Tuesday, January 03, 2017

A Familiar Feeling

In my second year of graduate school four of us won a lottery to buy tickets to the 1979 national championship Sugar Bowl game. So it was that a few days before New Year's we convened in State College, loaded up in a beater car and set off in the wee hours on the 18-hour drive to New Orleans.

Long before the sun would come up it was cold. Very cold.

Our car had no heat and the defroster did not work. Forewarned by the friend who owned the car, three of us sat in sleeping bags pulled up to our necks with the driver wrapped in blankets so he could work the pedals. It was the front-seat passenger's job to periodically scrape off the frost building on the inside of the windshield so the driver had a porthole through which to see.

We somehow made it safely to New Orleans in one very, very long day.

Penn State's trip to the Big Easy was smoother. The Nittany Lions came into the SuperDome at 11-0 and as the top-ranked team in the country. Alabama was 10-1 and ranked No. 2, with its only loss to USC.

Trailing, 14-7, midway through the fourth quarter Penn State recovered a fumble deep in the Bama end with a chance to tie or go ahead. On second down a few plays later the Lions had a receiver catch a pass in the shadow of the end zone only to be knocked out of bounds at the 1.

On third down future Chicago Bear Matt Suhey went high over the middle of the line but was stopped an agonizing foot short of the goal line.

Joe Paterno would later explain his thinking on fourth down by saying in situations like that he wanted the ball in the hands of his best runner behind his best blocker. And so Chuck Fusina took the fourth-down snap, handed to Mike Guman and Guman launched himself toward the goal line.

We would read later that in this era before overtime, Penn State's plan after Guman scored was to go for two to win the game and the national championship. We would never know for sure if that's how it would have played out.

As the Yiddish proverb says, "Man plans, God laughs."

At the top of Guman's leap Alabama's Barry Krauss met him head on. The Penn State runner fell back one way. Krauss, who would need attention from the Bama training staff after the play, fell back the other.

Guman never had a chance. The Crimson Tide had held. (Watch the epic goal line stand HERE.)

The Nittany Lions would get the ball back but never again threaten as they saw their 19-game winning streak and the chance at their first national championship ended by Bear Bryant's team, which would be voted national champion.

It was a day or two later when the four of us climbed back into the beater for the long drive home. Before we got too far we stopped to buy a few stamps and mail postcards, and I will never forget what happened next. Approaching the tired, small-town post office in rural Louisiana we saw an old man hobble out the door, look upward and do something of a jig as he screeched, "It's snowing. It's snowing."

And indeed it was. Just a few flakes, but sure enough it was snowing in Louisiana. You could look it up.

Exactly where what happened next has been lost to time but I seem to recall that it was in Tennessee that our beater car, like Penn State, finally reached the end of the road.

After clunking along for a bit we limped into a garage hoping against hope. In hindsight, maybe he saw us as suckers, but the estimate the mechanic gave usfor a repair was pretty steep. After huddling outside to count up our collective dollars, my buddy who owned the car went into the garage one last time to bargain with the mechanic. He returned to us without his keys.

To our astonishment, he had sold the beater on the spot. We would be riding Greyhound the rest of the way back to State College.

It was a few short days after the national championship dream died that we arrived in the bus station in Harrisburg, Pa. Switching busses with one more leg of our trip to go, we walked by a magazine stand and were slapped in the face one final time. There, on the cover of advanced issues of Sports Illustrated even before we got back to campus, was the now iconic photo of Barry Krauss denying Mike Guman.

And breaking our hearts.

There was no national championship at stake at the Rose Bowl but trust me, I know how That Certain Nittany Lion '16 is feeling this morning as he awaits his flight back home after yesterday's 52-49 heartbreaker in Pasadena.