Christmas in October

This is a first for me – writing two positive stories about sports in one year (not to mention within the past three months). And yet again, it involves attending an NFL game. But this is the holiday season, and it’s time to remember the good, including some special people who made my day recently.

My grandfather passed away in October. He was in his mid-eighties and sick, but it was still a surprise. Thanks to my wife’s hard work and a great round-trip fare that my brother got e-mailed to him earlier that week, I was able to get a flight back to New Jersey so I could attend the funeral.

On my way home from work that afternoon, my cousin Bill called me. Bill grew up two houses down the street from me in Jersey. Now that I’m older, I realize that since I was the oldest child in my family, he was a de facto older brother to me. He worked on Wall Street – specifically, on the floor of the Commodities Exchange. I’m convinced that this is what piqued my interest in the industry that I now work in. He also took me on my first subway ride and to see my first basketball game at Madison Square Garden – the 1983 Big East Tournament Championship Game. I got to see Chris Mullin lead St. John’s to victory, and he became my favorite player. I’m sure this also led me to be intrigued with the big city, where I later worked after graduating college and rode the subway to and from the office.

Back to the phone call. Bill, being the always generous cousin that he is, asked if I needed a ride to or from the airport. He then told me that he and his wife Celia were going to the Jets-Chargers game that Sunday with their friends, Joe and Maureen. Make a long story short, Joe is friends with Antonio Garay, the nose tackle for the Chargers. Garay’s from Rahway, and his family was going to have a huge tailgate party that they were also attending. He asked, “Want me to see if I can get you a ticket?”

I’m not a fan of either team, but I am a sports blogger. How could I turn this down?

Come Saturday, the phone rings and it’s Bill again. “Good news – I got you a ticket.” “Thanks so much.” I replied. “What do I owe you?” “Nothing,” he said, adding, “Just a smile.” I added, “I think I can do that. And I think I’m a Chargers fan on Sunday.”

It was with mixed emotions that I got on the red eye Saturday night. My wife and kids wouldn’t be joining me, since the little one was sick and the older one had school and practices to attend. But I figured the game would take my mind off everything.

I landed in Newark early for once. I even got to watch two cab drivers lean on their horns and nearly duke it out in the taxi line at 6 a.m. Ah, Jersey. My dad picked me up, I caught a few hours of sleep at my parents’ house, had my favorite Jersey breakfast (Taylor ham and egg sandwich) and was dressed just after Bill and Celia arrived.

Thanks to some fantastic driving by Joe, we made it to our tailgate destination at MetLife Stadium just after 11 a.m. Joe’s cousin had an unbelievable spread of food – steak, chili, you name it. Maureen brought outstanding pepper and egg sandwiches. Bill brought my all-time favorite, Dunkin Donuts coffee; which this jet-lagged reporter greatly appreciated.

We then walked over to the Garay family tailgate to pick up my ticket (courtesy of Antonio). They had a spread of tables and tables of food. Multiple barbecue grills going at once. A carnivore’s dream. Desserts far as the eye can see. A spread that would put some weddings to shame. THIS is tailgating. And you wonder why some in L.A. prefer the Grand Grossing stadium proposal?

I also met Antonio’s parents, Tony and Marsha, and his siblings, Dan and Francesca. All were unbelievably nice and I thanked them profusely. Along with the ticket, Tony gave Joe four field passes? Yes, I was going to actually set foot on the field before the game to watch the Chargers warm up.

We went through the gates – complete with metal detector wands. We were directed to a door and then a long hallway. At the end of it stood the playing field. I was like a kid in a candy store. Bill said to me, “Are you smiling yet?” I sure was.

The best way I can describe being on the field is that everything just looks bigger. The most impressive thing I saw was the sheer size and speed of some of the Chargers. Their offensive lineman – especially tackles Jeromey Clary and Marcus McNeil – seemed as tall as trees, yet had feet as fast as basketball players. Quarterback Phillip Rivers had a quick release when he threw. Mike Tolbert looked much shorter than he does on TV. Vincent Jackson was taller than Antonio Gates. Eric Weddle actually looked about as tall as me. The players hit harder and ran faster up close.

Fifteen minutes before the game, we had to leave the field. But not before I got some pictures of the Chargers equipment and the replay booth. Bill (who’s also a firefighter) got to meet and take a picture with Jets super-fan Fireman Ed. We even got to see former New York Governor George Pataki and former Mets first baseman Keith Hernandez.

I then went to my seat in one of the end zones, where I sat with other family members and friends of the Chargers. It was a perfect fall day − sunny and just warm enough. The Jets fans, unlike their prior reputation, were actually nice, and the extent of their jousting was limited to verbal barbs directed at those wearing Chargers gear. The Jets came back to win the game, 27-21, and the hometown fans went home happy. At least I got to see a good game.

But the game was icing on the cake. I’ll likely never get onto an NFL field on game day ever again. But at least I was able to tell my kids about it, and even show them the pictures and video to prove it. I felt like the boy who grew up just down the highway from the old Giants Stadium.

For that, I owe many thanks to Antonio Garay and his entire family. I’ve been pulling for you every Sunday since. We Jersey boys tend to stick together.

Thanks also go to Joe and Maureen, for giving me a ride, feeding me and for getting me a ticket and onto the field. I know Bill said that I’d be liable to write an article about this – here it is. And you’d be wise to check out his company, Web Star Recruits.

Last, but not least, thank you to cousin Bill and Celia. I appreciate everything you did, for taking my mind off everything and for the early Christmas present. Here’s hoping you enjoy seeing your names in “print.”

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukah and Happy New Year to all of you!

Stay Up to Date