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Each NFL game day experience is unique, but the most interesting is likely still to come

Annie Apple has committed to attending as many of her son’s games in his rookie year as possible, and she reflects on how the fan experience at each stadium varies so greatly—and how none will ever compare to Ohio Stadium, where the Buckeyes play.

Reportedly 98% of NFL fans have never been to an NFL game, and because tickets to NFL games are quite costly for most fans, that stat doesn’t surprise me all that much. I’ve been a pro football fan since 1990, and the first time I went to an NFL game was on Jan. 11, 2004 for the divisional playoff game between the Packers and the Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field, when Donovan McNabb hit wide receiver Freddie Mitchell for the miraculous fourth-and-26 play—fourth and forever, as I called it. The famous play led to a game-tying field goal by the dependable David Akers, and the Eagles held on to win in overtime, making their way to the NFC Championship game.

Since this was long before Stubhub existed, we bought the tickets from friends who were season-ticket holders as a Christmas gift. And let’s just say, I chose a good game as my first. I’ve never forgotten the energy and excitement of that game, and even though I’d been a Cowboys fan, I rejoiced with the Eagles fans around me. The excitement was infectious.

Now, I’ve gone to more NFL games than I’d ever dreamed possible. From Dallas to Pittsburgh, the games and the fans are quite the experience. Most players’ families don’t go to away games because you only get about ten minutes to see your son after the games. Add in travel and hotel accommodations, and the trip can be costly. But I have enjoyed checking out other stadiums. In college, I only missed two games in Eli’s entire college football career—one at Cal during his redshirt season and the other a snowstorm in Minnesota. Honestly, who has time for that? So in the pros, we were committed to going to as many away games as possible, especially during the rookie year.

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I will say, when it comes to the fan experience, nothing beats games in the Horseshoe at The Ohio State University. College football game experiences are by far the best, so while NFL game day experiences are each unforgettable in their own way, coming from the Shoe to MetLife Stadium has been quite the football culture shock.

The Giants’ fan experience in the Meadowlands is most corporate football experience I’ve had, though the deejay has been turning it up lately. Fans are in their seats for most of the game, only getting up during third downs on defense. During the Giants-Jets preseason game, with the Jets as the home team, it was different. Jets fans are crazy-fun; they’re like Eagles fans, but more well-behaved. Giants’ fans love their team, but they aren’t the loudest. Often, the crowd only gets hyped when a Michael Strahan video is played right before third down asking everyone to get up on their feet. Other than that, the fans pretty much sit in their seats when the Giants are on defense.

That has been the hardest part of the experience. At the Shoe, we stayed on our feet during entire defense sequences leading into a special teams play. Sunday I was standing at MetLife cheering on our defense, while still on my feet cheering on special teams during punt coverage, a strange guy tapped me on my shoulder. When I turned, he signaled to me to sit down. I looked at him with that football mom look and responded, “This is not a movie theater. Stand up.” Mind you, I’m only 5' 1"—even when I’m standing, it’s not hard to see above me. This guy was perched in his seat like he was watching Les Miserables. I was there to help our Giants stomp the Lions.

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Though I have been a Cowboys fan since 1990, Dallas’ AT&T Stadium is my least favorite NFL venue. I first visited two years ago when Ohio State beat Marcus Mariota and the Oregon Ducks to win the first College Football Playoff National Championship. While the stadium is visually beautiful and thanks to the massive jumbotrons, you can see the game from the roof, the fan experience was sorely lacking. If you’re not in Cowboys gear, fellow fans aren’t very nice to you, which I experienced first-hand when three people in three different incidences randomly came and yelled cruelly in my face. These were grown men under the influence of stupidity. I wasn’t in an Eli Apple jersey, just a Giants t-shirt.

Cleveland Browns’ FirstEnergy Stadium is the most subdued game venue I’ve attended. Fans are solumn, and they walk to the game as if are attending a funeral. They know the outcome of the game, so they’re just attending to pay their respects. Merchants sell “Factory of Sadness” t-shirts as fans quietly walk to the dome of doom. However, inside the stadium Cleveland fans are courteous and at times hilarious. For the Browns game, we went on Stubhub to purchase tickets, and ended up sitting against a fenced wall on top of a kitchen where we inhaled cooking grease the entire game; I could feel my cholesterol level rise with each play. We left smelling like fried chicken and French fries, but we won, so it was worth it.

Black Eli didn’t play in Minneapolis as he was nursing a groin injury, but I was there for an ESPN feature during Giants’ Monday Night Football game. U.S. Bank Stadium is beautiful, and the Vikings fans are very engaged. While there’s not a whole lot of deejay music spinning experience, the Vikings are heavy into traditions like blowing the massive horn and loving Randy Moss. I got to meet Randy and the ESPN Monday Night Football crew, Charles Woodson, Matt Hasselbeck, Lisa Salters and my favorite black quarterback Steve Young. He laughed when I called him my favorite black quarterback because he said Ronnie Lott used to call him that. Who knew Ronnie Lott and I would have something in common.

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The Steelers’ Heinz Field is by far my favorite NFL game day experience, because it’s as close to college game day experience as I think I will ever have in the pros. While waiting in line for the stadium gates to open, the security guy manning the line led the crowd in random Christmas songs. There was a live band playing outside, and yes, I was the lone dancer rocking out to their tunes. In college, one of my jobs was a backup wedding singer in a wedding band. So I know random Top 40 songs and enjoy dancing to them whenever they’re played, anytime, anywhere. Once in the stadium, the party was just starting. The deejay’s objective is to keep you rocking, and since I love music and I love to dance, I was in football dancing heaven.

This week, we head to Lincoln Financial in Philadelphia, which will be an interesting, if not scary, experience. For the past 12 years we have lived in Voorhees, a small suburb in South New Jersey, also known as Eagles Country. Practically all our neighbors are Eagles fans and many of our neighbors are Eagles and Flyers players and former players. Black Eli once played youth football with Brian Dawkins’s son, and Tra Thomas, Thomas Tapeh, Jeremiah Trotter and Donovan McNabb attended our church.. So Eagles were literally everywhere. As a kid, Eli had gone to a couple of Eagles games and until he was drafted by the Giants, his dad had always been an Eagles fan. I went to high school and college in Philadelphia, and my brothers are diehard Eagles fans. So Philly is home, but honestly, I’m already dreading the fan experience. These are the same people who booed Santa.

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I recently sat down with five other NFL moms for my ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown feature, and I chatted with the moms of Rob Gronkowski, Ezekiel Elliott, Joe Flacco, Michael and Marcellus Bennett and Sterling Shepard. In our conversation, the ladies shared some of their away games experiences. Gronkowski’s mom, Diane Gronkowski Walters, recalled one away game experience when a fan threw a sandwich at her, so she just walked out. She should be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Going to Philly for this game will be a civil war. Though Eagles are out of the playoff hunt, they’ll still be out for our blue Giants blood but we’ll be ready.

Regardless of the home connection to Philly, Black Eli will be ready to play. He’s a football nerd who studies and watches film relentlessly, and he is extremely competitive—he won’t even let an old lady win at bingo. During Thanksgiving dinner Eli scolded my daughter, who’s practically sisters with the Elliott girls, when she said Ezekiel Elliott’s name. Of course, I was thinking, can I text his mama though? We couldn’t say that man’s name till after Giants had played and beaten the Cowboys again. I know Black Eli’s competitiveness will come through on the football field that he grew up watching. I, on the other hand, return to Lincoln Financial as a mother of the enemy in enemy territory. I plan to be armored up with extra joy to combat the hate.