Game 13: The 2022 Autozone Liberty Bowl
It's the blog entry accompanying the Autozoooooooone Liberty Bowl!
Before we begin: I desperately apologize for how long I spent working on this and I only hope it adequately reflects the spectacle put on in Memphis.
Part of the benefit of doing this project on my own for no money and under no supervision is that I can start anywhere that I want for this entry. I could start from kickoff at Simmons Bank Liberty Memorial Stadium at 4:30 PM on December 28th, or the morning of December 28th from the Holiday Inn Express in Olive Branch, Mississippi, or or the morning of December 27th when we left, or December 4th, when the game location and opponent was revealed, or even earlier, like November 5th, the Oklahoma State win in which KU secured bowl eligibility for the first time in 14 seasons.
I’ll do that. On the way to the Oklahoma State game, Mike and I discussed taking some sort of short trip during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, as our campus would be closed during that period. At that point, the Jayhawks were 5-3 on the season, on a three-game losing streak with several starters out to injury, and we didn’t presume anything about a bowl game. If we make one, we said, we’d definitely go, but even if we didn’t, we should do something with that free week. We talked around any specifics about bowl games. It might have genuinely been superstition, it might have been us not wanting to get our hopes up only to have them dashed, it might have been echoes of something a therapist told me at some point about how it’s best to focus on the concrete when significant variables are so far out of your control. Then they won the game.
I first looked at the Big XII’s bowl tie-ins for the 2022 season on Mike’s phone on the shores of Potter Lake. We were potentially eligible for games in Fort Worth, Dallas, Phoenix, Memphis, Orlando, and, if a lot of stuff went right, Houston and San Antonio. There were positive and drawbacks to each – Fort Worth (the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl), while driveable, was before Christmas and thus we’d have to try to get days off. Orlando (the Cheez-It Bowl) would take multiple days of driving and neither of us are all that interested in what Orlando has to offer, nor do we as employees of institutions of higher education make enough to justify buying tickets for entry to any of those amenities that Orlando has to offer. Phoenix (the Guaranteed Rate Bowl), would be in the free period, and while we could stay with Mike’s family, would take a two-day road trip and take place in a baseball stadium. Dallas (the SERVPRO First Responder Bowl) would be within the free period as well, and though it would be driveable within a day, we ran the severe risk of me trying to drag people to the US Soccer Hall of Fame in Frisco.
Memphis seemed ideal. It’s near enough to be driven to in a day, it’s in a fun city that I’ve been to once before relatively briefly but Mike had never been to, it’s a historically prestigious bowl game, plus our friend, Marching Jayhawks alumnus, and old roommate Alden, who lives in Louisville, would be able to make it out. The Liberty Bowl also might match us up with an SEC team, specifically the SEC team to our immediate East, and even barring them, the other SEC team we consider a major rival due to big games we keep playing against them in basketball.
The following weeks brought rumors of that Eastern rival (Missouri. It was Missouri, I don’t know why I began using a euphemism for them, but I’m not keeping that up) asking the Liberty Bowl not to take them, which many interpreted as a request not to be matched up with KU for whatever reason (their official reasoning was that they wanted their fanbase home to support the men’s basketball team in their game against Kentucky on that day rather than split between Columbia and Memphis). K-State won the Big XII Championship Game, which may have had but probably did not actually have an impact on which bowls were likely to bid for Kansas – My initial thinking about this was that a TCU win in the Big XII Championship game might’ve knocked K-State from the Sugar Bowl bid while cementing TCU in the Playoff, leaving us one rung of priority further down the list of Big XII bowl qualifiers (K-State in that case would go to the Alamo Bowl, pushing Texas down to the Texas Bowl, and the rest of us would have to scrap for the remains). I figured that our standing would’ve been second amongst the Big XII’s other 6-6 finishers. Oklahoma’s fanbase is larger than ours and always travels well, but we’d probably buy more tickets than Baylor fans would, given that our alumni-base is larger and it’s our first bowl game opportunity in a decade and a half.
Regardless, we learned we’d be headed to Memphis on December 4th. I learned via a screenshot of a tweet from an Arkansas fan blog that my dad sent me, then recanted about twenty minutes later given that the Arkansas fan blog was not corroborated by any major news outlets, and then un-recanted (decanted? I think that’s something else) when KU Athletics tweeted it themselves. My mom had shoulder surgery in mid-December and couldn’t come out for the game, and my dad needed to stay with her to help her with anything that required more than a left arm, so I ended up being the only one from my family to make it out. My dad very generously purchased three tickets for Mike, Alden, and I (he said we deserved it after spending years watching the Weis and Beaty eras of KU Football). Mike and I got a hotel room in Olive Branch, Mississippi, an exurb about thirty minutes outside of Memphis, for three nights at a very good rate considering the influx of people.
Mike and I left Lawrence at about 8:30 am on Tuesday, December 27th, stopping for lunch in St. Louis and arriving in Memphis around 6, right in time to use the Grizzlies tickets we’d purchased that afternoon. My last NBA game was in April 2015, a game in Chicago between the Bulls and Pistons. I always take the chance to see professional basketball if I can. It feels like the most premium product in American sports, at least on an in-person basis. That might be because I don’t live in and rarely visit NBA cities, I’m apathetic to hockey, and my only NFL experience involved sitting behind a guy who chain-smoked his way through a Chiefs game from the back row in 2014, but it was a treat to see two really good Western Conference teams play, even if it ended up bereft of drama in a Suns rout. Ja Morant is one of those players I’m happy to have seen in-person with my own eyes and Chris Paul is one of those players I’m happy I’ll be able to say I saw in-person. We considered hanging out on Beale afterwards, but eight hours of driving and two hours of Hot NBA Action takes a lot of energy out of a man. It’d be a tomorrow evening thing, we figured. Kick was scheduled at 4:30 PM, the game would probably take three hours, and we’d get out there regardless of the result. How much energy can a mid-tier bowl game really take out of a man?
In the hotel, Mike and I enjoyed the exhilaration of eating Taco Bell on a hotel bed, with Diablo sauce dripping from quesadillas onto pallets of napkins, narrowly avoiding uncouth stains on the Holiday Inn Express’s nice white sheets. We watched Oklahoma State struggle and ultimately fail in their comeback attempt against Wisconsin in the Texas Bowl, a good sign for Mike, who had placed a four-part bet parlay using free money from one of those sportsbook apps – The under (66.5) on Buffalo/Georgia Southern in the Camellia Bowl, Memphis to beat Utah State in the First Responder Bowl, and Wisconsin to cover (-5) against Oklahoma State that evening, and, finally, Kansas against the spread (+2.5) versus Arkansas in the Liberty Bowl. A Jayhawk win or loss by two or fewer would net him something in the range of $450.
We woke up too late for the free Continental Breakfast and elected to head straight downtown to meet up with our friends traveling in from Texas and Kentucky. Our rendezvous point was Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous. I don’t know enough about barbecue or Memphis cuisine to know if that’s embarrassingly touristic, like going to Pizzeria Uno in Chicago, or not, but ridicule us for going there if you’d like. I loved the setup, though – The seating is downstairs, the waits are long, and the waiting area is the entire upper floor. All five of us arrived at the restaurant at about the same time, each of us having finished lengthy but doable one day road trips. The beer hit me pretty hard, the way that a beer does when it’s the first thing to enter the stomach at 11AM. Standing in that waiting room more buzzed than I’m accustomed to being in the late morning, surrounded by both Arkansas and Kansas fans in cordial conversation, I recognized how unique this whole phenomenon – this bowl game, Kansas Football, even college football as a whole, is.
The five of us first met as a full group in August 2014 in the trombone section at band camp. We’d each been through the Charlie Weis firing after the homecoming shutout in 2014, the near-upset of TCU, the Michael Cummings spring game injury, and the entire 2015 winless year. KU Football was simultaneously something we worked hard multiple days per week each fall and something that brought us disappointment at the end of most of them. There is reason for resentment to have come from that, but we each put forth effort, time, and money to be in Memphis on that Wednesday. That would seem paradoxical, that the source of such pain and embarrassment in adolescence would inspire us to love it so actively in adulthood later on, but there we stood. Everyone around us in blue, regardless of age, probably had a similar story over the prior decade or so, of coming back and spending money on plane tickets and hotels for homecoming only to see the team get blown out or getting ridiculed for asking to get our game on a bar TV, and yet there’s this unshakeable love for the sport, the team, and the university that we get to show in games like this.
We met thanks to KU Football, and we grew so much and had so many great experiences in its periphery. Regardless of its failures or successes during our time there, it’s part of the memories of a wonderful era of our lives. That kept hitting me over the course of the week. There were so many other people from our era in the Marching Jayhawks that made the trip down. I don’t know that we would’ve all made that trip out there if the team had been even mediocre during our time as students. That failure only stoked a hunger to see this team at its best.
Every time I got into a conversation with people from our era of the Marching Jayhawks, we’d end up sharing stories of the team’s ineptitude from our time with such detail. The four of us who had made the trip out to Memphis for an away game in 2016 each remembered the game’s specifics – they stuck us up in the corner on a dreary, muggy day, Khalil Herbert scored the only touchdown of the game for us, we forced a 4th and 40-something and a bad punt only for Montel Cozart to throw an interception on a screen play which was returned sixty-plus yards by a Memphis lineman, Memphis had a tiger from the zoo in a cage behind the endzone, and their kicker started warming up during their marching band’s show. All of that, from a miserable total blowout loss, has stuck with us six years later, and that reflects how much KU Football meant to us then and means to us now.
After about an hour of chatting between ourselves and a few other people around us, we got our table, had our food, which I enjoyed (apologies for my inability to make any statement on which barbecue is superior from culture to culture but I almost never eat it), and made our way to the stadium. Mike, Alden, and I had decided to park in a lot on the University of Memphis campus and take the shuttle service offered by the game’s organizers to the stadium, not wanting to pay for stadium parking, though we later learned that the stadium’s parking costed $35 per car and the shuttle costed us $10 per person, meaning we saved five dollars only to endure something of a make-do with these busses.
I walked up to the first bus in the line and asked the driver first if this was the bus to the game and second if they had any space. I was met with a blank, bewildered stare that I found incongruent with what felt like a fairly simple inquiry. I assumed the silence meant there was no space. A short line had formed behind us, consisting of people in both Kansas and Arkansas apparel, and a woman who seemed to be the manager of the enterprise appeared from somewhere, collecting money and directing us towards the second bus in the line. We boarded that bus, which seemed to be used actively by a local school district. After our line ended, the manager went off elsewhere, and another cluster of people boarded our bus. Our driver had a ‘get them on and we’ll figure out payment later’ mentality that she vocalized, and the manager had to come on and seek out payment via show of hands after they’d boarded.
After this, she gave a short spiel on how the operation would proceed: The bus would drop us off in front of the stadium’s main entrance gate. We would return to that location to be shuttled back. One bus would then leave from the stadium after halftime, another after the third quarter, and then after the game ended, the whole fleet would shuttle from the stadium to the lot for an hour, after which the service would stop. In lieu of tickets for re-boarding after the game, as they’d run out some time earlier, we would need to say “Melvin” to the bus driver when we got back on.
I watched Mike type “Melvin” into his iPhone notes app.
I should clarify it was about 3:30 PM by this point, and the streets surrounding this stadium were practically stagnant. We inched Westward on Central Avenue, a feeling that, coupled with the sensation of vinyl seat covers beneath my fingernails, the smell of exhaust, and the heat of a midday sun hitting my eyes, unlocked anxieties locked away since the days of high school marching band contests. We turned left on to Hollywood Street and ended up stuck in the left lane, trapped by cars packed fender-to-bumper traveling at about the same limited speed. Our driver’s proactivity again showed as she rolled down a window and very politely asked a traffic cop to stop the lane of cars to our right so that she could merge. After that and a few more minutes inching forward, she dropped us off in front of the main gate of Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium.
Our tickets indicated that we’d need to enter at the gate on the opposite side of the stadium, which I suspect was to diminish the chance for conflicts between Kansas and Arkansas fans in close proximity. I am unsure of how often fan-on-fan incidents like that happen at middle-tier bowl games, especially when one fanbase is really just happy to be there like we were, but I understand the impetus, as that potential is more realistic in a neutral site bowl game like this compared to the typical regular season contest with designated home and away fans. This made me realize how little experience I’ve had with neutral site sporting events. Not since the 2005 Fort Worth Bowl had I shared equal space in a stadium with an opponent like that.
KU fans tend to travel well. I experienced this up close at the 2013 Battle 4 Atlantis basketball tournament, when our presence dominated the tiny ballroom arenas of that resort hotel, taking up something like two-thirds to three-quarters of the seating each night, leaving our opponents with a corner to themselves (which I kind of envied because they looked to be enjoying themselves as underdogs while we as favorites chewed at our nails whenever anything went wrong). I couldn’t know for sure until we got to our seats, but it felt like we had about equal representation based on the crowds at each gate. I’m not used to being so up-front with other teams’ fans and cultures, and Arkansas’ culture is so far off of ours. I recognized that feeling when I first heard a mass of them doing the “Pig Sooie” chant in unison and it was cemented when I passed in front of the cart with the live hog they keep as one of their mascots. I counted five, for the record: There was first the live hog, then a normal-sized anthropomorphic male costumed hog, a female companion hog wearing a dress and a bow, a child hog similar to our Baby Jay, and a huge inflatable hog. That’s just so many mascots. Compare that to my graduate school, which didn’t officially have a mascot at all, only a ‘Spirit Leader’ in Aztec regalia which made him the subject of recurring student government votes about whether to keep him around.
We got in later than we’d wanted, around 4:10 PM or so – enough time to get to our seats for kickoff but not enough to waste exploring the building or anything. Concessions lines were mercifully short at the time, I suspect this was due to the merchandise lines being so long. We convened with a few friends, got beers, and headed to our seats in the twelfth row.
The Liberty Bowl stadium, officially Simmons Bank Liberty Stadium as of 2022, looks from the outside like the infamous “Big Sombrero” of Tampa, Florida, but from the concourses reminded me a little of the Rose Bowl, having no upper deck nor any sectioned seating areas. I imagine that the sunset over the edge of this stadium is nice as well, though we were in the Northwest corner and couldn’t see it. The astounding thing about the stadium is that a gridiron football field seems to be larger than what it’s built to naturally accommodate. Looking at it from above on Google Maps, it looks like certain rows were cut out in the corners in order to fit the field within the confines. The front six or so rows on the Eastern side of the bowl (which was allocated to Arkansas) aren’t matched on the Western side, either. Between that and the corner cut-outs, somehow it worked out that our Row 12 seats were only three rows (and about a fifteen feet drop) away from the field.1
There was something of a push-and-pull I felt between having pride at the team’s mere presence in this game and caring about the result of the game in any sense. As the team ran out to the sound of the band playing our fight song, I was overcome by perspective, by the eighteen years I’d gone since seeing KU in a bowl game in person, the fourteen years since watching KU in the 2008 Insight Bowl, the near-decade since I first came to campus as a freshman trombonist, and the hundred-some days that had passed since that first Friday nighter against Tennessee Tech in early September. This euphoria carried me through the Arkansas band’s pregame performance (the two bands wouldn’t share halftime for some at-the-time unclear reason), the announcement of like thirty honorary captains representing all manner of businesses (the Ticketmaster rep was booed), the coin toss, Arkansas first drive, and much of our first drive. I don’t think I had any serious thought about the outcome of this game until I was waving the wheat after Jalon Daniels hit Ky Thomas for a go-ahead touchdown.
I had treated the game itself as secondary to the season. Mentally, this was an exhibition and a vacation. It was a prize at the end of a good year, so the idea of winning or losing the game had never entered my mind. I hadn’t looked up columns about or videos of the Arkansas Razorbacks to try to get a sense of what to expect from them, and outside of their very large quarterback, K.J. Jefferson, I had no specific memories built up from watching any of their games during the year. I think that the only Arkansas game I watched in 2022 was their close shave against former head coach Bobby Petrino and Missouri State. What I’m getting at here is that I had to fully and quickly reorient myself mentally for a competitive game, and as soon as I had done that, Arkansas went on a multi-touchdown scoring tear.
I do not know enough about acoustics or architecture to determine if this was real or in my head, but it felt like all the sound from the Arkansas side opposite us bounced right back to our little corner. With every good Razorback play they erupted, and I learned that it’s a frustrating experience to be in such immediate proximity to the opponent’s joy like that. The situation deteriorated with multiple interceptions and a fumbled kickoff return, to the point at whichKU had gone from up 4 points to down 17 by the end of the quarter. Scoring, in football, as in most sports, lengthens the game, and there are few feelings worse in sports than staring at a multi-touchdown deficit and realizing that the first quarter hasn’t even come to a finish yet. I think it took about an hour to actually come to an end.
I had no choice to question when the second quarter had begun, as the PA guy loudly and enthusiastically announced “IT’S THE SECOND QUARTER OF THE AUTOZOOOOOONE LIBERTY BOWL!” to signal it’s beginning, something he kept up for every subsequent quarter. I grew to appreciate the presentation in this sense. The guy called the game like a homer NBA arena announcer for both teams, holding out the vowels in ‘first dooooown’ and ‘quarterback saaaaaack’ with no partisanship, which I found grating initially but grew to have fun with.The poor put-upon video board people tried a “Drum Cam”, for which a drum set was superimposed atop crowd shots, the idea being that whoever was on camera would flail around like they were doing a drum solo. When they first tried it in the second quarter, they found a guy who, at first, didn’t seem to understand the concept and stood shrugging his shoulders to the camera, and then when someone around him explained it to him, he refused to do it, leaving them holding on this shot of a peeved and non-participatory person (who I will point out was in a Razorback windbreaker – I would have done it fully without question, for the record) for something like thirty agonizing seconds.
Moments of levity like that provided distractions from the actual game, which had hurdled so far out of grasp to the point that the Jayhawks went into half with a 25-point deficit, which should have been worse had it not been for an O.J. Burroughs interception that graciously took us into halftime. The re-reorientation process from “we could win this” to “we will absolutely not win this” was much harder and drawn out than the original reorientation. I found myself repeating certain mantras, like “We’re happy to be here at all” and “the team is ahead of schedule” and “I am having a great time with my friends here in Memphis” and “It is through suffering that we grow” and “Undoubtedly I have not spent as much to be here as my parents put towards attending the 2018 Final Four.” I was so very far into the pits, not so much of despair but of malaise, but the Marching Jayhawks’ performance pulled me out of it.
My goodness did they sound and look excellent on the field in Memphis that night. That is the purest pride that I felt about anything in this game’s orbit. To see this group, of which I was a part and for which I worked very hard for five lean years when football success was so far out of our consideration, thriving the way that this band was at the Liberty Bowl, made it feel like all of the hard work we expended to keep that tradition rolling was worthwhile. The team could have gone down by four or five touchdowns and I would not have cared.
As our band marched off, a group of workers pushed a stage on wheels out to midfield, flanked by what looked like five or six high school marching bands. The PA guy announced that we were to see a special guest halftime performance. Were I sat down before the game began and asked what special halftime musical guest we were slated to see perform, I actually think I probably could have predicted the answer within about thirty guesses (The only caveat being that I might’ve gone too far down the path of guessing it’d be an act from a regionally relevant genre like blues or country and in that case it would’ve taken longer) but I have to assume that a special guest halftime performer at a late-December middle-tier college football bowl game will be something like thirty years after their prime as a hitmaker and, if not regionally attached, they’d need to be something that wide swathes of viewers could at the least not be offended by, which limits us more or less to mid-tier 1980s (or maybe 1990s) pop acts – and boy, we got one.
The PA guy proudly announced we’d be getting a performance from Starship. I don’t know if I was all that excited to see Starship specifically, but the idea of seeing Starship by happenstance during the middle of this total blowout of a football game flipped something in my brain that rendered me emotionally untouchable for the rest of the evening. Every timeline that I’d thought back on during the course of writing this entire project starting in August started running parallel. It all led up to this, this was all part of the plan – When I was a child in 1998 attending my first KU Football game I think that I knew somewhere deep in the recess between synapses that I’d be standing in the corner of the Liberty Bowl watching 1980s pop rock band Starship, formerly Jefferson Starship, formerly Jefferson Airplane, who played at Woodstock, who played at Monterey Pop, who played and got in fights with Hells Angels at Altamont, who had several big, influential, and critically acclaimed hits in the 1960s and 1970s, each of which were mentioned by the PA guy before stating that they would not play those, opting instead for their 80s pop hits as Starship.
There they were, right in front of us, flanked by several high school marching bands, all instruments obviously disconnected from any amplifiers and all playing upon them obviously mimed, the singing likely not lip-synced, though I couldn’t really tell as we seemed to be in something of a auditory dead spot that left us hearing only mostly distorted static outside of the synth making it through clearly and the vocals faintly, which wasn’t that much of a problem for our section as I sang the chorus to “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” very loudly by myself to the (I choose to believe) appreciative gawking of our fellow Jayhawk fans.
They transitioned into “We Built This City,” a song whose significance to me involves illness and singing cows, explained briefly in a blog post from 2021, a song I love to death for every baffling little bit jammed in with utmost confidence – Marconi plays the Mamba! The guy who made the radios plays a fucking snake! That awkward line about corporate reorgs! They call San Francisco “The City That Never Sleeps” in the prelude! — and another song that I sang along to in full throat and lung and tall boy of Coors Light regardless of the leers of my surrounding compatriots. We could’ve lost by forty, we could’ve forfeited, we could’ve lost like TCU lost in the national championship game2, and I would not have cared. That event changed from a football game to an indefinable phenomenon into which I was injected at age twenty-seven years, eight months, and two days. From this point on this was less of a game I attended and more of a wave of life upon which I surfed.
Shaking and numb from the euphoria of the performance I witnessed at midfield, I went out to the concourse and got in line to relieve myself in one of the portable toilets the stadium had installed due to the water issues caused by freezes in the city the week prior. I watched the man in front of me find a zip tie on the ground , loop it through the latch meant to lock the door of the cubicle during transit and, effectively, lock his friend in the toilet. This should reflect the level of gravitas surrounding the game that the crowd held at this point. His friend, kicked twice at the door from the inside, the second time hard enough to knock the latch off of the door entirely, which gave me some peace of mind that, at least, nobody could do that to me when I was in there. I also elected not to get another drink, as I figured the second half would go relatively quickly with KJ Jefferson using his ability as Cam Newton incarnate to ensure positive yardage and a quick, easy running out of the clock with their twenty-five point lead over the course of the second half, and since I would need to drive home, the risk of another beer was too much.
The PA guy, with so much joy and so many held vowels, announced the beginning of the third quarter at the AutoZoooone Liberty Bowl. I spent much of the that quarter talking with some old friends and only halfway paying attention to the game. I felt my mindset returning to one I’d adopted often as a student and band member. I knew that I wasn’t going to leave before the game’s end, we’d spent so much time and money and suffered for so long to have the chance to be there in the first place. It was time to sink back into the football-loss-adjacent time-killing strategies we’d honed in the marching band. We lapsed into and theoretical games of Fuck, Marry, Kill. We devised theoretical and impossible manners of unlocking secret paths towards hidden arcane manners of scoring hidden deep within the rules of American football.3 We vocally verse after verse of a KU Football-specific version of The Vengaboys’ “We Like to Party.” We stood on the concourse and talked with my friend Chrissy about the mocking smirk of the Orange Bowl orange on the hat of the person seated ahead of her.
The stadium atmosphere reflected that of a preseason NFL game or a September Major League Baseball game between two teams eliminated from playoff contention. The PA guy joyously belted out that we’d entered the Fourth Quarter of the AutoZoooooone Liberty Bowl, and at a point in the fourth, the drum cam returned, starting on the same guy who’d so braizenly refused to play along in the first quarter, whose heart had softened to the point that he banged out the make-believe solo we’d been denied hours before.
The team looked a little better over the course of the second half! The point-differential actually shrunk from 25 to 15 by the end of the fourth, and as our last-gasp drive in the fourth quarter ended with a dropped pass from Daniels to Kardell, I had this last bit of the game written up in my mind: They fought hard, and I was proud to be there, though the early-game mistakes from Daniels and the special teams created a hole too deep to climb out from, and a slew of dropped passes late on in the game under an already slim margin for error ended up leaving the game too far out of reach despite what was an effort all Kansas fans, myself included, could be proud of. Arkansas was running the clock out with relative ease, we were down to a single timeout. We’d applaud our team as they left the field, go to the busses, say ‘Melvin’ to whomever we were supposed to say ‘Melvin’ to, and head to Beale for the Memphis nightlife that made this a more desirable bowl opportunity than going to Phoenix or Fort Worth when we read off the Big XII tie-in list from Mike’s phone on the shore of Potter Lake back in October. Most of the people in the seats surrounding us had left already.
Jefferson pitched the ball to a running back, who flipped the ball to a wide receiver on a double-reverse to the left.
I can’t remember if I muttered this or just said this in my head, but the sentence which ran through my mind as I watched Arkansas’ receiver take the ball and begin to gain yardage was “Pittman’s letting his fuckin nuts hang here.” I am not proud of my language, but I find it an accurate description of the play call. The risk/reward calculation there is baffling – At best, a wide receiver reverse like that’s going to get you a first down our a touchdown that you would’ve found with any normal run play, just judging by the success that Jefferson, Rashod Dubinion, and AJ Green found on the ground in Memphis that evening. At worst, an atypical ballcarrier like wide receiver Matt Landers would fumble the ball after a hard hit and give the Jayhawks an unnecessary extra chance.
Marvin Grant delivered the hit, Cobee Bryant picked up the ball, and the game was not actually over. At the time, I didn’t quite believe that we’d have any chance at a genuine comeback. Most of my excitement at that point was a sort of schadenfreude at the fact that the Arkansas fans across from us, obligated to watch to the end of the game and the succeeding trophy presentation, would have to stay around for, in all likelihood, ten to twenty minutes longer than they would have otherwise. We’d throw the ball a few times, maybe pick up a first down, maybe even string together a touchdown… And by the time that I’d come to the conclusion of that thought, Jalon Daniels had hit Douglas Emilien for a touchdown to bring the score within eight, which was only his second reception of the entire season.
I still didn’t quite believe we’d complete the comeback – Onside kicks, especially expected onside kicks – rarely worked, and unless Tabor Allen were to hit a perfectly weighted high-hopper right into the hands of an oncoming KU special teamer after the required ten yards, our hopes remained basically nil, though I’d still be proud of the valiance shown at the game’s end from our team.
I don’t think I jumped or screamed or anything after Tabor Allen hit a perfectly weighted high-hopper right into the hands of an oncoming KU special teamer after the required ten yards (fittingly, it was Kenny Logan Jr., who chose to stay at KU instead of transferring to a stronger program after an excellent 2021 season, who kept the hope alive). I believe that I stood still and kept my mouth closed with my eyebrows raised basically to the top of my forehead. This was a sort of undefinable sports excitement, Lynchian in a way, an outcome so unbelievable that I couldn’t adequately show the level of excitement befitting the scene. It felt like took maybe thirty seconds for Daniels to hit Luke Grimm for the touchdown and Lawrence Arnold for the two-point conversion to bring us level at 38 and into overtime.
It reminded me a little bit of the first time that I clipped a character through the floor in a buggy old video game – The very foundation of the truth of the situation in which I was placed, the ground itself upon which I stood, had turned to nothing so quickly. In this instance in Memphis, as it had been in childhood, the unreality of the whole deal brought intense excitement tinged with fear. This game was over – I was so sure that the game was over. Things like that don’t happen to anybody, and they especially don’t happen to the Kansas Jayhawks.
I’ve been so intentional in trying to recognize the reflections of the past this year in Kansas football history and its intersection with my personal history, which may be why I was so struck by the knowledge that I’d never seen anything like this before. Maybe on TV, like on ESPN Classic years ago, but never right in front of me. KU was 25 down at one point, with three minutes down 15, without the ball and only one timeout. I’d made that happen maybe once or twice in one of the thousands of games of NCAA Football I’ve played over my lifetime.This was exactly the chaos, unpredictability, and serendipity I love about college football, about sports in general, and about life in general, playing out three rows ahead of me in this middle-tier bowl game between two 6-6 teams.
With that considered, the amount of my emotional well-being I had riding on winning or losing the game had become irrelevant on the other end - The apathy evoked by the drawn-out blowout was replaced by an astonishment that I was fortunate enough to witness this in person at all.
I spent much of the overtime period trying to remember to breathe, and the football itself kind of just washed over me, the closest analog to watching the overtime in my life was taking an edible, turning off the lights in my apartment, and listening to “To Here Knows When” off of My Bloody Valentine’s shoegaze classic Loveless. “IT’S THE FIRST OVERTIME OF THE AUTOZOOOOOONE LIBERTY BOWL!” screamed the PA guy, as with every prior and subsequent period. Neither defense had the energy remaining to put up that much of a fight in the first overtime, both teams scored touchdowns relatively quickly. That continued through the second overtime, the only real interference given on a failed goal-line fourth down conversion from KU, after which the Jayhawks were given a second chance due to a dicey targeting call.
Now, in the third overtime of the Autozoooooone Liberty Bowl and in college football in general nowadays, the teams trade plays from the 3-yard line. It’s the college football equivalent of penalty kicks in soccer. This was something that I needed to explain to the people around me now that my pulse was back down to regular rates and my body had returned to automatically breathing, who accurately assessed that it was a stupid way to end a game. At this point I also recognized that Mike, who needed KU to cover a 2.5 point spread to complete his four-part parlay and win hundreds of dollars, was virtually guaranteed a win regardless of the outcome for KU.
The two-point conversion trade-off suits Arkansas and their giant unstoppable quarterback very well, and they converted the first of the series with ease. I was not nervous for the Jayhawks’ chances on our try, not because I was confident that we’d get it, rather, the concepts like ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ and ‘finishing’ as they relate to a mid-tier college football bowl game had sort of diminished out of the realm of priority for me, I was watching it the way that I look at the huge Rothko paintings in art museums – and the Jayhawks ran something from the Pollack school of two-point conversion play design, with a handoff and a pitch that ended up in the hands of Jason Bean, who, in full sprint to his right, lofted a pass upwards.
From my position in the opposite corner, I was among the last people to recognize that it was incomplete.I didn’t recognize just how badly incomplete Bean’s pass was until Mike pulled it up on his phone later that evening, and regardless of exactly how many feet over the head of the receiver that pass flew, the game had ended, and the Jayhawks had lost. The opposite side cheered. Maybe this was a wishful interpretation, but their cheers felt tinged with relief that the game had ended at all. Gone was the confident bite I’d heard so often from them throughout the game, and the subsequent “S-E-C” and “Woo Pig Sooie” chants felt more obligatory than triumphant.
I was absolutely disappointed in the loss, but I’d just witnessed one of the best sporting events of my lifetime. I was reminded of the ennui of seeing that “Congratulations! You’ve just completed an ESPN Classic!” window pop-up after critical late loss in an NCAA Football game, having to stand up and pick up the PS2 controller from the ground after I’d let it fall from my hands (or, in many cases in youth, thrown it out of my hands) in disappointment and hitting the X button to acknowledge the gravitas given to the contest despite the negative emotions accompanying it. We’ll talk about this forever, I thought. Isn’t that what we came for?
Even as we struggled to walk against the tide of departing spectators towards the band’s section, where we’d all agreed to congregate after the game’s conclusion, I could only seem to scrape “What a fucking game” off my tongue, repeated with a shake of the head and a knowing, pained glance towards other dejected Jayhawks. Even when we left, passing Arkansas fans mostly gave us the same sentiment. There was some mild gloating, as I expected, but for the most part we just stated our mutual appreciation for having the privilege to attend a game we’ll talk about forever.
Travis Goff, the athletic director, walked by us in the concourse of the stadium, and I wish I’d recognized him more quickly and at least given him a quick statement of appreciation for what he’s done in his short time with Kansas Athletics. As I was reminded by an inebriated Razorback fan in the parking lot as we tried to find our bus stop and ‘Melvin’, both programs in this game had survived a Jeff Long tenure as AD. On this quiet, meditative walk through the parking lot, I felt pride and optimism about the state of the program going forward.
The miraculous turnaround season had ended in a loss and a 6-7 overall record, and only minutes off a heartbreaking finish, optimism still reigned in our discussion of the future. We had ample time waiting for our bus to discuss it, both the game and the future, as the bus company had for some reason designated the pickup point on a street one block off of the stadium property and several busses, despite our obvious crowding and waving, passed us before the same bus driver who’d taken us there in her yellow school bus stopped and took us back to campus. The vim for late-night carousing on Beale had been sapped. We hadn’t budgeted for a four hour-long tempest like that, and we had energy remaining only to gorge ourselves on Cookout, hang out at a friend’s rented AirBNB for an hour or so, and retreat to our hotel by about midnight.
Part of the benefit of doing this project on my own for no money and under no supervision is that I can finish anywhere (and, again, though I apologize, any time) that I want for this entry. This game will continue to live well past the moment at which Bean’s last pass hit the ground. It’ll make the Top 100 College Football Games of 2023 lists, and it’ll probably land within the Top 10, maybe Top 5. It’s already at the top of my list of the best sporting events I’ve attended live, and it took that place right after we tied the game up.
When I was having lunch with friends prior to the game, it struck me that we remembered so much about so many forgettable, horrible games we attended with incredible clarity. We could rattle off the details of interesting plays from otherwise unimportant games played by a hopeless team as if we’d just walked out of the stadium: Tyreek Hill’s kickoff return to kill our comeback against Oklahoma State in front of nearly nobody in 2014, Oklahoma’s blocked extra point attempt that stopped any hope of us making our game competitive in 2013, the inexplicable pick-six thrown from Montell Cozart to a lineman on a screen pass the last time KU played in Memphis in 2016. These were terrible, frustrating memories. If given the choice, in the moment, we probably would have elected to erase them from the mind forever, and yet, they’ve stuck around. This game, like so many this season, presented the rare phenomenal, ecstatic memories that it seems like the other college football programs have in surplus. I’ll probably talk about this game, and the season which preceded it, forever. I’m sure I’ll bring it up to future generations, picking out little details to use in reminiscence the way that my parents discuss the Oklahoma upset in 1984 and the 1992 Aloha Bowl season.
I put more effort into caring about the Kansas Jayhawks football season this year than I have in any season since graduation, and it paid off with one of the most astounding sporting experiences of my lifetime surrounded by dear friends. The season’s end was not accompanied by the street-flooding celebrations and the parades which ran through Athens last week and indeed Lawrence last April, nor a conference championship, nor a winning record. The game itself, over time, will probably become the fodder of those YouTube highlight channels that post compilations titled “CRAZIEST BOWL GAME COMEBACK EVER???”
I don’t know what it’ll turn into in my memory. I hope that I think of it as the first step on an upward trajectory that sees Kansas under Lance Leipold turn into the definitive Big XII power of the 2020s, and it might just be an aberration of a competent season out of a perennially incompetent program, and it might just be one part of a really enjoyable road trip I took in December 2022.
I know that right now, it’s the subject of an essay that I’ve spent too much time on and I want to finally fucking finish and publish nearly three weeks after the event itself, so I will conclude it now. See you in the postscript!
What I’m curious about here is that this stadium hosted a Canadian Football League team in the 1990s. Canadian Football gridirons are thirty yards longer than American Football gridirons, and it already seems stretched by American Football dimensions. In order to avoid delaying this piece’s publication any longer I will not research that today.
This sentence makes it okay that it’s taken me so long to finish this entry
Mega-touchdowns, illegal safeties, super-mega-touchdowns, recursive perpetual energy field goals which could manufacture 3 points at an ever-increasing rate, and the Final Ultimate Touchdown, liable to win us the game at the cost of a destabilization of the Earth’s core.