Of Tragedy and Triumph

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January 2, 2007
Of Tragedy and Triumph

by Bob Hulsey

I can recall to this day the most depressing New Years Day of my life. It was 1978, my junior year at the University of Texas. From the ashes of a .500 season and the retirement of legendary head coach Darrell Royal, the Longhorns had unexpectedly produced an undefeated season with Earl Campbell winning the Heisman Trophy.

The only remaining obstacle for the Number One ‘Horns was the Cotton Bowl against fifth-ranked Notre Dame. With a win, I could celebrate a National Championship at my alma mater where I was a registered student – the sort of bragging right they can never take away from you.

But Notre Dame had greater size and they muscled Campbell and the Longhorns into submission in a crushing victory. I was devastated. My misery was compounded by the knowledge that Texas’ loss would pave the way for the rival Oklahoma Sooners, led by despicable Barry Switzer, to win the National Championship instead.

The Sooners were playing that night in the Orange Bowl against Arkansas, coached then by the quirky Lou Holtz. Oklahoma was a heavy favorite and Vegas almost took the game off the board after Holtz suspended three players before kickoff, including his starting tailback.

The undermanned Hogs trotted out a third-stringer named Roland Sales who ran for over 200 yards while quarterback Ron Calcagni befuddled Oklahoma all night with quarterback draws. Arkansas won easily. Notre Dame leapfrogged the rest to claim the National Championship in both major polls.

As heartsick as I was about losing the Cotton Bowl, there was consolation in knowing that Sooner fans got to experience the same gut-wrenching pain. They say misery loves company and what better company than your hated enemies? It took the edge off a terrible day.

New Years Day 2007 had a similar feeling. I was already grumpy from seeing the Denver Broncos (my other favorite NFL team besides the Texans) dumped from their playoff berth at home in overtime against an inferior opponent. But that was nothing compared to how I felt the next morning.

I agreed to work the holiday so I set my clock radio to go off with enough time to prepare for my day. It woke me up with the news that Bronco cornerback Darrent Williams had been shot dead earlier that morning.

A lot of people take sports way too seriously, including myself. If you’re reading this, you probably do too. Suddenly, football felt totally worthless. A guy I’d never even met yet cheered like crazy for was now dead at the young age of 24. In my head and on the internet, I searched for answers. I was trying to make sense of something completely senseless.

Imagine if you hurt your shoulder, your team lost, your season was suddenly over and you are shot dead, all within 24 hours. A lot of our brave soldiers die in terrible heartbreaking ways but, aside from them, I can’t imagine a worse exit from this world for a young man. Needless to say, I’ve offered some prayers for the friends, family and teammates of Darrent Williams.

Numb from shock, I didn’t have any interest in watching football afterwards. Later, I followed the Rose Bowl indifferently as I worked. It was painful to think of enjoying football at a time like that. Every time I saw a defensive back break up a pass or return a kick, I thought of the man I had just lost.

Then came the Fiesta Bowl.

Boise State University, a school so far into the college football backwater that you’d probably need three changes of flight just to reach it were matched against those dreaded Sooners, Big XII Champions and heavily favored.

The schools of the "mid-major" conferences had complained for years about being slighted in the BCS bowl pairings until they forced their way in with a fifth BCS bowl. Undefeated Boise State from the Western Athletic Conference represented the first rebel seated at the table with the big boys under the new system. Many doubted they belonged on the same field with the "big-time" Sooners.

Oklahoma had whined for months about the robbery that took place against them up in Oregon, some going so far as to claim it cost them a chance for the National Championship. Memo to Sooner Nation: You also lost by 18 points to a team that took three losses on the season. You never were in the hunt to play Ohio State – deal with it. By the way, yes, you got screwed by some bad officiating but that happens in football – get over it.

By bizarre coincidence, Boise State is nicknamed the Broncos and began to pattern their logo and uniforms to match their NFL brethren from Denver, much like the Iowa Hawkeyes resemble the Pittsburgh Steelers (although making the home turf match the jerseys is a bit excessive and definitely not NFL-like). Naturally, there are a lot of Bronco fans in the Northern Rockies who are also Bronco fans.

Boise State surprised Oklahoma with an early 14-0 lead and held on to a 21-10 halftime edge. But the smart money was on the Sooners asserting themselves and taking out these undersized upstarts in the second half. An interception returned for a touchdown gave Boise a 28-10 lead which slowly evaporated to 28-17, then 28-20 and finally 28-28 with under two minutes to go.

As the Idahoans hoped for one last game-winning drive, they were stunned by an interception returned back for six. A valiant effort appeared lost with 62 seconds remaining. The Sooners led, 35-28.

The Broncos tried desperately to move the ball downfield against the clock. They were left with a 4th-and-18 at the 50-yard line and only 15 seconds remaining. They excuted a perfect hook-and-lateral play to dive into the end zone and force overtime at 35-35. The play call came from the backup quarterback.

Adrian Peterson, the outstanding OU runner, needed only one play of overtime to retake the lead for Oklahoma, 42-35.

In college ball, the opponents get a chance to respond. Boise State moved cautiously for a first down and then faced a 4th-and-2 from the Sooner six. From the back of their playbook, the Broncos sent their quarterback in motion, snapped the ball to a receiver who shifted behind center, had the receiver roll to his right then turned and tossed it to the tight end behind the Sooner defense. Touchdown!

Any wise Cinderella knows you shouldn’t stay at the party too long. Even though it wasn’t necessary, they decided to go for the two-point conversion and delay the outcome no longer. Boise State was drained from slugging it out all night with the bigger Sooners.

It was one final roll of the dice. Boise State lined up for a wide receiver screen to the right. The quarterback faked the pass then turned behind him and handed it to the halfback who went untouched to the left into the end zone for a thrilling 43-42 victory. No pumpkins for this Cinderella. The slipper fits. Hollywood could not have written this any better.

But just to show that even Hollywood can be topped, the game-winning halfback finishes his interview in the corner of the end zone on national television, turns and proposes marriage to the head cheerleader. Holy Chad Johnson! Is this really happening? She says "yes" (what girl could refuse at a moment like that?). They hug and kiss as the camera zoomed for the closeup. I was ready to start crying.

As Boise’s rookie head coach (who is still undefeated in that post) held the Fiesta Bowl trophy aloft, he proclaimed "This is for Bronco Nation." He probably didn’t realize how big a nation he was addressing. His empire had grown immeasurably in the span of four hours.

I’m not into mushy chick flicks and such but, in that moment, I realized why I should still care about football. Yes, it breaks your heart when your team loses. Yes, it hurts still worse when one of your team’s starters is murdered the same day. You wonder why you should care. Why bother? Is it worth the emotional turmoil?

It matters when you can witness a bunch of young men overcome the odds, never say quit, run gadget plays to perfection and defeat the big bullies of the block with their pluck, guile and courage. It inspires us to do in our own lives what we see personified on a football field. That’s what draws kids like Darrent Williams to play the game.

The game had gotten him out of some mean streets in Fort Worth and led to riches in the NFL. He planned to use this off-season to visit schools back home and tell children to resist the street gangs and do something useful with their lives. Now he can’t. But likely others will do it in his memory. In a sense, that may make for a more compelling testimony.

Football carries with it a message of renewal that comforts in times of tragedy. Despite the setbacks, you must always keep trying. Not only for yourself, but for everyone watching. You’ll never know who you might inspire.

Bob Hulsey has had enough emotion for one day. He’ll try to work the Texans into his next column.

Ian Johnson Home

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