Victory Hill marks the beginning of LSU’s pregame walk into Tiger Stadium. The team buses pull into a roundabout at the top of the hill, stopping at the intersection of Field House Drive and North Stadium Road. Crowds gather six to seven rows deep — sometimes more — cramming onto the sidewalks for a glimpse of the players and coach Ed Orgeron.

Orgeron gets animated during these treks. As “Born on the Bayou” and “Halftime (Stand up and Get Crunk!)” play over speakers, Orgeron energizes the crowd. He claps. He pumps his fists. He screams and gives high-fives to those fans jammed against the fences. The last time LSU traveled down Victory Hill, celebrating its national championship, Orgeron threw Mardi Gras beads.

The coronavirus pandemic changed this tradition, as it did so many others around LSU games. With tailgating on campus banned and an announced crowd of 21,124 inside Tiger Stadium, the atmosphere before LSU’s season opener Saturday against Mississippi State lacked the energy typical of an LSU game.

"It’s not normal," senior safety JaCoby Stevens said after thanking the people who came. "I’m hoping it gets better and we can allow more fans."

Instead of music blaring throughout a raucous campus, bird sounds filled the air. A fountain gurgled in the quadrangle as a family walked toward the stadium. Some fans noticed for the first time that LSU played its alma mater at noon from Memorial Tower on game days.

Small groups trickled onto campus throughout the day. Not allowed to bring tailgate equipment, they arranged food and drinks in their cars. Public health guidelines playing from speakers reminded people to wear masks, maintain physical distance and cover coughs.

“Thank you for making Tiger Stadium the best atmosphere in college athletics,” the recorded message said.

The campus felt quieter than a school day, resembling a sleepy Sunday morning than the first season opener after a national title. Boy Scout security guards wearing orange vests sat around the Indian Mounds. One carried his folding chair to the top of the mound. Few people walked past.

In a parking lot near the empty Parade Grounds, fans gathered behind their cars. They brought coolers and bags of chips. One set up a small grill. Another arranged two iPads on cinder blocks in the bed of a pickup truck.

Dawn Crnjak sat in the back of her car drinking a mimosa. She had come to the game with Chris Breaux, who stood nearby drinking a bloody mary. They kept water and more alcohol in a cooler.

“I feel like we’re being watched,” Breaux said, referencing nearby security.

On the other side of the northern entrance to campus, music pulsed from speakers at The Chimes. People gathered outside waiting for tables. They drank from yellow plastic cups. Some wore masks. Others didn’t.

“It’s as normal as it’s been in a long time,” Crnjak said. “This is Baton Rouge. This is what we do.”

For moments on game day, people felt something they hadn't since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. They said attending the game offered a sliver of community and peace, a sense of normalcy.

But as Orgeron stepped off the bus at Victory Hill an hour and a half before kickoff, 6-foot-high chain-link fences covered in black screens separated a small group of fans from the team. They cheered. Orgeron, his face covered by a purple LSU mask, clapped and pumped his fists.

“Hey, coach,” one fan said as she held up her phone.

“Geaux Tigers,” Orgeron responded.

The players gathered behind Orgeron at the top of the hill. They wore suits and face coverings, waiting to walk into Tiger Stadium for the first time this season.

“Let’s go, baby,” Orgeron said. “What do you say, boys?”

Orgeron turned to walk down the hill. He clapped and pumped his fists again. Speakers blared “Born on the Bayou” and “Halftime (Stand up and Get Crunk!)." Hardly anyone stood alongside the fences. At the bottom of the hill, this space normally packed with humanity had a sparse, single row of fans lined along either side of the road.

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