My son loves to tell people he watches football with Mommy.
I was a sports reporter for 10 years before I had children. Although I ended up with two boys, I had no intention of forcing them to be sports fans simply because they were boys—they would be free to develop their own interests, just as I was.
If they just happened to become sports fans, however, they couldn’t have landed a better mother to nurture those interests. I hope one day they’ll trace their fandom back to the time in 2017, when their mom took them to their first college football game.
That year, the tourism agency for the city of Indianapolis invited me to bring the kids to the Big Ten Conference championship football game, held annually in the city since 2011. There would be plenty of football to watch, of course, but the trip would also provide an opportunity for us to explore a growing Midwestern city with affordable fun for families.
I worried that a two-day press trip that included a three-hour football game could be a daunting endeavor with the boys being 5 and 2 at the time, but they handled the task beautifully. They didn’t complain on the two-hour drive to Indianapolis from our home in Dayton, Ohio! They sat quietly in fancy restaurants and ate gourmet chicken fingers and mac ‘n cheese! They didn’t whine when they had to walk long distances! They were patient in lines! They were such angels that other parents approached me and said they could never take their kids out in public like that. What was my secret?
Meanwhile, I was wondering what happened to my real sons and, more importantly, how could I replicate this behavior back home?
But I digress. Our trip was free, but the experience made me reconsider the idea of leaving the kids at home during a major sporting event in the future. Many host cities offer free or low-cost activities for families with children, and the pregame setup itself often includes family-friendly activities, such as a fan fest and outdoor parties.
Indianapolis, which has hosted NCAA basketball tournament games, a Super Bowl, and the Indianapolis 500, among other major events, has plenty of experience with this type of sports tourism. The Big Ten Championship game takes place in early December; and with temperatures still above freezing, it’s easy for fans to walk from their hotels to find food, events, and other activities before and after the game.
And there was plenty to see. The kids were in awe of the “big Christmas tree” at the Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Monument Circle, where you can see a brilliant display of lights draped to form the shape of a Christmas tree. The tree lighting takes place after Thanksgiving, so football visitors get to enjoy the view a week or two later.
This view greeted us after we spent some time at the fan fest, an interactive event in the nearby Indiana Convention Center that’s open to all football ticket holders. The kids challenged me to cornhole, hockey, mini-football, and the 40-yard dash—none of which I let them win.
The next day, however, was the highlight of the trip. We journeyed a few miles north to The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, one of the top children’s museums in the world. Offering permanent and rotating exhibits, the museum is a fun experience for children (and adults) of all ages. This four-floor, 472,900-square-foot facility has 11 major galleries with plenty of hands-on activities to keep kids engaged, including an area for the tiniest of tots to roll, crawl, and reach out for soft toys. The Riley Children’s Health Sports Legends Experience is a recent arrival and offers indoor and outdoor sports experiences for even more fun. (We missed this exhibit’s opening by a few months, but it’s on our summer to-do list.)
The Children’s Museum alone is worth a day trip. I had to drag my kids out after lunch and honestly, we could have stayed until closing without a bit of boredom. My younger son Kyle, a big fan of Transformers, still talks about the 17-foot-tall “Bumblebee statue” at the entrance almost two years later.
The football game almost seemed like an afterthought after that, but my older son’s reaction reminded me exactly why we came to Indianapolis that December weekend. Once inside Lucas Oil Stadium, Blake jumped from his seat and started cheering wildly when the teams ran onto the field. I hadn’t seen that before—I had a sports fan on my hands!
While Kyle fell asleep in my arms by halftime, Blake stayed up well past 11 p.m. to see the game in its entirety. He asked me and others around us about plays, players, scores, and mascots. He declared himself an Ohio State fan because he was from Ohio, making me cringe, considering that I was born in Michigan and went to college there. (Green, not blue …) I was thrilled for him when Ohio State won, creating an allegiance to the team that continues today.
Sunday morning left time for a few short visits before our ride home. White River State Park, a downtown park that features cultural attractions nestled among 250 acres of green space and trails, offers the NCAA Hall of Champions, the Indiana State Museum, and the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians & Western Art. We picked the latter for its train exhibit during the holiday season. What little boy doesn’t love trains?
Within two hours of our departure, two sleepy boys were snuggled in their beds back home. Blake said he couldn’t wait to tell his teachers and friends at school what he did over the weekend.
“I went to a football game with Mommy.”
That’s my kid.
Shannon Shelton Miller lives in Dayton, Ohio, and is the mother of two boys, ages 3 and 6. She writes about education and parenting, among other topics, and has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Huffington Post. Follow her on Twitter @ShannonSMWrites.