' ' Cinema Romantico: My Favorite College Football Games: Game 17

Friday, December 23, 2022

My Favorite College Football Games: Game 17

December 22, 1984 (Florida Citrus Bowl): Florida State - 17 Georgia - 17

Did you know that until 2002 a college football player’s individual statistics compiled in a postseason bowl game were not considered part of their overall season totals? The still standing single season rushing record of 2,628 yards set by Oklahoma State’s Barry Sanders in 1988 remains as astonishing now as it was then not least because his record is shortchanged the 222 yards he gained in that year’s Holiday Bowl triumph over Wyoming. That’s 222 yards, not to mention 5 touchdowns, that are just sort out there in the ether, as if the 1988 Holiday Bowl took place on the opposite side of the International Date Line and when Sanders crossed back over, all his stats were lost. The official records show Nebraska’s Tommie Frazier gained only 604 yards on the ground in 1995, not 803, because his magnificent 199 in that year’s Fiesta Bowl belong not to him, I guess, but to the Fiesta Bowl Committee and the City of Tempe. Indeed, when bowl games are sometimes cited as being figuratively meaningless, it’s forgotten that for much of their existence they were literally meaningless, their statistics spiritually scrubbed while up until 1965 the sport’s national champions got crowned via polling before the bowls were played. And even when the concluding polls were finally released after the bowl games, only a few postseason contests generally ever factored into the championship discussion, meaning the others remained unofficially inconsequential, like the 1984 Citrus Bowl, the exemplar of the meaningless bowl game, matching 7-3-1 Florida State against 7-4 Georgia in a game played one day after the mythical National Championship had in effect already been decided
For its first 35 years, the Florida Citrus Bowl was the Tangerine Bowl. Tangerines, though, are not the only citrus products in the Sunshine State, and in 1983, the Florida Citrus Commission paid $1.25 million to change the game’s name to the Florida Citrus Bowl, becoming the very first bowl named for a corporate sponsor. That evoked its status as a kind of boom bowl, destined in a few years to upgrade its December date to the (then) prestigious New Year’s Day, mirroring its host city Orlando, fueled in the 80s by Walt Disney World which had opened 13 years earlier. After all, long before bowl games became predominantly made-for-TV fodder under the umbrella of ESPN, they were civic events meant to showcase their host cities, a detail some of the more esteemed bowl games have since forgotten. The Fiesta Bowl moved inside to a sterile dome years ago, eschewing the free advertising of showing freezing Midwesterners like me the Valley of the Sun in all its luminous glory, which I thought of during last year’s Citrus Bowl when the long shadows cast by the warm sun in the second half became juxtaposed against the snow falling right outside my window. Used to be that you didn’t just watch a bowl game to watch the game but to point at the TV screen and at Orlando, at Tempe, at Pasadena, and think “I want to go to there.” 

Your game cannot rise to the hallowed level of CFB postseason criterion on context alone, however, and the 1984 Florida Citrus Bowl is a paragon of its kind because it is more daffy than dramatic, more spirited than scintillating, the partially prosaic, technically inconclusive score both saying it all and not beginning to say it. The game opens on a festively inauspicious note with Florida State smartly driving right down the field and then fumbling the ball away, foreshadowing a game that regardless of Georgia staking a 14-0 lead at halftime is rife with emotional turnabouts. Georgia losing its starting quarterback to injury proves less a cause of concern than bringer of great joy, in the form of freshman backup signal caller James Jackson, a dual threat quarterback in the antiquated era when that term was considered avant-garde, taking the galley proof of notoriously conservative coach Vince Dooley and making some substantial edits with his big scrambles and deep bombs that earn him the game’s MVP award. Florida State’s offensive identity, on the other hand, is a kind of fun-loving lack of one, looking toward the colorful future by throwing the ball around to its speedy wide receivers and running a smattering of trick plays even as it reverts to monochrome in running the triple option. 

Florida State’s special teams, meanwhile, are daredevils, all, trying so relentlessly to block kicks that twice they are penalized for roughing the kicker. This causes no small amount of bellyaching on the part of NBC color analyst Bob Trumpy, imploring Florida State to take it down a notch, until, hey, wouldn’t you know, trailing 17-9 in the fourth quarter, their special teams crash through, block a punt, and return it to the end zone for a touchdown. Third time’s the charm! They convert the two-point conversion off a nifty reverse to knot the score, leading to a final few minutes that despite the teams trying to break the tie, is not so much suspenseful as just kind of exuberantly frantic, epitomized in a crowd that never sounds cacophonous, just in high spirits, having a good time, and underlined in how even as Criqui calls the action, he is also saying thanks to the broadcast crew and various bowl game officials, as if this is all the conclusion to a big show. (One fun added ingredient is NBC frequently transitioning to commercial breaks with dollops of Bruce Springsteen’s “Bobby Jean” because it’s 1984 and “Born in the USA” is just about the biggest thing going. If that song seems like a curious choice for such a milieu, I don’t know, I think there’s something a little Auld Lang Syne-ish in Bruce’s breakup anthem for his BFF bandmate Little Stevie.) 

There is this sensation I remember from Christmases of my youth, one I innately felt back then but didn’t intellectually understand and could not have intelligently described, where the whole world as I knew it suddenly came to a pleasing halt, no homework, no basketball practice, no plans. I didn’t understand what being on the clock meant because I had yet to ever officially clock in, but that, I realize now, is how it felt, off the clock, not timeless but without time. And because bowl games have always been inextricable from the holidays ever since the very first one, the Tournament East-West football game, was staged specifically to coincide with the Rose Parade in Pasadena on New Year’s Day, for me, they always went hand-in-hand with that interregnal feeling. Of course, that’s simply because as a kid the whole world only extends from the front yard to the backyard with your own home in-between, a feeling that fades as you get older and you realize that despite a few days off around the holidays, time doesn’t really stop but just plods on. “Happy Holidays,” as Paul Krugman put it just the other day for The New York Times, “now get back to work.” 
I can’t help but think that for me, bowl games are the last vestige of that theoretical lull, where rather than infused with stakes and stress, the majority of them mean nothing, reaching the true sports ideal that is often unthinkingly cited but never truly lived out, just for fun. But even that is being compromised now, with players opting out of them as business decisions, protecting their future earning potential as professionals. And I understand it, I agree with it, I applaud them for it, and still, I want to say, your whole life is about to become a business decision, a series of transactions, of tasks, of stuff to do, and this is your last chance not to make it count, per se, but to do something that does not count, to live your life off the clock, in this last little space across that metaphorical international date line and out of arm’s reach of the dreaded big picture.

The 1984 Florida Citrus Bowl concludes with Georgia illustrating what should always be a team’s (un)official bowl season credo – Why Not?! – by sending on Kevin Butler to attempt a game-winning 71-yard field goal. True, Butler was a 1984 first team All American and connected on a 60-yard field goal earlier that season, but 71 yards would have been the longest in the history of organized football; it would still be the longest field goal in the history of organized football. The notion of him making it seems so remote, almost comical, that Criqui cracks that he will “do a double gainer right outta the (press) box” if Butler succeeds in sending the ball over the crossbar. Butler does not succeed, naturally, because if he had you’d know about it, and you’d probably know about Criqui doing a double gainer out of the Citrus Bowl press box too. But he comes close. This field goal, it is dead center and though camera angles back then are not what they are now, really looks as if it would have been good from 70. It is the most mind-blowing failed field goal I have ever seen.

It’s not necessarily more apropos that Butler missed. I like thinking of the longest field goal in organized football history occurring in the strange postseason firmament unique to college football, in the record book but also out there in the wild gridiron yonder. But in coming up a breath short of history, that kick proves a captivating moment in time, if ultimately insignificant, which is nothing if not an apt metaphor for the whole reason bowl games exist in the first place. 

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