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The day Martin Stadium lived again

COVID, Cougs, and Finding Our Way Home

PULLMAN, WA - SEPTEMBER 4: Washington State wide receiver Mitchell Quinn (15) fires up the crowd during the fourth quarter of a non-conference matchup between the Utah State Aggies and the Washington State Cougars on September 4, 2021, at Martin Stadium in Pullman, WA. Jack Ellis/CougCenter

I never really liked that Andy Grammer song that has become the Coug anthem. I thought it was corny and lame and not a very threatening song to play at football games. However, last Saturday, surrounded by a crowd of students for the first time in well over a year, I finally got it.

The crowd felt the music. Swaying back and forth with the beat, singing in the most hoarse, half-drunk voices imaginable. This was even though a solid half of the students there have not even seen a game in the student section before. WSU has that power over people; no matter how new the tie to the campus might be or how long we’ve been away from the teams we love, being a Coug is intrinsic to who you are.

Things felt right in Pullman for the first time in a long time. It was far from a perfect night, and the ending was certainly disappointing, but it’s hard to overlook the magic in the stadium on September 4th.

Last year was an odd one to be a freshman in Pullman, a town that is built entirely around its college. I’ve grown up a Coug but last year was my first as a student. My dad was a first generation college grad and I’ve known I would end up in Pullman for college since I was a toddler. I had been told stories of how being a Coug changed who my dad was, that there was nothing like school in Pullman.

These expectations weren’t even half met by the experience last year. There were no in-person sports, and about half the student body was not living near campus. It sometimes felt like living in a ghost town with half-empty restaurants, empty gyms, and emptier dorms.

Coming back to Pullman for my sophomore year has been jarring. Suddenly I’m in person for classes, competing with 10 people for a squat rack at the gym, and going to football games again. These first two years are about as different as imaginable from the college life I was sold throughout my life. Saturday’s game was the first time I really felt like a Coug since I enrolled as a student.

This was the first game for two years’ worth of students, so there was an inherently different feel than a normal first game of the year. Usually, only one fourth of the student population is new; this year, it was half. This was seen early on when Butch pointed to either side of the crowd and half the student section had no idea what the hell was going on. People caught on quickly though, figuring out what to do and trying valiantly to be the loudest they could possibly be.

By the time “Back Home” burst onto the intercom, everyone was jazzed and excited to scream the lyrics at their top of lungs. This communal excitement was not something felt by the majority of us for a long time, and sharing that moment with an entire student body was special. It felt like things were as they should be in the Palouse.

Was it the same as it was in 2019? Of course not, but if that was an expectation then disappointment was inevitable. Seeing the parking lot filled with trailers again and people excitedly high-fiving outside the gates was enough for me to call it a success. It has been a long time since I have seen that many people smile and celebrate and it was all because of the Coug community being together again. Some places were less busy than expected on a gameday, but it is going to be awhile before comfortability (and vaccination rates) reach a level that would allow complete normality. For where we are right now, the first gameday in two years was a solid success for Pullman and the Coug community.

Now, that is certainly a positive development after a year off, but there was also a palpable fear for me. WSU has reached an impressive 93% vaccination rate (at last count) among its students, but there is still that 7% to worry about and there wasn’t a mask in site. The worry came partially from inexperience. It has been well over a year since I have been that close to that many people and it was a bit nerve wracking.

There are new rules on the horizon that will require masks even in the outdoor settings, but this first game was operated as if COVID did not exist and it was a very odd feeling. This push and pull of comfortability and fun is a perfect proxy for the student experience as a whole this year. On one hand, I’m making friends again... but on the other, I’ve never seen their nose or mouth. That dichotomy of good and bad, happy and sad, is a constant and it can taint the great moments in day-to-day life. This game had its fair share of drawbacks and the COVID concerns were probably the least of them, but it did give an odd feel to the beginning of the game and it has persisted into the days since. This might be a feeling that takes a long time to subside or perhaps it will be gone after just a couple games. Who’s to say? Just like everything in the world today, the stadium experience had to be taken in as a whole, the good and the bad.

The game itself was a roller coaster of emotion. That roller coaster started before even the game did. There are the obvious red flags surrounding Washington State’s head coach, Nick Rolovich, that just made it harder to get truly excited to watch this team play.

Even aside from the Rolo controversies, the starting of Jarrett Guarantano over Jayden de Laura was a head-scratching decision. Guarantano has value as a game manager, but de Laura’s style fits the run and gun strategy much more and it felt like he earned the spot after last season. Still, my excitement to be back in Martin Stadium outweighed those early concerns.

The game itself was actually fairly boring, with not much exciting happened outside of a cool run by Max Borghi, so the experience was carried by the fans. The fans did all they could to carry WSU to victory, including three straight false starts being called on Utah State because the crowd was so loud. The crowd stayed consistently loud and disruptive until the final drive of the game.

During the Utah State march towards victory, there was a palpable sense of dread that hung over the crowd. As Coug fans, we’ve seen this too many times before. It felt like everyone in the entire stadium saw it coming. As Utah State slowly marched down the field, the go-ahead touchdown felt inevitable.

This bad ending should not take away from the success of Saturday. It was far from perfect, but WSU felt like a community again. What made Saturday special was the sheer amount of people getting their first taste of what it means to be a Coug. Good or bad, hot or cold, rain or shine, a Coug is a Coug and more people than ever before got exposed to that for the first time during this game.

There are a lot of things to be excited for with Coug athletics this year and having the community back to experience them together is going to be really special. The first gameday of the year reminded me a lot of the Klay Thompson jersey retirement night in terms of atmosphere and just how happy we all were to be a part of it.

We live in a very individualistic society where communities are often pushed aside in favor of self-pursuit, but being a Coug means being something bigger than yourself. The Coug community remains strong and feeling truly a part of it for the first time as a student was truly special. Even if the football team is bad this year, which they almost certainly will be, Martin Stadium will be full of students hoping for the best, yelling Go Cougs, and singing corny tunes about beauty of community. It’s good to be a Coug, there’s nothing like it.