A Coach at Heart details a few of the all-time favorite sports events for fans of the two college football programs that serve as the setting for my novel. Stanford’s brazen upset of Ohio State in the Rose Bowl and San Diego State’s anger-fueled rout of Florida State are forever burned into the memories of those who witnessed those games.
Interestingly enough, neither are on my list of favorite sports events that I’ve witnessed. I attended the 1971 Rose Bowl but was too young to remember much about the game — though I remember some side aspects like the venue’s horrifying bathrooms. Hey, I was a kid! And the SDSU-Florida State game took place two years before I arrived on campus.
So, in reverse order, here are my all-time favorites that I attended — and remembered:
10. A Visceral Pounding – I attended Palisades High School in Los Angeles, and our “archrival” was University High in West L.A., which had a poorly funded athletic program and facilities that were awful even by the standards of the day. Our Dolphins played a Friday day game there, and since they didn’t have a grandstand for visiting fans, we stood along the sideline, constrained only by a thin rope. We beat the heck out of them, something like 50-7, but what made an impression on me was the loud and violent collisions that you could almost feel. You don’t get that sense from the stands even in a close-up prep venue. I experienced it numerous times in my adult life on high school and college sidelines, but that was the first time and it really made an impression.
9. Impressing My Date – On June 30, 1979, I took my girlfriend at the time to see the Dodgers play the Atlanta Braves. Being the sports kind of guy that I am, I performed my manly man duty of explaining the finer points of the game through a contest that was rather ho-hum until the bottom of the ninth, when LA scored twice to force extras. In the 10th inning, I proceeded to tell the young lady exactly what was going to happen in a frame that involved a double, three singles, a wild pitch, a base-runner caught in a rundown and an intentional walk. Everything I predicted actually happened! Needless to say, even with my knowledge of the game, I was luckier than you-know-what. I’m talking baseball here! (arms crossed) It was just one of those weird moments that I’ve never been able to replicate.
8. The Bush Bash – If you’ve followed football at all over the past decade or so, you’ve certainly heard of Reggie Bush, the longtime NFL running back who temporarily won the Heisman Trophy at USC. You probably have never heard of Jason Bash. However, the two hooked up in a high school playoff game for the ages in December 2001. Bush, playing for Helix High in the San Diego suburb of La Mesa, would dash 80 yards for a touchdown. Bash and his teammates from Ramona High in the foothills northeast of San Diego, would work the ball down the field and tie the game up. Then Bush would score from long distance, and Bash and the Bulldogs would drive right back down the field. Helix won the game something like 37-31 on its way to a San Diego Section championship. I can’t find any recounts of the game that survived the last 13-plus years on the Internet, but both backs ran for 300 yards or so. It was an electrifying display for both players. You know what became of Bush. Bash went to Dartmouth, where his Ivy League career was derailed by injuries. But he got his degree and is now in sales for a company called San Diego Lighting.
7. The Long Run – I don’t think it was planned, but when I went with my brother, sister and brother-in-law to the 1984 Olympics track and field competition at the LA Coliseum, we sat right in front of the pole vault area. My brother-in-law happened to coach pole vaulting at the time at a high school in San Francisco, and luck was with us that day. Who won the competition? No idea. The evening’s highlight came from a guy who was running in one of the distance races — might have been one of the few representatives of his country. Again, his story seems to have been lost to time. Let’s just say that he was so far behind and obviously struggling to cover the distance that the 90,000 or so fans fell behind him in spirit, cheering him to the finish well after the rest of the pack had crossed the line. It was one of those rare moments in sports where just competing really was enough.
6. March Madness – Summarize it like this: the clock ticking to zero, down by one point, the ball launched from the opposite free throw line, sailing high in the air, and coming straight at you because you’re standing at the baseline just behind the basket — and you’re thinking this…has…a…chance. And the ball goes in, springing a monstrous upset by The Bishop’s School of La Jolla over powerful Horizon. It was the semifinals of the 2001 San Diego Section boy’s basketball Division IV playoffs, and the Knights had to battle on every possession just to keep up with Horizon, which was in the process of stringing together multiple section titles. This year, though, the last-second prayer led to a championship victory for Bishop’s a couple days later. If the semifinals night stopped there, it would have been magical. But in the second game, Lincoln High held off an upset bid by Christian High thanks to a three-pointer by future Pepperdine and New Mexico State G Shaun Davis at, yes, the buzzer. I haven’t covered high school sports in nearly 11 years now, but in the time I did I rarely left a contest without a smile on my face.
5. The Saves – Because my first Major League Baseball game was at the Oakland Coliseum, I followed the A’s up until the time that owner Charles O. Finley sold off all of his star players in the mid-1970s. The A’s hooked up with the Dodgers in the 1974 World Series, and the opener was the first and only WS game I’ve ever attended. The series wouldn’t go down as a classic, with the A’s winning in five games, and the opener was a 3-2 Oakland win at Dodger stadium. The game was noteworthy for two saves. Hall of Fame P Catfish Hunter came in to get the last out for the second and last save of his career. He would start and win Game 3. The other save was far more important. In the section next to where I was sitting, a guy in the first row probably had a few too many suds on a clear and warm afternoon, and in the blink of an eye went over the railing, ready to plunge on unsuspecting fans below. His buddy grabbed him, however, and pulled him back up, not only saving his friend’s life, but maybe the that of someone on the lower level, too.
4. San Diego State’s Breakthrough – An underlying storyline near the end of A Coach at Heart is the frustration SDSU coaches had at being shut out of bowl games despite posting fine seasons year-after-year. There were only about a dozen post-season games at the time, after all. So San Diego created the Holiday Bowl for its hometown team, only for BYU to go on a roll with QBs like Jim McMahon and Steve Young, and ended up in the game every year. It took until 1986 for the Aztecs to bust through and play a late-December game in Mission Valley. They did it by winning their home- and season-finale 10-3 over a Cougars squad that had a strong defense and injury-riddled offense. The low score makes the game seem boring, but it wasn’t. The SDSU defensive line went on a sack-fest, dropping BYU passers at will. The Cougars tried two QBs and they combined for 8-of-25 passing, with four interceptions and eight sacks. After the game, Holiday Bowl officials extended their bowl invitation on the field, to rousing cheers from Aztecs fans. It had been a long time coming.
3. Circling the Bases in Game 1 – Just about everyone will list their first Major League Baseball game among their favorite sports events. Mine was June 2, 1968, when the A’s took on the then-California Angels, as noted in an item above. I was agnostic about the teams then, but was aware that the A’s represented home — more or less — so I rooted for them and became a fan. What stood out were the home runs. In the top of the fourth inning, Angels 1B Don Mincher rifled a deep home run to right field off A’s starter Jim Nash to tie the contest at 1 apiece. In the bottom of the inning, 3B Sal Bando and LF Floyd Robinson led off with doubles and C Jim Pagliaroni singled. After a double play, up came a young CF named Reggie Jackson. Destined for a Hall of Fame career, the then-22-year-old slashed a pitch from Angels starter Jim McGlothlin into the left-center power alley. The ball bounced on one hop high off the wall and ricocheted back high over the heads of Angels CF Chuck Hinton and LF Rick Reichardt. By the time they chased the ball down, they had no chance, and the future “Mr. October” circled the bases. First game, inside-the-park home run. Guess who was my favorite player for many years? Oh, the A’s won 5-2.
2. Stanford’s Repeat – While I don’t recall much of the actual game from the 1971 Rose Bowl, when Stanford upended Ohio State 27-17, I remember much more of the game the next year, when the then-Indians defeated Michigan 13-12. PK Rod Garcia’s game-winning field goal splitting the uprights as the clock ran out is an enduring memory. That made it two straight wins in Pasadena over undefeated Big Ten champions. No upsets, those. Stanford was the better team each time, displaying a dynamic offense that could do what was necessary to win late in games. For a kid, storming the field after a game with your dad and brother on New Year’s Day is something special.
1. Launching the Madhouse on the Mesa – A favorite moment doesn’t necessarily require a national championship or Super Bowl win, and the stakes for this top item weren’t the biggest in the world. But for San Diego State basketball fans, a victory against St. Mary’s on March 25, 2009, at Viejas Arena would signal that their program had arrived on a national stage. It was the NIT quarterfinals — yes, NIT — and the victor would travel to Madison Square Garden in New York. While SDSU head coach Steve Fisher had led the Aztecs to a couple of NCAA Tournament appearances and Mountain West championships, and The Show had made Viejas a daunting venue for opponents, a visit to the Big Apple was needed to show they, too, were big-time. It started with the Aztecs scoring the first 13 points, on their way to opening an 18-3 lead over a Gaels squad led by Paddy Mills, now of the San Antonio Spurs. The fans went nuts. SMC, which had defeated SDSU twice in recent years, clawed back to tie the game at 64 with about two minutes remaining. SDSU got steals by current coach Tim Shelton and Lorrenzo Wade to take a 69-66 lead. In the closing seconds, Mills dribbled the ball out of bounds off his ankle while being harassed by a defender, and the Aztecs iced the game with a free throw to win 70-66. It was bright lights, big city for a program that had been nothing just a few years earlier. And the rest, as they say, is history. As is my hearing, part of which I think I lost to the ear-splitting noise in the arena that night. The kicker? Minutes after fans stormed the court to celebrate, my wife and I joined them, making it the first time I’d “charged” onto a playing surface in 37 years!
So that’s my list and there are certainly others that come to mind. Marshall Faulk’s then-NCAA rushing record of 386 yards and seven touchdowns in a game; an epic comeback by the Angels against the Red Sox after most of the fans in the Big A had left, and my friend and I laughed while watching them swiveling their heads in the parking lot when they heard the cheering; the infamous 1999 baseball game in which P Kevin Brown was booed unmercifully because he’d left the Padres as a free agent and joined the rival Dodgers, and the clearly rattled Brown ended up doing poorly that night; and attending the 1977 Super Bowl in which RB Clarence Davis led the Oakland Raiders to a rout of the Minnesota Vikings, and fans participated in the world’s largest card stunt.