It’s roughly a 145-mile trip from my home in New York’s Capital Region to the New York Giants’ home at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J.
Over the years I have made the trip many times to cover Giants games, as well as practices across the parking lot at the team’s Quest Diagnostics Training Center headquarters.
There is a certain rhythm to the game day trip.
On my trek down the New York State Thruway, I look for Giants bumper stickers or SUVs packed with items for a pre-game tailgate. When I make a pit stop along a Thruway rest stop I look for jerseys. The volume of Giants and opponent’s jerseys is generally a reflection of how the season is going and what the crowd will look like in the stadium when the game begins.
Monday’s trip, and the entire experience of covering an NFL game in an empty stadium thanks to COVID-19 restrictions, was vastly different. Here, my best effort to give you some idea what the experience of traveling to and covering Giants vs. Pittsburgh Steelers both looked and felt like.
Right from the jump, this trip was different. I never worry about food when heading to MetLife because on a normal game day media gets fed (overfed?) twice. A big pre-game meal — dinner or brunch depending on game time. Then, finger food at halftime.
Monday’s first stop when I left the house? My local Subway. I knew we would have access to a “boxed lunch,” but Lord only knows what was going to be in that. If you know what those “Grab ‘N Go” breakfasts are like at hotels you’re better off bringing your own.
Not a Giants bumper sticker, or car packed with tailgate necessities in sight. Of course. Not a single Giants or Steelers jersey to be found during my pit stop.
When you enter New Jersey on Route 17 south there are always overhead electronic signs telling motorists it is a game day and they really should find an alternate route if they can. Nope. Instead, smooth sailing all the way to the stadium. At 3 p.m. Not a single traffic snarl. A lot better than the time it took me more than an hour to go 20 miles down Route 17 for a Giants-Dallas Cowboys Monday night game. Still, weird.
Pulling into the parking lot was weird, too.
If you have ever been to a Giants, or any NFL game, you know what it’s like. Traffic backed up at the gate. A bustling array of parking lots with cars looking for spots. Crowds with party tents set up. The beer flowing, no matter if it’s a 1 p.m. start or a night game. The smell of food grilling hanging in the air. Music. The Giants Drumline pounding away somewhere in the distance. Footballs being tossed. Corn hole being played.
People living life, enjoying themselves and getting ready for some Giants football.
It looked like this:
Other than a handful of cars belonging to media members and perhaps some stadium employees, the only thing visible in the parking lot aside from empty spaces was a flock of seagulls standing in the distance. They were no doubt waiting for the tons of tailgate garbage they usually prey upon during and after games, and obviously came away disappointed. And hungry.
Inside was weird, too
Media work stations socially spaced. Masks, obviously. I was in the stadium for a pair of Giants scrimmages, so that wasn’t completely unfamiliar.
Still, an eerie, joyless feeling hung in the air. Hardly the excitement or fever-pitched football atmosphere you would normally feel.
The only people in the stands were photographers, who had to shoot the game from there rather than down on the field, stadium employees and seven people likely affiliated with one of the two teams that I couldn’t identify from across the stadium. Three in suits. Maybe PR folks. Don’t know for sure. I need better binoculars!
Here is what it looked like from Section 249.
Maybe it was required by law. That’s the only explanation I can think of for why an Emergency Evacuation Plan was broadcast across the stadium public address, complete with scoreboard video of exit patterns, for fans who weren’t in the building.
That might have been the most bizarre thing I noticed all evening.
What about the game?
When you ask, players always tell you they love the fans but they never notice them or feel them during a game. I never believe them.
“It’s definitely different maybe on play one. Then you get so locked into the game that it really kind of doesn’t have an impact,” Saquon Barkley said post-game. “On Slay’s score, that big touchdown for us, it felt just like a normal game. Obviously, we would love to have the fans there, we have amazing fans. We know they are cheering from home. We know what’s going on in the world and unfortunately that’s the case. We have to continue to go out there and play the sport that we love. You have to look at it as a blessing in disguise. We’re still able to go out there and be able to play the sport that we love.”
A little bit of piped in crowd noise as background notwithstanding, it was weird not to feel any energy or excitement, or hear a roar when the game began.
No roar when Devante Downs recovered a muffed punt at the Pittsburgh 3-yard line. Nothing when Daniel Jones hit Darius Slayton on a brilliant 41-yard touchdown pass. No craziness in the stands when Barkley leaped over a Pittsburgh defender while going 38 yards on a screen pass. The strangeness of hearing “thiiiiiirrd down” over the PA system to an empty stadium.
Of course, by the end of the game no fans might have been a good thing for the Giants. The stadium probably would have turned ugly when Daniel Jones threw that crushing third-quarter goal line interception.
It probably would have emptied — at least of Giants fans — when Pittsburgh stretched its lead to 26-10 with 5:23 to play. So, it would have looked pretty much the way it did when Jones hit Slayton for a garbage-time touchdown with 1:52 to play.
Except that is, for the tons of garbage that would have been in the parking lot for the seagulls by the game’s end.
All in all, the weirdest football game experience I have ever had. All that’s left as I wrap this up is to pack up, get out of this hotel and head home. Of course, staying in a hotel during a pandemic is a story of its own. That, though, is for another time.