(This story was published in 2003).
By: Todd Heustess
MIAMI--Roosters are crowing. All signs and ads are in Spanish. Everyone I encounter in this working-class neighborhood greets me in Spanish, eyes me warily, or is busily engaged in conversation in Spanish. People are holding up and waving homemade signs that say “$20!” and are yelling “Aqui!” at passing motorists. As I turn the corner, the smell of grilling chorizos greets me making even hungrier and the heat coming from the street side grills makes an already hot and humid day hotter, but the delicious smell makes up for the temporary temperature increase. I decide to stop for water. It feels like I’m in Bogotá, or Caracas, or Guadalajara. Then I walk in the little bodega on the corner, see two confused people dressed in bright orange, pointing at their wallets at the confused shop owner. The woman says again, “Do yew know whuare an ATM machine is?” in an unmistakable southern drawl. The confused shop owner replies, “Como?” and I decide to help and translate for the orange-clad visitors. No, I’m not in Bogotá, but just west of downtown Miami. It’s another typical fall Saturday in Miami, before a Miami Hurricanes home game.
It’s always fun to go to the Orange Bowl when the Miami Hurricanes have a big game there and the place is rocking with a sellout crowd. When the venerable, somewhat derelict 100-year-old stadium (an exaggeration, but it sure feels that way) is sold out it can be one of the loudest stadiums in all of football. Doesn’t Miami always sell out, you rightly inquire? An Orange Bowl sellout happens when the Hurricanes are playing a traditional rival like Florida State, Florida or Virginia Tech or when they have a game against a major college football power like Washington, UCLA or Tennessee.
It may surprise a lot of college football fans out there that Miami doesn’t always sell out the Orange Bowl given the tremendous success of the Hurricanes’ program the last 20 years. There are more Florida and Florida State alumni in Miami (and South Florida in general) than there are Hurricanes’ alumni and the ‘Canes have to depend on the fickle South Florida market for a lot of their support. If the ‘Canes are playing Temple, Rutgers, or another no-name patsy, the Orange Bowl will be half full at best. Heck if they’re playing a non-ranked opponent, chances are the game won’t sell out. That’s why games like the early November Miami vs. Tennessee are special. The Orange Bowl was sold out, and a loud boisterous crowd was on hand, cheering and sweating profusely in the South Florida humidity, to see the ‘Canes lose their second game (10-6) in a row for the first time in more than four years and drop out of the national championship race for the first time since the 2000 season.
It’s the tailgating atmosphere however that sets Miami apart and it’s what I enjoy most about the big games there I’ve been lucky enough to attend. I especially enjoy watching the reactions of the visiting team’s fans who haven’t ever gone to a Hurricanes’ game. They all have the same “What the F*%K?!” bewildered, slightly shell-shocked expression on their faces because there is just no other place in college football like the Orange Bowl and its surrounding neighborhood. I watched Tennessee fans, sitting around their cars, drinking beer, grilling great tailgating feasts, a scene that is repeated at many campuses and cities every Saturday in the fall. However I doubt that many fans of the big football powers are forced to negotiate parking their flag-draped SUV or Winnebago in “Spianglish,” eventually parking in the front or back yard of one of the many enterprising residents who live in Little Havana, the neighborhood surrounding the Orange Bowl.
The major UM donors get the prime spots in the two-three parking lots next to the Orange Bowl. You see RVs and Winnebago’s, and expensive SUVs parked alongside each other that you see at any other campus on a game day Saturday. There are traditional tailgate feasts, cookouts, and cocktail parties, that are so distinctively part of college football. However, everyone else (probably about 80% of the fans at any Orange Bowl game) are left to their own devices as far as parking goes, parking wherever they can find a spot, praying that their car is in one piece (or there at all) when they return. With the Orange Bowl in the middle of Little Havana and bordered by the notorious Overton neighborhood, college football fans going to a Miami game for the first time are treated to a major dose of urban shock.
The only other places in college football that compare to the urban setting of the Orange Bowl are the Coliseum in Los Angeles, and Georgia Tech’s stadium in Atlanta. Whereas Tech’s stadium (and campus) is located smack in the middle of Atlanta’s hip and affluent Midtown section, Southern Cal’s campus and stadium are in the neighborhoods adjacent to downtown L.A. Still at USC home games at the Coliseum, there is no doubt you are in the U.S., but as you tailgate before a game at the Orange Bowl, you sometimes wonder if you didn’t somehow get your travel plans confused, landing in Cuba, not Miami.
Once you get into the stadium you find yourself pleasantly surprised that you can buy beer for the first half of the game. The Orange Bowl itself is definitely a throwback to an earlier era of football stadiums. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, that suggests the slightest hint of an amenity at this stadium. The concourses are crowded (think N.Y. subways at rush hour), the bathrooms apparently were built at the very onset of the indoor-plumbing era, and the seats (if you actually have a seat and not a number on a bleacher) would put the airlines to shame for discomfort level.
Yet, when it’s sold out, there are few places louder or noisier. You may end up sweating out 5 to 8 pounds of water weight in the humidity but when you look out the open end zone at the glistening skyline of downtown Miami, and you feel the place begin to shake a little after a touchdown or a big play, you realize you are in a special place and it doesn’t matter that you’ll miss the third quarter trying to go to the bathroom. And hey, where else in college football can you get an empanada to go with your Miller Lite?