Seeing red shirts in the bars around Fenway Park is not uncommon. Seeing red shirts with badgers on them, however, is. And seeing red shirts featuring a badger that acts as mascot to a university over 1,000 miles to the west is even more uncommon.
And yet every Saturday of the college football season alumni of the University of Wisconsin-Madison gather at the Baseball Tavern on Boylston Street in Boston. They cheer, they sing, they dance, they make merry with food and drink. They even do push-ups on the bar. Their goal is simple: to recreate as best they can the atmosphere they all experienced at Camp Randall Stadium, an atmosphere that defined their college experiences (and some might say their lives) for 4+ years.
I discovered this phenomenon two years ago. Recalling watching Badgers games with my parents (both Wisconsin alumni) as a child, I decided to check it out. Not actually being an alumni caused some initial friction, but I soon gained acceptance after demonstrating at least a passing knowledge of Wisconsin football history. I had watched them win the Rose Bowl in 1994, then do it again in 1999 and 2000. I knew all about Ron Dayne, John Stocco, and the great Barry Alvarez. My grandfather used to sing “On, Wisconsin!” to me as a lullaby. So while not a pure badger, I was still welcomed as an honorary alumnus (it also helped that I had been accepted there for undergraduate study, even though I matriculated elsewhere).
Boston does not want for devoted fan bases. The Boston Red Sox, Bruins, and Celtics regularly enjoy large turnouts at their home games. And these are not people with passing interest. Every fan knows the histories and rituals of their teams. There is no need to try and stir the crowd up with gimmicks or ploys; the fans can whip themselves into a frenzy just fine, thank you.
However, there is a unique psychology to the Boston sports fan. It comes from a combination of the weather, decades-long losing streaks (the Red Sox did not win a World Series between 1918 and 2004; Bruins have not won a Stanley Cup since 1972), the proximity to New York City, and an over-saturated sports media. The Boston sports media scene is ripe with writers who seem to enjoy exaggerating loses and undervaluing victories to the point that readers come away believing their teams are losers and and they are too for following them.
The result is a coldness, a chip-on-the-shoulder aggressiveness that perhaps does as much harm as it does good. Sports fandom is a great thing. But Boston may transcend from sports fandom to sports insanity. And if left unchecked it may have long-term consequences for the city at large.
But none of that is present amongst these transplanted Midwesterners. They love their team, no doubt about it. When the Badgers score (and they do), they cheer loudly. When they give up points (which they also do), the alumni groan. But the cheering lacks the desperation of Boston fans who seem to NEED to win all the time, and the groaning is measured, as if the fans realize that football in the end is just football. Midwestern values of common sense, hospitality, and kindness meet Northeastern fanatacism to produce to far healthier but no less-devoted base.
The game itself is somewhat straightforward. The Badgers take the lead early and never relinquish it. Wisconsin features a run-first, run-second, pass-third offense (they rush 46 times and pass 22 times), and it works. Their star running back, John Clay, rushes for 137 yards and 2 touchdowns. Their quarterback, Scott Tolzien, whose deficiencies I’ve been lambasting for a year, goes 15/22 for 191 yards, a touchdown, and an interception.
It’s more than enough for their defense, which keeps the San Jose State Spartans off the board for nearly three quarters, then finally gives up two touchdowns. The Badgers win 27-14 in a game that could have been a bigger blowout had the Badgers not fumbled the ball once while rushing for the end zone and muffed a fourth-and-1 from the SJSU 4-yard line. The Badgers are a team with definite talent that probably played down to their opponent Sunday and didn’t really pay the price for it. The atmosphere at the bar is jovial, although there are concerns for wide receiver David Gilreath, who suffered a helmet-to-helmet hit while catching a punt and had to be taken away in an ambulance.
Throughout the game, as much of the Camp Randall experience as possible is recreated. Band songs are imported to iPods and played over the surround-sound system. The Steve Miller Band’s “Swing Town,” a student favorite, is played and sung along to with appropriately obscene lyrics. The same treatment is applied to Gary Glitter’s “Rock and Roll Part 2.” When the third quarter ends, House of Pain’s “Jump Around” starts blaring, and everyone in the bar does just that. It might not carry the ground-shaking, foundation-rattling power of the 80,321-seat Camp Randall, but here in Boston it’s enough. For a few hours the spirit of Madison is back, and it’s glorious.
The game ends with the Badgers rushing for last first-down, then taking a knee. “Varsity” plays, and I’m invited to join the ring of swaying, singing Badgers, even though TECHNICALLY the line “our Alma Mater” doesn’t apply to me. Not wanting to cheapen their fun, I leave that bit out of my rendition of the song, silencing myself briefly and then coming back with “U-Rah-Rah, Wisconsin.” And then it’s over. Fans trickle out of the bar, which begins to de-Wisconsinize itself as it prepares to host the Louisiana State University alumni for the Tigers’ 7:00 PM game against Vanderbilt. The Baseball Tavern hosts many alumni groups in an effort to boost attendance at their bar, and when it’s not the Badgers’ turn the bar shows no allegiance to them.
For some, the football games are just one side of a full range of alumni experiences in Boston. The Alumni organization is well-run and large (it’s Facebook group has over 300 members), and there are many activities ranging from community service to the Head of the Charles regatta. But for others, Saturday afternoon is their only time to reconnect with something they once loved that is now gone. Under the guise of college football, that wonderful sport where the athlete ostensibly plays for love of school and the game and not for money, what is really going on is a recreation of the Wisconsin esprit de corps. Right in the heart of a city known for its fanaticism you have a group of alumni who find a way to keep their love alive without letting it consume them. The rest of Boston could learn a lesson from these Badgers.