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JMU Student Relives Special College GameDay Weekend

Image courtesy of JMU Athletics Communications

By Daniel Merriman

When applying to colleges during my senior year of high school, I narrowed my search to James Madison University and the University of Virginia. I was torn between the two because I grew up a die-hard UVA hoops fan and respected their academic “prestige” but loved everything about JMU.

So one fateful day in December 2021, I saw that UVA was playing JMU at the Atlantic Union Bank Center. I told my friends, “Whoever wins this game will be the school I attend.” Takal Molson’s fadeaway game-winner secured my wallet and academic future for the next four years. Little did I know that the experience of a lifetime was waiting for me on the other side of that enrollment deposit. 

Fast forward to Nov. 17, 2023, I walked into the same Atlantic Union Bank Center where I watched the Wahoos take an L. The Dukes were set to take on the Highlanders of Radford, and I was HYPE. ESPN’s College GameDay’s return to Harrisonburg was announced the previous week, and there was a special buzz around campus that I had never felt. The Pat McAfee Show aired earlier in the day on the Quad, and 5,000 of the purple and gold’s finest packed the lawn directly in front of Wilson Hall.

Vibes were at an all-time high on campus.

Tons of students altered their Thanksgiving break plans because of the weekend JMU athletics bestowed upon us. I knew that this Dukes’ basketball crowd could be historic, but as I walked into the AUBC, I was stunned. I had never seen the “Bank” with a mostly filled second level. The student section was packed shoulder to shoulder and the Hardwood Dukes were ready to battle. 

JMU fought a back-and-forth battle with Radford, and I loved every second of it. The newly reinstated “Electric Zoo” was absolutely exhilarating. I couldn’t hear my own voice in the second half. Every fast break score, every defensive stand, and especially to finish the game, there was an uproar of noise. The students in particular were so engaged. The AUBC felt like the old videos I had seen of Dukes throwing toilet paper onto the Convocation court. As a huge basketball nerd, this gave me so much joy. I was convinced in that moment of victory and revelry that we had become an “Everything School” right before my eyes. 

The night before

Immediately following an outstanding Dukes W, I made a (very) sober crawl to the Quad. I met with my roommate RJ and we embarked to the line for the College Gameday pit. A tarp, a sleeping bag, a water bottle full of clear liquid, and a dream accompanied me on a cold and rainy night in Harrisonburg. I was part of a group planning to camp out on the Quad regardless of if we could be right next to Kirk Herbstreit or not.

Unfortunately, there was no luck making it into the pit around 10 p.m. on Friday night. We camped out right behind the Jonas Brothers stage for all of an hour. The girls in my group got very cold when it started to rain so they decided that we should slumber on the front porch of Harrison Hall. Midnight struck and one of the most memorable days of my life had just begun. 

A brief nap and a 4 a.m. Sheetz run revitalized my vigor with a coffee, a monster, five tall boys, and an Appz Sampler of dreams. Game day was here and I was ready. Around 5 a.m. was when the crowds really started to pick up. There was a growing energy of drunkenness, a skunk-like smell, and Dukes’ pride flowing prior to sunrise.

6 a.m. came and the girls in our group finally awoke from their beauty rest. We hid all our extra belongings and found our spot about 15 feet behind the Jonas Brothers’ stage. The DJ started to play some solid tunes and the sun was rising (SBC pun right there). Spirits were flowing and I could do nothing but feel more and more squished as the morning progressed. Chants of “Let Us Bowl,” “Let’s Go Dukes,” and plenty of other explicits erupted in anticipation. The Quad started to fill and you could feel it. Dukes young and old were circling the GameDay set and everyone around me was getting more hype by the minute.

Editor’s note: Thanks to Christopher William Jewelers for their advertising support this season.

GameDay begins

Finally, the clock struck 9 am.

The College GameDay show had begun and the crowd went berserk. The Dukes showed out in an incredibly special way and I saw the crowd displayed on the big screens next to the set stage.

I couldn’t believe it.

I knew I was squished for a reason but seeing the size of the full crowd was glorious. In that moment, I believe you could have cut me open and you would see purple and gold coursing through my arteries. The college that I didn’t even know existed until my sophomore year of high school had grown a lifetime fan in me well before this moment. However, I’d be lying if I did not say that my eternal Dukes fandom was firmly cemented while enjoying the mass of humans around me. 

The College Gameday experience was fun but incredibly long lasting. The chanting, sign reading, throwing streamers, and bad-mouthing the NCAA were all fantastic. The Jonas Brothers performed a short but memorable setlist. Lee Corso put on the Duke Dog Mascot, too!

Life was good. I crushed some Chick-fil-A then proceeded to regroup at my apartment for more beverages and a quick shower. I was back on campus as soon as my Uber driving could possibly take me there. I began to partake in the tailgating lot festivities such as enjoying corn hole, free food, and a warm buzz. Then it was game time. The hour had come to crush App — or so I thought.

On my way to Bridgeforth, I snagged a free Domino’s pie courtesy of Dr. Tim Miller adjacent to Mr. Chips. I devoured a whole pizza while waiting for the restroom inside Godwin Hall. I was ready for game time and App Hate Week had hit its climax.

Inside the stadium, the student section was unruly, to say the least. Bridgeforth was packed to the gills. The entire General Admissions section looked to be chock full of students too. The first quarter commenced and everyone was loud just about every down. Unfortunately, the Dukes did not give us much to cheer about. The offense looked like a shell of itself compared to the previous week. Jordan McCloud and Reggie Brown had historic days against Connecticut. Playing App State, it felt like the wind got taken out of their sails. The crowd was chomping at the bit to explode in favor of the Dukes but we had very little to cheer about through one half on the gridiron. 

Nevertheless, I marveled as further into the ballgame everyone was staying. James Madison University is not exactly known for raucous second-half crowds. This was far from the norm on that fateful November night. Every single student around me stayed through the entirety of the 4th quarter. It was well deserved as Elijah Sarratt decided to put the entire offense on his back during the last two minutes of the ball game. Back-to-back-to-back phenomenal catches dragged the Dukes to a tie-ball game. A D’Angelo Ponds interception sealed the deal and this game was going to overtime. 

By this point of the day, I was completely exhausted, but not a molecule in my body wanted to be anywhere else but Zane Showker Field. I looked across the crowd with weary eyes and saw 25,000 strong on their feet, jumping up and down. I have to stress this, the entire student population was ready to take a nap by this point. But no one cared, the Dukes’ pride prevailed.

While JMU couldn’t capture a win and continue their undefeated season, I walked away with so much more excitement than I ever could have expected from a loss. The Dukes were developing a new generation of rabid fan base right before my eyes.

Growing fan support

My main takeaway from this experience is that JMU support is in a better place than ever. The reason I believe this is because current and prospective Dukes have never been more prideful about JMU.

I have aunts, neighbors, friends, grandparents, and more asking me about my school frequently. They see the noise JMU is making on a national scale and want to hear more about my home nestled in the Shenandoah Valley. That creates pride, that creates long-term loyalty, and that creates love for the place where I will spend four of my most formative adult years. I am not alone in this. All Dukes are experiencing this and plenty of future Dukes will experience the same. 

There is a new audience of young people and students that saw what JMU did this year and it will have a cascading effect on admissions, athletic support, and monetary contributions moving into the future. JMU sold out all but one home game this year and took over three opposing stadiums.

That support will be magnified as JMU grows and its football team matures into a SBC powerhouse. I am incredibly proud to be a Duke and can’t wait to watch JMU’s upward momentum hopefully be capitalized upon.

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