' Cinema Romantico: A Year End Digression: The Best Game I've Ever Seen

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A Year End Digression: The Best Game I've Ever Seen

Tomorrow is a significant anniversary in my life for fifteen years ago I was a sophomore in high school. It's not that I was unhappy, per se, but I was still in that arduous process of trying to form my identity. We continue forging it all our lives but in a lot of respects you're beginning to lay the groundwork at that point. It's not easy, and that's why high school can be so tough. Much of my youth I took solace in the few close friends I had and in Nebraska Football. I loved Nebraska Football, and I, of course, still do with a passion that borders on the purely insane, which is fine with me.

They are my team. When I chose them I invested my heart and soul into them. They are it. I have no other team and I want no other team, even if I only get to commune with them 12 or, if the college football gods deem them worthy (like this year - tomorrow, baby, high noon CST), 13 days a year. (Yes, I said commune. Nebraska Football is communion. If you don't think so then you and I already have a problem.)

A lot of people ask me, "Why Nebraska?" Jerry Seinfeld has noted that when it comes to sports you're essentially "cheering for laundry." There is some truth to that, I suppose, but if you have a team, a team that becomes your team for a lifetime, there truly is something deeper. When I became a college football fan the sport was in a transitional period, moving from the grind-it-out, run-every-down offenses to the wide-open, pass-every-down offenses. Nebraska proudly stayed who they were. They liked who they were and, in turn, I always liked them for it. They weren't just the stubborn old guy who refuses to change, either. Remember, their boring, old offense ran circles around razzle/dazzle/eye-candy offenses in the mid-90's, like the resplendent 1998 Orange Bowl in which the great Ahman Green tore Tennessee's defense to shreds play after play while the TV cameras kept showing a young Peyton Manning wilting away, shaking his head, helpless, on the sideline. They were who they were but they were good at it. (It's what made the changes under the god-forsaken Bill Callahan regime so grotesque. Not only were they no longer good, they weren't who they were.)

But I also latched on to Nebraska for reasons lot more simple. I didn't like a lot of things about my school and I didn't like a lot of people that went to my school and a lot of those people cheered for the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Iowa State Cyclones. (My eighth grade basketball coach, the demonic Mr. Blake, was an Iowa State fan and he made Jeff Essink - the only other Nebraska fan in my whole grade - and I run extra laps at basketball practice the day after our Huskers beat Iowa State. Yes, that's a 100% true story. So don't ever tell me I haven't suffered as a fan.) I didn't want to do what those people did. So ultimately I chose Nebraska. You can call me a bandwagon jumper because it's true. We're all bandwagon jumpers. The question is, do you ever jump off? I haven't.

I didn't jump off in 1990 when Iowa won the Big 10 conference and went to the Rose Bowl while Nebraska was viciously pummeled in its last three games.

I didn't even jump off in 1992 when the Iowa State Cyclones pulled off a 19-10 upset of Nebraska so gargantuan it is still referenced by Iowans (the normally pitiful Cyclones don't have a lot else to talk about). I remember listening to the end of the game on radio with my dad and thinking, "My God, am I gonna' hear crap about this for weeks." At church the next morning, I did. Don't think because we were in the house of the Lord my fellow sunday schoolers weren't gonna' talk trash. They'd earned it. My best friend Jacob's dad told me, "Wear a Nebraska shirt to school tomorrow. If they're your team, you have to." So I did. And it was Nicholas Curnes, just one of many jackasses roaming Waukee High School, who caught a glimpse of my sweatshirt that Monday morning and said, "Nebraska? They really sucked yesterday."

No, Nebraska was never really bad (like Iowa State) when I was growing up. They always won at least nine games and they always went to a bowl (back when going to a bowl really meant something) but this was when they were playing in the Big 8 Conference which, in all honesty, only had two other good teams - Oklahoma and Colorado. Sometimes Nebraska would beat them, sometimes not, and then they would go to their bowl game and get shellacked by whoever they played. (Their 22-0 loss to Miami in the 1992 Orange Bowl in which they got something like four first downs the whole game and clearly had no business being on the same field is still the single most depressing Cornhusker game I have ever watched, which, by the way, I watched to the stomach-churning bitter end.) They were a weakling, a (gulp) bully. They beat up on bad teams and, in turn, got beat up by good ones. That's how it went in the late 80's and early 90's. During a period of four years they defeated not a single ranked team.

It's why even though they entered the 1994 Orange Bowl on New Year's Day undefeated and #2 team in the country they were considered 17 point underdogs to the #1 Florida State Seminoles and their Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Charlie Ward. A Des Moines sportswriter, I remember, was taking bets as to whether or not you would want to turn off your TV at halftime (my hometown produces such clever journalists!). The Washington Post's now famous Michael Wilbon that year had termed Nebraska "the biggest fraud in college football every single solitary season." Ouch.

But there was something different about this Nebraska squad. (Note: They were the first Husker team I ever saw in person.) They experienced some close calls during the season to some pretty mediocre teams which made them suspect to most people but, damn it, they were resilient. Their motto was "We Refuse To Lose". And, oh yes, they had a sophomore quarterback named Tommie Frazier. My friend Dan was recently talking to a friend of his who is also a Nebraska Football fan and Dan mentioned my love for the team. "Tommie Frazier is his favorite player," said Dan. "Everybody's is," replied his friend.

There are people who did not vote for former head coach Tom Osborne when he ran for governor (he was one of the finest football minds of all time, no question, but I'll refrain from addressing his politics) but I don't think you could find a single person in the entire state who would say a bad word about #15. My friend Jana attended graduate school at Nebraska and while helping her move I met her roommate, born in Nebraska and a die-hard fan, and we instantly commenced to trading Tommie Frazier stories. ("Remember when he bounced off the Colorado guy trying to tackle him and then threw it sidearmed to Ahman?" "Totally. Remember when he got the first down against UCLA on a sprained ankle?" "Completely. Remember when....") I also met a girl in Scottsdale who attended the University and claimed to attend some frat party where Tommie Frazier happened to be and while other football players we're, you know, doing what college football players do at frat parties Tommie Frazier apparently never took a drink and refused flirtatious advances from various females by saying, "I've got a girlfriend." (I have no idea if that story is really true but I like to think it is. People have always written that about him - he was not only a great football player but a great person.) He never played a down in the NFL and it doesn't matter. He was a great college football player. One of the greatest. Many players shrink when the spotlight shines brighter. He grew stronger. He was never stronger than he was January 1, 1994 when he outplayed the Heisman Trophy Winner.

It was a sloppy, frenetic game that saw Nebraska - who had not been ahead in a bowl game since I was in 6th grade - go up for the fleetest of moments 7-0 on Corey Dixon's 71 yard punt return for a touchdown which caused me to scream so loud our poor pet dachshund ran upstairs and hid under the blanket of our love seat for the remainder of the game. Alas, a clipping penalty (which NBC cameras never could find, but let's not dwell) made it all for naught. Nonetheless, that remains to this very day the single most exhilarating sports moment of my life. (I can still see the whole play in my mind - Corey slanting to the right, the key cutback at midfield, the last Seminole fruitlessly grasping the tail-end of Corey's jersey before relenting and allowing the little guy into the holy land of the end zone.) Every great thing that happened to the program for the rest of the decade was foretold right then and there, on a technically meaningless play that was entirely meaningful.

They were up 7-6 at the half but disastrous events seemed to be occurring right and left. They lost their leading rusher to injury, and then their leading receiver went out with an injury too. A starting linebacker went down with a broken arm and, for God's sake, their star defensive player (Trev Alberts) was already playing with a splint on his arm. Then in the third quarter Florida State went up 15-7 on a touchdown (though NBC replays made it appear the player fumbled prior to crossing the goal line, but let's not dwell). But none of this mattered (they refused to lose, remember?) because Frazier drove Nebraska downfield, they scored a touchdown, only to miss the two point conversion, and were down 15-13 at the start of the 4th quarter.

Nebraska got the ball back and Frazier drove them downfield again, tragically throwing an interception at the Florida State 11 yard line. He buried his head in the Orange Bowl grass and I buried my head in our basement carpet.

No matter, because Nebraska's defense held to give the ball back to the offense and Frazier drove them downfield again, this time all the way to the Florida State 4 yard line. Byron Bennett kicked a field goal and Nebraska was up 16-15 with 1:16 left. I remember looking at my sister, who had come downstairs late in the game to watch, and saying, stunned and in disbelief, almost hallucinating, "They're going to win the national championship."

I spoke too soon. Charlie Ward rose to the occasion and drove Florida State downfield and they kicked a field goal of their own to go up 18-16 with 21 seconds left. Game over?

Hardly. Frazier drove Nebraska downfield again. The quarterback who was always accused of not being able to throw, threw a laser-like strike over the middle to Trumane Bell allowing him to catch it perfectly in stride as the clock ticked down, nearing zero. Bell's knee hit the turf on the Florida State 29 yard line with one second left. The clock should have stopped. Except it didn't. It rolled to zero. Florida State players and fans rushed the field and their coach, Bobby Bowden, was doused with Gatorade.

The NBC announcers cried out the game should not be over, and so too did Nebraska coach Tom Osborne. (It should be noted this was long before instant replay.) Amidst the mass chaos, the officials finally figured it out and sent both teams back to the sidelines and, after lengthy debate, placed one tick back on the clock.

(Imagine, please, that this happened to your team in a game to decide if they win the sport's ultimate prize. Can you comprehend how emotionally fragile you would feel? In the span of five minutes I almost had 17 heart attacks.)

After so much commotion, the teams would line back up and Nebraska's Byron Bennett (never the most reliable kicker, I'm afraid) would try a 45 yarder. It sailed way wide left. Game over.

It was horribly depressing and it filled me with overwhelming grief - very briefly. In fact, the next day I went to Valley West Mall with my friend Kris rather than sitting at home sulking as I'm wont to do after devastating defeats. I wore my Nebraska hat with my held my head up high. I saw a guy there with a Nebraska hat, too, and we exchanged smiles and nods because we knew what each of us had been through the previous evening. They lost but they didn't, you know?

Things were different now. You could feel it. The tide had turned. Nebraska won the national championship the following year and I started to feel a whole lot better about myself. The game itself didn't change my life. It just happened to come at the moment when my life was on the cusp of change and so it always had that context to it. There was a week in my coming summer that had great impact on me (and, in fact, I'm currently prepping a script based on that week as we speak) and I felt my life take a big upswing afterwards.

The first day back at school after that game, as I stood at my locker, Nicholas Curnes (yes! the same Nicholas Curnes! perfect real life irony!) strolled past, paused, looked right at me, and I readied for the inevitable insult. Instead Nicholas Curnes held up his index finger and thumb, a scant millimeter apart, and with feint but obvious respect in his eyes said, "This close, huh?"

I've never been more proud of my team.

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