Opinion: New Mexico St. Shows That Every Bowl Matters

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The Daily News of Los Angeles


"There is life beyond the Hudson" is an old reminder to New Yorkers the sun does not rise and set only on their city.

The same can be said about bowl games at the top of the pyramid, to which only a handful of teams are welcome. The rest of the 40 bowl games? There is a tendency to belittle them with a shrug and a Who Cares?

A lot more people care than you realize.

This was evident during a pilgrimage to Tucson, Ariz., for the Arizona Bowl. The game between New Mexico State and Utah State, a pair of 6-6 teams, can serve as representative of so many bowl games that are a big deal for their schools, fans and players who love the chance to play one more game.

The passion of NMSU fans was evident during a research project the night before the game, when they were found overflowing a local watering spot, drowning out loud music with repeated "Aggies-Aggies" cheers.

The game provided an opportunity to avoid the ivory tower atmosphere of the press box by becoming an imbedded reporter in the stands surrounded by intense, tense, loyal, excited fans, young and old. Our seats - wife Nancy, a proud West Virginia graduate, was a willing accomplice - were with friends smack in the middle of the crimson-clad NMSU half of the stadium.

There were NMSU fans who were in El Paso, Texas, in 1960, some as children, when their team defeated, of all schools, Utah State in the Sun Bowl. The Arizona Bowl people could not have asked for a better storyline.

NMSU was led in 1960 by arguably the best college backfield in the country, wingback-tailback Pervis Atkins, tailback Bob Gaiters and quarterback Charley Johnson. Each was headed to the NFL.

The foundation of that formidable Utah State team was Hall of Fame tackle Merlin Olsen, about to become, with Deacon Jones, the foundation of the Rams' legendary Fearsome Foursome defensive line.

The NMSU coach was Warren Woodson, himself a legend in the Southwest. He was a prickly fellow, a trait that got him fired at Arizona and NMSU. What followed at NMSU came to be called the Curse of Warren Woodson, 49 years, from 1968 to 2016, in which the Aggies had 45 non-winning seasons.

The invitation to Tucson put NMSU in a bowl game for the first time in 57 years, prompting the scene-setting "College football's biggest feel-good story plays out here" headline in the Arizona Daily Star.

A bonus for the reporter would be an opportunity to interview Lui Fa'amasino, an NMSU linebacker from Harbor College. A shoulder injury late in the season knocked him out of the starting lineup.

Sorry, no interview. No quotes here from Fa'amasino. Two requests for a credential to gain access to players were ignored. So it is possible to be credentialed for the World Series but not the exclusive Arizona Bowl. Such is life.

The game was wild. With back-to-back kickoff touchdown returns. With NMSU coming from behind to tie the game in the fourth quarter when the replay official ruled touchdown on a catch originally called out of bounds. With a darting-find-daylight 21-yard touchdown run by Larry Rose III in overtime to give NMSU a 26-20 Hallmark ending.

An added element of emotion came with the death of Atkins, a resident of Baldwin Hills, just north of Inglewood. His old NMSU friend Charlie Rogers flew to Burbank, spoke at the service Thursday in North Hollywood, flew to Phoenix and then drove to Tucson for the game.

Yet another element is the book "Magic in the Desert" about NMSU football, with the focus on the 1960 season. I was the ghostwriter of the book originally conceived by Dan Perry, who, after preliminary research, was unable to complete his dream project due to cancer.

Rogers, a cheerleader during the writing, is voluntary sales manager for the book, the proceeds of which go to a NMSU journalism scholarship in Perry's name.

Reporting that the long-suffering Aggies fans spent the game cheering would be another understatement. They supported their team from start to finish, becoming especially vocal with repeated "I believe we will win" chants when behind.

"Stay off the field," the PA announcer scolded when NMSU fans stormed the field to celebrate following Rose's TD run.

"After 57 years, we're not staying off the field," protested Rogers, who stayed off the field.

"It might have been the most joyous moment in the old stadium since it was built in 1929," Greg Hansen, the dean of Arizona sports columnists, wrote in the Daily Star.

Outside the stadium, there were more "Aggies-Aggies" and "We did it! We did it!" chants. Fans hugged one another while car horns were blasted.

All this tells you how much New Mexico State and so many other schools care about their bowl experiences.

"There is life beyond the Hudson" is an old reminder to New Yorkers the sun does not rise and set only on their city. The same can be said about bowl games at the top of the pyramid, to which only a handful of teams are welcome. The rest of the 40 bowl games?
January 3, 2018


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