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A Lifetime as a Wildcat Fan: My Ten Most Memorable Moments, Part One

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A Lifetime as a Wildcat Fan: My Ten Most Memorable Moments, Part One

K-State has been one great school to root for over the years
K-State has been one great school to root for over the years
Scott Sewell-USA TODAY Sports
A Lifetime as a Wildcat Fan:  My Ten Most Memorable Moments as a Fan, Part One
 
I was born and raised as a fan of the Kansas State Wildcats. My parents met as K-State students in the early 1970s. My older brother and I would later follow in their footsteps.
 
For some irrational reason, my wife has always viewed the Wildcats fans and their purple pride with disdain, despite not being much of a sports fan and having only mild interest in the university that does that silly "rock chalk" druid chant. When I posted on Facebook that I would be an occasional contributor for Bring on the Cats, she noted that it had better be a website about felines.*
 
I try to explain my passion for K-State and its sports teams to her, but she does not understand. This has made me ask myself, "why am I such an enthusiastic K-State sports fan?" Part of the answer is because I have had some incredible memories while cheering on the Wildcats.
 
Maybe this article will help her to understand a little. Maybe it won't. Regardless, it was undoubtedly an interesting exercise for me to undertake.
 
My background as a K-State sports fan is quite typical. I grew up on a small farm in the middle of nowhere north central Kansas. Playing and watching sports was a fascination for both my brother, three years my elder, and I. We were sports nerds. Before it was a popular thing to do, in the mid-90s, we began to enjoy Phil Steele's annual college football encyclopedias because of how in-depth they were. Amongst the men in our family, sports were one of the things that really brought us together.  Also, like with many American families, athletics were a somewhat unique outlet in which a man, young or old, could acceptably express raw emotion.

As with many poignant memories that we have in life, ranging from a song that takes us back in time or where we were when we first heard about a momentous world event, passionate sports fans remember sporting events within the context that they occurred. Or at least that’s what I do. This article summarizes, in chronological order, my most vivid (and not necessarily the best) memories as a K-State fan.

 
1.  Basketball versus Tulsa on December 14, 1989-The blizzard
 
When I was in first grade, I was already pretty interested in basketball and K-State, both on their own merits and especially when combined. However, I had not yet been to a K-State game. Bramlage Coliseum had just opened in the prior season and the Wildcats were only two seasons removed from Mitch Richmond leading the team to the Elite Eight.
 
In 1989-90, Steve Henson was in his senior season. My dad, who had previously lived in McPherson, raved about Henson's basketball prowess. Needless to say, he was excited for our family to watch a Wildcats game together, even if it was on a Thursday night. However, as often happens in Kansas in December, the weather forecast called into question whether my family would end up going to the game. My parents vacillated between staying home and braving the blizzard conditions, but ultimately, they decided to make the two-hour trek to Manhattan.
 
My memories of the game were that the Wildcats won, Steve Henson was good, the student section was raucous (I still remember the constant "airball" chants for a certain Tulsa player), and a young Wildcat named Ski (I later learned it was "Askia") Jones that had some real potential.  I later learned that several thousands of tickets had been given away to K-State students for this game, due to fans not attending on account of the inclement weather.
 
My memories of the trip to and from the game are also pretty vivid. I was absolutely freezing in my family's 1980s suburban. The wind chill after the game was reportedly in the -20 degree range. My brother and I were in the back of the suburban with half a dozen blankets each, but were still absolutlely freezing. To this day, that is still the coldest weather that I can remember.
While my parents' decision to take us to that game may not have been a wise one, it sure made for an interesting first K-State sporting event.
 
 
2.  Football versus New Mexico State, September 15, 1990-My favorite blowout of an awful team
 
I was born in the fall of 1982, during K-State's first bowl season. However, by the time I was in kindergarten, in 1988, the program was in its lowest of lows. The first thing I remember about K-state football was my parents saying that they had almost always been awful. Stan Parrish would be fired that fall. I do not remember a thing about Bill Snyder being hired around Thanksgiving, but I’m sure glad he was.
 
During Bill Snyder's opening press conference he would say, "The opportunity for the greatest turnaround in college football exists here today, and it’s not one to be taken lightly," What is truly astounding about the statement is not only its prophetic nature, but just how out of character it was for Bill Snyder to have said something like that.
 
It would be Coach Snyder’s second football season as head coach, in 1990, before I would make it to my first K-State football game. It was a 27-6 win over Western Illinois. But this story is about their second game of the season, a home contest against New Mexico State. Before the game, our local radio station had a trivia question for listeners to try and win tickets. My dad called in and won the tickets. The question? When was the last time a K-State football team started 2-0? Sadly, the answer probably wasn't on the tip of too many peoples' tongues because it had been several years earlier. Even more sad is the fact that others who may have known the answer probably did not bother to call because they had no interest in going to the game.
 
My dad, my brother, and I all went to the game. It was an afternoon game and K-State won handily (52-7). There were 19,200 fans in attendance that day. I remember noticing how empty the bleachers were. When I next returned for their 1994 game against Nebraska, the scene was much, much different. Fun memories were the trip to Manhattan, the walk into the stadium, the rowdy student section, the beach ball that made its way around the crowd, the game's program that I read through (and wish I had kept, especially with regard to the great coaching staff that was in place), and the great play of the Wildcats. Everyone was so excited for the team to be undefeated, even if they had beaten some pretty poor competition. Enjoying it all with my brother and father was a real treat.
 
Now, I have become spoiled and perhaps a little jaded. Drubbings of lesser opponents are often taken for granted and viewed as appetizers before the next big game. However, to this seven-year-old boy, that game meant a lot. I'm guessing it also did to the Wildcats players and coaches, who had already eclipsed their win total from the previous season.
 
 
3.  Football versus Texas Tech, August 31, 1996-Time to start messing with Texas
 
This was the first ever Big 12 football game and the excitement in Manhattan that day was palpable. K-State was coming off of its first ever 10-win season and was headed up by returning players such as Kevin Lockett and All-American cornerback Chris Canty. Also, the stadium debuted its first ever jumbotron, although the "jumbo" part now seems like a misnomer. It was clear that this was a big moment for KSU football. And big enough that 18 years later, I still have my ticket from that game.
 
I can still recall people claiming that K-State's meteoric rise in the Big 8 had been largely as a result of the demise of other programs in the conference. The influx of four Texas schools into the conference was supposed to test that some, although the final season of the Big 8 had been a doozie. It saw four teams win at least 10 games and finish in the top 10 (yes, KU was one of them!), at a time when there were only 11 regular season games and no conference championship games. The 1995 Big 8 was the 2014 SEC West before the 2014 SEC West came along.
 
The K-State / Texas Tech game itself was a bit of an ugly defensive struggle, but the Wildcats held a seven-point lead, as Zebbie Lethridge took the Red Raiders into the Wildcats' red zone in the game's final minute. On fourth down, a Red Raider wide receiver caught the ball up in the air inside the five-yard line, right at the first down marker. However, the receiver's misfortune was that Mario Smith, a headhunting safety for the Wildcats, was waiting on him. Smith issued a then-legal hit now referred to as "targeting", which separated the ball from the receiver, knocked out the recipient of the hit, and wrapped up the Wildcats' victory. My brother and I, watching from the south end zone where it had happened, issued a huge sigh of relief and hoped that this was the start of many more great Big 12 games for the Wildcats. Thankfully, despite all of the fretting by my brother and I (and countless other Wildcats fans) in 2011 during the realignment fracus, K-State is still competing at a high level at the highest level, as the Big 12 marches on. 
 
 
4.  Football versus Nebraska, November 14, 1998-The Big 12 North now runs through the Little Apple
 
As K-State wrapped up the 1997 season by going 12-1 and demolishing the Donovan McNabb led Syracuse Orangemen in the Fiesta Bowl, two things became abundantly clear:  (1) Kansas State was going to have a very, very good football team in 1998; and (2) they would have to go through Nebraska to take that next step. These weren't your Big 10 era Cornhuskers. No, these Nebraska Cornhuskers had won national championships in three of the past four seasons and played for the national championship in four of the past five seasons.
 
K-State had risen up through the ranks in the Big 8/12 incrementally. It started with gradually besting similarly downtrodden teams at Kansas, Iowa State, Missouri, and Oklahoma State. Next, little by little, K-State would move past both Oklahoma and Colorado. However, K-State's neighbors to the north had been out of reach for the Wildcats. After K-State had presented solid challenges to the Cornhuskers in 1991, 1993 and 1994, the Big Red had abolutely destroyed the Wildcats in 1995, 1996, and 1997.
 
I grew up about a 30-minute drive from the Kansas-Nebraska state line. When our bulky satellite television would malfunction (a regular occurrence), I would watch Nebraska TV channels on antennae that would carry the Tom Osborne show. I was too young, and perhaps too uninformed, to fully comprehend some of the Cornhuskers' misdeeds off of the field during Osborne's reign and Osborne's tampering with those events. At the time, I had adopted Nebraska as my second favorite team due to their dominance and the class that Osborne exhibited. I did not see them as a rival. In 1998, that changed.
 
Wildcats fans knew they had a great opportunity. College Gameday was in town and Manhattan was the center of the college football world with the legendary Keith Jackson calling the game (and unfortunately confusing us with the Kansas Jayhawks several times to underscore just how much of an afterthought K-State football had been historically).
 
I watched the game on the edge of my seat. Michael Bishop was his electric self, making several game-changing plays. I was livid when the referees missed the ground causing a Wildcats fumble, which led to a fumble return touchdown (a much bigger missed call than any other call that they maybe, just maybe missed late in the game against K-State). I was ecstatic when Michael Bishop went all sandlot style football and found Darnell McDonald in the back of the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown. Then, lastly, I was overcome with joy when the Wildcats had finally slayed the corn-fed dragon, as the students rushed the field and tore down the goal posts, which were reinforced and of a variety that had allegedly never before been torn down, anywhere.
 
My brother, then a freshman at K-State, was one of the many K-Staters that helped tear down those goal posts. He would later call me from his dorm room at Moore Hall (this was before everyone had cell phones) to talk about just how awesome it had all been. Part of the way through the phone call, for the better part of two or three minutes, I could no longer hear him over a gigantic uproar, as those same goal posts were now making their way past Moore Hall and towards Aggieville. It was truly an incredible day to be a Wildcats fan.
 
 
5.  Football versus Texas A&M, December 5, 1998-The loss that still stings the most
 
This was K-State's first foray into the Big 12 Championship Game, but it was expected that the Wildcats would take care of business. At the start of the day, the real question was whether the Wildcats would do just that, but still be left out of the national championship picture because they were ranked third, behind both Tennessee and UCLA.
 
However, a giant door would open, as the Miami Hurricanes would upset UCLA, which was announced as K-State took a 17-3 lead against the Aggies in the second quarter of the game. However, things went horribly awry in the fourth quarter, as the team squandered a 15-point lead, which would ultimately result in a double overtime loss to Texas A&M.
 
K-State, a program that merely 10 years earlier had been been tabbed as "Futility U" by Sports Illustrated, before hiring Coach Snyder, had now missed out on an incredible opportunity to play in the national championship game. Bill Snyder would later appropriately catch some flak for comparing the loss to a death in the family. While that was overstating the case, to many Wildcats fans, and certainly to Bill Snyder and his players, it was difficult to put into words just how gut-wrenching the loss had been.
 
For me and many other Wildcats fans, this loss still haunts us, to the point that I initially did not want to put it on this listing. I think it's the only time I've cried about the outcome of a game that I didn't play in. It's still painful. The 2012 loss to Baylor was tough, but it was a blowout and the bowl games would prove that K-State was very good, but not the best team in the country. While that 1998 team would inexplicably drop to the Alamo Bowl (which sparked "the Kansas State rule, against such drops in the future) and lose to Purdue in a wholly uninspired effort, you'll have a very, very tough time convincing me that the Wildcats were not the best team in the country that season. It still feels like the Wildcats missed out on a once in a lifetime opportunity by tripping up in that game.
*Interestingly, as unearthed by Curtis Kitchen, the Twitter hashtag #BringOnTheCats is also utilized heavily by women who are disgruntled with dating men and are indicating an intent to live their lives as cat ladies. Let's hope my wife does not choose to follow suit.