MADISON, Wis. — Near the cavernous stadium in which the Big Ten football game of 2020 allegedly happened Friday night, you could hear the public-address announcements bellowing from within and ricocheting up the lonely sidewalks.
First and 10, Wisconsin.
(“Woooo!” two stray souls yelled in jest as they walked the creepy stillness.)
This is a full media timeout.
(Oh, okay, thanks.)
The ruling of the previous play was the return man had his knee on the ground when he caught the ball. That play is under further review.
(Yeah, do fill us in on that.)
Then came the voice of a referee, with a crucial bookkeeping detail: That’s the end of the third quarter.
Then came a sight, in a year deprived of them, on the silent street just outside the stadium walls.
Let the ghastly record show that by late October in the Upper Midwest of a country too inept to curb a pathogen, the novel coronavirus had muzzled even mighty Madison, an act only a serious bastard could wreak. It threw a hard quiet upon a first Big Ten weekend strewn with vivid, unattended games from Columbus to Minneapolis: Indiana’s 36-35 overtime upset of No. 8 Penn State on the kind of controversial ending about which humans yammer forever … Rutgers’ 38-27 breakthrough upset at Michigan State … No. 5 Ohio State’s vault from a 10-point lead over Nebraska at halftime to ahead 52-17 at the end … No. 18 Michigan’s fresh and splashy 49-24 win at No. 21 Minnesota … Purdue pipping Iowa, 24-20, with a late touchdown while the winning head coach sat home in quarantine … and first of all, Wisconsin’s 45-7 mauling of Illinois on Friday.
But because life often brings the mirthful alongside the melancholy, let the record also play “Jump Around.”
That 1992 song, from Los Angeles-formed trio House of Pain, has spawned college football’s utmost life form and spectacle, Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium hopping to it after the third quarter. Now as Big Ten football finally began in 2020, the usual 80,321 had gone reduced to a most unusual zero by decrees of both the Big Ten and the University of Wisconsin. Now the stadium played another song, audible on the sidewalks with the yellow leaves already fallen and trampled and the temperature a crisp 37. Now you could briefly wonder whether maybe they scrapped the custom out of sheer woe.
Now the other song yielded to the long, brassy, soaring note that yields to the three quick, descending notes that signal “Jump Around.”
Now there had been that house on Breese Terrace, close enough to the stadium to crawl to it if needed. It had been the same house where, in 2017, before a win over Michigan, a passerby might have seen the evolutionary sight of a two-story beer bong snaking down from a terrace up top all the way into a hardy gullet down below.
Now its new and different student residents had been playing beer pong in the yard in front of a sizable TV dutifully dragged out there to show scenes of Wisconsin’s distribution of comeuppance to an Illinois that had upset it last year, back when such things counted as “upsets.” University Chancellor Rebecca Blank and Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers (D), among others, had advised students and fans to watch the game only with cohabitants. These cohabitants number nine.
“It’s never boring,” said Jack Snedegar, a junior from Rockford, Ill.
They have an Illinoisan, a Californian, a Missourian, two Minnesotans and four Wisconsinites, and just then, in a scene that could make you cry if so inclined, they stormed from the yard to the empty street and spent the next 45-ish seconds jumping. To their surprise, the house next door also emptied, producing another little crowd almost adjacent. Then another gaggle of those whose college years happen to coincide with a pandemic came running up the street to join and get in maybe 15 seconds of release.
Then it finished, and the game resumed.
Then the lads from the nine-strong house disassembled their TV setup and sang a swell rendition of the Foundations’ “Build Me Up Buttercup” from 1968. Then Snedegar said he felt proud of his school, its zero-spectator stipulations and its 43,000-some students because when it comes to following public-health protocol, “I feel, overall, they are. We had a tough two weeks at the beginning of the school year when we had rising covid-19 cases, but after the chancellor put in a lockdown …” In a state with the third-highest average of new cases per capita over the past seven days among states, the campus has gone from 840 positive tests and a 9.4 percent ratio over a five-day period in September to 83 and 1.2 percent over the most recent five days of results, according to the university’s covid-19 response dashboard.
So as the Big Ten season that got quashed and then resuscitated did arrive, their great college city filled with emptiness, more so than the Tuscaloosas or Athenses of recent weeks. The bars along State Street and beyond, normally brimming with those who don’t hold tickets but come to town anyway, hunched along the street in their 2020 melancholia with their 25 percent capacity allowed and their sidewalk tables and their scant patrons. From TVs with the game on, you could hear the Big Ten Network’s broadcast and discern words from too many paces. Streets stayed barren but different from the usual midgame barren.
The grand 93-year-old Orpheum Theatre marquee read “VOTE OUT VOTER SUPPRESSION.” A man on the sidewalk beneath played music — in this case, impossibly, Blue Magic’s famed “Sideshow.” (So let the sideshow begin …) He said he had performed magic for 48 years. He said he was the guy who made some news a decade back for suing an airline that wouldn’t let him bring a dove onboard. A quick search proved this accurate.
Past the internationalist presence ever larger in college towns and seen with restaurants such as Dubai Mediterranean and Ramen Kid, past the Insomnia Cookies and its two customers inside, hush held. Students occasionally walked by in the scant cold-weather clothing that demonstrates the toughness of their generation. One complained about the wind with an expletive. A Buffalo Wild Wings sat empty, a big screen playing the game.
Nearer the stadium, students passed now and then in those striped red-and-white Wisconsin pants. A good Wisconsin play on the TV might bring somebody to holler from the balcony. From a small apartment gathering blared “On Wisconsin” — recorded, not live. An electronic sign flashed:
BADGER FOOTBALL FRIDAY
ALL LOTS CLOSED
The stadium public address conjured some high school game heard from down an American street. The canned crowd noise would swell and then stall immediately as real crowd noise never does. The Faded Club barbershop across the way with its classic red-and-white chairs had closed for the evening, but its three TVs played Illinois-Wisconsin and the World Series. Next to that stands the breakfast bastion Mickies Dairy Bar, a banner outside reading “Support Local Businesses,” on a day when a thorough story by Lindsay Christians in the Capital Times detailed five restaurants or bars closing for good, nine closing for winter and three closing one of several locations, all restaurant and tavern carnage in a place that finds tavern carnage sacrilege.
Then at game’s end, clusters of students did emerge to the streets here and there, some to the lines for the 25 percent bars. An interview with winning redshirt freshman quarterback Graham Mertz played audibly from a big corner pub with empty tables. He described his healthy relationship with injured starter Jack Coan.
Back on State Street, formerly the unchallenged vortex of life before rival areas developed yet still a force in good days, Joe Heiser and Ralph Yaniz finished working at Mackesey’s Irish Pub, which Yaniz manages, and told of the customary pre-pandemic wave.
“At this point” after a win in the old days, Heiser said, “it would be a ticking clock to see how long it would take the people to walk here. There would be a flow. Then it would be just a flood of red.”
“Like a wave that just hits State Street,” Yaniz said. “And then, boom.”
Now they’re just occasional wavelets, even if some do jump around.