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Jan 16, 1990. “Live from the Meadowlands, Bruce Johnson along with Dick Lloyd for tonight’s matchup between the Rutgers Scarlet Knights and the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.” ... Potty-trained, I was allowed to take the 15 minute drive to what was then Brendan Byrne Arena for the game with my grandfather (who lived with us), my dad, and my dad’s best friend. As a child who was about to turn four, I complained about the noise in the stands even though as I would later read, the really crying should have been about the sloppy play on the court. Since then, I hate Notre Dame, officially because so many Irish people we know act like they went to ND and even donate money to their football program.
On the way home from the game still within sight of the old Giants Stadium, “Papa” had a heart attack and died. At the age of 30, my dad has lost his father. It was the one of only two times in my life I ever saw him shed a single tear, the other being when the New York Rangers were on the verge of winning Game 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup finals. You see one of my dad’s fondest memories of his own childhood was lucking into Rangers tickets at the MSG box office with his father because the person on line directly in front of them had returned a pair. From then on, the Rangers were “their thing.” 20 years later at the Meadowlands Medical Center in the middle of the night, and maybe we didn’t know it at the time, but Rutgers athletics had become “our thing”.
Growing up in Bergen County, it was just an hour drive down to New Brunswick. At the time, the merchandising boom hadn’t fully taken root so my mother, Cheryl Landells, a two-time captain of the Rutgers gymnastics team would literally make my brother and I Rutgers gear. For one homecoming game, she stenciled “RUTGERS” in white paint on a red and black rugby shirt of mine. I remember that day being in the grassy corner of Rutgers Stadium throwing a football with some of the other children of my parents’ college friends known as “The Animals.” Anyone doubting the existence of this fan club simply needs to look at the team’s season preview pamplet (I have somewhere) where they took out a advertisement wishing Dave Anderson and the Rutgers baseball team the best of luck in 1981.
The Animals first lived in the River Dorms, 6th floor Hardenbergh, where they formed an intramural basketball team that was so surprisingly good it reached the 1979 intramural basketball final. They would have won the university title if A. Starting shooting guard Eric, who introduced my parents a few years later, was not out of town at his father’s funeral or B. Some guy randomly showed up at halftime for the other team that took off his shoes and shirt but proceeded to play like George Gervin. The real Gervin played against the Nets at the RAC (where my parents both worked checking IDs) while a member of the Spurs. Even more famous was when Larry Bird came to the RAC and Rutgers defeated Indiana State in the 1978 NIT 57-56 on the strength of Kelvin Troy’s hounding defense of the future Hall of Famer.
Throughout my childhood we got more legendary sports stories of the 1978 Garden State Bowl offsides on the kicker, torn down goal posts of an RU lightweight football over Princeton, and most hilariously when the Animals posed as parking attendants for the final RU-Princeton football matchup directing as many Tigers fans’ Cadillacs as they could into an already full lot. There were plenty of off the field stories too like how they stole all the flags from the RU golf course before being greeted by campus PD on the 18th green, would drive from the Rutgers pub to the Busch pub where they would pick up a random VW moving it into the street to create a a parking spot, and once sprayed their RA with a fire extinguisher on her way to a date. All of this may have served as brainwashing because I knew I was going to college one day, and it would be the best time of my life.
I myself became a true basketball fan on my own when for the 1998 Big East tournament my dad had given me a small transistor radio to listen to the daytime games, only after school of course. After upsetting West Virginia one day, Billet’s runner to defeat Georgetown the next was the most elated I had ever been up to that point in my life. After the 1999 team heartbreak, I played Fox Sports College Hoops ‘99 so much as the Knights to replay and win that game against Seton Hall. Football was also in 1998 during the “magical” at the time 5-6 1998 season when Terry Shea was named coach of the year. Late in the season “The Animals” had a get together to celebrate Louie’s new house which accidentally coincided with the surprising 25-21 comeback win at Pitt to break the Big East losing streak.
Eventually we got online and since my parents are not much for computers (naturally I now work in Silicon Valley in tech), I would read them the Rutgers gymnastics and baseball team’s trials and tribulations. This often got a story from my mom about how she broke her ankle on the non-spring floor in those days and how she was benched for an inexperienced freshman in the vault that MAY have lost the 1982 ECAC title for the Lady Knights. My dad’s tales included how he faced Frank Viola, caught Bob Tewksbury for his one semester at RU, and most famously Rutgers one time won a Saturday road doubleheader (likely the 1981 A-8 championship) and should have headed back to New Brunswick. Instead then coach Matt Bolger told the statistician to call the office and say the second game was rained out, thus the team would need to stay overnight. A massive party ensued that evening.
A new chapter of my RU fandom took place in high school as players I grew playing against in multiple sports like Mike Teel started committing to RU. I was no Kelvin Troy, but I was a pretty good defensive stopper in the high school ranks until I faced Marquis Webb of course. Swapping these war stories was a bonding experience with many other high school athletes throughout North Jersey including my cousin Susan, who starred at Pompton Lakes High School. Shockingly (sense the sarcasm?) her parents both met at Rutgers as well. Sue was able to contain future Knight Heather Zurich, but admitted having absolutely no chance to slow down WNBA star Essence Carson after facing her in the Passaic County Track finals. Naturally when the Rutgers women’s team with both players reached the National Title game in 2007, I had a strong rooting interest.
Most around me expected I would likely attend RU especially with the exciting 2004 NIT final. When it was time to decide on a college, I decided I wanted to forge my own path. My nervousness for how my dad felt was quickly extinguished when he started telling me in a completely calm manner, what I would do once I enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania. My mom made it easy too, proofreading the dozens of essays I composed each night to earn piece-mail academic scholarship money required to offset the cost of going to an out of state private institution. I also hoped after a successful high school career to potentially walk-on like both my parents had done, but at a smaller baseball program like Penn because there wasn’t much of an athletic scholarship market for sub six foot, 155 pounders coming off a torn PCL, torn meniscus, bone chips in the throwing elbow, and a partially torn throwing shoulder rotator cuff. (Naturally once healed I tried my hand at lightweight football instead which Rutgers no longer had and we always brought our A+ game against Princeton, our biggest rival too.)
Of course I initially regretted my decision before my first day of class. While on a freshman orientation trip to the Philadelphia Art Museum, I had to settle for cell phone call (not text or smart phone) updates from my best friend Tim attending the Michigan State game where Rutgers recreated history and tore down the goal posts. (after this article was posted I received a text the goal posts were taken down as a safety measure prior, but blame 2004 wireless networks for the miscommunication!) I pledged to not miss the next melee. Though some fans rushed the field after the Temple win, most of us headed over Easton Ave for an insane party that ensued after the Yankees took a 3-0 series lead over Boston. The REAL next field rush (photo above) was on national TV in 2005, when the Knights beat Pittsburgh en route to their first bowl berth since 1978. Tim and his version of the animals, known as D-block, went to Phoenix for the Insight Bowl but I stayed behind because I had waited so long for that bowl game and wanted to share it with my family.
I eventually moved to California so I don’t get to as many games (all losses it seems: like this and that). So when my then Texan girlfriend, now wife, was in Jersey for the Pinstripe Bowl against Iowa State (and to meet my family the first time), I thought better than to jinx it by dragging her to Yankee Stadium in cold temperatures. Instead, her first game was in a 100 degree hot box when I drove her three hours to Fresno in 2013 after a doubleshift at the hospital she works at. The game was exciting, (understatement of the century) but had we not already been married, the Fresno State fans barking like bulldogs in our faces probably would have made her more seriously consider her long term life choice. A football game would have been my perfect way to unwind after a long day at work, but it’s not for everybody. Needless to say it was a LONG drive home the next day. She knows watching sports and talking about it makes me happy, even if wins on the banks of the Old Raritan don’t come as often as we’d like.
Bruce Johnson may have been replaced. My parents don’t see The Animals very often. The days when I would get a text from my brother playing pick up basketball with Gary Nova and Leonte Carroo are mostly gone, but with each B1G game and new memory our stories become further intertwined in the ever-growing RU family. So I don’t try to act like I went to Rutgers, but my brother and I do occasionally donate to its football program via R BIG Build, even if it is in our parents’ names.
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