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Sunday Morning Quarterback

Sunday Morning Quarterback

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Irrational Exuberance

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All fans and even sporadically enthusiastic social hangers-on of the game can all recall a great game, a fun game, a drunken game, an intense finish that uplifted them for an afternoon, or an entire weekend. Perhaps longer. In honor of the impending kickoff to the 2006 season, SMQ resolves over the next three weeks to share a few of the personal moments that have most fueled and reinforced h is irreversible affection and obsession for the apparent foolishness known as college football. Appropriately, all recollections are heavily distorted, sentimentalized and not to be trusted in any way.

Sept. 29, 2001: Southern Miss 3, UAB 0
There was nothing remotely special about UAB visiting Hattiesburg in 2001, a non-televised, non-rivalry, late ev ening kickoff between one team expecting a par-for-the-course victory in the hunt for a conference title and another seeking a minor upset that would vault it towards, at least, it first-ever bowl berth.

Yet, for no reason whatsoever, the crowd was absolutely off its rocker. It was maybe 25,000 people, probably a few less (official attendance was nearly 30,000, but this is definitely inflated as a matter of course), but by the second quarter it felt like a Rose Bowl full of maniacs.

The weather could have been reminiscent of the Rose Bowl, and this is the only possible explanation for the madness: the start time put the sun just behind the West side of the stadium, where it peaked through the tunnel entrances to those of us in the student section on the East side, and made the whole sky to that side of the field look about like the amazing vistas you regularly see in the backgrounds of NCAA Football games. SMQ remembers as a kid going to USM games, and being on that brick-deluged campus that turns so appealingly orange late on clear afternoon, and hearing the chants and the very loud band and thinking something like, "Wow, this is so cool, this is what college people do," these amazing college people w ith amazing-looking girls with them, who just go about the momentous activity of att ending a major college football game like it's routine. And for some indescribable reason (entirely sober SMQ did not, stunningly, have an amazing-looking girl, or any girl, with him) the atmosphere before this random game against this random, less-than-m ediocre team was one of the only ones he attended while actually in college that recalled this pre-adolescent memory in his mind.

But that feeling would have evaporated and meant nothing if not for the tension throughout the game, the singular kind of an xiety the favored team has while winning but being outplayed all along, while waiting for the other shoe to inevitably drop. Southern Miss went up early on with a field goal, and proceeded to do zip the remainder of the game offensively. But, unlike the cross-your-fingers unit USM trots out these days, the defense in 2001 still relished this sort of situation as a chance to back up the hype. In this game, it did, giving up a drive or two but always forcing a punt or too-long field goal opportunity before it got too harrowing: UAB missed two field goals, a short one (25 yards) in the first and one in the fourth from 48 yards out.

It was the shot in the second quarter, though, that was probably heard around the Southeast. Or the Pine Belt. Or wherever fine shots are heard. But as far as SMQ is concerned, the 24-or-so-yard field goal attempt by Rhett Gallego is USM's "register on the seismograph" moment, if there was a seismograph on campus and if the collective voices of 22,000 people could move it. Because, after UAB mounted its best drive, down to inside the USM five-yard-line, then actually scored - on a two-yard pass that was called back for illegal men downfield...illegal men downfield from the two-yard-line=fate, folks) - and was subsequently stopped on third down, the inveitable chant started: Block that kick! Block that kick! Etc. Except this was not an empty chant; it was a command, an absolute, non-negotiable demand for our team to block this inevitably successful attempt, the tying score that would defeat the momentum of the goal line stand and actually require USM's offense to score again, which pretty much everyone even in the second quarter knew was not going to happen on this night. It rose and shook and crescendoed. We went ballistic with a concentrated psychic command to turn this kick away, in the name of all that is good and right and -

And it worked. The crowd willed a kick to be blocked! We did that! SMQ has no idea who actually got a hand on it, but "bedlam" would not begin to describe the collective reaction to the ball fluttering in the wrong direction. We just flipped out. It was a frenzy. It made no sense. SMQ remembers specifically thinking 'This place is way too loud for this many p eople, for a blocked field goal in the second quarter," and trying to communicate this to the guy standing next to me, but instead just yelling and jumping around, too.

All of this, of course, is entirely in SMQ's head, he probably being more likely to appreciate a 3-0 thriller (or even consider regarding such a thing as a "thriller") than the rest of the allegedly maniacal crowd. Definitely this is an exaggeration. Video evidence probably exists to prove the overstatement of this memory.

But screw that. It was freakin' loud. For pretty much no good reason. The following week, Jeff Bower wrote a letter to the editor in Southern Miss' student paper (before SMQ worked there) commending the fans for making more noise than he had ever heard at home, and for being generally insane, just because. There was no other precedent for this during SMQ's tenure in Hattiesburg, other than when the president of the alumni association extolled the student section for its "assistance" in an unlikely over time comeback win over Houston in 2004, the game in which those same students earned the "Worst Fans in America" tag from deeply offended Houston Chronicle reporter Michael Murphy (when you're too vulgar and unruly for a sports reporter - you are an awesome student section!)
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5:39 PM

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And don't let the name fool ya - second guessing the phenomenal athletic feats and split-second decisions of college kids under extreme physical duress is for every day of the week.

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