Mom and I are headed home from Houston now – somewhere in Louisiana on Route 12 East. We had a great trip to the NCAA Final Four. March Madness has come to an end and, truthfully, I’m looking forward to getting back to Richmond and – starting tomorrow – digging in my garden, walking my hound dog, and spending time at the river with my family on days just like today.
From the get-go the only suitable Sunday headline for VCU could be: RAMS Win! They played hard and smart and gave Butler a good battle. The team never let the fans down with their heart, effort, and energy. And the fans returned the favor: filling Reliant Park with a singing, cheering, clapping wave of gold. In the press, I had read how having VCU and Butler in the Final Four would be bad for business because mid-major schools can’t turn out the fans like the big boys. Really? All 45,000 Houston hotel rooms were booked, and at the game they announced that the 2011 Final Four attendance had broken all prior Final Four attendance records.
By the time we get back, we will have driven 3,000+ miles. I’ve made many road trips in my life and, by far, this one was the best yet. When I look back on this weekend, these are the moments I’ll remember:
- How the toll-booth operators cheered us on to Houston on our way out of town.
- All the people all the way – on the highway, in the Starbucks, on the streets in Houston – who saw our VCU shirts and stopped us to talk about the team, the school, our city, and this great run. People asked questions about VCU, shared a memory of Richmond, and over and over I heard strangers say, “I love Richmond” or “I was just in Richmond. Great town!”
- The drive along I90 through the Mississippi Gulf Coast, literally, practically in the Gulf Coast and Route 10 through Louisiana. Right off hand, I cannot remember a sunset that could rival how comforting and inspiring it felt to watch the big orange sphere disappear in a purple sky behind Lake Pelba.
- The hospitality of people in Houston. My cousin let us crash at her place and a good family friend rolled out the red carpet to make sure we got a good meal, some cold beers, and easy transport to Reliant Stadium.
- Rolling up into the Front Porch Pub pre-game to find the place full of Butler fans! Our waitress, Courtney, was so patient and amazing. The best part: when the Butler crowd started trying to out yell VCU but Wiz Khalifa’s Black and Yellow came on and put a stop to that business.
- My cousin, Matt, came from Phoenix and his buddy, Darin, came from San Francisco. My west coast cousins feel more like brothers than cousins and I’m always happy when I’m with them. Maybe one day we’ll all live in Hawaii together.
- My favorite Ram, #42 TJ Gwynn, sat right in front of us. He’s so polite! Of course, he is from North Carolina and that’s just how they are grown down there. I almost asked to take a picture with him, but then I would have had to break my rule about not asking celebrities for pictures.
- Being among the VCU fans at this history-making Final Four and knowing that the whole city of Richmond was there, too, decked out in black and gold, cheering on these students.
- At the start of the Kentucky -UCONN game, I was listening to the VCU post-game press conference with one of those little game radios you wear on your ear. A reporter asked Jamie Skeen, “Now that this is over, with Butler being a mid-major, will you root for Butler to win the whole thing?” Jamie answered, “No. No way I’m going to root for a team that just beat me. I will not root for them, no. I’m just being honest.” That’s exactly how I feel.
- Our Virginia-Arizona-California contingent went into the stadium hoping for a VCU-Kentucky final. While I was bummed to see Kentucky lose, it was truly a thing of beauty to watch Kemba Walker play basketball in person. And there is some solace in knowing that UCONN’s #3, Jeremy Lamb, is genetically associated with VCU. His dad, Rolando Lamb, played in the NCAA 1984 tournament when I was in college, and VCU was in the Sun Belt Conference.
- In the hunt for a cab back downtown, we probably walked three miles. It was awesome, swimming against the sea of 76,000 people trying to catch the light rail. That Saturday night walk will go down in my book of top 15 walks in my life.
- My family and friends have been so enthusiastic about Mom and me making this trip. Nobody thought we were crazy and everyone helped us, encouraged us, and seemed to get it that this is just what we do: Get in the car and go! My sis spotted us hotel rooms and the GPS that found the Starbucks in Opelika, Alabama. Judith and Bub and my Aunt Mary all kept tabs along the way, making sure we were okay. My Facebook friends checked in on us and cheered along with us.
So, thanks everybody for making this weekend a wonderful time with my mom in support of our school and our city. I can think of a lot of athletic events that have inspired me, none more than the whole season of the 2010-11 VCU Rams. I’m going to take Michael Paul Williams’ call to action to heart and carry forward the city pride instilled by the Rams. Their season has inspired me to recommit to my own pursuit of excellence and reminded me to never give up and keep on believing.
We’ve just pulled into the Mississippi Welcome Center, even here they are still talking about VCU, still cheering for the Rams. Now, short break to change drivers and keep on getting it home.