DALLAS — You start your game at noon Central Standard Time on the official New Year’s Day holiday, and you’re playing for pride and money and not a lot else in the Cotton Bowl, the 81st edition of the bowl since the first one in which TCU edged Marquette. But through all the decades, and through the immense changes wrought by television, corporate partners, naming rights and Jerry Jones’s manifest desire to raise a monument to himself, the game survived long enough to have Wisconsin and Western Michigan lay hands on each other Monday.
The Badgers started quick and finished strong, and that was enough to hold off P.J. Fleck and his boat-rowers from Kalamazoo, 24-16. The Broncos’ presence here lent a massive amount of je ne sais quoi to what time and circumstance has rendered a rather elaborate consolation game, which also is the case for any of the annual postseason blazerfests outside of the three that will determine a slightly-more-than-mythical national championship. The Peach Bowl this year is more relevant to the eventual national championship than the Cotton Bowl, which seems, at best, disproportionate. Thanks to Fleck and his team, this year’s Cotton Bowl at least had the frisson of excitement that welcomes any team that hasn’t come to a major bowl before.
(The row-the-boat battle cry is a Fleck motivational tool that takes a bit long to explain. Anyway, it caught on and, this year, with the Broncos running up an undefeated regular season and a MAC championship, the motif was marketed right down to the waterline.)
To be sure, at the beginning of the game, to paraphrase a famous lament from Micheal Ray Richardson, the boat be sinking. Wisconsin tore off huge chunks of yardage on its first two drives, scoring touchdowns on both of them and outgaining Western Michigan, 166-46, in the first quarter. Long considered a sledgehammer running team, Wisconsin ran up its 14-0 lead by being faster to the edge than the Broncos, and because it had Troy Fumagalli, its huge senior tight end, who eventually became the game’s Most Outstanding Offensive Player. Fumagalli rescued the first drive with a one-handed stab of a Bart Houston pass that converted a third-and-13 and led to a Corey Clement touchdown.
Fumagalli ended the game with 83 yards on six catches and a touchdown. When he was born, Fumagalli had a birth defect called amniotic band syndrome, which forced the amputation of his left index finger. In case you were wondering, the one hand he used to make that catch in the first quarter was his left one. More to the point, almost every catch Fumagalli made was a crucial one. His fourth quarter touchdown catch in the back of the end zone proved to be the ultimate margin of victory and, on the last possession of the game, Fumagalli caught a 26-yard pass on a third-and-eight that allowed Wisconsin to run out the clock. “We’ve had a number of really good tight ends at Wisconsin,” said Badgers coach Paul Chryst. “They’re all different. But Fuma has got the ability to be a matchup problem for a number of teams and a number of individuals. Our quarterbacks trust him, so he’s got a big reception radius.”
“It’s a great feeling to come out on top,” Fumagalli said. “It’s been a heck of a journey, especially with the senior class to give them the opportunities they had to send them out the right way. It’s been a great journey.”
“That,” said Fleck, “is the best tight end we’ve faced since we’ve been here at Western Michigan.”
In between Fumagalli’s various star turns, the boat somehow managed to get itself rowed. Western Michigan quarterback Zach Terrell began to get free from a relentless Wisconsin rush, either on designed plays or through scrambles. That opened up the field for the Broncos, whose first touchdown came on a legitimate bootleg by Terrell on which he left Wisconsin’s Garret Dooley flat on his face. That cut the lead to 14-7, and it swung the momentum, if not all the way toward Western Michigan, then at least back toward even. However, it also sent all the metaphor detectors into the red zone. There were ancient Viking warlords who didn’t talk about rowing a boat as much as Fleck does.
“I know it’s going to be shocking to you,” Fleck said, “but [the message] was ‘Row the boat.’ Put your oar in the water and just keep rowing. We’re in a storm right now, and it’s pretty bad. But, again, if we stop rowing, it’s going to get a lot worse and we’ll never get out of it.
“Some of you row. Some of you don’t, and we’re going to go in a circle. But if we continue to row, we’re going to get out of it. And we came out of it. There’s high’s and low’s throughout an entire football game. Whether it’s high, whether it’s low, our team is trained to just continue to row and continue to do it for others.”
The prime oarsman—I know, I know, but once you start, you can’t stop yourself—was Corey Davis, the Broncos All-American wide receiver who dug out 73 yards on six catches, none of them more important than his touchdown in the fourth quarter. Nine minutes earlier, Terrell made one of the few egregious mistakes anyone committed all day, throwing into triple coverage from his own end zone and getting picked off by Wisconsin’s T.J. Edwards at the Western Michigan 12-yard line. Fumagalli caught his touchdown pass three plays later and, with 12:34 left in the game, the Badgers had what looked like a decent working margin, 24-10. However, the regatta was far from finished.
The Broncos took the ball on their own 25-yard-line. Mixing up passes to several receivers with runs by Jamauri Bogan, Terrell moved Western Michigan all the way down to the Wisconsin 11, with the Broncos managing to fall on potentially catastrophic fumbles on two consecutive plays late in the drive. All day, in fact, Western Michigan had concocted drives that were as unconventional as they were time-consuming. Their first touchdown had come after two calls were reversed on replay. Now, they were gobbling up their own mistakes. The boat, it seemed, had been rowed into Lucky Town.
With 3:39 left in the game, then, Terrell sprinted away from trouble toward the right sideline while Davis worked his way to the far corner of the end zone in front of him. Right before Terrell let the ball go, Davis worked some NFL-caliber handfighting on Wisconsin’s Sojourn Shelton, wedging himself back toward the ball and catching it within inches of the far right angle of the end zone. Western Michigan kicker Butch Hampton proceeded to miss the extra point, which is one more reason why no emotionally stable person ever should be a college football coach. Fumagalli’s last big play enabled Wisconsin to salt the thing away, the team taking a knee inside the Western Michigan 10-yard-line rather than pushing for another touchdown.
“My four years here have been phenomenal,” Davis said. “We’ve been through so much and I’ve learned so many lessons not only on the field but off the field as well. I’m going to take them with me for the rest of my life, and I can’t thank coach Fleck enough for taking a chance on a kid with little or nothing. He’s just a blessing what he’s done for me, and this has been a great four years, a great ride. I’m proud of each and every one of these guys for everything they’ve done. It’s been a great four years.”
There always should be a place for things like this, for players to end their college careers with a parade and streamers and confetti falling from the ceiling for no other reason than it’s New Year’s and who knows what might come next. Consolation games are meant to console, but they’re also meant to help you celebrate yourself and your teammates. That should be enough, even if the stream ends up not being as merry as you want it to be, and life turns out to not be entirely the dream you dreamed. That should be enough.