Before the 2023 college football season, sportswriter Rodger Sherman planned out the dream road trip for any avid sports fan. He quit his job at The Ringer and embarked on a journey across the country to soak in as much college football as possible. 62 games, 43 states and approximately 42,000 driven miles later, the Northwestern and Inside NU alum (back when Northwestern’s SB Nation affiliate was called Sippin’ on Purple) joined us for a Q&A to chronicle his adventures.
Ethan Segall, Inside NU: When was this road trip an idea that became implanted in your mind?
Rodger Sherman: Probably last November. November 2022 — I was watching a MAC game on TV on a Tuesday or Wednesday night. And there was a guy who was on a 77-game road trip last year, Ben Chase, and they showed him during the game, and I was like, “I need to do that.” So I asked my wife, “Hey, what if I did this next year?” and she said “Go for it.” And then I started looking into how to make it doable both logistically and financially and just went for it.
ES: What was the process of quitting your job like?
RS: Yeah, that wasn’t fun. I had a very good job at The Ringer. I had a very good situation . . . so I didn’t like that part of it. And part of me was hoping that I could figure out a way to make it work with The Ringer, but part of me also wanted to do this independently and see what would come of it myself.
ES: Was there ever a point on the trip where you were in the middle of the night driving and stopped yourself to ask “What am I doing here?”
RS: Pretty much every day. Even through the end of it, because I think just driving by yourself for six to eight hours a day, that thought will cross your mind even if there’s a million dollars on the other end. And in my case there wasn’t a million dollars. There was just a MAC football game. So I definitely had that thought, “What am I doing and why am I doing it?” at least once a day. The thing is, then you get to the games and you hang out with the fans and I would meet people who were following me and would say, “What you’re doing is awesome. Keep going, keep going.”
ES: After going to dozens of games, did you gain a new perspective on what you can get from being in the stadium that you can’t get from sitting on the couch?
RS: Oh, absolutely. I hadn’t regularly attended games since I was a Northwestern student, and when I did it would be all the way up in the press box. When you’re watching on TV, you hear the noise of the crowd, you see the place. But I think the things that are missing are when you’re at a big game, you get a sense of what it means to the fans. And when you’re at a small game, you get a sense for what it means to the players. You can get up close to them and see how much they care and what emotions they’re letting out on the sidelines. You can see how big and how fast the players are, and how quickly they move, and how much work they have to put in on the sidelines to keep themselves playing. You get an entire new perspective for how much effort it is. And in the stands, college football just means so much to people and each game has a different vibe to it. … I think there really is a magic to live football that definitely isn’t captured through the cameras, as great as it is to watch on TV.
ES: What has the recovery process been like for you the past few weeks since you’ve gotten home?
RS: I’ve been sleeping. I feel like somehow I’ve not really recovered or been productive. … I’m looking for TV shows that you don’t even have to think about, that don’t require any mental capacity at all. I thought I was going to play a lot of video games when I got back and I haven’t just because video games involve active thinking. Yeah, basically just hanging out with my wife and my dogs. I spent a lot of time away from both of them, so it’s nice to see them for sure. I don’t recommend spending a lot of time away from your partner or your pets. They’re both bad for your mental health.
ES: Tell me about the experience of being in a Goodyear blimp.
RS: Oh, that was great! What they told me is they had never had someone in the blimp who wasn’t working for a game. … It’s very fun to look out at the world from a low hover like that. It’s 1,500 feet up, so kind of like gliding over the Earth. And I saw Kent State-Akron, which was in terms of the quality of the football teams, probably the game with the fewest combined wins all season long and turned out to be a great game. Akron came back from a huge deficit, and you could really watch it like the all-22 — you see these little dots moving around up there. So in the same way I said that live football gets you up close and lets you see the emotions, this was the exact opposite. Just little X’s and O’s moving around from about a thousand feet.
ES: Your final game of the season was the National Championship. What were the emotions of completing the trip?
RS: I don’t want to say relief. It was accomplishment. It was probably the exact same emotions that the Michigan fans felt. I’m joking but serious. It was like, “We did it. We finally did it.”
ES: Hypothetical scenario — you somehow become the commissioner of college football for a day. Realignment, College Football Playoff Committee, NIL or anything else — what’s the first thing you’re changing about the sport?
RS: First, I’m making the athletes employees. I just morally feel as if they deserve money. Number two, every team has to play every other team in its state every year, up to maybe four or five, just because I just think there’s something really special about those games and those environments. When you have to play the people you live with and the players played against each other in high school and the coaches are recruiting against each other all year long, and you have to go to work with the people on Monday after the game — that’s something that can’t be captured by pro sports. The atmosphere always feels different for those. The best crowd in sports is one where 50% of the people are rooting for the two teams.
ES: In this era of college football with the Sickos Committee and everyone seeking maximum chaos, what was the funniest thing you saw on your trip?
RS: It would definitely be off the field because, as funny as college football can be, it’s the fans that really take it to the next level. I saw a lot of things that can’t be used in a respectable publication such as Inside NU. It was when I went to the Pop-Tarts Bowl and the Pop-Tart fed me a Pop-Tart and then I went to the Cheez-It bowl a few days later and it was also in Orlando and also hosted by Florida Citrus Sports. I saw the Cheez-It mascot and he said to me, “It’s you again!” from inside the mascot suit.
I asked if it was offensive to eat a Pop-Tart in front of the @PopTartsBowl mascot and then its handler yelled out “ITS THEIR DREAM” and then the mascot grabbed a Pop-Tart out of my hand and started force-feeding it to me while making soft grunting noises pic.twitter.com/PaCDY6mzu3— Rodger Sherman (@rodger) December 29, 2023
ES: On that subject, if you could create a bowl game in the same vein as the Pop-Tarts Bowl, Cheez-It Bowl or Duke’s Mayo Bowl to try and go viral, what company would you choose?
RS: I think there’s a few ways you can go with it. One would be a sponsor of things that people actually drink at college football games, so the Busch Light Bowl would be great. What is the funniest thing you could dump on someone? They really kind of hit the mark with mayo, so that’s hard to top. I could see something in the burrito-guacamole category being ideal. Like Chipotle, like a Burrito Bowl. Or any sort of sauce would be great. But really, my main advice is only foods and drinks should sponsor bowl games. You’re throwing away money if you’re ReliaQuest, which I don’t know what it is. Or I went to the 68 Ventures Bowl and no one even told me what 68 Ventures is. Who sponsored the Las Vegas Bowl?
ES: SRS Distribution
RS: What? No, that’s nothing. That’s not a real thing. They made that up. I think the Chipotle Burrito Bowl, you can’t miss with that, and I’m giving away these ideas for free.
ES: Some quick-hitter superlatives. What was the best on-field game you saw?
RS: Oklahoma-Texas, which is funny because it was Texas’ only loss all year (before the CFP). Tremendously thrilling game. Incredible atmosphere on and off the field.
ES: Loudest stadium?
ES: Most tense rivalry game you saw?
RS: That’s a good one. The most fun I had at a game was Oklahoma-Oklahoma State, the final Bedlam game. I’d say that’s going to be it because Oklahoma State would have been devastated if they lost that game. Talking to people before the game, they weren’t even excited. They were nervous. And then they did it. They couldn’t have lived with having Oklahoma leave the conference and also losing that game. And then Oklahoma State ruined Oklahoma’s season and had the biggest party I saw all year.
ES: Best food?
RS: LSU again. LSU really runs away with a lot of categories.
ES: Prettiest campus?
RS: I’m going to go with Army, United States Military Academy at West Point. Prettiest stadium was Washington and my surprise pick for prettiest state to drive through is West Virginia, but maybe Montana. Those are my two.
ES: What was your favorite mascot?
RS: Favorite mascot that I met is Wyoming. They have two horses, one big horse that runs out at the beginning of the game and then they have a miniature horse like Li’l Sebastian who runs, kind of walks, across the end zone. Just an incredible one-two punch of great horses and I got to meet both of them. The best live mascot were the horses, the best overall mascot was the Pop-Tart, who is probably also the Cheez-It, but unconfirmed.
ES: What was the best marching band you saw?
RS: I went to the Celebration Bowl in Atlanta and the HBCU bands are incredible. Florida A&M, The Marching 100, they have a lot more than 100 people in the band but are called the Marching 100, and I’d watched them play on YouTube before but I stayed there after the game for the fifth quarter and stood next to the trumpets and got up really close to them and there’s just a power to it that even other good bands cannot capture.
ES: What’s your favorite memento or piece of merchandise you got from the trip?
RS: I wrote my wife postcards every day for the last couple of months, or not every day, but as much as I could. So our fridge is covered in Tennessee, Montana, Texas, from every corner of the country. I also have a gigantic foam Wyoming cowboy hat that I found on the ground before the game and then annoyed the person behind me wearing it during the game.
ES: You technically saw three Northwestern games this season, although two were the NAIA team in Iowa, but you were at Northwestern-Rutgers back in Week One when the Wildcats lost. What were your thoughts on seeing Northwestern’s 8-5 finish and a bowl win in David Braun’s first year?
RS: I’m an FCS head so I was pleasantly surprised when we hired David Braun as the interim. Every coach that goes to the next level from North Dakota State is good. So when we hired him, I was like “Hell yeah,” but I still thought they would be 2-10. He’s inheriting a bad roster, most of whom came to play for Fitzgerald and is undergoing tremendous off-field turbulence, so I thought they would suck. Then I saw them play Rutgers and they almost got shut out. I was thinking like 1-11 or 2-10, and so all of those Coach of the Year awards were deserved. You can’t give David Braun enough credit. Any win over zero this year would’ve been incredible. And it happened over the course of the season, they went from bad to good. That level of improvement, that level of coaching, is phenomenal. Shoutout to the guys who pulled it off.
ES: Ryan Field is being torn down as we speak. Considering how many stadiums you went to this year, how does Ryan Field stack up?
RS: Well, it’s great for crowds that are evenly split which can make for some remarkable atmospheres. I am a little bit sad that they’re going away from something that’s iconic. I like college football things that are unique, and I feel we are going away from a thing that is unique to a thing that is going to look a lot like other new stadiums, and that disappoints me.
ES: Do you have a favorite Ryan Field memory?
RS: My sophomore year 2009, I painted my chest for the final games of the year. Along with other people, we spelled something out. I think I was the exclamation mark which meant I had to stand all the way at the end of the line, but in a game in November against Wisconsin they won as underdogs in a game that was probably 10-20 degree weather.
ES: We’re also in the midst of another exciting Northwestern Men’s Basketball season. Any thoughts or predictions for the Wildcats?
RS: We got a tourney in at this point. The amount of ranked wins they’re racking up is incredible to see. The atmosphere at those games, I always had more fun at the basketball games than the football games, but I never pictured it being like this. Boo Buie for the Hall of Fame. Man, he’s a legend. When I was getting pumped about making the NIT, now the possibility of back-to-back tourney runs, it probably makes me happier than anything the football team could do. Having cared deeply about Northwestern basketball before they made a tournament, I kind of thought I would lose interest once they made it, because that was like the White Whale and we spent forever chasing it. The fact that they’ve managed to increase and enhance my fandom just by having a kick-ass team and kick-ass environment every year is never something I could have expected.
Every time I attend a neutral site championship football game in the southwest Northwestern beats #1 ranked Purdue in basketball pic.twitter.com/dGdNckNrWU— Rodger Sherman (@rodger) December 2, 2023
ES: What can we expect next from you?
RS: My plans are to figure out how to get all of my videos up. I’m hoping to write a book about my travels.