Wildcats’ wild fans

by on November 26, 2009

TUCSON, Ariz. — When I stepped onto the shuttle en route to Arizona Stadium, the driver scowled at me and, with a harsh tone in his voice, growled “Duck fans pay double!”

Then he winked and laughed, and I smiled back.

Hey, when you go to a football game on the road, wearing the visiting team’s attire, you expect to get some crap tossed your way.

What you don’t expect to get tossed at you are bottles and batteries.

Yet there were Arizona fans, in the student section and general admission alike, hurling projectiles onto the field at UO players and into the visitor’s section at UO fans, after the Ducks held off the Wildcats 44-41 in double-overtime on Nov. 21. Oregon cheerleader Katelynn Johnson was struck in the head by a bottle, fainted and was taken to the hospital with a concussion.

Security personnel, UO players and staff look up into the stands as Arizona fans throw water bottles and other projectiles.

The scene turned ugly after Jeremiah Masoli scored the game’s final touchdown to give the Ducks the win, and Oregon players made their way to the southwest corner of the field to celebrate in front of their fans.

But, truth be told, it was pretty ugly long before Arizona fans began launching bottles and batteries.

From where I sat, the atmosphere in the stands was hostile, and not in a good-natured way a la the shuttle driver.

As my family and I made our way to our seats, a guy behind us yelled “Great, now it smells like shit in here!” And we hadn’t even sat down yet when an obnoxious and really, really drunk guy sitting behind us started cussing at my brother and threatening to beat him up. At least the guy’s buddies had a little class, telling him to calm down and show some respect. He tried to calm down, but he never did manage the respect  thing.

I saw Arizona fans yelling and cussing at Oregon fans, with little kids around, and I saw Arizona fans fighting with each other on four different occasions, the first after a UA fan sitting next to his young son asked another to watch his language, prompting the potty mouth to turn his tirade to his fellow fan and drop even more F-bombs.

And there was more:

Arizona fans crowded onto the field in the final minutes of regulation.

• Arizona students flooded the sidelines in the final minutes of regulation in anticipation of storming the field. One problem: the game wasn’t over yet. Oregon marched down the field and scored to tie it up at 31 and force overtime. Oops.

• In 2005, Oregon quarterback Kellen Clemens broke his ankle at Arizona. Dennis Dixon injured his knee at Arizona Stadium in 2007, and Wildcats fans stood and cheered when the quarterback went down. If that wasn’t bad enough, there were UA fans on Nov. 21 screaming for their defense to “INJURE MASOLI!!! TAKE HIM OUT!!! I WANNA CHALK UP ANOTHER OREGON QUARTERBACK!!!”

You stay classy, Arizona.

Then, of course, came the bottles and batteries, at which point we made a swift move for the exit. As in, let’s get the hell outta this place.

So yeah, all that added up to a less-than-cheerful environment for us visitors. And thank goodness the Ducks pulled out the victory; I’d hate to see what some of those people would’ve been like if their team had won the game.

But here’s the thing: the vast majority of the Arizona fans I came into contact with were really pretty cool. We talked with Wildcats fans on the shuttle and in the stands. There was good-natured banter throughout the week, as my brother wore an Oregon shirt and hat almost everywhere we went.

In a restaurant, a young guy said “Oregon sucks!” as we walked past his table. After a brief conversation with my dad, the guy invited us to come tailgate with him and his buddies on game day.

On the golf course Friday, a guy wearing red and blue saw my brother’s green and yellow towel hanging off his golf bag and asked “is that a crying towel for tomorrow?”

All in good fun.

But there’s nothing fun about the threat of physical violence, about beaning people with projectiles, about cussing and screaming around little kids and others who are just trying to enjoy a game.

But hey, Oregon has a reputation of its own, with a recent Sports Illustrated survey of Pac-10 fans indicating Duck fans are worst in the conference in the way they treat visitors. In fact, google the word “rudest” and you’ll find several references to Oregon fans on the first page. I’m sure there are people who have stories of their own after coming to watch football at Autzen Stadium, and I imagine that, on some scale, visiting fans experience unpleasant atmospheres at every sporting venue in the world.

I, myself, have seen some uncool things at Autzen, including a 20-something drunk guy flipping off an older gentlemen to his face, for no reason other than the guy was wearing a Boise State shirt.

At Arizona Stadium, a guy wearing Duck gear made his way up the stairs holding up a sign that read “Win or lose at least we don’t live in Tucson.” (Click here for photos).

And UA fans have posted this past week on Wildcats message boards saying they came into contact with UO fans who showed no class whatsoever.

Yep, two sides to every story.

But the bottom line is, there is a line, and a handful of Arizona fans crossed it when they began throwing things onto the field and into the stands.

There were several dozen Tucson police officers on the field, as well as event security, but that didn’t stop the bottles. The PA announcer pleading with fans to stop throwing things onto the field didn’t stop them, either.

It was an ugly scene, and it was a bit scary to be in the middle of. I can only imagine it was even uglier and scarier for those down on the field.

And I realized a few things in the midst of all the bottles, batteries and F-bombs flying about:

• Many, many people take games way too seriously. In general, the players and coaches themselves don’t take it all as seriously as most fans.

• A mob mentality is a terrifying thing.

• People in a stadium are almost entirely on the honor system. Because there just aren’t enough security personnel and crowd control tactics to truly keep people safe. At Arizona Stadium, they couldn’t even keep the students from filing down onto the field while the game was still going on … what would they have done if things got really, really ugly up in the stands?

• On the safety issue, what’s to stop someone from bringing in a weapon more lethal than a battery or water bottle? I carried in my camera bag, and a man peeked inside the main pocket with a flashlight before sending me on my way. I could’ve had any number of things hidden in the other pockets.

So what’s the answer? I truly have no idea. And I’m contemplating whether it’s worth it to put myself back in a situation like that, on the road.

Which is sad, because it was the most thrilling game I’ve ever been to, and I’ll never forget it.

Unfortunately, it’ll remain memorable as much for what was going on in the stands as for what happened on the field.

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