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A Seat Away

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A story of a friendship made in the stands of Rutgers stadium.

Cincinnati v Rutgers Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Sometimes the true meaning of a neighbor comes from the most unexpected places. And sometimes the neighbor who sits next to you at a handful of football games for a few days a year has a more profound effect on you than the neighbor who has resided next door to your house for years. From 1994 until 2005, I was blessed with a great neighbor, Richard Newell, my next-door-neighbor in Section 125 of SHI Stadium.

It was 1994 and I purchased four Rutgers football season tickets. My father, two brothers and I were to start a tradition, Saturday afternoons in Piscataway. I had driven down several times and watched the new stadium rise from the remnants of the that old field, more of a high school field than a college stadium but despite its humble physical exterior, held decades of memories and haunted whispers of a begotten era. The old field had served Rutgers University well as did the field on College Avenue where the first intercollegiate football game was played between Rutgers and Princeton over a century ago.

Doug Graber the head coach of the Scarlet Knights at the time, tried mightily to push the program towards the promise of big-time football that was made to the people of New Jersey back in the 1970’s. Graber brought in some big-time recruits and the program always seemed to be on the precipice of getting over the hump, only to be sabotaged just as victory was within its grasp. Part of the reasons given for Rutgers inability to climb into the big-time was the absence of first-rate facilities and training facilities.

So, when the new stadium was built, I gambled that someday Rutgers would play to packed houses as an upper echelon football program. The first game against Kent was played in the new stadium on September 3, 1994, before 33,279 fans excited about the new stadium and the future of Rutgers football. Our seats were on the 10-yard line of the Rutgers side of the field which today is the visiting side of the field. The seats weren’t bad but after the first touchdown scored by Ray Lucas on an eight-yard scamper, the cannon situated nearby on the field behind the end-zone exploded and my dad a combat veteran of WWII left his seat to return to earth a few seconds later. We persevered but my dad never got use to the cannon firing. We knew to keep Dad coming to games, the seats had to go.

I called the ticket office and spoke with a very pleasant woman explaining our predicament. The next week, we were moved to the visitor’s side of the field on the 45-yard line, twelve rows from the field.

It was here that I first met Richard Newell.

We were now in prime seats and with that, the days of having a row or two to ourselves were over. Adjoining our four seats was an older man his wife and what we believed were different sets of children and grandchildren. The other two seats were an ever-changing group, but the one constant was Richard and his wife Eleanor. Regardless of the weather or the score, there was Richard, radio, headphones, and his wife Eleanor faithfully by his side. Eleanor always was smiling but Richard not so much during those early years.

Following the 1996 season, Dad retired to Florida and my brothers both moved out-of-state. Occasionally I could bribe my wife or a friend to accompany me to the game, but almost never could I get three people to go to a game with me. The excuses were if nothing creative. “I am getting root canal.” “I’m helping my wife arrange the sock draw,” things like that. The good news is that Richard, Eleanor, and I often had a lot of room to spread out.

So, way too often it was just me and slowly I got to know Richard. He was never chatty. He was all business as he took his Scarlet Knights very seriously. He would comment to me about certain plays and always questioning strategy and play-calling. With his ever-present bag of candy, we grew closer both in physical proximity and in our common love of Rutgers football.

There were some memories that stood out. It was November 29, 2003, or better known as the Wind Bowl. That afternoon mother nature blasted a steady 40+ MPH wind into Rutgers Stadium, and for the first time in recent memory, Rutgers blasted Syracuse 24-7 in a dominating defensive performance. Prior to that 2003 season, Rutgers was losing games 62-6, 80-7, 40-0, 42-0. But 2003 was the year Rutgers stopped getting blown out of games and started resembling a team that had the talent and drive to be competitive. Rutgers still lost more than they won, but opponents walked away knowing they had been in a fight. Beginning with the 2003 season, Richard and I began to experience the resurgence of Rutgers football. For Richard who had been a fan a lot longer than me, his loyalty was beginning to be rewarded.

The 2004 season arrived and with it a return match-up with Michigan State. The game was televised nationally on ABC – and expectations were at a fever pitch over the summer. Ryan Neil sealed the victory that afternoon with an interception run back for a TD. This game perhaps more so than any played before that time at Rutgers Stadium showed fans that “big time” college football was a possibility in Piscataway. The 42,613 fans that packed the stadium that day created a true “Sea of Red” not seen on the Banks… ever, up until that point. It was a precursor to what would happen in home games in the future. Of course, there were the inexplicable letdowns like losing to New Hampshire the next week, but Rutgers was trending in the right direction and most fans; Richard and I among them, knew it.

But it was the winter of 2004 that truly changed Rutgers fortunes. Rutgers was making in-roads recruiting in Florida but equally significant was challenging Syracuse for players in the New York Tri-State area. Greg Schiano went into New Rochelle, New York long considered locked down by Syracuse and got Ray Rice, Courtney Greene, and Glenn Lee to commit to play for Rutgers.

The 2005 season was going to be our year. Prior to the 2005 season, Eleanor had stopped coming to the games that were played in the cold and rain, but Richard was always there which was why when the 2005 season began, Richard also started making occasional appearances at games. During that season, Richard stopped coming altogether, replaced by his children, grandchildren, and the occasional friend. I later learned from his son that Richard was sick and in the hospital. I also learned from his son that Richard worked for years in the Rutgers University maintenance department a fact that he never mentioned to me in the ten years we were seat mates. Before his passing, Greg Schiano visited Richard in the hospital — so becoming of the man who runs our football program. He went without any fanfare or hoopla. Coach Schiano simply did what he has always done, looking after one of his own.

Richard passed away in 2005, a good man and a loyal son. He is missed by the Rutgers community and those who knew him to this day.