On Friday, Dec. 6, I sat with a friend in a saloon in Atlanta, eating the most massive chicken tenders I've yet encountered, in the company of hordes of Mizzou fans, watching about 30 people in Santa Claus suits and one Mrs. Claus streaming inside. We were just off of Peachtree Street, where Margaret Mitchell wrote Gone With the Wind and was later killed crossing the street. When 2013 was ushered in from the delivery room in swaddling clothes, I would not have imagined I would be in Atlanta in the company of so many Santa Clauses on Friday, Dec. 6. But then, the 2013 college football season happened.
For me, the first harbinger of the college football season comes in early June, in the form of a thick magazine comically jammed with names and text and statistics, the Phil Steele College Football Preview. I'm still swinging into summer mode then, but it's a reminder of what lies ahead, a first peek at what this year's grand portrait might look like before a brush has been lifted. On a functional level, it's great for familiarizing yourself with what teams have, for casually perusing on those summer nights when it's hot and still and humid outside.
On a deeper level, it's the first big look forward at something I'll look back upon for years and years.
Still, after Phil Steele arrived on magazine racks, there was summer and its Royals games, float trips and "Blurred Lines." I went on trips to London with my sister, Colorado with my family and Mt. Rushmore with my friends. Eventually, summer wound down, the August perennial crop of new students arrived in Columbia, and college football was back.
The season returns on a Thursday night, and ESPN had a doubleheader of games involving SEC teams. The second, Ole Miss at Vanderbilt, was scintillating, a back-and-forth rollicking good time. It was quite a first impression, like when a date opens the door and you're left trying to think of a non-lecherous way to tell her how pretty she looks.
My parents and sister came into town to go to the first game of the year with me, against Murray State. My grandma won tickets for them from a by calling into a local newspaper. It was incredibly hot, 100 degrees shortly before kickoff, but football season was back and I was with my family and friends, so life was good. Henry Josey, coming back from a devastating knee injury, ran on his rebuilt knee over the spot where he got hurt and toward the rebuilt rock M hill beyond the north end zone. Memorial Stadium roared with joy and pride as he scored, and the Tigers won big. We were underway.
The heat was a theme early in the season, and the second game, an afternoon affair with Toledo, was ridiculous. We tailgated on dutifully. At one September tailgate, I got a call that one of my best friends, Caleb Barron, was moving back to Missouri from Arizona. That was a good day.
At the Arkansas State home game, I discovered I could watch the SEC game of the week on CBS on my phone. This was a revolution in pre-game time-spending.
Missouri roared through September and nonconference play unbeaten, but the sound and the fury of the SEC schedule would tell the story of the season.
Watching on TV, my friends and I saw Missouri overwhelm Vanderbilt. That was the first, "Hey, we might have something here" moment. Then came the following sunny Saturday, when Missouri played at Georgia.
Georgia had suffered several huge injuries against Tennessee (thanks, Volunteers, Part I) and suddenly this game, previously written off as a likely loss, was in play. Missouri roared to an early lead. It was hard to process what was happening.
But in the second half, Georgia came charging back Between the Hedges and big old Sanford Stadium was rocking while the band kept playing "Glory, Glory to Old Georgia." Then, Missouri quarterback James Franklin got knocked out of the game. There it was, our Missouri luck showing itself again. And yet, somehow, the train didn't come off the rails. Maty Mauk got a huge third down conversion. Then the Legend of Bud Sasser struck. Sasser won a soft spot in my heart by catching an awkward-looking Corbin Berkstresser throw and then needing to fend off Vanderbilt defenders he couldn't outrun with a backwards stiff arm en route to a touchdown in 2012. Against Georgia, he hurled a touchdown pass on a trick play that helped Missouri hang on for the huge win.
It was a resounding win. Afterward, Mizzou offensive lineman Max Copeland said he'd been thinking about Gen. William T. Sherman's famous quote, "Make Georgia howl," leading up to the game. Sherman, by the way, is buried in Missouri.
The next game, Mauk's first start, was probably what a painting of Mizzou college football would look like. It was a crisp day, but the afternoon sun in a cloudless, brilliantly blue sky still provided some warmth. Memorial Stadium was packed for a conference game, and the Tigers hammered Florida. The Gators had a good defense, but their offense was hopeless and not helped by play calling that Woody Hayes would've found overly conservative. Late in the game, fans all over Memorial Stadium broke out into a mock Gator chomp with their arms while "We Will Rock You" screamed from the stadium speakers.
Meanwhile, Vanderbilt beat Georgia and Tennessee beat South Carolina in one of the biggest upsets of the year (thanks, Volunteers, Part II). The action was so intense at Tennessee's Neyland Stadium, where a great fan base was starved for a big win, that one Tennessee mom tied her sleeping son to the bench seating so she could fully scream for her Vols as Tennessee drove for the winning score. That, folks, is college football.
Suddenly Missouri was in the driver's seat in the SEC East, a wholly shocking development after the shame and struggle of 2012.
That set up a huge Homecoming game against No. 20 South Carolina, with plenty of SEC East ramifications. Missouri was No. 5, and fans were a delightful mix of jubilant and nervous. The last time Missouri was in the top five, the Tigers had lost in shocking fashion at home to another ranked opponent, Oklahoma State. MU alum Pat Forde wrote a nice, nostalgic piece about Missouri's unique disasters and setbacks through the years. All schools have heartbreak, Missouri's has just seemed to have a "you've gotta hear this" quality. A fifth down. A kicked ball in the end zone when No. 1 was on the ropes. As mentioned by Forde, a reliable Missouri kicker had a chance to beat Notre Dame in 1984 but missed a 39-yard field goal… short. All schools have painful misses, but rarely does a kicker who has made a 51-yarder in his career miss short from 39.
Still, Mizzou fans soaked up the Homecoming, which the university is great at celebrating, with house decs and pep rallies and the parade. Mizzou Homecoming is a feeling and a time and a place. It's magic because that place is always Columbia at its best and that time is you during your college years.
Adding to the suspense, a St. Louis Cardinals World Series game raged on at the same time, occupying TVs in the stadium concourse.
Missouri took a 17-0 lead into a fateful fourth quarter. Some idiot, who happens to be writing this blog, tweeted "We want Bama!" In the second half, South Carolina put injured starting quarterback Connor Shaw in the game. Shaw is a ridiculous competitor, and his legendary coach, Steve Spurrier, got on a heater calling plays. Suddenly, after a flurry of extremely successful Gamecock screen passes and conservative offense from Missouri, the lead was gone and the game was headed for overtime.
Missouri almost won the game in the first overtime, but yielded a Gamecock touchdown on fourth down from the 15. Said blog-writing, look-ahead-tweeting idiot was recording the moment for prosperity on an iPhone, only to inadvertently catch what a stadium going from thunderous to graveyard silent sounds like.
On and on the drama continued, until Missouri had a short field goal to force a third overtime. Kicker Andrew Bagget thumped it off the left upright, in the "cursed" north end zone where the kicked ball and Fifth Down occurred.
"Oh, no!" the ESPN announced screamed.
At a church group pumpkin carving contest the next day, one team entered a pumpkin titled, "The Curse of the North End Zone," depicting a field goal try clanking off the upright. Scary stuff.
Still, the Tigers controlled their fate in the SEC East race heading into November, college football's month of destiny.
Missouri bounced back with businesslike wins against overmatched Tennessee on Nov. 2 and Kentucky on Nov. 9, ensuring the Tigers would stay in the division race until the end.
College football's insanity and intensity were on full display. Nebraska beat Northwestern on a Hail Mary on Nov. 2, and Nov. 9 brought the now-expected great theater of another Alabama-LSU collision. Much crazier things were ahead that month.
Missouri was off on Nov. 16. I went home to deer hunt, got a buck on my farm, and that evening watched Georgia and South Carolina's games unfold. There were a lot of scenarios, but a Georgia win at Auburn would likely mean Missouri just needed to win one of its two remaining games to clinch the division. Georgia made a frantic comeback to grab the lead in the fourth quarter. Then, with Auburn facing a fourth and long in the final minute, as I watched with my family in my parents' living room, Auburn's Nick Marshall heaved a pass into the night air. As you know, two Georgia defenders collided and tipped the ball into the air, and an Auburn receiver caught it and streaked into the end zone as the stadium exploded with jubilation.
South Carolina beat Florida later that night, meaning Mizzou had to win out. First at Ole Miss, then at home against Texas A&M. For the Ole Miss game, five friends and I loaded into a rented minivan and headed down south for a taste of Dixie.
Rolling into Oxford on Friday evening was liking stepping back in time, into a movie set for a southern college football town. Big old houses lined the street as a slow, solemn rendition of "Dixie" involuntarily played in my head. The Square around the courthouse was lit up with softly glowing Christmas lights and people streamed along the sidewalks, in and out of bars, restaurants and stores. It could have been 1969 and the Rebel fans were wondering what magic Archie Manning would perform the next day.
We had a long wait for a table at Ajax Diner, but that gave us time to look around. The restaurant had toothpicks stuck in the ceiling. Two of my friends, Seth Maberry and Caleb Barron, stood and started singing the Mizzou fight song. The rest of our table and the other Mizzou fans in the restaurant joined in, and Mabes drove home the exclamation point by inadvertently punching a hanging light on the "Hurrah, Hurray, Mizzou, Mizzou!" part. Rebel fans answered with their famous chant:
"Are you ready?
Hell, yeah! Damn right!
Hotty Toddy gosh almighty who the hell are we?
Flim flam, bim bam, Ole Miss, by damn!"
Gameday brought another meal on the Square, maybe the best chicken parmesan I've ever had, at the Old Venice Pizza Co. Because I've got some child in me and there were crayons on the table, I tried sketching some college football logos on the paper-covered tables. They weren't great, but after we left the table I felt slighted when I saw the staff rolling out a new sheet of paper over my artwork before the next group sat down.
After lunch we headed over to the Grove, the school's legendary tailgating scene. Ole Miss fans have a saying that goes something like, "We may not win every game, but we never lose a party." The Grove lived up to its billing, and the Ole Miss girls lived up to their reputation. I ran into one of my old high school classmates, in the Grove in Oxford, Mississippi, of all places. I wandered around with a friend's family is we got an unofficial tour, snapping photos and drinking it all in, the sights, the sounds and the Welcome to the SECs. We ended up hanging out at a tailgate put on by a guy who happened to be the grandson of Fred Bramlage, for whom Kansas State's Bramlage Coliseum. Heavy stuff for a college sports nerd like myself.
That was one small reminder of what Missouri left behind in the Big 12. Breaking those 100 year bonds was some kind of upheaval for a tradition and history loving guy like myself. There are still days when I miss the Big 12 terribly. But as I told my friend Nathan Armer that day, while eating Colonel Reb cookies and watching LSU-Texas A&M on a nearby TV, this was not one of those days.
One of the cool things about road games is you get to see how other schools organize their gamedays, and Ole Miss' pregame festivities did not disappoint. The students pumped red pom-poms (the SEC does love its pom-poms), Archie Manning walked around on the field, and on the big video screen actor James Franco asked, "Ole Miss fans, are you ready?" prompting a vigorous Hotty Toddy chant. The glittering Rebelettes were hot, and I was enthralled. They linked arms and swayed to the music, awaiting the Rebels' entry. Up shot a giant Ole Miss flag, and out ran the Rebels. Football time in Mississippi.
The game was close for a while, but Mizzou played a mature, impressive game, notching the win. There were some wild moments, including a blocked kick seconds after Armer started a thunderous "block that kick" chant, and a fake punt when Harold Brantley rumbled 26 yards down the field.
But the game ended without flash, just brilliant execution, as Missouri relied solely on running plays to kill the last eight minutes of the game and lock up the win.
The drama shifted back to Columbia, where Mizzou played Johnny Football and Texas A&M, one win away from the SEC East title. Faurot was chilly and packed under the lights, a giant thunderous vessel hurdling toward history or devastation, but into the memory either way.
I'd been trying to watch the end of the Iron Bowl before the game, by it's tough to get good phone service when Faurot fills up. I saw Nick Saban pass on a short field goal that maybe would've iced the game to go for a 4th-and-one, which Alabama didn't get. Eventually, my stream of the game was interrupted. But at 6:28 p.m. a series of text messages came through from my friend Chris Coffman.
"Auburn just returned a field goal for a td and the win!"
"Auburn fans rushed the field."
That was how I found out about one of the most memorable plays in college football history. I started telling everyone in our area about Auburn's miracle return and win. After a season that made "We want Bama" famous, Mizzou would play Auburn for the SEC title if the Tigers won the East.
That proposition remained in doubt. The game was tight. I got to go onto the field for a group Food Bank check presentation in the first half, snapping a quick selfie with Mike Alden in the end zone as I left the field. I had just intended to take a pic with him in the background, but he sidled up and smiled for the camera(phone). Nice gesture.
Johnny Football is an adversary you can admire, a swashbuckling playmaker and competitor. But Mizzou corner E.J. Gaines was shutting down Johnny's best receiver, Mike Evans. The game was tied 21-21 in the fourth quarter. Every breath of chilly air I took, every move I made, it felt cautious, like I was trying to avoid spilling some unseen glass. Triumph and disaster were jousting on a high wire.
Finally, mercifully, with less than four minutes to play, Josey burst through a hole in the Aggie line and suddenly found himself running in the open, all the way into the end zone, into history, into the memory of Tiger fans. 28-21 Missouri.
The Tigers closed it out, and Missouri was the SEC East champion. SEC fines notwithstanding, fans poured out onto the field like a mighty wave. I was filming the scene with my phone, soaking it in with my eyes. It felt like some great culmination, like Mizzou had struggled so long just to get to this mountain, and now they had climbed it. Fans lingered, delirious with joy. As we finally filed out, "Georgia on my mind" played on the stadium speakers. Perfect.
Now it was off to Atlanta as Missouri was playing to win its first football conference title since 1969. I'd taken a long drive to the 2007 Big 12 title game and a short drive to the 2008 Big 12 title game, both losses to Oklahoma and the immovable Bob Stoops. But this time, with a snow storm threatening the roads, my friend Nathan Armer and I flew. Within minutes of landing in Atlanta, I saw an Auburn fan in a "Hey, Nick, got a second?" shirt.
Friday night was anticipation and that trip to the Buckhead Saloon. And the MAC title game.
On Saturday, we rode on the hotel shuttle to the airport, where we'd get on MARTA for the ride to the Georgia Dome. We rode with some Auburn fans, who said Auburn coach Gus Mahlzan's parents had stayed in the same hotel we did. One of the Auburn fans said she'd bought her ticket through Mizzou, the first indicator we'd be outnumbered. There were also two Alabama fans on the shuttle, and they blew my mind when they said they were rooting for Auburn. Come on, Iron Bowl. But a lot of the longtime SEC fans probably didn't like some Midwestern school making such a big splash in just its second year in the league. I kind of relished the outsider, pseudo-villain role. Bring it on.
We arrived at the Georgia Dome with plenty of time to kill. The adjacent Georgia World Congress Center had an SEC Fanfare event, entertainment and the Mizzou Alumni tailgate. Walking around this building was the second indicator how outnumbered we'd be. Auburn is much closer to Georgia, so I expected more of their fans, but it was striking to see so much orange and blue. On an escalator, I counted the ratio of fans we passed going the opposite direction. It was something like 20 Auburn fans to 2 Mizzou fans.
But we found plenty of Mizzou fans at the alumni tailgate, where we watched Mizzou basketball beat UCLA on big projector screens, and Mizzou's new bow-tied chancellor made an appearance.
The game itself was electric, breathtaking, two programs that had rotten 2012 seasons and then wonderful 2013 campaigns. The winner would maybe play for the national title, if Michigan State beat Ohio State later that night, which ended up happening.
Any defensive stop was gold. The first quarter took an hour. So did the second. Dorial Green-Beckham made a touchdown catch that prompted a "How do you do" from CBS announcer Verne Lundquist, his somewhat signature phrase. The lead changed hands rapidly, repeatedly. On and on it went.
Mizzou took the lead back in the third quarter, and I started to think just maybe this would happen…
It didn't happen. Auburn's ridiculous running game won the day, gashing Mizzou again and again, seemingly every time Mizzou needed a big stop. 59-42.
In the immediate aftermath, as confetti and streamers rained down on the Georgia Dome turf, I thought, if they didn't win a the conference title this year, when they got some breaks and everything seemed to work out, when will they?
The disappointment lingered, for sure, but this was still a remarkable season. And as big of a fan as I am, it's tough to be too disappointed when you're having the time of your life.
The Monday after the SEC Championship Game, I attended a Food Bank luncheon at the Stoney Creek Inn with coach Gary Pinkel as one of the featured speakers. I wanted to get an autographed football for a person whom I had invited but wasn't able to attend.
Pinkel slipped out right after the luncheon, but I caught up to him in the parking lot near his black SUV. He was gracious and cordial as he signed the ball, and had me spell the fairly basic name he was making it out to. He was wearing one of those rubber wristbands, but I could only read one word on it.
* * *
Mizzou put an exclamation mark on the season with a win in the Cotton Bowl over Oklahoma State, in Jerry Jones' Dallas football palace. It was in so many ways like the famous 2007 season, when Missouri also went 12-2 with one regular season loss, a loss in the conference title game when a win would've meant a berth in the national title game, and a win in the Cotton Bowl and top-five final ranking to cap it off.
I watched the national title game from the same seat when I watched college football's opening night. Florida State ended the SEC's national title streak, and the final touchdown of the season was caught by a player with the last name Benjamin.
All college football seasons are thrilling and memorable, but 2013 was extra special, so here's to it. I really do try to enjoy each day and moment, year round, but I'll also tell you that I'm already excited for college football 2014. There's a lot of wonder and fun in store this spring and summer, but I know this: come Aug. 28, an old friend and I will be reunited, the kind of friend you get to share with your family and friends. That, folks, is what makes it so special.