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Chris and I have two favorites times to travel for football trips: Labor Day Weekend and Thanksgiving week. Those two times give us extra days off work which allows us to sometimes squeeze in more than one game into one trip. During Thanksgiving week of 2013, we completed one of these 2 for 1 trips when we made one long road trip and attended games at the University of Iowa and Northern Illinois University. This is our Iowa and NIU trip report.
The Drive to Iowa
On Friday, November 22, 2013, we left our home at 1:00 in the morning! The weather forecast was calling for sleet and freezing rain in Texas and Oklahoma. Luckily, we missed it all. It was very cold though! We stopped for breakfast at a McDonald’s in Iola, Kansas. We then pushed through, skipping lunch. At about 3:20 pm, we arrived at the Baymont Inn and Suites in Coralville, Iowa. Coralville is a small town which sits right next to the University of Iowa campus, which is acutally in Iowa City. This hotel is a great place to stay if you are going to Iowa for a game. The hotel was nice and served our purposes well.
Friday Night in Iowa City
After checking into the hotel and unloading the car, we headed over to campus. We found a cool little area right off of campus that had lots of bars, restaurants, and shops. We went into a couple of small bookstores and found all of our collectibles. Then, we ate dinner at Bo James’ Burgers & Beer. It’s a little sports bar/hamburger type place. It was pretty good and really hit the spot. After dinner, we went back to the hotel for an early bedtime. We were all pretty tired after such an early start to the day. By 8:00 pm, all three of us were fast asleep!
Saturday is Game Day
On Saturday morning, we were up at 6:45 am. We got ready and then ate breakfast in the hotel. After filling our bellies, we bundled up and checked out of the hotel. We got to campus around 9 am. As a general practice, we try to get on campus on game days as early as possible to soak up as much of the atmosphere as possible. However, on this trip, this early arrival turned out to be our downfall!
We found a place to park, and then made the 10 minute walk to the stadium. We watched the Iowa drumline play for a few minutes. A university police car was parked nearby, so we took our “sign picture” with it. Getting into the stadium proved to be a difficult task. We had to go to 4 different gates before we were allowed in with a bag. Apparently, you can only take bags into the stadium under limited circumstances and you must enter through one particular gate with them. However, this isn’t posted anywhere. It is also misunderstood by most of the ushers working the gates.
Boston, who was barely 4 years old at the time, had on 5 layers of clothes on this particular day. He was still freezing though. So, once we got into the stadium, we bought a headband to cover his face and a blanket to wrap around him. They didn’t seem to help much though. Even before the game started, he was in tears because he was so cold! I kept wiping the tears away because I was so afraid that they would freeze to his face. It was 18 degrees with a 15-20 mph wind.
Right before kickoff, I met up with my friend Brian, his girlfriend Hope, and her daughter. Brian is an Iowa alum. After talking to them for a few minutes. We went to our seats. They were way up in the nosebleed section. Despite the cold weather, the stadium was full and the crowd was loud. We took our stadium picture right at kickoff. Unfortunately, we had to leave the game after about 3 plays because Boston just couldn’t take the cold any longer. As much as I love college football, my baby comes first. I couldn’t make him suffer through anymore.
By the time we left, Boston not only was crying, he was refusing to walk. So, Chris carried him back to the car. About halfway there, a nice man on a golf cart stopped and offered us a ride. That was a lifesaver! We drove over to Old Capitol and took our landmark picture. We had to bribe Boston to get him out of the car. Later in the trip, he began referring to the really cold weather as “Hawkeye cold.”
After taking our landmark picture, we got in the car and drove to Northern Illinois University, which is located in DeKalb, Illinois. On the way, we listened to the game on the radio. We learned during the broadcast that this was the coldest game in the history of that stadium! No wonder Boston was miserable! Iowa came from behind to win the game 24-21. It would have been a great game to see in its entirety if it wasn’t for the bitter temperatures. Someday, we will go back to Iowa for a do-over.
I thought it was a classic Big Ten school. It possesses everything that is great about Midwestern colleges. Chris was very impressed with the school and campus. He loved everything about it. It is his favorite Big Ten school that we’ve seen so far.
Onward to Illinois
After leaving Iowa City, we drove to DeKalb, Illinois. We arrived on the campus of Northern Illinois University at about 2:30 pm. We stayed in their Holmes Student Center Hotel for 4 nights. It was located right in the middle of campus. A bonus was that the bookstore was in the same building as the hotel! It wasn’t anything fancy, but was spacious, quiet, and convenient at a great price! Our room had a large open area in the middle of the room, which was a great place for Boston to roll around and play.
Another tip that Chris and I have learned from our football trips is that many universities that have a hotel management program will have a hotel on campus. It is run by the students majoring in hotel management. It gives them some real world experience. We stay in these on-campus hotels every chance we get. They are super convenient for going to the games and are usually pretty cheap. NIU is one of those schools with an on-site hotel.
After checking in and unloading the car, we ate Subway sandwiches in the room. We watched the Notre Dame game on the tv while eating lunch. This gave Boston some much-needed time to play while staying warm. When the game was over, we headed to Target to get some milk and some more thermals for all of us. We ate dinner at O’Leary’s Irish Restaurant and Pub. It was right up our alley! The food was really good, and we loved the atmosphere. Nice and cozy! Afterwards, we went back to the hotel and relaxed for the night.
On Sunday, we got up at 7:00 am and got ready for a day in Chicago. We parked at Soldier Field and went to the Shedd Aquarium. This was really fun! We got there shortly after opening and found a line out the door waiting to get in! After a short wait, we made it to the admission desk. We wanted to take part in the up-close penguin experience, but it was sold out by the time we got in. We enjoyed the rest of the aquarium though. A highlight for Boston was the play area where he dressed up like a penguin and played on the rocks. I loved the beluga whale exhibit best.
After we finished exploring the aquarium, we ate a late lunch at Gino’s East. We’re not fans of Chicago-style deep dish pizza, but when you’re in Chicago, you’ve got to get deep dish pizza! We then headed back to DeKalb. We stopped at an outlet mall in Aurora where we bought a few Christmas gifts. Another bonus to traveling during Thanksgiving week is it gives you an opportunity to do some Christmas shopping in some places you may not have at home. Dinner was once again at the hotel. Boston and I had Potbelly’s, and Chris had Chipotle.
Monday–Chicago Part Two
We got up and went to two different bookstores at NIU on Monday morning. After getting all of our collectibles, we drove to Chicago. We took a detour through some neighborhoods on our way to downtown Chicago. Our first stop of the day was at a downtown law firm to meet up with my dear friend Mike at his office. He and I went to law school together at Notre Dame. I hadn’t seen him since our days in South Bend, so it was great to catch up with him. He is from Boston, so of course, he loved Boston’s name! We ate lunch with Mike at a lunch place called Cozi’s. It was pretty good.
After lunch, we said goodbye to Mike. Because it was snowing and cold, we wanted something to do that was indoors. So, we headed to the Navy Pier and went to the Chicago Children’s Museum. I can’t say enough good things about the Chicago Children’s Museum! It was awesome! We all loved it. We had to drag Boston out of there. He would have spent all day if we would’ve let him. I will do a separate review article dedicated specifically to this wonderful Children’s Museum. They had a room devoted to the snow, where Boston and Chris had a blast throwing fake snowballs at each other while staying warm and dry. The snow room had large windows, so you could watch the real snow falling outside while playing in the fake stuff inside!
It snowed all day Monday. However, even with the snow, it still wasn’t as cold as it was in Iowa on Saturday! After spending a few hours at the museum, we headed back to DeKalb. Dinner on Monday night was at O’Leary’s again.
Small Town Fun
Chris got up Tuesday morning and went to the Chesapeake Bagel Bakery to grab breakfast for us. We slowly got ready for our day. We checked out of the hotel at about 10:30 am. After we loaded up the car, we then walked around campus. Chris and Boston had fun throwing real snowballs at each other and at me. We looked at the partially frozen lagoon that had lots of geese and ducks sitting on it. We then took our campus pictures. After that, we ate lunch at Portillo’s Hot Dogs in nearby Sycamore, IL. We then went into Blaine’s Farm and Fleet. Farm stores are awesome places to shop because they have a little bit of everything! We bought a neck covering for Boston and some wool socks for me.
We then watched a matinee showing of the movie Free Birds in the Sycamore State Theater in Sycamore. This was an old-fashioned historical theater. It was such a neat experience. After the movie, we killed a little time browsing in stores in downtown DeKalb before heading to the stadium for the game.
Time for Some Football
With this being a night game, I worried about how Boston would do considering how miserable he was during the day game at Iowa. He had two more layers than he did at Iowa. He did awesome at NIU and even took a nap during the first part of the game! Even though it was snowing, he didn’t seem to mind the cold nearly as much. I don’t know if it was because he had more layers on, the wind wasn’t blowing as hard, or that he just had acclimated to the weather. But, he was a champ during the NIU game.
NIU’s stadium is very reminiscent of a high school stadium. You can’t get from one side of the field to the other without going back outside the gates. Sorry NIU fans, but it’s true–your stadium is not that great! There were a decent amount of people at the game, especially considering that it was cold and snowing. It was Senior Night. They were also retiring their live husky mascot and introducing the new mascot. NIU doesn’t really have any traditions that we could tell. They do have a very nice indoor practice facility that we walked through. We watched their fantastic quarterback Jordan Lynch play. He broke his own FBS record for rushing yards by a quarterback enroute to winning the game 33-14.
The wind picked up as the game went on. Our feet were numb by the time we left the game. When we got in the car, we saw that the outside temperature was 18 degrees! We drove 2 hours to Washington, IL where we spent the night at a Sleep Inn. On Wednesday morning, we got up and hit the road again. We arrived in Oklahoma at about 11:00 pm where we spent Thanksgiving Day with my family.
We thoroughly enjoyed our time at NIU. It is a great small school. NIU, like most smaller schools, can’t compete with the money, facilities, and atmosphere that you will find at a larger school like Iowa. However, they do many things really well. The campus is beautiful. The hotel is nice. The small crowd was very much into the game. I get the impression that they are not trying to be something that they are not. They are just being themselves and doing things their way. This works for them. Their stadium definitely needs alot of upgrades. Overall, however, this is a great little school that we enjoyed very much.
Want to read more of our football trip reports? Here are the others:
- University of Louisiana Lafayette
- University of Alabama Birmingham
- Notre Dame and University of Toledo
- Mississippi State University
- University of Missouri