Daily travelers not credentialed for the press box, so I didn’t get the baller leather Outback Bowl toiletry case the others got. I was a little bummed, but I suppose I got over it. Matt and I asked the media check-in fellow for two invitations to the DeBartolo team luncheon. Since it was already underway, we rushed over to the Tampa Convention Center and made an entrance, severely underdressed, to a ballroom with probably a thousand football players, administrators, friends, family, fans and media members. A little intimidating, but we eventually found a table and sat down to a nice, hearty meal. The first course was a salad with leafy greens, fruit and avocadoes. Matt and I ladled dressing from a dish we later learned actually contained gravy for the chicken in the second course. It was a little embarrassing, sure, but the combination was delicious, so I’ve got no regrets…the whole salty/sweet phenomenon, right? We went on to eat half a chicken, potatoes and squash, followed by a decadent mousse for a light lunchtime dessert. Then the coaches gave impassioned speeches and answered questions. Coach Fitz answered a question clearly meant to stump him: Being in the Midwest, why is Northwestern called Northwestern? Fitz talked about the Northwest Territory back in the University’s founding days…I was sufficiently impressed. And so were his players, giving a loud cheer for their coach, who showed off his NU education. And University President Morton O. Schapiro was there! The emcee introduced all the attendees, dubbing them either “speakers,” “non-speakers” or “podiums.” The whole podium deal was meant as a joke, since there was a gigantic podium between the Northwestern table and the Auburn table onstage. That was some side-splitting humor if I’ve ever heard it. Anyway, Morty was a non-speaker. When the emcee introduced him, our football players went nuts cheering him on. Morty himself did a fist-pump. Very spirited group we’ve got here – it seems to me the Wildcats are in Tampa not just to win, but to have a lot of fun while doing it. Later in the day, Matt and I picked up beat writer Robbie Levin, former deputy sports editor, current sports editor Brian Chappatta, and photographer Ray Whitehouse. On the fly, we decided to drive an hour and a half to Orlando to cheer on Big Ten comrade Wisconsin in their Champs Sports Bowl matchup against the University of Miami. Happily, the Big Ten’s bowl win total for the 2009 season has already matched last year’s, at one. The Citrus Bowl stadium was a little run-down, the night was chilly, and we left just as the game got a little more exciting – Miami came within six points in the fourth quarter but botched a recovered onside kick opportunity – but it was still a fun time. We ate a late dinner at Buffalo Wild Wings, where our waitress was awful enough to get just a 21-cent tip from one of us (I won’t say who). The five of us got back to the Quorum and hit the hay on two full-sized beds and a queen-sized air mattress, which was outstandingly comfortable. In the morning, Matt picked up the last of us, beat writer Danny Daly, and delivered him to the hotel. As they pulled in, a writer from another publication asked for a drive to Clearwater Beach. Matt agreed, but he hadn’t realized it would take 40-plus minutes to get there in the middle of lunchtime traffic. Not a big deal, you might say. Well, we had to get back to drive the other four to Tampa Jesuit High School to talk to Coach Fitz after practice by 12:30. Super-close timing, a few outrageously large speed bumps and a near-empty tank of gas, but we made it (and got gas on the way back). The sun was out, some players were in their ice buckets, the aroma of tasty Outback grub hung in the air, and Fitz seemed happy to talk. Then to the beach! Because we went to practice and because there was bumper-to-bumper traffic for the last seven miles of our second trip to Clearwater Beach, we got to the coast just as all the events were winding down. So we ate some burgers and hot dogs and wandered around the beach for a few hours. The sand was surprisingly cool and soft. I’m from Florida, but I’m used to the east coast sand. I guess if you’re a soft-sand lover, you ought to visit the west coast. We were planning on going to Frenchy’s for dinner, but we ate a late lunch and weren’t hungry, so we left and drove to Brighthouse Field, the Phillies’ Spring Training facility in Clearwater. I’m a huge Phillies fan, so that was pretty exciting. The guys had a baseball catch and lost a ball to what we believed to be an alligator in a swampy area behind the patch of grass they were throwing on. Then, we saw a guy walking his little black dog alongside another bit of swampland. I was actually pretty horrified. I thought everyone in Florida knew you don’t let your dogs or kids go anywhere near cattails and mud – gators and big snakes are just waiting to devour your first-born. Then we went to Bonefish Grill and had a waiter who, like a wizard, said, “Bong!” every time he put anything on the table. Although I know I always feel gross after eating fish and chips, I ordered it. And I felt gross. And now I’m back at the Quorum, writing and just waiting to sleep on that lovely raised air mattress. Until tomorrow, wonderful readers. Good night, and good luck.

Christine Todd