Forgive the Colorado buffaloes if they seem unsure of how to behave just now. They have never walked this path before. Being undefeated and all but assured of playing for the national championship on Jan. 1 is new to Colorado. So when an overly exuberant player punched through a dressing-room ceiling tile after Colorado's 27-21 victory over Nebraska last Saturday, his teammates figured, hey, this must be what great teams do after clutch wins. In a matter of minutes, ceiling tiles littered the floor.
Though the Buffaloes' celebration had an impromptu feel to it, others had come to Folsom Field in Boulder, Colo., better prepared. Immediately after the game, hawkers outside the stadium shouted "Extra! Extra!" as they sold special-edition copies of The Denver Post. BUFFS BEAT NEBRASKA IN GAME OF THE CENTURY trumpeted the Post's headline. The matchup was hardly that, but the winner would probably face Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl for the national title on New Year's Day. Both Colorado and Nebraska came to the game undefeated. And though the Corn-huskers" schedule appeared to have been arranged by a pastry chef rather than an athletic director, Nebraska promised to be Colorado's toughest foe of the season.
How did the Buffaloes win? Well, it wasn't with pass defense. Colorado's defensive backs took a competent, if uninspiring, Nebraska quarterback, Gerry Gdowski, and nearly turned him into a hero. Gdowski threw for 211 yards and three touchdowns, was not intercepted and seemed able to convert third downs at will. Nor did the Buffs win with pass offense. By sending safety Tyrone Byrd flying up to stuff the option, the Huskers appeared to have made themselves vulnerable to the pass. The problem was, almost every time Colorado quarterback Darian Hagan tried to set up and throw, some carnivorous defensive lineman climbed through his face mask. The Buffs' offensive line, which had been strong all season, was humbled by Nebraska. Pass protection was nonexistent.
Fortunately for the Buffaloes, Hagan didn't need much help. With some timely assistance from tailback J.J. Flannigan, who ached for redemption after a costly fumble against Nebraska last season, and Jeff Campbell, an ex-hockey player and walk-on from nearby Vail, who set up two touchdowns with electric punt returns, Hagan mustered enough offense to carry the day.
November 13, 1989
Afterward, Campbell identified the primary reason for the Buffs' 9-0 season. "We have a focus," he said, inclining his head toward the other side of the dressing room. There, a locker had been encased in plate glass and transformed into a shrine of sorts. Inside it was the uniform of the Buffaloes' late quarterback, Sal Aunese, who died of stomach cancer on Sept. 23, at the age of 21. In a letter to his teammates, Aunese wrote, "Hold me dear to your heart, as you know I do all of you. Strive only for victory each time we play...I love you all. "Go gettem' and bring home the Orange Bowl. Love, Sal."
A cruel twist in Colorado's schedule made that an extra tall order. The Buffs' two toughest opponents, Oklahoma and Nebraska, would come back-to-back, seven days apart. Thus, when corner-back Dave McCloughan batted away Gdowski's final desperation heave Saturday, the Buffs' 9-0 record was not nearly as significant as their season-within-a-season 2-0 mark.
Five years ago, Colorado had finished 1-10, with a 42-17 loss to Oklahoma. On Oct. 26, two days before this season's game with the Sooners. Colorado coach Bill McCartney concluded practice by handing out T-shirts bearing a simple inscription in bold red letters: THINGS HAVE CHANGED.
Thus clad in inspirational attire, the Buffaloes boarded buses to begin the trip to Norman. How had things changed? For starters, the Buffaloes were favored by six points, a concept many veteran Colorado fans simply could not grasp. Yes, Colorado had a better record than the 5-2 Sooners, and Oklahoma's wishbone would not be a mystery to Colorado's front seven, one of the nation's best. And, as usual, Oklahoma's passing game would be more a source of amusement than yardage. Yet there was one immutable fact: The Buffaloes had not won in Norman since 1965. "No team has dominated Colorado, down through the years, like they have," said McCartney, whose personal 0-7 record against the Sooners qualified him as an expert.
McCartney then explained the T-shirt slogan: "What I'm trying to emphasize to the guys is that, if we go down there and lose, then Oklahoma people will say, 'Look, even in their best year, Colorado still can't beat Oklahoma.' "
As he spoke, a tall, striking young woman got out of a nearby car and came over to him. "Tim's asleep," Kristyn McCartney said to her father. "Now's a good time for you to say goodbye to him." With that, the coach walked to the car and gurgled various endearments to his seven-month-old grandson, the child of Kristyn and Aunese.
In one way or another, Aunese's presence is everywhere around this Colorado team. The extent to which the Buffaloes have gone to keep his memory alive is touching, if slightly macabre. Normally, for an away game, 60 players are chosen for the traveling squad; 59 made the trip to Norman. A seat was left empty on the bus to the airport and on the charter flight to Oklahoma City. A place was set for Aunese at each team meal. At the motel in Oklahoma City, wide receiver Mark Henry had a room to himself—in a sense. The other bed was left vacant for Aunese.
One of the goals Aunese had set for himself, once he learned that his cancer was terminal, was to live to see this year's Oklahoma game. He had had a rocky outing against the Sooners last season; twice he missed open receivers for what would have been easy scores. Aunese was obsessed with gaining revenge for the Buffs' 17-14 loss.
"He blamed the whole game on himself," said defensive tackle Okland Salavea. "He would say, 'I should have hit Eric Bieniemy in the end zone; I shouldn't have overthrown Tom Stone.' He talked about it so much, I tried to find ways to get Oklahoma off his mind."
Salavea speaks well, though deliberately: English is his second language. Like Aunese, he is Samoan. Unlike Aunese, who was born and raised in the San Diego area, Salavea moved from Samoa to Oceanside, Calif., in high school. He was the late quarterback's closest friend, and his teammates say he has taken Aunese's loss the hardest.
"Sal said he'd be at that game," said McCartney. "We believed him." Aunese was unable to keep that promise, but the Buffs did not let him down. The Colorado defense completely stymied Oklahoma, limiting the Sooners to a lone field goal en route to a 20-3 victory.
"We have come to take our place at the Big Eight table," said linebacker Michael Jones afterward. "We are tired of being dogs, feeding on the scraps."
Would the Buffaloes forgo their customary Saturday night celebration, the better to prepare for Nebraska? "Oh, no," said Jones. "We need to get this out." And so, once back in Boulder, they hit the town hard. That was nothing new for them, of course, but this year, according to a set of self-imposed rules, Saturday is now the only night when the Buffaloes can roam.
Over the last several years, some two dozen Colorado players have been arrested on charges ranging from simple assault to rape. The mini crime wave tainted the team's success on the field, and before this season began, the senior players decided something should be done. "We wanted to start a tradition, like they have at USC and Notre Dame and the other big schools," said senior guard Darrin Muilenburg. They decreed that no Buffalo would patronize Boulder's bars and clubs except on Saturday night. At first, there was near mutiny among the players, until tackle Bill Coleman stood up and said, "How much is the Big Eight championship worth to you? So little that you can't give up Tuesday nights at Tulagi?" There were no dissenters, and so far this season Colorado players have been able to avoid appearances in police reports.
The nightlife prohibition cuts down on drinking; it also keeps football players off the streets of Boulder, limiting the opportunities for mixing with the townsfolk. Many of the Colorado players who have been arrested in the last two years for fighting are black. And many of them say they fought because they were subjected to racial slurs.
"We're talking about something anybody would do," says Flannigan. Last year Flannigan received a deferred sentence on a charge of third-degree assault that alleged he slapped a woman who, he claimed, had uttered a racial epithet. Jones, who is an officer in the university's Black Student Alliance, says that it is not easy being black in Boulder, which is 98% white. "Are you familiar with Howard University?" he asks, referring to the predominantly black school in Washington, D.C. "This school is like Howard in reverse. I'm not criticizing it for that; that's just the reality."
For a cultural outlet, black students at Colorado often drive 40 minutes to Denver. "Not just for nightclubs," says Jones, who is from San Diego. "But for churches, jazz concerts, restaurants—things you take for granted growing up in a black community." Black players say that Boulder doesn't even have a barber shop that knows how to cut their hair. Fortunately, defensive tackle Art Walker has won his teammates' trust as a hairstylist. "You just show Art a picture of what you want, he does it," says Jones.
While all has been quiet this fall, Colorado's black players are not ready to say that the racial climate in Boulder has improved. Says Flannigan, "During the season we're not on the streets that much. Ask me again this winter."
On the Monday before the Nebraska game, Flannigan's immediate problem was the throng of reporters gathered outside the Colorado clubhouse before practice. He knew that he would be one of the team's most sought-after interviews—the result of an old error. In the second quarter against Nebraska last season, Flannigan had burst into the Husker secondary and found himself face-to-face with nothing but daylight. Six points, easy, for Flannigan, who has run the 40 in 4.28. Except that, without being touched, he dropped the ball. Colorado lost 7-0, and Flannigan learned he would never hear the last of that fumble.
Monday's practice ended with a lesson on—of all things—how to eat lobster. That night, the supplier of the team's training meals was to make good on his offer of a lobster dinner if the Buffaloes beat Oklahoma. The tutoring, though, was wasted on Salavea. "In Samoa, that was all we ate," he said. He consumed several lobsters, including, to the general disgust of everyone at his table, the crustaceans' brains and, as his teammates described it, "green stuff."
Strength coach Jeff (Maddog) Madden, for one, was glad to see it. Madden routinely inspects Salavea's plate after meals to be certain he is consuming enough, for Salavea is a finicky eater and has had problems keeping weight on. Last year, he played at 236; he is now at 265, give or take a lobster claw or two.
Amid the lobster shells, the talk at dinner was of Nebraska linebacker Jeff Mills. Posted on the bulletin board in the Colorado locker room was an article from the Rocky Mountain News in which Mills was quoted as saying, "They can use Sal Aunese's death however they want...they still have to strap it up and play football."
The Buffs regarded those as fighting words. Said fullback Erich Kissick, "If he's implying we're milking Sal's death, he doesn't know what he's talking about. Sal will be with me the rest of my life."
Said McCartney, "Nobody could orchestrate the way the team has come together. Nobody could plan it. It just comes from within."
In his office several days before the Nebraska game, McCartney noted that snow was in the forecast, and the observation triggered a memory. "When it gets cold up here, a lot of guys put on gloves and add layers of clothes," said the coach. "Not Sal. Sal was from San Diego, but he refused to acknowledge the cold. He'd go out in short sleeves, just like a lineman. It was like that when he got sick. He refused to show us his pain. Only his spirit." By the end of his reminiscence, McCartney was crying.
By the next morning, Boulder was under five inches of snow. "This isn't bad," said Walker. "It isn't one of those bitter cold snows we get in February, around then." He was equally unimpressed with Nebraska's offensive line, which he had been studying on film since 8 a.m. "Oh, they do some things to try to trick you. They'll pull a guard one way and run the other way. Nothing I haven't seen."
Walker is a key member of the celebrated H-boys—three Buffaloes who hail from Houston. The other two are linebackers Alfred Williams and Kanavis McGhee. The H-boys live together off campus and take considerable pride in their nickname. Williams was one of 19 players to attend a pep rally at Boulder's Crest View Elementary school last Thursday morning. Introducing him-self, he said, "Hello, I'm beautiful—I mean Alfred Williams—I'm a linebacker from Houston, Texas, and I'm one of the H-boys."
The children cheered loudly for this young man who was so obviously pleased with himself. The pep rally's highlight was provided by a fifth-grade class's one-act play. Matt Hess depicted a Colorado player, a bowl of oranges tucked under one arm, standing triumphantly over prostrate Cornhusker Nathan Manning. At the conclusion, Alex Azcona and Chris Angelovic performed an a cappella version of The Buffalo Rap, which they had composed the day before. The rap began:
I went to the stadium / With a football in my hand / I'm a mean football player / I'm a stadium man....
I must admit / My running was fun / But I'm sorry to say / My rap is done.
Around Boulder, the excitement over the Nebraska game was only beginning. Tickets were being sold for $200 apiece. Supermarkets found they could not keep oranges in stock. A local TV station held a contest offering tickets to people willing to do crazy things. The response was overwhelming—or, perhaps, alarming. One woman hacked off a foot of her waist-length hair. Another smeared herself with honey and then was drenched in oatmeal. One man agreed to sit still as buffalo dung was dumped on him.
"I want them to raise the rafters." McCartney had said about the home crowd, but as the game began, it was clear that he needn't have worried. The crowd was boisterous and deafening—until Hagan was intercepted on his second pass of the day. the Buffs' fourth play from scrimmage. The stadium grew quieter still as the Huskers scored on their first play from scrimmage, a 51-yard screen pass from Gdowski to fullback Bryan Carpenter.
It took all of two possessions for the Colorado offense to establish that it could not 1) pass the ball or 2) run it inside. Hagan's pass protection was feeble, and Bieniemy, the team's best inside runner, remained hobbled by a fractured right fibula, suffered three weeks before against Iowa State. Clearly, Hagan had to make something happen. On Colorado's third possession, on first and 10 at the Buffalo 30, he did. The call: option left. Hagan kept, turning the corner, and, as he has done all season, froze the defenders by faking the pitch to Flannigan. This time, however, 30 yards downfield, Hagan did pitch to Flannigan, who had trailed the quarterback down the field. Cradling the ball as if it were an infant—"I was thinking, get into the end zone, then celebrate," he said later—Flannigan scored and was credited with a 70-yard run.
Nebraska was forced to punt on its next possession. The kick was short, and Campbell probably should have called for a fair catch. Earlier in the week, however, Colorado assistant Bob Simmons had seen that the Huskers were susceptible to "middle-right returns." Campbell hip-faked his way through the first wave of tacklers and cut to his right, scooting inside a black-and-gold picket fence. He was finally tackled at the Nebraska four, and three plays later, Hagan scored on a one-yard run around the left end. Early in the second half, Campbell and the punt return team did it again, taking a kick 55 yards to the Husker 19. Flannigan scored eight plays later on a pitch from Hagan.
Both of Campbell's returns were crucial for the Buffs. "When your offense is sputtering, and your defense can't force a turnover, your special teams have to do it for you," said McCartney. "Ours did." Indeed, Ken Culbertson's 49-yard field goal into a stiff breeze gave the Buffs a 17-14 halftime lead. And Tom Rouen averaged 51 yards on five punts.
When time finally expired and the crowd covered Folsom Field and rendered the goalposts horizontal, Flannigan's first thoughts were for his own safety. "My goal was to get off the field and into the locker room as quick as I could," he said. Something turned him around. "I had to get out there and see that scoreboard one more time."
Later he reflected on how far Colorado had come. He agreed that, not long ago, the Buffaloes were a source of embarrassment to the university. "But right now," Flannigan said, "they can't be anything but proud of us."