Penn’s crowd left something to be desired

The clock hit zero, and the sky began to darken. Objects flew all around me — obscuring my field of vision — and the mob shrieked. A masked man pointed at me and gestured with hate.

I was a pilgrim in an unholy land.

“Here’s a toast to dear old Penn!” they shouted. And then they threw toast.

The Penn faithful, I learned last weekend, have been throwing toast at the end of the third quarter of every home game since the 1970s. Their toast, once champagne, has turned literal. And after the third quarter, it covered the field on the home side.

The referees, eager to continue play, kicked the toast onto the track around the field, and I spent the fourth quarter watching Penn’s imitation Zamboni lap the stadium, sweeping toast into its underbelly. Where does all that toast go, I wondered?

The Penn alumni association claims that at an average game, fans throw 20,000 to 30,000 pieces of toasted bread and bagels (the school is one-third Jewish) onto the field. And I was there for the homecoming game — Penn’s most important weekend of the year. Though the school has not released the official numbers yet, I will confidently guess that more than 30,000 pieces of toast were thrown onto Franklin Field that day. The Zamboni driver can confirm.

But despite the abundance of baked goods, the game missed something. Maybe it was something intangible, like spirit. Or maybe it was something quantifiable, like 36,925 fans. With only 15,668 supporters in attendance, the stadium was filled to only 30 percent capacity. And so I, with two friends from Yale, crossed from the sun-soaked Yale side to the shaded Penn half in the first quarter. After saying hi to the Yale(!) Precision(!) Marching(!) Band(!), we walked through more than a dozen empty sections. It was these sections that both teams faced during in overtime, when Yale eked out a 26-20 victory in the third and final extra session. The teams threw and kicked toward empty seats with the game on the line. And I couldn’t help wondering, as I left the stadium, if those seats made the difference.

In fairness, the 15,668 fans in attendance surpassed last year’s average attendance of 12,021. And the fans there did their best, staying loud through the game’s four hours. But there could have been more, and they could have done more. All in all, they failed to do Franklin Field proud.

The stadium is one of the most storied American sports arenas in use today. Opened in 1895, the stadium has hosted the Penn Relays, the largest track-and-field meet in the U.S., every year since. It was home to the Philadelphia Eagles for over a decade and it hosted the Army-Navy football game from 1899 to 1935. Franklin Roosevelt accepted the 1936 Democratic presidential nomination at the stadium. And in 1970, during a game there between the Eagles and the New York Giants, a drunk Howard Cosell vomited on his color commentator’s cowboy boots before halftime, when he left the stadium and took a cab all the way back to New York.

In M. Night Shyamalan’s movie “Unbreakable,” Bruce Willis plays a security guard at Franklin Field who has never, ever missed a day of work because he is incapable of becoming hurt or sick. Penn fans could have given a similarly superhuman strength to their team on Saturday, but the 35,000 empty seats created a void instead of an emotional boost.

As it was the school’s homecoming weekend, the campus was flooded with alumni. Penn has no student tailgates, but the university had set up a massive buffet of food on Locust Walk, the path to the stadium. That evening, the university’s president, Amy Guttmann, unveiled the school’s new $3.5 billion, five-year capital campaign. But the hype and excitement only traveled so far. Their bellies full, much of the crowd apparently failed to make it into the game.

The Penn community has shown it can support the Quakers. In the fall, students camp out overnight for basketball season tickets, showing energy that rivals that of athletic powerhouses like Duke and UConn. But they didn’t bring that energy this weekend. Maybe they just don’t care about football. Or maybe a lot of them don’t care about toast.

Either way, the two teams went into overtime even, as they had been all day. The first half ended with a score of 7-7. The second half ended at 10-10. The first overtime at 17-17. And the second at 20-20. It seemed that nothing could determine the superior team. With Bulldogs star Mike McLeod ’09 injured at the end of the first half, Penn had a prime opportunity to continue an impressive streak: victories in every home game against Yale since 1990. But the home field advantage melted away as Yale drove toward empty stands, tied once again, at 20-20 in the final overtime.

Where could be cheering, jeering Penn fans there were none. None to harass the opposing team. None to wave signs covered in the Red and Blue. None to scare Yale away from the goal line.

And the masked man, the Pennsylvania Quaker, dressed in full trappings, hateful as he was, failed to inspire fear in me. Despite his pointing and choking gestures, he couldn’t erase the frozen grin from his mascot’s head. I smiled back at him and watched the Bulldogs break through the line, finally, to win the game. Thirty-five thousand empty seats watched with me, in stunned silence.

Pete Martin is a sophomore in Morse College.

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