Jacob Hester took the handoff, lowered his head, and dove into a bedtime story. I grew up on Billy Cannon's Halloween night run and Bert Jones to Brad Davis. The next generation of LSU cult members will hear about the running back who last Saturday wriggled through a wall of Florida Gators to turn fourth-and-one into first-and-10. They'll hear that it got to fourth down again and the defense stuffed him again, but he crawled and fought and stretched an inch past the yellow first-down stripe. That a minute later he pushed into the end zone and rolled onto his back, beaten down, exhausted. That he clutched his knee and the trainers rushed the field. He admitted after the game that he wasn't really hurt—that he was buying time to fix his helmet, a casualty of the game-winning drive. Hester laid there for a couple minutes, and, as the scoreboard clock stood still, he looked less like the man who scored the touchdown that beat the defending national champs than like a boy on his front lawn, cheap plastic helmet covering his eyes, dreaming about taking a handoff in Tiger Stadium, lowering his head, and diving.
In the YouTube era, sporting events don't become mythological events. When you can watch the highlights on demand, each play lives in your mind exactly how it was rather than how it felt. But on a good day at least, a college football game can still float above the braying announcers and the Sonic commercials. As the NFL gets increasingly self-important ("This is Football Night in America") and self-serious (excessive celebration, 15 yards), college football is as important and serious as it's always been. That is, very important and very serious. Consider: The Florida players cried when the game ended. If LSU hadn't converted those fourth downs, the Fighting Tigers—and 92,000 people in the stands, 60,000 in the parking lot, and 6 million at home—would have shed the tears. There but for the grace of Jacob Hester go I.
Pro athletes want to win for themselves and for their teammates. The city they play in and the team they play for are less consequential—after all, you could be in Buffalo next year, or Cleveland, or Arizona. In college sports, the players and the fans have the same rooting interest: They both live and die for old State U. There will always be an impassable divide between the men on the field and those of us who wear their replica jerseys. But college football can, on certain Saturdays, feel less like a game than a communal experience. For those few hours, that impassable distance between the stands and the field collapses and, for a second, we're all down there together.
The Florida game was one of those nights, and even if LSU doesn't win the national championship—or, God forbid, loses to Kentucky—it will remain one of those nights. If you don't believe me, flip open John Ed Bradley's It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium. Go to Page 229, wherein Bradley, a one-time LSU lineman, writes of visiting his dying coach 22 years after the last game of his career. "He gave my hand a squeeze," Bradley writes of Charlie McClendon, "and asked me if I remembered the night USC came to Tiger Stadium and how the fans stood on their feet for four straight quarters and watched as we showed the Trojans what LSU football was all about." His response: "I remember it all the time. I don't always want to, because we lost, Coach, but I remember it."
Bradley's memoir is the best meditation I've ever read on how a particular game, win or lose, can linger with us. When his football career ended, the star center cast off his shoulder pads, became a sportswriter for the Washington Post, and fell into a deep funk. Bradley didn't want to be the guy with liver spots who still wore his Tangerine Bowl ring, so he blew off teammates, ignored his coach's phone calls, took a walk when LSU games came on TV. By sealing his football career into the realm of the past, he ensured the present would always suffer by comparison. Show me a man with trophies in the back of his closet, and I'll show you a man who thinks about those trophies every day.
Football is not war, but it is like the Army: the drills, the curfew, the mess halls, the crew cuts, the camaraderie. The glories of civilian life are emptier than the glories of the goal line, the traumas less visceral. For John Ed Bradley, no woman, no writing assignment, will ever dull the pain of that USC game.
Thanks to YouTube, of course, you can watch for yourself. It was 1979 and the No. 1 Trojans, one of the most talented teams in college football history, came into Tiger Stadium as huge favorites. But Charles White, Marcus Allen, Anthony Muñoz, and Ronnie Lott couldn't shake an LSU team that finished the year 7-5. The Tigers led all night and were still holding on 12-10 when—according to such unbiased sources as John Ed Bradley and my father—the referees called a phantom face-mask penalty (the play isn't included in the USC-friendly YouTube highlights) that kept the Trojans' last-ditch drive alive. USC scored and left Baton Rouge with a 17-12 win. When the game was over, the fans stayed in their seats and pounded their feet against the bleachers. Bradley claims he lost 21 pounds during the game. "Somehow I knew I'd never recover," he writes, and he's not talking about the weight loss.
It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium can be read as a lesson on the perils of taking a game too seriously. But the maniacal college football fan knows better. If there weren't games as painful as LSU-USC, then there couldn't be games like LSU-Florida. Tiger fans are calling this the greatest win in Tiger history and pleading with the powers that be to erect a bronze statue of Jacob Hester's touchdown run. But dipping the LSU-Florida game in bronze would be redundant. Statue or no statue, the memory will never be far away for anyone who's ever laid on the grass and dreamed of taking a handoff at Tiger Stadium.