October 26, 2007, Al-Taqaddum Air Base, Iraq
My Army National Guard platoon had the night off from running convoy security missions, so in the wee hours of Friday morning, I settled into my camping chair to watch my now alma mater play college football. It served as an escape from the the constant stress of my occupation. My deployment to Iraq had caused the second break from school in four years, but I still held Virginia Tech close to my heart. I had no doubt I would return for my senior year when this strange dream ended.
If I squinted hard enough, my current living space even looked like a dorm room. The outfitted shipping container had about as much space as one. I shared it with my buddy Karim. Like most dorm rooms it had two beds, a couple of desks, a microwave, assorted food stuffs, a TV, and a PS2 all cramped into tight quarters. If you overlooked the body armor, assault rifles, and duffle bags, you couldn’t tell the difference.
Even though I watched the game from half way around the world, the time difference didn’t affect me. We ran all of our convoy security missions at night. The lack of traffic on the roads made our convoys faster and safer. The 7:30 PM start time in Blacksburg felt like a 3:30 PM start time even if local time ran closer to 3 AM.
In the midst of another crazy college football season, the Hokies had rebounded from an early-season dismantling at the hands of LSU to climb back into the championship conversation. The #8 Hokies entered the primetime showdown with a 6-1 record. I let my mind imagine a scenario where Virginia Tech ran the table and landed back in the BCS Championship Game. I began mentally planning how I could switch leave dates with other solders so I could attend the game. I still believed the Hokies could win the title every year. I hadn’t yet reached the cynicism that comes with rooting for a team that’s consistently good but never great.
That night #2 Boston College came to Blacksburg behind the arm of QB and Heisman candidate Matt Ryan. The undefeated Eagles posed a threat but I had a hard time believing they were as good as their record. The media hadn’t ranked them that high since Doug Flutie played in Boston. Besides, even if they had found magic in a bottle, Lane Stadium had a way of killing the spirit of visiting teams. Rivals even lauded our home field advantage as the toughest in the country during that period. Such accolades only made the fans louder.
With four minutes left in the game, it appeared that my prediction would come true. Tech held a 10-0 lead. The Boston College Heisman wannabe had done nothing. Though our offense once again left something to be desired, Virginia Tech would salt away this win and emerge victorious.
When Ryan threw a touchdown pass two minutes later, my confidence began to waver. Virginia Tech head coach Frank Beamer does not have a track record of handling pressure well. To often he falls into the cliche of “playing not to lose, instead of playing to win.” Still, BC had to recover the onside kick and drive the field against one of the best defenses in the country with only two minutes on the clock. No chance. Right?
BC recovered the onside kick. Uh-oh.
Pass completion. Pass completion. Pass completion. Time out. Pass completion. No-no-no-no.
Incomplete. Holding Penalty. Incomplete. <sigh> Okay. We’ve got this. We can beat them in overtime if they make the kick.
3rd and 20 from the Virginia Tech 24-yard-line. Matt Ryan to Andre Callender. Touchdown.
It felt like a sucker punch to the gut. The puffed up confidence I had in that Hokie team deflated all at once. I started at the screen without seeing. I couldn’t move. I felt like a shell of my former self. All life and spirit had left me. With 11 seconds left on the clock, I prayed for a miracle that I knew wouldn’t come.
I cursed Matt Ryan. Hokie alums the world over added his name to our all-time villains list. He joined hated Wahoos and Hurricanes of the past, but while we hated those teams on principle, Ryan stood out as a singular entity. We would enjoy rooting against him for the duration of his career.
But that didn’t make me feel any better on that October night in the desert. I didn’t want to face my bleak world just then. I stood up, turned out the light, and crawled early into bed.
January 20, 2013, Richmond, VA
I’ve loved the San Francisco 49ers since I was eight-years-old. San Francisco seemed a world away from my home in South Charleston, WV, but my mom made the distance shorter by taking my sister and me to the local public library every week. I played T-ball and little league football and, despite my lack of athleticism, I couldn’t get enough of sports and competition. I read every sports book I could find in the children’s and young adult sections and I even tackled a few biographies from the regular non-fiction section after a couple of years.
Those books introduced me to Joe Montana, the largest hero of my childhood. Nothing seemed impossible for the 49ers QB. It didn’t matter if he was down twenty points in the Super Bowl, I believed he would always find a way to win with his precise accuracy, peerless vision, and cool demeanor. When I watched his first game back after the elbow injury, the Monday Night game against Detroit, it seemed like a god had descended to take part in our sport. I cried the day the Niners traded him to Kansas City. For two years, I became a football bigamist. Cut me some slack; I was nine. My idol had gone Kansas City, but San Francisco still felt like home.
The 49ers helped me through my parents’ divorce. They separated the spring before the Niners won their fifth Super Bowl. I sat next to my dad in the mobile home he rented as Steve Young (no hard feelings) and Jerry Rice ran roughshod over an inferior Chargers team. Like Hokie games in Afghanistan and Iraq, Super Bowl XXIX let me escape the reality of my situation for a moment.
I had lows as a Niners fan too. It wasn’t the losing records. Those just left me numb. Honestly, its difficult to watch a bad Niners team on the east coast. It makes it easier to ignore the disappointment. I saw my first live 49ers game in Nashville in 2005. When Steve McNair led a second half comeback to bury a pathetic San Francisco team, it just felt expected.
The worst feeling came when I watched the 49ers get suddenly and radically good again only to fumble away a chance at a Super Bowl just when I started to believe. That sucker punch held shades of a Boston College Matt Ryan.
Except now Matt Ryan quarterbacks the Atlanta Falcons, the team the San Francisco 49ers must face in this year’s NFC Championship Game. And now Matt Ryan has the ball down four with eight minutes to go. And now Matt Ryan has moved the ball to the San Francisco ten with 90 seconds left.
I didn’t lack confidence in the defense. I had seen Willis, Bowman, and the Smiths make any number of spectacular defensive plays over the course of the season. I just couldn’t convince myself that Matt Ryan wasn’t the football antichrist, sent to earth specifically to destroy my love of football and Joe Montana. I had flashbacks to the Tech-BC game. I kept thinking, “Not Again.”
I couldn’t sit still. The nerves ate me up inside. Throughout the second half my left leg bounced up and down like the piston in a race car. The energy bottled up inside me, waiting for that moment to elevate me or destroy me. When Navarro knocked down Ryan’s pass on fourth down, I leapt from the couch and triumphantly shouted “Yes!” loud enough for the neighbors to hear me. Maybe Matt Ryan wouldn’t ruin me again.
Still, the game had one minute left on the clock. It felt like the longest minute of my life. I paced back and forth in the small living room of my Richmond apartment. I wore a hole in the rug waiting for the game to end.
When the clock finally struck zeros, I beamed. Elation and joy coursed through my veins. For the first time since I was ten years old – eighteen years! – one of my teams would play for a world championship. Nothing could wipe the grin from my face that evening. Several times I looked over at my wife:
“What?” she’d reply.
“We’re going to the Super Bowl.”