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On the Ground: My Jacksonville Gator Bowl experience, brought to you by Southwest Airlines

Editor’s note: All four Observer staff members on this trip were 21.

The story of my trip to Jacksonville begins days before I even left my house. It was a cold December day, and my family was huddled around the TV watching “Glass Onion” on Netflix. At some point during the two-hour runtime, I was made aware of a small issue going on with Southwest (this small issue being them canceling over 60% of their flights).

Now, as somebody who was scheduled to fly Southwest in two days, I was understandably a little nervous after hearing this news. I went to check my flight status, and sure enough — canceled.

Learning you’re about to potentially miss your final football game as a student photographer is enough to send anybody into a spiral, but I take pride in the cool, calm and collected manner I took on to handle this information. (I sent our faculty supervisor about 20 manic texts and emails in the span of half an hour). My supervisor assured me that she’d get in contact with the travel agency and do whatever she could to get me on a flight. So naturally, I took a more hands-off approach and let her handle the situation. (I spent the next 24 hours frantically searching for other flights and asking her about the possibility of me making the 12-hour drive from Maryland to Florida).

Flash forward to about 18 hours before my original flight, and I get a call about another seat on an open United flight out of Dulles Airport. I immediately accept it and feel the weight being lifted off my shoulders. I tell the group of writers also traveling to Jacksonville, and funny enough, they pointed out that not only was I put on the same flight as Aidan Thomas, one of the writers flying out of Virginia; even funnier, my new seat was FIRST-CLASS!

As somebody who’s never flown first class, I felt extremely out of place the second I reached my seat. While we waited for the plane to take off, a flight attendant came up to my seat with a tray and asked me, “Water or sparkling wine?” Sparkling? Wine? I was like, “For free?” and the flight attendant said, “Yes. This is first class.” I cautiously accepted my sparkling wine and waited for the flight to take off. The first-class experience was nice. It felt like the attendants personally cared about you, which is an experience I’m unfamiliar with as a lifetime economy flyer. After a relaxing two-hour flight, and roughly 430 words into this article, I finally landed in Jacksonville.

Aidan and I were the first people to arrive in Jacksonville by about an hour, so we headed to the Enterprise to pick up our rental car. We picked up the other two writers when they landed, and then hit the road to our hotel. Not even 5 minutes into our trip, we were driving down a one-way street, and out of nowhere, another car came barreling towards us, clearly going the wrong way. Aidan let out a sigh reminiscent of the numerous ones I heard while he was driving us around in LA.

After arriving at our hotel, we went to eat at a local brewery. The food was good and the atmosphere was fun. Families and groups of friends all down for the game sat around us as other bowl games played on the TVs.

A local Jacksonville beach bar hosts an army of Gamecock fans the day before the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl between Notre Dame and South Carolina. Ryan Vigilante | The Observer

The next day we went to the beach, where the Irish hosted their pep rally. The first thing we saw there was a bar swarming with South Carolina fans. Not a very welcome sight for a group of four Notre Dame students. We walked down that street and were met with a flurry of “GAME!! COCK!!” chants, since we weren’t decked out in deep red and black. The pep rally itself was played by the Notre Dame Marching Band, and it was nice to hear them again after a one-month hiatus. After that, we went to an alumni and friends event at a local bar, where they played live Irish music.

Irish fans gather to watch the pep rally hosted by the Band of the Fighting Irish and the ND Cheer Squad. Ryan Vigilante | The Observer

That night, we went to eat at a taco place (which was immaculate) before spending the night at Myth Nightclub. They offered anybody who got there before 11 p.m. free entry, so we got there around 9:45 p.m. to avoid the $10 entry fee. Shockingly, the space was empty at 9:45. Who could’ve predicted that? We left and came back later, and it was much more crowded than before, but minimal dancing and low song recognition sent most of us home pretty early.

Irish and Gamecock fans gather for FanFest before the TaxSlayer Gator Bowl between Notre Dame and South Carolina. Ryan Vigilante | The Observer

We left for the game around noon on Friday morning and explored the tailgating scene a little bit. It wasn’t bad, but the official FanFest festivities TaxSlayer set up for the game felt a little underwhelming (definitely wasn’t as bad as the tailgating scene in Vegas though). Again, a Gamecock-heavy scene left us without much to do or look into.

South Carolina fans swarm the stands during Notre Dame’s victory over South Carolina in the Gator Bowl Friday night. Ryan Vigilante | The Observer

The atmosphere of the game itself was great. The South Carolina fanbase definitely had a majority, and there was nothing more disheartening than watching them wave their white towels while Notre Dame was down 21-7. Fortunately, the Irish were able to rally. Being a photographer is such a great experience because I get to be on the field and soak in the energy from all sides. During the game, Leprechaun Ryan Coury stole my camera right off my shoulder and started taking pictures with it, which was pretty funny. I was definitely really happy with how my own pictures turned out, and I think I had some of my best work during this game.

Jacksonville was a great experience and I left with the realization that it’s a super underrated city. I went in with really low expectations, but I had a lot of fun at the game and through all the events surrounding it.

All in all, I’d just like to say thank you so much to Southwest Airlines for having a major breakdown the one week out of the entire year I chose to fly through their airline. Really came in clutch there.

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On the Ground: Maine driver takes on Highway 1, what could go wrong?

What happens when you put a longtime Maine resident in the driver’s seat with a New York passenger on Los Angeles highways? I don’t know. It all happened so fast. 

Well, not really. It happened at the speed limit (or slightly below). 

Our trio (Maine, New York and the poor Maryland resident witnessing the blend of passive driving and *mostly* constrained city aggression) traveled to USC for Notre Dame’s regular season finale. Arguably, the direct flight from South Bend to Los Angeles was quicker than my driving from our hotel to the Coliseum on Saturday afternoon, but hey, both the pilot and I got our passengers from the start point to the end point, and that’s what really matters when it’s all said and done. And I did it in a nice and safe Nissan (as I quickly turned down the … opportunity(?)to drive a Dodge Charger). I didn’t feel my 54-in-a-55 on the highway style of driving merited such a vehicle. 

Most driving jokes aside, this trip, minus the result of the game for the Irish, was an absolute blast. Firstly, the three of us were on the same page from the get-go — arranging our travel time to make sure we were through the extensive South Bend Airport security lines by kickoff of the England-USA soccer game. But beyond our well-planned travel, we landed in Los Angeles just before 5 p.m. local time. Unlike my trip to Stanford last year, I managed to wait more than 20 minutes before trying In-N-Out. Instead, we opted for a nearby spot called Century Taproom, which got our west coast dining off to a fantastic start. 

On Saturday, we didn’t do too much prior to leaving for the game. Part of it was a very appetizing slate of college football games — watching Clemson lose is always pretty fun. But also … more than necessary driving in game-day traffic in Los Angeles? I’ll pass. 

The actual drive to the Coliseum took two hours, minimum. I’m being fact checked and told it was 45 minutes, but I stand by my claim. “Getting” to drive on Highway 1 was certainly an experience that I’m all right not repeating for a long time. Once we got off the highway, however, we began to be able to take in a little bit of the atmosphere, courtesy of the stop-and-go traffic as we tried to make our way to a parking garage. 

With about three hours till gametime, there was some general buzz right outside the Coliseum where we drove, although the restrictive laws regarding open containers and drinking pushed the tailgate a little away from the lots immediately outside the stadium. With this weekend marking my last true road game as a student, I’m yet to find a tailgate scene I like more than Notre Dame. Once inside the Coliseum, however, I was more impressed. The stadium was definitely a sight, and the open-air press box was conducive to soaking in the beautiful weather and pregame atmosphere. I’ll also give USC some culinary props — the press box food was definitively not as good as Notre Dame’s, but it was a decent spread. And they had coffee! (Please, Syracuse, for the love of God, put coffee in your press box when you have a noon kickoff). 

With about an hour to go before kickoff, we did get situated at our seats and took in the environment. Our general take? The pregame atmosphere was probably a little better than at Notre Dame, with an in-house DJ occasionally hopping on the mic to pump up the crowd. The crowd itself was a bit late-arriving, particularly in the student section, which was a little surprising for a rivalry clash. The Irish’s student section can be late arriving for smaller games, but it’s usually packed at kickoff for the bigger games, and USC students still seemed to be filing in several minutes into the first quarter. 

As the game progressed, it felt like the Coliseum reached peaks that were higher than Notre Dame, but I’d maintain that Notre Dame Stadium, in games of these magnitude, maintain a higher noise level throughout the game. On big third downs or after a big conversion, the USC crowd would roar, occasionally receiving some encouragement from that aforementioned in-house DJ. That concept was a little odd to me — the DJ would start cheers or amp up the crowd, which was something different than what I’ve seen elsewhere. I’m not necessarily against it, but I thought it was weird that the crowd frequently fell quiet if the DJ wasn’t pumping them up. 

The student section itself was decent, but, and maybe I had too high expectations, it didn’t overwhelm. And, more shockingly to me was being able to visibly see Trojan fans leaving as the game finished. As we made our way down to the field, we fought our way through a horde of departing fans … and they were mostly USC fans. Basically the whole Notre Dame student section stayed to sing the alma mater in losses to Cincinnati, Marshall and Stanford in the last three games. The concept of leaving early barely exists among the Irish fanbase — and definitely not in one of the biggest games of the season. To be fair, maybe I’d be annoyed too if my band could only play one song, but that’s a rant for another time. But hey, cute yellow capes. 

Once the game and the subsequent writing was over, we departed and finally made the obligatory In-N-Out stop on our way back to the hotel. I’d be remiss if I didn’t shout out the pair of enthusiastic USC fans who saw the USC logo on my press credential and gave us an earnest “Fight on!” as we enjoyed our burger. We then got to hear a little more about Caleb Williams’ brilliance, as we hadn’t quite seen it enough all night. 

Our Sunday was uneventful, with a smooth plane ride back. Certain members of our traveling party got Panda Express at our gate (“It’s 11 a.m. on the East Coast!”) which I can’t condone in good conscience, but to each their own. Other than that, I happily turned in my keys to the rental and said good bye to Los Angeles driving. ‘Til we meet again — maybe I’ll try the Dodge Charger next time.