‘It almost didn’t feel real that we were back:’ Students react to in-person game day experience

Blake Bontrager, center, poses for a group photo at the home opening football game on Saturday against Arkansas State. (Photo Courtesy of Blake Bontrager)

It had been 237 days since the last time Blake Bontrager stepped foot inside Bill Snyder Family Stadium for a Kansas State game day. But 237 days ago, the world wasn’t battling a pandemic.

The college game day experience in 2020 has changed significantly. Fans are required to wear masks while in stadiums and social distancing guidelines are in place. As a season ticket holder since his freshman year, Bontrager, a junior in business marketing, knew this season was going to be different.

Bontrager arrived at the stadium for Saturday’s game against Arkansas State at 8 a.m. to ensure a spot in the crowd. After everything that has happened since last school year, he thought a sense of relief would come while he waited. Instead, Bontrager was feeling the opposite.

“It felt kind of sad,” Bontrager said. “I’ve been a season ticket holder since freshman year, so you kind of know what to expect from a ‘Caturday,’ and just waiting in line and seeing maybe 20 cars in the parking lot — no one tailgating — it was kind of sad.”

Once he was inside the stadium though, the feelings started to shift. A sense of normalcy started to come back, even with the noticeable differences due to COVID-19 protocols.

“Student section-wise, it was weird,” he said. “There were flags like every two rows so you wouldn’t be very close to other people. Throughout the whole stadium, it was very empty. Just spooky for how empty it was for a game day.”

Two other students, Aaron Wilson and Cooper Day, also had their own opinions on the abnormal game day.

Wilson, a junior in marketing and sales, also said the change in the environment tweaked his experience a little bit — from the empty stadium to the mask protocol.

“I liked in previous years how I just walked in and there were just a lot of people hugging and taking lots of pictures and just being super excited to see each other. And tailgating too, obviously,” Wilson said. “But now it was just everyone wearing a mask and trying to keep their distance – trying not to socialize as much. Which is a smart reason, but it just kind of sucks because I miss that atmosphere that we used to have.”

Day, a junior in architecture, also mentioned how it affected him.

“The whole atmosphere itself was different,” Day said. “I would say it affected my experience because I really enjoy the tailgates and getting rowdy at the games and I just feel like it wasn’t all there.”

Like Bontrager, Wilson and Day knew this was going to be a different experience, and it took some warming up to get a sense of normalcy back. That came back rather quickly for Wilson, specifically.

“I think it was once I saw Willie doing the pushups or once we were all doing the Wabash, I was like this feels normal again,” he said.

From where Wilson and Day were sitting together, the student section didn’t look as spaced out as it seemed to Bontrager. Wilson described it as almost looking like a “normal student section” at full capacity.

“I thought the student section would be smaller than it was, I was actually quite surprised at how many students were there,” he said. “I sat on the opposite side, but I looked across and for the most part, it looked like the normal student section.”

As for the mask protocol, all three of the students said they followed the procedure, but did see some people taking masks off throughout the game. Even with those outliers, all three agreed they felt safe throughout the duration of the game.

“The people I was around were all wearing masks and we were doing what we needed to do,” Wilson said. “But there were people who, once they got into the stadium, they just were like ‘Yeah, forget the mask’ and took it off.”

Bontrager, from the student section, also had no worries.

“I did feel safe, we were following every rule in place,” he said. “K-State put those flags there for a reason and no one was being difficult.”

At the end of the day, all three of the students were glad they were able to be back at a sporting event, live and in-person.

“It almost didn’t feel real that we were back,” Day said.

Bontrager, however, was much more vocal about the emotions he felt throughout the entire day.

“Just joy and elation,” Bontrager said. “I mean football, there was a good chance of it not coming back. Obviously, the smartest thing to do is to not have it, so it was an incredible blessing that I was able to go. I think the biggest word is thankful, just thankful that I was able to sit in the stands while there was a world-wide pandemic going on.”

But now with one game down, the question arises: will fans continue to be allowed in the stadium moving forward? Both Bontrager and Day believe so.

“I feel like we’re at the point where people are just kind of over it,” Day said. “I feel like there are a lot of kids there and they just don’t care or it doesn’t bother them anymore.”

However, Wilson has his doubts.

“I definitely think that there were a lot of people who just decided not to wear their masks and that’s going to show in the next week or two,” Wilson said. “I don’t know if K-State is going to do anything about that, but I do think they’re going to have some more strict rules or kick people out if they aren’t wearing masks. I feel like K-State might have to do something, but hopefully we’re still allowed to go because it was fun and I enjoyed it.”

The next K-State home game is scheduled to be played on Oct. 3 against Texas Tech.