' ' Cinema Romantico: My Favorite College Football Games: Game 11 redux

Sunday, December 31, 2023

My Favorite College Football Games: Game 11 redux

December 31, 2000 (Independence Bowl): Mississippi State - 43 Texas A&M - 41 (OT)

Despite it being compromised by the modern world and its creep of instant communication and remote work, there remain few things more illustrative of joyful ephemera than a snow day. The surrounding world and all its demands and noise cease, and a little space opens up just for you. You don’t even have to seize the day; if anything, it’s preferable to let the day slide right on by. My favorite snow day was January 26, 1996, my senior year of high school, when Des Moines, Iowa was engulfed with 13.7 inches of snow, still a single day record for the state capital. School was called off, of course, and my most vivid memory of that Friday is looking out my upstairs bedroom at some point during the afternoon and seeing the lights of our neighbor’s red pickup truck crawling down the street from the east through whiteout conditions. He finally reached the edge of his driveway, blocked by such a sizable snowbank that it appeared virtually impenetrable, and stopped to size up the situation for a moment before gunning the engine. He had to reverse and then hit this snowbank, I don’t know, nine, ten, eleven times before he broke through and reached his garage. I had a front row seat for the whole show, and it was riveting, watching someone else brave the elements while I enjoyed the elements without having to go out in them. Nothing is better than watching snow falling through the window; nothing is worse than digging your car out from the snow and realizing someone is watching you do it through their window.

“From the start,” Dan Jenkins wrote in Sports Illustrated of a snowy Bengals and Steelers showdown in Cincinnati in 1976, “it was one huge argument for playing football under a roof.” “It was like a nightmare,” Ohio State halfback Vic Jankowicz said of his team’s 1950 Snow Bowl against Michigan, played during that year’s so-called Great Appalachian Storm. “My hands were numb.” “It was the kind of day,” said Michigan’s Chuck Ortmann of the same game, “you wouldn’t even open the door to bring in the newspaper.” Many years later, Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith unceremoniously deemed football in the snow as “trash.” Undoubtedly this view stemmed from his team’s game against the Minnesota Vikings in 2013, played in a blizzard and, later, on a sheet of ice. It was the same game, however, prompting Old Deadspin’s Barry Petchesky to argue that the sport was best in blizzardy conditions, at least for viewers at home, “where football is meant to be enjoyed,” Petchesky wrote, “snuggled up with their snacks and their heat and root(ing) for slippery chaos,” like me watching my neighbor duke it out with a snowdrift.

But Petchesky wrote something else about snow in that blog, calling it “evocative of only good things, like canceled school and Christmastime,” and how “(i)t invites play.” That’s a word worth lingering over, that last one, play. Because the more competitive football becomes as it moves up the ranks from amateur to faux amateur to professional, the more it invokes terrifying words like violence, and war, and life. It ceases to be something you would play in the backyard with your friends. And if snow often becomes a conduit to cozy nostalgia, to holidays and snow days gone by, so does it soften the brutal nature of football, a simultaneous convenient and inconvenient truth that Marvin Newman saw for Sports Illustrated all the way back in 1958, writing, “A snowstorm softens the usually vibrant sounds that rise from a stadium on an autumn afternoon and lends a dreamlike quality to the action on the field. Clouds of snowflakes blanketing the players seem to lessen the impact of the tackle, tug at the pace of action until it seems to occur in slow motion.” Like King David pleading to be made whiter than snow, so many white flakes on the gridiron has a similar effect, cleansing us of our complicity in the game’s savagery, even if that absolution is always short-lived.

If there have been several versions of colloquial Snow Bowls, making it difficult to pinpoint the precise criteria to determine the preeminent one, we can still establish the 2000 Independence Bowl as unique on account of its two participants, Mississippi State and Texas A&M, hailing from below the Mason Dixon Line and facing off in a place, Shreveport, LA, where winter weather tends to occur as rain or sleet. Demonstrating both good cheer and wicked humor, the weather gods conspired for a winter storm on December 31, 2000, to not only take the form of snow but to begin right as kickoff of the Independence Bowl approached, transforming Independence Stadium into a winter wonderland, a phrase ESPN play-by-play announcer Mark Jones uses straight away, predictable, perhaps, but pertinent, nevertheless, innately foreshadowing a game deserving of the label. Snow accumulates on the brims of the coach’s caps, and a grounds crew accustomed merely to managing rain struggles to keep the hashmarks clear, meaning the field vanishes for large swaths of the game, causing touchdowns to seemingly appear from nowhere. Mississippi State disappears, too, inadvertently getting into the spirit of things by busting out their rare all-white uniforms at just the wrong time.

Appropriately, the first play from scrimmage is a Mississippi State fumble, foreshadowing myriad ball-handling problems for the Bulldogs, while the game’s most crucial play is Texas A&M quarterback Mark Farris heedlessly tossing an interception into the wind and snow near his own goal line toward the game’s end, allowing Mississippi State an easy route to tie the score and send the contest to overtime. Not to sell Farris short. He also hits a 42-yard touchdown pass just before halftime, evocative of a game in which scores are not eked out despite the adverse weather but ripped off in big, glorious chunks, Mississippi State’s Dontae Walker with 40 and 32-yard runs and Texas A&M’s Bethel Johnson with a 35-yard catch and run. His six-foot, 275 lb. Aggie compatriot Ja’Mar Tombs, meanwhile, en route to MVP with 195 yards and 3 touchdowns on the ground, barely seems bothered by the conditions, Bulldog defenders looking like little kids on ice just learning to skate and struggling to keep up with this maroon-clad polar bear gliding toward the end zone, again. Indeed, if so many snow bowl accounts suggest how the games were hardly games at all, this feels like a game and a half, living out the wacky weather rather than being constrained by it, evoked in that idiosyncratic score, 43-41, that comes about because Mississippi State converts an ultra-rare 2-point conversion by way of blocking Texas A&M’s extra point attempt in overtime and running 98 yards the other way, complete with a madcap midfield lateral.

If at another time, on a different day, in some other place, a game pitting the third-place teams in the Big 12 South and the SEC West with identical run-of-the-mill 7-4 records would be forgotten, the 2000 Independence Bowl proved unforgettable, certainly more rememberable than the dreary national championship game played three nights later, a testament to the symbolic transformational nature of snow. In that way, its New Year’s Eve evening time slot was apropos. After all, the 2000 American Electoral fiasco had only been rectified, in a manner of speaking, a couple weeks earlier, and snow falling on a bowl game literally named for the birth of America, christened in the year of the United States Bicentennial, felt like a new beginning. Then again, the year 2000 naturally beget the year 2001, a bad one in America and one from which America still has not quite seem to have recovered, as present events both home and abroad suggest, as if we are trapped, the invaluable culture writer Molly Lambert has surmised, glitching back to 2001 forever. Sometimes it makes me think that college football’s leading trivia master Matt Brown had it right when he called the 2000 Independence Bowl, not altogether unseriously, the peak of civilization. Or maybe it was something less profound than that, a snow bowl as a snow day, a stolen three and a half hours of perfection, and as ephemeral as the snow itself.

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