Greetings, Lion fans, and in today’s installment of 100 Days, 100 Reasons; Why We Love College Football, we examine reason number 97: Tragedy and Triumph.
College football is unique in that it has experienced more than it’s share of tragedy and heartbreak. More than just the loss of a game or disappointing season. Some programs have lost entire teams, and have been pushed to the breaking point. Others have faced unspeakable sadness. Out of these occurences, though, have emerged stories of triumph. Not only were able to overcome, but to thrive and prosper.
For those of us that are old enough to remember, two incidents stand out. Occurring in just over a month from each other in the fall of 1970, two plane crashes wiped out the entire Wichita State and Marshall University football teams. The Shockers recovered and enjoyed a measure of success as a member of the Missouri Valley Conference, and broke the color barrier in Division I FBS in 1979 by hiring the first black head coach, Willie Jefferies. In 1986, it was announced that Wichita State would no longer sponsor a football program due to budgetary concerns.
On November 14, 1970, returning home after a game against East Carolina, a plane carrying the Marshall University Thundering Herd, coaching staff, support personnel, and fans went down. Their story was chronicled in the hit movie We Are Marshall. With only 4 remaining players that were not on the trip, they were to get special permission from the NCAA to play incoming freshmen. It was due to this situation, and the increasing costs of sponsoring separate freshman football teams, forced the NCAA to permanently allow immediate freshman eligibility.
The Thundering Herd went 2-8 that season in 1971, but they continued to play, and continued to get better, eventually winning multiple MAC and FCS championships.
Closer to home, on November 18,1999, Aggie students were hard at work preparing Bonfire, in advance of the annual battle with the Longhorns of Texas. Bonfire was described as symbolic of “the burning desire to beat Texas.” Terms like cut, stack, Push Week, and Red Pots are as familiar to Aggie students as anything else.
At 2:42 am on November 18, the stack collapsed, and 12 students were killed, and more injured. Bonfire was then canceled for only the second time in 90 years. The only other instance was in 1963, after the assassination of President John Kennedy.
Aggie football practice was canceled, and players rushed over to move logs and assist where they could in rescue efforts. There were many questions in the media, and everywhere else except in College Station and Austin, as to whether the game would be played.
On a crisp, beautiful fall Texas day, the game did kickoff, and in a gritty, tough, effort, Texas A&M scored a late touchdown, then stopped a final Longhorn drive with a fumble recovery to earn a 20-16 win. The emotion of that day was perfectly captured by linebacker Brian Gamble, who made the recovery, fell to his knees and extended his arms skyward.
“ It was just meant to be. They were just not going to lose that game.” Aggie Coach R.C. Slocum
The Lions of A&M-Commerce have not been without their share of trials and heartbreak. Going into the 2018 season. Commerce had lost it’s legendary head coach Ernest Hawkins, who had just had the field named in his honor the previous October, and who celebrated the 45th anniversary of his only national championship with his school winning their second. Oh, the games would go on. Somehow, though, things would never quite be the same.
There was a sense, though, that while not there physically, he certainly would be in spirit. It was certainly most evident on that hot August night, facing an old foe in Texas A&M-Kingsville. The Lions came out and promptly fell behind by 13 in the first half before closing to within 3 at halftime.
In the second half, they came out and fell behind again, this time by 16. Again, the Lions rallied, and took a three point lead at the beginning of the fourth quarter before falling behind again. Only a Kristov Martinez field goal with 28 seconds left forced overtime. After an exchange of touchdowns in the first overtime, However, in what became to be known as “Hawkins Magic” (at least to The Wire staff), the Lion defense rose up and picked off the Javelina’s two point attempt to preserve a 37-36 win.
“You can’t write a script like that. Hollywood would never believe it.” Brian Pate
Unbelievable highs and lows. Unspeakable tragedy, unbridled joy. College football.
That’s why we love it.