For connoisseurs of tackle football, the final two weeks of the old year and the first month of the new always provide a festival of violent collision unrivaled by the morning rush hour on I-25 or the running of the bulls in Pamplona. From the moment North Texas beat Cincinnati in the New Orleans Bowl on December 17, true believers in the game -- true believers -- planted their butts firmly on the couch, and, sustained by nothing more than holiday leftovers, Miller Genuine Draft and the conviction that to miss a single play of the crucial postseason matchup between Northeastern Alaska A&M and upstart Rutabaga College would be heresy, fixed their eyes on the ol' teevee with the intensity of monks at prayer.
Little matter that nephew Eddie choked on a piece of fruitcake the day after Christmas. Or that Louise called her lawyer to seriously talk divorce. When something as important as the Continental Tire Bowl is about to get underway in Charlotte, you clear the decks of all distraction and get down to business. Which is to say you toss your copy of War and Peace behind the recliner, put your feet up and spike the volume button until the room sounds like a bazooka shell hitting an ammo dump. At halftime, you can always pad off to the kitchen in your dirty socks for a ham sandwich and an oversized lump of cold sweet potatoes. For now, all the nourishment you need is Virginia (8-5) versus West Virgina (9-3).
"Hey, Louise! Stop banging those suitcases against the doorjamb, will ya?"
Amid the fog of war -- intercollegiate and professional -- that cloaks this special time of year, even the most observant local football lunatics may not have noticed that Colorado teams went zero-for on Christmas and New Year's -- due, in large part, to a sudden, statewide outbreak of Quarterback Impairment Syndrome (QIS).
This lethal malady first struck the Denver Broncos in mid-season, when coach Mike Shanahan's quarterback of choice, young Brian Griese, almost single-handedly turned a sparkling 6-2 start into a late-season disaster. Griese's preference for pass receivers wearing opponents' jerseys -- the first and most dangerous symptom of QIS -- emerged in crucial losses to Indianapolis and the New York Jets, but it was his unmitigated flop against the Oakland Raiders on December 22 that probably earned Griese his impending pink slip. As any fellow nodding on the couch can tell you, Good Players rise up in Big Games, and this was not Griese the Good but Griese the Egregious. When soon-to-be-free-agent QB Jake "the Snake" Plummer slithered into town the following Sunday with the lowly Arizona Cardinals, his game against Denver looked suspiciously like a Mile High audition. With ancient backup Steve Beuerlein at the controls, Denver breezed to a hollow 37-7 win while Shanahan's stubborn belief in his former starter fell deep into shadow. Brian will definitely have to go. After four years of post-Elway, post-Super Bowl futility, Shanahan may not be far behind.
In the meantime, football conspiracy theorists (count Louise's soon-to-be ex-husband among them) had plenty to think about before Denver even took the field on December 29 against the Cards. Moments earlier, Dan Reeves's Atlanta Falcons found themselves with a first down and a minute to play on the Browns' four yard line in Cleveland -- a clear shot to erase a 24-16 deficit with a TD and a two-point conversion. Startling one and all, the Falcons' ultra-tough running QB Michael Vick failed to carry the ball even once, and playoff-bound Atlanta lost the game on a goal-line stand.
According to the NFL's elaborate arithmetic, that quashed the Broncos' obscure playoff chances.
Reeves is, of course, the former Denver coach who allegedly reviles Shanahan -- and a guy who once lost to Shanny in the Super Bowl. Would he throw a game in Cleveland just to spite his old enemy? Not likely. But isn't it intriguing to think so?
Not long after Griese imploded, his local counterparts in the college ranks followed suit. While TV watchers scarfed ham salad and sweet-potato pancakes, University of Colorado quarterback Robert Hodge threw three costly first-half interceptions to University of Wisconsin defenders in the December 28 Alamo Bowl, and substitute Zac Colvin didn't fare much better: The favored Buffaloes went down in overtime, 31-28, and now face uncertainty in the off-season. With CU assistant Karl Dorrell moving up to the head coaching job at UCLA, Gary Barnett may lose as many as three more assistants to Dorrell's staff.
A new case of QIS struck Bradlee Van Pelt three days later at the Liberty Bowl in Memphis (halftime menu: ham-hock soup and sweet-potato pie), where his favored Colorado State Rams scored just three points against the Horned Frogs of Texas Christian, who managed seventeen. Later in the day (which is the say, during the ham-and-eggs and sweet-potato-milkshake hour) Air Force quarterback Chance Harridge, all 175 pounds of him, and his fellow Zoomies put up a fierce underdog battle against tough Virginia Tech in the Diamond Walnut San Francisco Bowl, but lost 20-13.
So much for local color. Elsewhere, there was no dearth of pomp and pageantry. To the delight of most Coloradans, the Nebraska Cornhuskers finished off an unusually dim 7-7 year with a loss to underdog Mississippi in the Independence Bowl, and Washington (home to generally despised ex-CU coach Rick Neuheisel) blew a seventeen-point lead to eventual winner Purdue in the Sun Bowl. Football fans with virtually nothing on their plates (except ham) flipped on the boob tube at 10 a.m. MST on December 31 to watch Boise State and Iowa State contest the ill-named Humanitarian Bowl -- direct from the tropical splendor of Boise, Idaho. The game was played on a blue-painted artificial field in a steady downpour of freezing rain, before a crowd of, well, hundreds. One of the TV announcers was suffering so badly from laryngitis that he probably needed a week of recuperation in, say, Grand Forks. Boise State (aka the Broncos) won. Wearing orange and blue, of course.
Minnesota, Wake Forest, Fresno State and Michigan all pulled off bowl upsets -- but you already knew that -- while Texas, Oklahoma and Georgia administered thrashings to their respective opponents, Louisiana State, Washington State and Florida State. Some of this we might never have known -- at least not first-hand -- had a fiscal dispute between Denver's Channel 7 and the AT&T cable-TV people gone unresolved. The ABC affiliate had threatened to yank its programming off cable on January 1. Alas, the beef was settled at the eleventh hour, and -- for better or for worse -- five big-deal bowl games were saved from local banishment.
In his way, so was O.J. Simpson. To the evident discomfort of university officials, the former Southern Cal running back and accused wife-murderer popped in, uninvited, at one of his alma mater's Miami practices for the Orange Bowl, grinning and hugging and -- if we don't miss our guess -- telling the current Trojan players to get out there and kill Iowa. In Pasadena on New Year's morning, a brief glimpse of the annual Rose Parade revealed a float the size of Rhode Island that looked like a rotating mechanical village atop a birthday cake atop Anna Nicole Smith's breasts. It had been awarded a trophy for "exceptional merit in multiple classifications."
There's more. Preliminary to the Biggest Bowl Game of Them All -- last Friday's Fiesta Bowl, Ohio State's freshman running back, Maurice Clarett, loudly complained that the university had failed to provide him an airplane ticket to attend a friend's funeral. But Clarett was on hand for the Buckeyes' unlikely, referee-aided upset of number-one Miami. And just in case you were snoozing in the recliner during the aforementioned Continental Tire Bowl -- you may want to know that West Virginia Governor Bob Wise demanded a post-game apology from University of Virginia President John T. Casteen. Never mind the score: Virgina: 48, West Virginia: 22. During the halftime show, a Virginia student pep band took dead aim at West Virginia's rep as a socially challenged backwater with a skit based on TV's The Bachelor: In the parody, the "contestant" from West Virginia was gotten up as a hillbilly complete with pigtails, bib overalls and a gift for square-dancing.
Thus does the glorious pageant of the gridiron continue apace, even as we half-blind indolents lounge in our living rooms.