CHAMPAIGN-URBANA, Ill. Here I am at 3:30 a.m., sitting in an unheated room of an 80-year-old fraternity house with deadline approaching fast and me stuck somewhere in that stretch between blissfully drunk, dead tired and miserably hung over. At this moment, the act of putting into words all the thoughts loping through my mind seems akin to chasing fruit bats with a lasso.
And to think, Hunter S. Thompson must have felt like this 24 hours a day.
While my dear wife sleeps comfortably in our bed some 2,000 miles away, I have a 10 a.m. class on black history in Chicago politics, and I don't know which thought intimidates me more waking up in about five hours and walking across a frozen campus or crawling into the bunkbed that has been reserved for me amid a dozen other guys on the floor.
But perhaps I better back up a bit and explain myself. About a month ago to be exact, the day after I spent a sleepless Super Bowl night in a Lancaster County bar with a couple Amish guys and a chick from the "Real World" my editor decided it would be great fun if I spent the entire NCAA Tournament living on the campuses of competing schools. What he meant, of course, is that it would be great fun for him.
Me, I had concerns over spending three weeks on the road living with strangers more than two decades my junior. I had visions of fraternity hazing rituals with goats and fire extinguishers, bad food, vomit-covered bathrooms and sleepless nights banging away at the computer while unidentifiable odors escaped from the refrigerator. My wife mostly worried about me meeting coeds.
My editor understood these concerns and said that he would not force me to take the assignment. Nor, he explained, would he force me to accept their paychecks.
Thus encouraged, I caught a flight from Seattle to Chicago early Monday morning and drove past more farmland than I ever imagined could be in Illinois before arriving on campus at the No. 1-seeded team in the tournament. I knocked on the door of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity, whose members welcomed me in and later led me on a tour of Champaign-Urbana's finest pizza and drinking establishments. After awhile, I called my wife to say good night from the bathroom of the Illini Inn, assuring her that I was behaving maturely and would not embarrass myself.
Then I walked back into the bar and nearly vomited while trying to chug a pint of Old Style so I could join the Illini's mug club.
|Do you live in a frat, dorm, Maranatha house, Goth shelter or the school president's mansion at one of the Tobacco Road universities in the NCAA Tournament? If you're a Duke, North Carolina or N.C. State student and your team is still alive next week, would you like to host ESPN.com writer Jim Caple when he spends Week 2 of March Madness living on campus? (Hey, if the offer is good enough, he might even venture as far as Wake Forest or Charlotte.) If so, click here and e-mail us with all the pertinent contact information, living arrangements and hazing rituals. You could be the star of Page 2 next week. (Jim also points out that he'll accept invitations to live in a sorority).|
Actually, I know three things already after one night of this three-week assignment. Illinois might reach the Final Four; but if this keeps up, I will never last that long.
Likr mosy peokplsds is net my colle gs ts indey libeing ao dhewid e vauriy I o f josiomy arrnanemmneys, morving so fthem that ymy ocpie spf sporkts Uoslluates arrive with sfor manyudsn foreadring yellpow labels yjay sPaul din a Piroaxkobe appreatr ed to bhave won the ouf de Frnme.
I'm sorry. I just passed out on my keyboard. Let me start over ...
Like most students, I spent my college years in a wide range of housing arrangements, moving so often my copies of Sports Illustrated arrived with so many yellow forwarding labels pasted on the cover that Paulina Porizkova appeared to have won the Tour de France.
The most memorable of these arrangements was the 10-bedroom house (and I use the term "house" in the loosest sense it featured a roof and what had once been four walls) that I shared with six women and four other guys my sophomore year. We were together barely long enough for me to go through the case of macaroni and cheese I bought (10 boxes per dollar); but this living arrangement led to a pregnancy, three marriages and (eventually) one divorce. I emerged unscathed and unattached, though not for lack of trying. What appeared initially to be favorable 6-5 odds in the women-to-men demographic were lessened by one of the guys sleeping with two of the women (a feat which both shocked and impressed me).
The 11 of us lived together for just six months, yet I still feel a personal stake in all their lives. The couple who wed hastily due to the pregnancy are still married and working for Habitat for Humanity in Portugal (where I can only hope the homes they are building are nicer than the one we shared). When they recently e-mailed to announce that their daughter, conceived 23 years ago in our old house, is about to get married herself, I instantly felt two decades older.
That's the thing about college roommates, though. They could never remember their long-distance calls when the phone bill arrived a month later, but they stay with you decades after the stench of sour milk and rotten vegetables finally dissipates from the communal refrigerator.
My appeal last week for housemates at the University of Illinois brought more than 100 replies. I heard from fraternities. I heard from sororities. I heard from dorms. I heard from exchange students. I heard from independent student groups. I heard from so many people that it became impossible to choose just one, though the e-mail from the four chicks living next to the bar came close.
The quest to host ESPN for a week became surprisingly competitive, with nasty rumors of one group's using the university computer system to rig the vote. While the lead repeatedly changed hands, competing groups flooded my e-mail with late appeals.
John Malysiak of Sigma Phi Epsilon sent a thoughtful, well-considered and detailed message, extolling the virtues of his fraternity while warning me about the risks I faced if I chose the four chicks who live next to the bar. He mentioned the fraternity's high standards, strong fan support and many charitable works. But mostly, his message boiled down to this four-word warning about the chicks: "They might be ugly."
Interestingly, my wife's worry was just the opposite: "They might be sexy."
Still, after the four chicks won the reader poll, my wife thought the matter over and decided her initial concerns were pretty much a nonissue. After all, we have been married nine wonderful years and we have complete trust in each other. More importantly, no women paid much attention to me when I was in college, and it is doubtful I have become any more appealing during the past 20-some years.
So I will stay with the frat, the chicks and other groups at Illinois this first week of the tournament, then move on to other campuses.
Over the next three weeks, I will live my own March Madness, crashing at frat houses, dorm rooms, sorority annexes, apartments and houses that should have been condemned when Kendall Gill was in school. I will sleep on couches, pull all-nighters and tap kegs. I will appear on campus stations and write for school papers. I will experience as much as possible of modern college life.
I will try not to run the streets naked like Will Ferrell in "Old School." Or if I do, I will pray that no one has a camera phone.
It is 3:30 in the morning and I just made some new friends and I will make many more in the next three weeks. It is 3:30 in the morning and I am trying to finish this story while some guy named Bob studies for a mechanical engineering project on the couch in the next room. It is 3:30 in the morning and in a couple hours I will be back in a college classroom, listening to a professor, taking notes and filling my mind with exciting new bits of knowledge.
I am one night into this assignment and already I feel two decades younger.
Jim Caple is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His first book, "The Devil Wears Pinstripes," is being published by Plume. It can be ordered through his Web site, Jimcaple.com.