It was half past noon last Friday, I was in Springfield and beginning to realize that my travel options were reduced to taking the long way to Durham, N.C., to watch the University of Virginia football team play Duke the next day at 3 p.m. If I stayed on I-91 toward New York City it would be rush hour, the GW Bridge would be stacked and the Jersey Turnpike would be gridlocked. And so I turned west in Hartford onto I-84 and drove toward Newburgh, N.Y. on into Pennsylvania.
It was the back way out of the Northeast. The long way, and that didn’t work either. Sometime around the fifth inning of the National League playoff game between the Cardinals and Braves, my Toyota 4-Runner was parked in the I-81 passing lane about 50 miles south of Scranton. We were behind a mile-long row of traffic and I was considering a U-turn into the northbound lane when I yelled to a woman trucker who had her window down and was smoking a cigarette.
“What’s going on?”
“It’s a ways.”
Another message board warned of “major delays” near Harrisburg so I ducked onto I-83 toward Baltimore, which put me on I-95 south of the Fort McHenry Tunnel. I’d booked a hotel room in Emporia, Va., about 100 miles east of Durham, and it was well past midnight before I brushed my teeth and hit the sack. A few hours later I was awoken to the thud of the air conditioner kicking back on and the sound of doors being slammed by eager travelers ready to hit the highway.
Many exits along I-95 are an ugly amalgam of gas stations, fast food joints and retail outlet stores, but downtown Emporia was within jogging distance and I escaped the idling churn of the car and truck engines into a residential area composed of small white cape homes with plastic chairs on the porches and satellite dishes in the yards.
Emporia hosts the Virginia Pork Festival each June and cyclists show up once a year for the Great Peanut Ride. The city streets are clean and the town was early morning quiet. I jogged past an antique store that occupies what was once the lobby of the Hotel Virginia. High on the north-south sides of the three-story brick-walled hotel is a sign painted orange-and-black for travelers to see: “Reasonable Rates. Polite Service.”
A few doors down from the antique shop, I stopped and looked through the window of a luncheonette. It wasn’t open, perhaps closed for good, but the counter was clean, the red cushioned booths intact and the black-and-white checkered tile floor was washed and clean. Through the glass I caught the reflection of an Emporia police car. Emporia was second in the state in crime a few years ago. That was hard to fathom on a peaceful weekend morning, but as a Bronx cop once told me of working the 44th Precinct, “It looks OK now, but after midnight hell comes out for breakfast.”
On the corner of Halifax and Eastern Atlantic streets, two women from the Mountain Top Christian Church held white signs with black lettering that read, “Repent. Jesus is Coming Soon.” Motorists honked and waved.
Near the Emporia train station, a red light shone on the switching signal next to the tracks. Soon a CSX Transportation freight train would be barreling through town. An historic marker next to the station informs passersby that during the Civil War General Robert E. Lee used this vital north-and-south route to transport food and equipment to his Army of Northern Virginia.
Mine was an east-west drive on Route 58, and the manager at Cracker Barrel warned me to, “watch it through the first couple of counties.”
It was a two-lane divided highway and the crossovers provided cover for sheriff’s cars that lurked among the tall pines. During the 40-mile drive I saw two speed traps, one car pulled over and two other sheriff’s cars on patrol. Doing the speed limit wasn’t a problem because I enjoyed the view of dairy farms, silos and sloping fields with baled hay yet to be gathered.
At Duke University, it cost $10 for a parking space and I pulled in next to a group of students who were grilling hot dogs and drinking Budweiser. Two of the revelers, Brian O’Leary of upstate New York and Seth Urban of Portland, Maine, introduced themselves.
“I’m sort of a Duke fan but really I went to Notre Dame,” said O’Leary, who’s enrolled in Duke’s business school. “Notre Dame business school. … You got a head on your shoulder you can walk in. I don’t know what’s up with that.”
It was a half-mile walk up the sidewalk to where the alumni were tailgating on Blue Devil Alley. Beyond that fans were posing for photos near Cameron Indoor Sport Stadium, better known as Krzyzewskiville in honor of hoops coach Mike Krzyzewski, whose teams are 431-55 all-time inside the 9,300-seat arena.
A few hundred yards from there was Wallace Wade Stadium, named after the Duke football coach who arrived in Durham in 1930 after taking Alabama to three national titles. Wade had shocked the college football world by his departure from Tuscaloosa, saying he wanted to coach at a school that emphasized academics.
The football program thrived under Wallace. On New Year’s Day, 1942, Duke hosted the Rose Bowl, the only time the game wasn’t played in Pasadena. It was less than a month after Pearl Harbor and “They didn’t want a big crowd in California,” said an old-timer who was wearing a straw cowboy hat emblazoned with Duke buttons. In that game, Oregon State defeated Duke, 20-16 before 56,000 fans.
In recent seasons, Duke has been the doormat of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Its last postseason appearance was the Hall of Fame Bowl in 1995 when it lost to Wisconsin, and since then the Blue Devils haven’t had a winning season.
I paid a scalper $35 for a $20 ticket, an unnecessary expense because of the aluminum bleachers and ample seating on the Virginia side of the field. I gave the ticket to a vendor and walked onto the concourse overlooking the field. Vendors were hawking “Hog Heaven” barbeque sandwiches, chicken bowls and chili hot dogs. Blue Devils head masks cost $29.95.
The first half was entertaining but Duke turned the second half into a rout and won, 42-17. “Man, I’m tired of seeing that guy in the red shirt,” said a campus cop, referring to the TV commercial timeout coordinator. “I’ve been here since morning.”
The win improved Duke’s record to 5-1 and the team will become eligible for a bowl berth if it can win one of its final six games.
Afterward, the family members of the vanquished visitors — many dressed in orange and navy blue t-shirts with the letter “V” emblazoned over crossed swords — waited near the locker room. One by one the players shuffled out holding box dinners to eat on the bus ride home. Defensive coordinator Jim Reid was under a goalpost speaking with reporters about the loss.
“No excuse not to perform,” said the former UMass coach. “We made mistakes. We blitzed and when you blitz it’s either feast or famine. Failure is just the opportunity to start again with a little more wisdom.”
After the last reporter left, Reid and I went into the coaches’ locker room where he introduced me to head coach Mike London. We shook hands and I mentioned of reading how he’d once been a street cop in Richmond until a gunman stuck the weapon in his face. “Not just that,” exclaimed Reid, “The guy put the gun in his face and pulled the trigger.”
London nodded, but the lopsided loss was fresh in his mind. He was quiet, polite and reserved, but as former UConn coach Tom Jackson once said of winning and losing, “You’re either on top of the world or down with the whale turds.”
I walked to the bus with Reid and said goodbye. It was 8 p.m. and my journey was continuing to Florida. It would be a long trip, but an even longer ride home for coach Mike London and his Virginia Cavaliers.
Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.