I had brought my dad’s radio onto the golf course. It was a brisk October Saturday in 2002–a football Saturday–which meant I had the course to myself. I was 14 years old. On such days in my hometown of Iowa City, between the hours of 10:30 AM and 4:30 PM, one finds the streets eerily empty. The town’s 70,000-odd citizens aren’t gone on vacation, of course; they are (many of them at least), instead, resplendent in black and gold and making fools of themselves like good sports fans at the stadium across town, or in their living rooms. You will understand this phenomenon if you’ve lived in Big Ten country. Saturdays in the fall revolve around college football. To me, these were perfect days: if the weather was accommodating, I could play golf unmolested by crowds, and I could listen to my beloved Hawkeyes while doing so.
Every team has announcers who cater to the team’s fans. At best, these announcers are energetic, entertaining, and comical in their sincerity and love for the team (the late Ron Santo of the Cubs is a good example of this type). At worst, they are bitter in defeat and, under any circumstances, utterly unbearable to outsiders (see Hawk Harrelson of the White Sox). Their function is, first and foremost, to provide an outlet for the emotions of a fan base, and to call the game while they’re at it.
Iowa’s radio announcers in men’s basketball and football–I follow these teams with a borderline unhealthy fanatacism–are Gary Dolphin and Ed Podolak. Dolph and Ed, as they’re known, have called Iowa games for as long as I can remember, and they are classic hometown announcers. They know what pains us (the fans), and what makes us jump with joy, because they feel the same way. Podolak groans in agony with each turnover or penalty; Dolph emanates an ebullient energy when Iowa is doing well.
The 2002 Iowa team would go 8-0 in the Big Ten and earn a trip to the Orange Bowl, but in early October the Hawks were a shaky 4-1 with their future still very much in doubt. Iowa had narrowly avoided an epic collapse the week before against Penn State, and against Iowa State they had blown a huge halftime lead (remember Seneca Wallace? Yep, that’s who led that ISU comeback). The Purdue game was a fun, back and forth affair. Late in the third quarter Iowa’s quarterback, Brad Banks, had thrown a 95-yard touchdown pass to Dallas Clark to give Iowa a ten-point lead. (I remember, after that play, being confident enough in the outcome to mute the radio while putting.) But Purdue responded with two straight scores to pull ahead by four, and soon I–along with Dolph and Ed–was a nervous wreck. (On the 7th hole I hooked a drive into a pond after a long Purdue completion.)
Iowa got the ball back with less than three minutes to go in the fourth quarter, still down by four, and promptly drove deep into Purdue territory. But then the Hawkeyes stalled, and after three failed plays, it was fourth down at the Purdue seven yard line. By this time I was hunched over the radio next to the 8th green, my round forgotten. With the game in the balance, Banks dropped back, swarmed by blitzing lineman (“Oh no!”), but at the last second threw back across his body (“Oh yes!”) to a wide open Dallas Clark. I could almost hear Dolph leaping out of his chair; I could certainly hear him screaming “Touchdown Iowa! Touchdown Iowa!” in his trademark way. The peaceful mood of the golf course was momentarily interrupted by joyful yelps from its lone patron. Miles away, in Kinnick Stadium, the Hawks had brought down the house.
As I write this, I’m sitting in our apartment in Baltimore, listening to Dolph and Ed call this year’s Iowa-Purdue game. (Luckily for me, the Big Ten Network provides access to local radio feeds . . . for the affordable price of $9.95 a month.) This year’s game is not nearly as entertaining as 2002’s version; Purdue stands at 1-7 and Iowa already has three losses in the Big Ten. Now, it’s the fourth quarter. Iowa is leading 38-7 with six minutes left: it’s all over. Dolph and Ed were cranky earlier–Iowa’s offense struggled to move the ball in the first half–but now they’re basking in the glow of victory. Dolph is rehashing the injury report, and Ed is happily calling the names of third-stringers getting some rare playing time.
Today, Dolph has cried “Touchdown Iowa! Touchdown Iowa!” five different times. Each time I was transported to a certain golf course, where I listened alone to a similar call one brisk fall day in Iowa City. Home town announcers will do that to you.