FORT WAYNE – So this is what was on the far side of Ice Station Zebra.
Saturday afternoon, and there are blue skies and puffy white clouds and a warm, muscular breeze blowing the mercury to the high side of 75, and suddenly it’s spring out here at the Fort Wayne Sport Club. The bleachers, healthily full, are sporting a bumper crop of sunglasses and shorts. Motorcyles rumble past out on Ardmore Avenue.
And in between?
In between is a startling expanse of billiard-table green, and on it 22 humans chasing a soccer ball with a sort of pastoral intensity that seems odd at first until at last you get a purchase on it.
None of the 22 humans are wearing parkas. That’s it.
They’re not muffled like Ming vases in 15 layers of Bubble Wrap, and none of them are weaving in and out among ice floes, and the colors, good lord. Red and gold and white and green, so much green. Blue. Yellow. More red, more blue.
This was Indiana (red) and Notre Dame (gold and white) out there on the pitch, the 2012 and 2013 NCAA soccer champions having at it, and, wonder of wonders, none of them were wielding snow shovels. This was the Shindigz National Soccer Festival – but, more to the point, it was also the end, finally, of a winter to end all winters.
“I guess this is our reward,” someone (OK, me) kept saying, and everyone nodded serenely and said yeah, you bet.
Look. I know we’re supposed to say spring arrives with Opening Day in baseball, or, if you’re a gearhead, the day Darrell Waltrip yelps “Boogety-boogety-boogety” as the field comes to the green down at Daytona. But those are just the symbolic passing of the seasonal torch.
Saturday was tangible. Saturday you could touch.
Saturday was 75 degrees and beer tents and, out in the middle of all that eye-watering green, a soccer ball going back and forth and back and forth with the lolling rhythm of a porch swing. It was a different rhythm than winter, and after a while you remembered it and went with it.
For a half, with the wind, Indiana pressed the issue, and would have scored had Notre Dame’s keeper, Brian Talcott, not made a fistful of saves.
And then it was Notre Dame’s turn to go with the wind, and the lolling rhythm swayed its way until finally Evan Panken came free on the left side of the box and drove the ball past Indiana’s keeper in the 87th minute.
2013 National Champs 1, 2012 National Champs 0.
Not that that was, you know, the real point.
“The result’s always important at the time,” said Notre Dame coach Bobby Clark in his hearty Scottish brogue. “But the big picture has got to be more to it than that …
“Spring is a time when we look at some new faces. We have two freshmen center backs, and today we got a chance to see them. Our backup goalie played, and he played very well. It was fun to see where we are.”
Walk down to the far end of the pitch, and here was Indiana coach Todd Yeagley saying much the same thing.
“We had six or seven players on the field today that had never worn the uniform,” he said. “To get them in this atmosphere against a really good opponent, we’re replicating the fall. And that’s what we’re looking for.”
And the rest of us?
We were just geeked to be outdoors watching an outdoors game. Simple as that.
And so here at one point came Terry Stefankiewicz, the father of this event, strolling past the bleachers wearing a huge grin on his face. Over his head he held a sign: THANKS FOR COMING. And when the crowd ribbed him, Stefankiewicz, whose bad weather luck was once legendary, shouted back, “At least it’s not raining!”
Or snowing, every one of us silently added. And then lifted our faces, one more time, to the sun.