I took my first big bite of the Big Apple this weekend during the NCAA wrestling championships, and it was bittersweet.
My hometown of Duncansville isn’t a big city nor a country town, but a nice little mix of both. I consider myself a country boy — not cowboy boots, denim pants and trucker hats — but just laid-back and willing to help anyone.
I lived in Myrtle Beach, S.C., for awhile, and it was busy during the summer but it wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle. Now, living in State College, my seasons have completely changed from what I was used to. Summer here is not so busy with Penn State students mostly gone, and winter is busiest.
I hopped on the train in Tyrone along with 20 to 30 Nittany Lion wrestling fans and the journey began. A little more than six hours later, I arrived at Penn Station.
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I can honestly say I would take living in State College over living in New York City any day.
The people there are too fast-paced, and when I encountered my first local I felt that stereotypical New Yorker attitude. She wasn’t very friendly and was very short with me. I didn’t let it ruin my experience, I just brushed it off.
I made my way to Madison Square Garden to pick up my media credentials. I understand now why they call it “The World’s Most Famous Arena.” I walked onto the competition floor and was immediately in awe.
Hanging from the rafters were New York Knicks retired numbers for players such as Patrick Ewing and Walt Frazier. There were also championship banners that the Knicks had won.
In addition, there are New York Rangers retired number for players such as Mark Messier and Mike Richter, and next to those the NHL team’s accomplishments. There were also banners for how many shows Billy Joel has performed.
I understand what the NCAA was looking at when it decided to bring the championships to the big city. They would get more exposure, more fans in attendance and the ability to turn the casual fan into a fanatic.
The exposure part definitely was true as ESPN ramped up its coverage to have live footage of all sessions. The attendance numbers were there, too.
They gradually grew each day, which you would expect as the tournament gets down to the All-American rounds. Saturday’s sessions were the second- and third-largest in tournament history. The total number of tickets sold over the three days was 110,1914.
As for the casual fan part, I was experiencing my first NCAA tournament. I’ve always been a fan of the sport, as I was a wrestler myself back in the day.
The atmosphere inside MSG was something I’ve never experienced before. I thought Carver-Hawkeye Arena was crazy when I was there three weeks ago for the Big Ten tournament, but this took it to a whole new level.
Nittany Lion fans were spread throughout the arena. There was one main section that was located just over my right shoulder. I heard them all week long, as they had plenty to cheer about.
I heard them the most on Saturday night, as the Penn State had five finalists. Now, they were only able to celebrate two national champions in Nico Megaludis and Zain Retherford, but it didn’t stop them from rooting on Jason Nolf, Bo Nickal and Morgan McIntosh.
Megaludis’ title was one that was past due because he’d been in that position two times before. When it was over, he sat with his knees and forehead on the mat almost as if the gorilla was being taken off his shoulders. He came off the mat and ran into the stands to his mother, Linda, and his father, Dan.
The night drew to a close on the mats with Penn State collecting its fifth national title in six years. However, it wasn’t completed yet as those cheering fans got to mingle with the team for a post-tournament celebration.
There were an estimated 575 fans who got to hear the All-Americans speak. “The Voice of Penn State Wrestling,” Jeff Byers, acted as the master of ceremonies. The night came to a close with coach Cael Sanderson speaking about the team.
He said he didn’t want to talk about individuals because the crowd didn’t have all night and he figured they wanted to get some sleep. The crowd responded with a loud “we got all night.”
Sanderson’s response was priceless, “OK, well I’m tired and want to go to bed.” The crowd laughed more.
I won’t forget the characters I met in my time in NYC. Frankie the security guard at MSG, who was a straight-shooter and would speak whatever was on his mind. His boss, Alex, who went out of his way to get me Rangers’ goalie Hendrik Lundqvist’s favorite Gatorade — Orange G2.
Jermaine the Amtrak attendant at Penn Station. He told us a story about how he scored lifetime tickets from the New York Jets just for the way he went about his life. He hooked us up with Tim, another Amtrak worker, who got me and some of those Nittany Lion fans like Monty Christensen, wife Connie and daughter Erika, pre-boarded onto our train before anyone else. Monty and Connie attended their 47th straight NCAA tournament.
So here I am, writing on the train on my way back to State College. It will be nice to be back again after three straight weeks of traveling to Iowa, then to Hershey for the PIAA wrestling finals and this past weekend in New York.