Eleven years ago today, on a bitterly cold and snowy night in Minneapolis, my son came into the world. He was a little early, a little small, and kind of perfect. Holding him for the first time has been the single most remarkable event of my life.
But long before his birth, nearly a decade before his existence was even contemplated, November 14th had already been indelibly marked onto my conscious, thanks to a single game of college football.
On November 14, 1998, Kansas State beat Nebraska 40-30 and ended one of the sport’s longest losing streaks.
If you are a Kansas State fan of a certain age, you probably only understand the significance of that date by reputation. Maybe you weren’t part of the purple faithful back then, maybe you hadn’t yet sacrificed a significant portion of your mental faculties to college sports, maybe you were simply too young to appreciate the occasion.
For those who lived through the dark years before Bill Snyder’s arrival in Manhattan, for those who had been on campus in the 1990s and had witnessed firsthand Kansas State’s journey from worst to first, and most of all, for those who sat in the stands that day to watch our own David finally vanquish Goliath, there may never be a bigger Kansas State moment.
Maybe you had to be there.
The day dawned as November days in Manhattan usually do, sunny but crisp and windy. We trudged west to the stadium still carrying the remnants of an Aggieville bender in our veins. Things were, of course, different than other college football Saturdays, and not just because of the opponent, the Wildcats’ unbeaten record (9-0!), or their unprecedented lofty ranking (#2!).
For the first time ever, College Gameday had come to Kansas State and with Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, and Lee Corso parked inside the stadium—then still just KSU Stadium—the atmosphere around the game was charged with expectation, but also anxiety. The Gameday crew made the usual less-than-charitable remarks about the program, noting Bill Snyder’s total control (read “no injury reports”), the quaint smallness of the stadium (read “high school size”), and of course that Nebraska was still too high a mountain for Kansas State to climb. None of that mattered to Kansas State fans, so when Corso finally donned Willie Wildcat’s oversized head, the entire fandom went berserk.
And that was before the game even kicked off. It would be a lie to say most of the purple-clad fans gathered in the stadium that day were confident. Yes, the Wildcats had looked unstoppable for much of the season, save for a momentary blip at Colorado. Yes, in Michael Bishop, the Wildcats had arguably college football’s best quarterback, a weapon through the air and on the ground. But this was Nebraska. Most of us in the student section hadn’t even been alive the last time Kansas State had beaten the Huskers.
But this was not the Nebraska of old. Tom Osborne had hung up his clipboard, and the Huskers were now led by a freshman head coach in Frank Solich and a freshman quarterback in Eric Crouch. Plus, Nebraska was hardly unscathed coming into the game. It had taken the Huskers a goal line stand to ward off a suddenly feisty Oklahoma State team, and Texas A&M had already claimed the first Nebraska scalp of the year. Then, in what would fast become habit for Big Red, the Huskers had lost to Texas and Ricky Williams. So, if anything, the faithful in Lincoln had as much doubt coming into the game as ever.
The stage was set for an epic battle. Unfortunately, the game itself did not—could not—have matched the hype surrounding it. In an up-and-down contest, neither Kansas State nor Nebraska really set the tone, although the Huskers led at the half 17-14, thanks to two fumbles from Bishop. He also managed to turn the ball over two more times in the second half, but Bishop paired the turnovers with some wild, eye-popping runs through the heart of the Nebraska defense, and then hit Darnell McDonald in stride for the decisive score.
Throughout the game, the mood in the student section ebbed and flowed. We held our breath when Nebraska had the ball and cursed the Fates when things didn’t go our way. A girl sitting next to me barely watched the second half, her eyes closed and hands clasped in mumbled prayer to the invisible gods of college football. Whether it was her call being answered, or just the law of averages catching up with Nebraska, on this November 14th, the Wildcats would not be denied.
I can no longer remember the exact details of what happened after the final whistle. I only know that the vast majority of the 40,000-odd folks in attendance that day were carried down on a tidal wave of euphoria that turned Wagner Field into a sea of purple. The goalposts came down. The rest is history.
For Nebraska, on the losing side of the scoreline for the first time in three decades, the loss was disappointing but unremarkable. From the fan perspective, the loss was easy to rationalize. After all, it had taken the best Kansas State team ever four full quarters to beat the worst Nebraska team in a generation. But I wonder if the wiser Husker fans knew the worm turned that day, that the baton had been passed. I wonder if they understood that this was the first sign of their program’s long, slow slide into mediocrity.
For Kansas State, on the other hand, this felt like a beginning, a small brush with greatness, the first peak summited on the way to college football’s ultimate mountain top. That this would never be was something we could not have known on that fateful November 14th afternoon. All that was still in the future.
In the moment, we were, in Keith Jackson’s inimitable words, “a volcano of joy” waiting to erupt, “the happiest place on earth.”