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The All-Bettis Team

How to Take Your 4-Year-Old Daughter to a Football Game

It's not easy — and it involves a lot of Dora the Explorer

When you live in New York City, you run up a long list of things you’ve been meaning to do. You’ve been meaning to get to some off-Broadway theater — your trip to see Blue Man Group with relatives in from Schaumburg doesn’t count. You’ve been meaning to get out to Ellis Island, which you hear has a database that allows you to track the immigrant history of your family. That sounds cool. You’ve been meaning to dust off the tuxedo and see Don Giovanni at the Met. You’ll probably have some champagne and light hors d’oeuvres while you’re there. And you’ve been meaning to get over to Brooklyn to see what all the fuss is about. Maybe pick up a porkpie hat and some skinny ties or something.

But you don’t do these things. You will drive by the places where these things could happen very easily and you will be reminded that you’ve been meaning to do them. You can’t really explain why you haven’t done them. You’d like to think it’s because you’re so busy, but you somehow keep finding time to do things every weekend like watch that noon, Saturday ESPN2 game between Northwestern and Iowa with the winner remaining right in the thick of the TicketCity Bowl conversation.

High on the list of things I’ve been meaning to do since I moved to New York in 2004 is going up to a Columbia University football game. I blame myself for the failure to make this happen for seven years, but I will say it’s tough to find a wingman for a trip like that, and a solo mission to watch an Ivy League school with which I have absolutely no affiliation always felt like a bridge I didn’t want to cross. I also struggled, when raising the idea every year, to answer my wife’s fundamental question, “Why the hell am I going to sit in the cold to watch a football game between Columbia and Brown?” This year, I stopped asking my wife. Instead, I found a wingman who does not ask the kind of questions that reduce a man’s long-held dreams to trivia. I invited my helpless 4-year-old daughter.

Granted, my sales pitch was vague. I told Lucie we were going on a “subway adventure.” That could have meant we were going to the Museum of Natural History, where she’s on a first-name basis with the life-size elephants and runs a tab at the gift shop. It could have meant we were going to live out some wild 4-year-old fantasy, like swimming in a pool full of Jolly Ranchers while Angelina Ballerina and Handy Manny cheered us on. Or it could have meant we were going to watch the winless Columbia Lions play host to Harvard at Lawrence A. Wien Stadium. Luckily, she didn’t ask for details.

Lucie was a great date. She enthusiastically packed the giant, pink Dora the Explorer backpack that consumes three-quarters of her body with two apples, some Goldfish crackers, a scarf, and a hat. I threw in some toys on the off chance the Ivy League football game somehow didn’t hold her attention. My wife was happy to see the two of us off, mainly because she knew that after seven years of kicking the can down the road, she was off the hook forever. She stayed home with our 2-year-old son, whose naptime didn’t jibe with the 12:30 p.m. kickoff. Come to think of it, he may have been faking a nap so he didn’t have to come to the game.

Lucie and I stepped out of our apartment building into the chilly afternoon (game-time temperature was 45 degrees) and hopped on the 1 Train. When you get on the subway to go to a Yankees game, you know you’re on the right train. Everyone is in jerseys, drinking, and talking loudly about how A.J. Burnett sucks. The subway to the Columbia game is different. And by “different,” I mean “empty.” For 12 stops and about 20 minutes, it was just me, Lucie, and a shoeless, sleeping gentleman who I suspect was not headed up to the Columbia alumni tailgate. Might have been a Harvard man.

By the time we got off the subway at the 215th Street station — the last in Manhattan before you cross over into the Bronx — you finally could tell there was something going on. A small crowd was marching up the hill on 218th Street. We followed the trail of powder blue and white balloons that signaled either a college football game or a 5-year-old boy’s birthday party.

At the gate, guards dressed in the familiar yellow “Event Security” windbreakers asked to take a peek inside Lucie’s Dora backpack. This seemed excessive on a number of levels. If Al Qaeda had been targeting sparsely attended Ivy League football games, it was news to me, and a little pathetic if you don’t mind my saying so. And I know jihadists have been on the ropes lately, but are they really using Scandinavian-looking New York City preschoolers to carry out their missions? If so, shame on them. Luckily, the Honeycrisp apples checked out, and we walked up to the ticket booth, Lucie slid a crisp $20 bill through the window, and back came two light-blue tickets that would announce forever, on the front of a refrigerator and probably later in the bottom of a shoe box, that I had been to a Columbia football game on November 5, 2011. I officially was doing the thing I’d been meaning to do. I was unreasonably excited to be there.

Lucie set the tone for the day when she asked almost immediately after we sat down on our cold, metal bleacher seats, “How long do we have to stay here?” It was time for some quick appeasement.

“They have hot chocolate,” I said.

“Where?!” she shot back.

“They sell it at halftime,” I told her, but she wanted more.

“Do they have Swedish red fish at this football game?” she asked.

“I bet they do,” I replied. Satisfied for the moment, she settled into her seat. I had just bought myself two quarters of football with the promise of a halftime sugar buy.

I guess I hadn’t considered beforehand how entertaining it would be to have a 4-year-old little girl breaking down the game at my side as she ate Goldfish and pounded juice boxes. Columbia was wearing its home blue jerseys. Harvard was in white with shiny gold pants. Lucie quickly dubbed this a battle between “The Golden Pants” and “Light-Blue Shirt Guys.” For the record, I will call Harvard “The Golden Pants” for the rest of my life.

I told Lucie we were rooting for Columbia because they’re the New York team (she’s too young for me to explain that no one roots for Harvard in anything — in sports or in life). But she didn’t care what I told her about Columbia: She was blinded by “The Golden Pants.” That was her team. Those were her pants. After every play — and I mean every play — she asked if “The Golden Pants” had won the game. At this rate, it was going to be a long day. Everything changed, though, on a fateful pass-interference call in the second quarter. Columbia threw a deep ball over the middle. The defensive back gave a little shove, the receiver went down, the flags flew, and the home crowd (the reported 4,153 seemed about right) booed, then cheered loudly. Lucie asked me what had happened.

I told her “The Golden Pants” guy pushed down the “Light-Blue Shirt Guy” and broke the rules. She whipped her head around, mimicking the stern look her mother gives her when she’s caught smacking her little brother around.

“He pushed him?” she asked. She was ready to call The Hague.

“Yes,” I said. “And that’s against the rules.”

Lucie glared at the field, and with pursed lips repeated a line she herself had heard many times before in her own home, “We do not push.” You have never seen someone switch a sports allegiance so quickly. Suddenly, she was a dyed-in-the-wool Columbia fan, if such a thing exists. The pass interference was more than a penalty. It was a violation. A moral failing. Grounds for a timeout at her preschool, so why not here at Lawrence Wien Stadium? How, pray tell, would a little yellow flag deter that kind of behavior in the future? It was a scandal. Lucie had placed her trust in that Harvard team some 32 minutes earlier, and now, as far as she was concerned, it was over. Lucie didn’t even know “The Golden Pants” anymore.

Now she at least was rooting for the right team, but another problem arose: the lion at the game. Not the Columbia mascot — Lucie picked up right away that he was not a real lion and therefore not a threat. No, it was a sound coming from the loudspeakers on the scoreboard behind the north end zone over and over again. A loud, prolonged lion’s roar. Lucie covered her ears in horror and turned to me with a stunning revelation.

“Daddy,” she said ominously. “There’s a lion at this football game.”

I assured her there were no real lions at the game, but she had her doubts. She’d heard her share of lion roars on the iPad “Animal Sounds” app over the years, and this one sounded like the real thing. And, by the way, there were pictures of lions everywhere. There on the press box: a lion. There in the program: a lion. There on that lady’s sweatshirt: another lion! They named the team after lions, for Christ’s sake! The way Lucie saw it, it was only a matter of time before this lion burst onto the field and ate all “The Golden Pants” and “Light-Blue Shirt Guys.” Lucie, not unreasonably from her point of view, wanted out of Lawrence A. Wien Stadium before we all were mauled. My long-deferred romantic dream of watching Columbia football under the autumn sun was in serious jeopardy. It was about that time that, as if sent from the heavens, a seagull swooped down and shit on my head.

There had been a good-sized flock of seagulls hovering over the stadium all afternoon, scattering away from punts and returning to mill around the large sections of unpopulated bleachers. One of these little bastards locked in on me and dropped one right on top of my dome.

Not great for Dad, but really, really great for 4-year-old daughter. My horror turned to relief. One laugh-out-loud, laser-guided seagull bomb completely neutralized the threat of the man-eating lion living in the scoreboard. That act of unintentional physical comedy and the halftime hot chocolate and candy (FYI, they do not have Swedish Fish at the Lawrence A. Wien Stadium concession stands) bought my way into the third quarter, but I knew my time was short. The M&Ms would wear off soon, and jacked-up Lucie would eventually stop running the stadium stairs like she was Walter Payton in an offseason training session. Plus my daughter, at the tender age of 4, had already figured out the difficult lesson that non-sporting girlfriends and wives eventually learn: Sports Time is a lie. The scoreboard said there were seven minutes left in the third quarter, so when she asked, “How much longer, Dad?” I lied and told her seven minutes. We all know Sports Time equals Time on Clock times three (ST =TOCx3). Now my daughter knows that, too. I tried it on her later in the quarter, and she called me out immediately: “Daddy, this is not three minutes! Did you forget I want to go home?”

After a tight first half, Columbia started to play like the 0-7 team it was, and Harvard, leading the Ivy League, remembered it was Harvard — the school that produced the Unabomber. (Note: If you are a Harvard admissions director reading this in some far-flung corner of the Internet 13 years from now, don’t hold it against Lucie. It’s her dad’s fault.) A 41-yard touchdown pass from Collier Winters made it 28-14 in the third quarter, and Lucie was begging out: “The Golden Pants keep winning. Let’s go!”

I stretched our day into the fourth quarter by letting Lucie draw in the game program — she colored in the head shot of Columbia University president Lee Bollinger. I did what I had to do. But when Harvard’s Kyle Juszczyk hauled in a pass, broke two tackles, and dove into the end zone for another long touchdown, the score was 35-14 and we were done. “The Golden Pants” had the game wrapped up, the scoreboard lion was quiet, and there was the very real threat that another one of these goddamned seagulls was going to paint me up again. It was time to go.

We walked out of the stadium, past a Muslim fan who had stepped outside to pray (I’m guessing you didn’t see that at the LSU-Alabama game that same day in Tuscaloosa), and up the steps to the subway station. The 1 Train was a lot more crowded going south to the city late on a Saturday afternoon than it had been going north to the Columbia game three hours earlier. Lucie, with her Dora backpack strapped on and her giant, blue no. 1 finger on her hand, put her head in my lap and fell asleep. Seven long years to do just one of the things I’d been meaning to do in New York and, at that moment, well worth the wait. Thank you, “Light-Blue Shirt Guys.”

Willie Geist is the host of MSNBC’s Way Too Early with Willie Geist, the co-host of Morning Joe, and author of the New York Times best-seller American Freak Show.

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