How I learned to stop worrying and expect disaster: a love story

Most of us can quickly recall the first time we were killed by the Aztecs.

Not a literal past life memory of death dealt by sacrificial warriors of the pre-colonial Aztec Empire. I refer to spiritual death at the hands of old alma mater, the student-athlete Aztecs of San Diego State. The moment one of those teams cracked open your chest, extracted your heart and fed it to a stone idol. You remember.

Mine came on a November day in 1991.

Back in the olden times, football student tickets filled the field level sections behind the home bench, with fraternities, sororities and other campus groups taking up blocks of seats. This made for some interesting intramural jostling and posturing. Pregame tailgates were a scene in their own right and missing the entire first quarter was not uncommon (tradition!). imageYou made your way past the indifferent gate security, down the Murph’s long concrete stairs and into a subterranean din of undergrads tuned up on cheap stadium beer in waxy paper cups.

The moment being an Aztec sank its hooks in me was my second year in school, last game of the season against 3rd-ranked Miami. The marquee opponent and midday kickoff for TV put the feel of big-time college football in the air. I can still visualize Dan McGwire throwing scores with Russell Maryland hanging off him, a tight end dropping a sure touchdown and a kicker whose name became a death-word missing three field goals in the fourth quarter. Oh, and a bench clearing brawl. We were in delirium. Despite the close loss in a game we should have won, that day remains one of my favorite sports memories of any kind. It was gutting and exhilarating.

via YouTube.com
via YouTube.com

After spring semester I stayed in San Diego over the summer for the first time, working, slacking, hitting the beach. I knew a couple guys on the team through mutual friends, and when August rolled around and camp started I asked a linebacker how the squad looked. He raved about some kid from Louisiana, a true freshman running back who was blowing by the starting defense.

What happened next is well-documented Aztecs legend. Pacific stopped playing football four years later, so deep was the psychic damage. Fast-forward to November 16, 1991 against BYU, for the WAC title and a trip to the Holiday Bowl.

imageWhile pregaming in the lot I ran into someone I’d recently met, a Delta Gamma who was there as an SDSU Ambassador nicely dressed in a black skirt, red button-down and black sweater. Ambassadors, I learned, are the apple-polishers that do student orientation and campus tours for families. She suggested I blow off my ragtag bros and join her at the VIP tailgate for boosters and the like. I readily accepted. Once there I made sure to capitalize by throwing back a good number of free draft beers, as I would soon be paying for my own inside. My outlook for this huge game was rapidly improving.

imageAs kickoff neared I thanked my new friend and said we should head in. She asked where I was sitting and I showed her my student ticket. The Ambassador laughed and said she understood if I wanted to hang out with my friends but that I could watch the game with her upstairs if I liked, pulling an orange tag from her pocket and handing it to me. Press?

Now, to my jaded old ass that’s been around the block a few times, this seems silly to describe. But to my barely 21-year-old ass, this was amazing. We went inside, up an elevator and into a part of the stadium I’d never seen. She led us to the press area and into a bare-bones ‘suite’ occupied by just two guys in their 30s. For anyone familiar with the now-Qualcomm Stadium press level, this was at the far left of the press area catty-corner to the field. Really good seats, and in a final mind-blowing bonus to my young self, The Ambassador showed me where to get refreshments: a service bar with foil-wrapped hot dogs, popcorn and a self-service beer tap. MORE FREE BEER?! My new friend was my new best friend!

The game details get a bit fuzzy at this point, but I vividly remember that we were STOMPING BYU’S ASS. The place was packed and practically levitating as the Aztecs blasted their way to a 35-17 halftime lead. Bombs to Darnay Scott. Marshall racking up TDs. And here I am in a press suite, chugging free-flowing brews and high-fiving the two 30ish dudes as a bemused cutie watched me lose my mind.

You may be overly familiar with the rest. After building up a 45-17 lead after halftime – a 28 point lead – the Aztec Collapse began. We just could not stop Ty Detmer. He became John Elway, running circles in the backfield and hitting wide-open receiver after wide-open receiver. Our defense looked beaten and helpless on the final BYU drive that tied the game. 52-52: still the highest-scoring tie in D1 history. Like the legendary ‘Harvard beats Yale 29-29’ game, the tie was an absolutely crushing loss. QB David Lowery famously cried his eyes out, and despite having Faulk the future Hall of Famer for the next two years, we never won the WAC and still have never made it back to the Holiday Bowl right here on our home turf.

We were disconsolate after the game. I met up with my people, muttering darkly and literally shaking our heads to clear the insanity of what we’d just seen. A friend peeled out of the parking lot in frustration and we later heard he’d gotten a DUI for the effort. It was a great day, and a horrible day.

imageMany years later, long after those halcyon undergrad exploits had faded into memory, I came across a weird SDSU-centered blog called Aztecs Killing Him. Funny and with the just the right amount of self-deprecating pathos, it filled a void between the tediously dry and boringly dumb of Aztecs sports coverage. At some point, with Steve Fisher’s basketball program ascendant, I cold-emailed the author and asked if I could offer a little sports writing to the site. My timing was good and I contributed occasionally-readable content until the mysterious AKH finally burned out and pulled the plug. But we kept in touch, an Aztec flame flickering in the background, and a few future-shock internet years later here we are.

In my post-collegiate adult years I’ve been fortunate to get a close-up view of my favorite sports. I’ve been to Super Bowls, World Series and All-Star Games. I get paid to watch football. And I’m proud and grateful to partner with spiritual blogfather AKH along with contributors Jodes and David in this project. It’s a modern golden age of Aztecs sports and we are here for it, sports fans. Buy the ticket, take the ride, and remember to enjoy the enjoyment.

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Author: lemonverbena

Californian/Washingtonian, co-editor of Kabeer Thirty.

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