ORONO — At quarter to 11 on Saturday morning, we sat in traffic on College Avenue, waiting to tailgate at a University of Maine football game.

I never thought I’d say that. Not once in the 23 years the University of Maine has been a part of my life, first as a student and now as an alumn, had I ever tailgated at a Black Bear football game. Saturday was special. For the first time, Maine hosted a Football Championship Subdivision playoff game.

Maine lost to rival University of New Hampshire, 41-27, ending the Black Bears season. It was an abrupt and bitter end to one of the best seasons in the team’s history. The short walk from Alfond Stadium back to the car felt a little bit colder. When you win, wind chill is a gentle breeze. When you lose, it cuts to your bones, and you feel cold for days.

There was little to no football culture at Maine when I was a student in the early ‘90s. Students arrived just before kickoff, if they attended games at all, and often left early. The football team was just there. It was in the background. We wished it well, hoped for a playoff run, but the promise showed in the late ‘80s by teams led by quarterback Mike Buck was never fulfilled.

If the football team won, great. If it lost, oh well. Football was there to fill the time before ice hockey season. Later, football season was a chance to count the days until the women’s basketball team and Cindy Blodgett filled Alfond Arena.

Like pine trees and the Stillwater River, the football team was just there. The University of Maine had a football team, but it wasn’t a football school.

The attendance for Saturday’s playoff game was 7,992, the largest home crowd for a Maine game this season. Since the fall of 1990, when I attended my first Black Bears football game, I’ve wondered what it would be like if a football game was the center of campus life.

On Saturday, I got a taste.

The line to get into the two parking lots in which tailgating is allowed stretched down College Avenue a half hour before the lots opened at 11 a.m. Each lot filled, and fans shared food and stories. A steady stream of fans visited the souvenir shop in Alfond Arena, adjacent to the football stadium.

We roared when Demarr Aultman returned a kickoff 88 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter, giving the Black Bears what turned out to be a short-lived lead. A fan sitting near me said it was loudest he’d ever heard the crowd at a Maine football game, and he went back to shaking his cow bell.

We groaned when the Wildcats pulled away in the fourth quarter. Cow bell sighed and left.

We stomped in unison, turning the metal bleachers into our drum kit. We sang the Maine Stein Song. We second guessed play calling and asked each other, how did that UNH running back evade that tackle?

We didn’t get the outcome we wanted on the field, but for one day, the University of Maine was a football school.

It felt good.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242[email protected]Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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