Almost Famous goes from being the perfect movie to watch on a long, cross-country flight, to maybe one of the worst? On my way home, I watched it for only the second time in my life. It should be – and absolutely IS – right there in my wheelhouse, so I try not to watch it too much. Better to stave off yearnings that I’ll ever be a William Miller, or that I’ll ever find myself a Penny Lane to pine over to my last breath. Now that I’m sensibly in my 30s, those naive pie in the sky dreams are sucking fumes in the wake of my lost 20s, so maybe I won’t wait another decade or so before watching this movie again.
My break started earlier than anticipated, and on much more of a downer as a result, as I had a funeral to attend in the days leading up to Christmas. The alcohol was endless and my hangover was relentless, but it was a lovely ceremony and it was good to catch up with family I rarely get to see, in snowy Yakima no less.
This led into Christmas Eve, and a Seahawks performance we’d all rather forget. That night, we played beer pong and listened to Christmas music like our lives depended on it. A good time would be had by all, if it fucking killed us!
The next few days harbored a lot of sleep, up to 12 hours per day in many cases. Almost like a year’s worth of working 5 days per week, with diminishing returns on slumber had finally caught up to me. Honestly, I can’t remember the last time I’ve felt so refreshed. Some people need to work or else they feel their lives have no meaning; I just need a fucking paycheck. I could EASILY spend my days doing absolutely nothing, as long as I can live as comfortably as I do right now.
I bought my plane tickets and hotel reservation the day it was announced the Huskies would be playing in the Peach Bowl. I’d made a promise to myself that I would FINALLY go to a Husky bowl game this year, as long as they made it to either one of the playoff games, or the Rose Bowl. And, unlike a lot of people, I didn’t want to hedge and say I’d only go if the Huskies made the National Championship Game. It didn’t matter to me that the opponent was Alabama. It didn’t matter that we’d be facing probably the best Alabama defense of all time – and maybe the best Alabama team in general of all time – nor did it matter that the game was taking place in their backyard. It didn’t even matter that every fiber of my being was screaming out that the Huskies would lose this game. As I’ve said before, this isn’t my first rodeo. I’ve gone to plenty of Husky road games where we had no chance of winning. Much worse Husky teams have been blown out by many more points than what would eventually transpire against Bama, against much worse opponents to boot!
None of that mattered. All that mattered was that Washington was there. They were in the thick of things. They were one of four teams remaining in the chase for the college football championship. They were the talk of the nation (even if the overwhelming majority of that talk was how they had no chance of winning) in the weeks and days leading up to the game. And, quite frankly, even though I didn’t believe the Huskies would win, I had to acknowledge there was still a chance, however remote. There’s a reason why they settle these things on the football field. On any given
Sunday Saturday and whatnot. And IF the Huskies could pull off the upset, I had to be there. I had to see it in person. It would be the greatest win in the history of the program, one of the biggest upsets in the history of the NCAA, and the single greatest sporting event in my lifetime. I’d give ANYTHING to be there in person, to share in the joy with thousands of other die hards who braved the trip.
Well, “ANYTHING” ended up being about $900 for the plane tickets, another $600 for the 3-night hotel stay, $175 for the seat, around $80 for the Atlanta City Pass (so I could get into all of the touristy things I wanted to see while I was there), and various other expenses for food and whatnot while I was in the city. It should prove to be a pretty lean January when it comes to the ol’ budget.
My dad dropped me off at SeaTac the morning of the 29th, where I realized I’d forgotten to pack my ticket to the game. I knew right where it was: on the front seat of my car, parked in front of my dad’s house. But, since I don’t think I ever left the house after Christmas Eve, I never got into my car, and as such I never noticed it was still in there and needed to be packed into one of my bags. Seriously, I had at least 4 days to do this!
I called my dad when he got home, and he was able to get the ticket and scan it for me. So, that was one crisis averted. The flight to St. Louis was uneventful (if a little bumpy upon entry), the layover was relatively short, and the flight to Atlanta was relatively short and uneventful (if a little bumpy upon exit).
By the time I touched down, I was into the 6 o’clock hour. I flew Southwest, which I haven’t done in quite some time, so I forgot about the whole thing with the groups and no assigned seating. I gather that some people don’t like this feature, but I think it’s great! Usually, you have to pay more for a seat in an exit row; with Southwest, you just have to be in the A-group (or at the top of the B-group) and as long as you’re flying solo, you should be able to get the extra leg room you desire. That was the case from St. Louis to Atlanta, and it was a G.D. delight!
Took a cab to the hotel in Midtown, ordered a room service burger and apple crisp, and called it an early night. This was always pegged to be a wasted travel day, considering I was losing 3 hours on the flight, and considering we’re talking about a lot of hours on a plane and walking through airports. Plus, since I was going it alone, I could do what I damn well pleased.
Travelling alone has its benefits and draw-backs, as you can well imagine. Having total control of the itinerary is nice, because I can do whatever I want, whenever I want. But, having someone else do all the planning and logistics is nice too, considering I’m a lazy, lazy man. But, given the shortness of this trip, I really only had to plan activities for one day, and then I could go with the flow the rest of the time.
I woke up at 6am on Friday, walked over to Walgreens to pick up some deodorant and a razor that I’d also forgotten to pack, printed off my game ticket at the little office next to the hotel lobby, and settled into breakfast at the hotel restaurant. From there, it was about a mile’s hike to Atlanta’s Olympic Centennial Park.
First stop: the Georgia Aquarium. I can’t recommend this place enough (as long as you try not to think of it like an aquatic animal prison). Lots of different fish exhibits to walk through – including one area with a moving floor, and glass all around, so it’s like you’re moving underneath the sea – as well as a bomb-ass dolphin show. I spent the most time here, and even had lunch in their little cafe (pulled bbq chicken, spinach, mac & cheese, and corn bread).
Next stop: World of Coca-Cola. Upon entry, they herd you into a lobby where they hand out free mini-bottles of a Coke of your choice. This is where having the City Pass comes in handy, as I was ushered around the long line of people waiting outside and got right in. From there, you wait a bit in this giant cluster of people until they open the doors to the next room, which has a ramp and a little open area at the bottom. There, one of the employees talks you through all the memorabilia on the wall and gives you a bit of a history lesson on all things Coke. After a few minutes of that, we were led through some more doors, where there was a movie theater. We sat through, I want to say, a 5-minute Coke commercial. Once that was finished, more doors, and the rest of the 2-story museum. Lots of memorabilia, an opportunity to take a pic with a guy in a polar bear costume, a giant gift shop, and probably the main reason to go: a big room full of soda fountains, with Coca-Cola products from around the world. It was pretty overwhelming, to be honest, and absolutely jam-packed with people (mostly kids), so it was tough to get to most of the sodas you might want to try. I did end up trying something called Beverly soda, which is a (discontinued?) European product and tastes like dead asshole run through a puke factory. I ended up cleansing my palette with some pineapple Fanta before calling it. I mean, this room would’ve been my jam when I was in my teens; I’m pretty sure I would’ve made it a point to try absolutely everything they had to offer had I been 20 years younger. As it is, who has the time? Plus, I had other things I wanted to do that didn’t involve shoving a bunch of kids out of the way as I plowed through the sugar-water orgy.
Next stop: The Center For Civil & Human Rights Museum. I chose this over the Atlanta Zoo mostly because I find the civil rights movement much more interesting. Plus, I’d already been to an Aquarium that day, and anything to get away from another giant throng of kids. Lots of cool info laid out in a really cool way; I highly recommend it, particularly now that we’re fully into Trump’s America.
Next stop: Coffee. Because I was fucking exhausted from walking around all day, dehydrated as all hell (got a bottle of water too), and needed some time off my feet to recharge and re-energize.
Next stop: College Football Hall of Fame. I chose this over the Natural History Museum because I’ve already been to the New York Natural History Museum, and there’s no way Atlanta’s version would be able to top it. This was pretty great. There was a mini-Fan Fest going on, what with the Peach Bowl happening the next day and whatnot. You could run the cones, kick an extra point, throw footballs through a hole, the whole deal. They also had all the trophies (from each major bowl, as well as the Heisman, among others), an interactive part that showed each College Football Hall of Fame class, where you could use the giant touch-screens to find the coach/player of your choice and read about their achievements. They had all the helmets of all the college football teams. Lots of old memorabilia, you name it. It was pretty sweet. Not a lot of Husky stuff there though, which I found odd, considering they were playing in the God damn city’s bowl the next day, but what are you gonna do?
Next stop: Stats Sports Bar. Because I didn’t feel much like doing the CNN Tour (which is the final component of the Atlanta City Pass), which is just another hour or more on your feet walking through their giant building. Considering I don’t even like WATCHING the news on TV, there really wasn’t a great interest to see how the sausage is made. Also, let’s face it, I needed a beer and some fried pork dumplings! I needed to sit down, watch some sports on TV, and gather my thoughts.
I ended up leaving around 4:30pm. I had many options at that point, one of which was a live broadcasting of Softy’s radio show at the German bar next door to Stats. But, that wasn’t going to start until 6pm. Which would have been fine under normal circumstances, but I didn’t totally feel like sitting in a bar by myself getting shitfaced for 90+ minutes. On top of that, I kinda had to poop, and that’s not really an enticing practice at a sports bar, what with all the piss everywhere on the floor and on the seat and whatnot and so forth. This really ended up dictating my entire evening, as I had planned on going to a bar/restaurant that was playing jazz music, which was closer to all the touristy stuff I was seeing than it was to my hotel. Given how tired I was from walking around all day, as soon as I made it back to my room, I knew I wasn’t leaving again the rest of the night.
So, I ordered some pizza from a local place, kicked off my shoes, and watched a lot of football and South Park in the room.
I opted to sleep in and eat leftover pizza for breakfast on gameday. Considering the damn thing cost $40 with tip, I was going to make sure that large pizza lasted me a few meals the rest of the way.
When I was finally ready, about two hours before kickoff, I hailed a cab, who got me close to the Georgia Dome. From there, it was relatively painless getting in. Frankly, I’d expected more of a hassle getting through security.
I got my ticket through a friend who has season tickets and wasn’t going to the game. I had no idea where it would be or how much it would cost until it arrived at his home in the days before Christmas. It ended up being in the Club level, 3rd row, just above the Husky band. I opted to keep it sober at the game, primarily because I wanted to actually REMEMBER the game, but also because stadium beers are fucking expensive as hell and they were cutting off beer sales at the end of halftime. Not having to get up to pee and buy more beer every 30 minutes was also a nice little draw.
I guess you could call where I was sitting the “Husky section” of the stadium, but there were still plenty of Alabama fans scattered throughout. If I had to pull an estimate, I’d say it was 75/25 Alabama fans in attendance overall. It’s really interesting to see how they watch a game, compared to what I’m used to. Now, this might have been a result of them playing a Washington team they had no fears for whatsoever, but they were pretty quiet when Bama was on defense. I’d say if anything, they sort of got it up whenever the Huskies were faced with a 3rd down, but other than that, the atmosphere wasn’t really overwhelming.
That is, until Alabama scored, at which point the place erupted and my eardrums throbbed.
I didn’t run into any unruly or rude Bama fans. They were mostly friendly and chatty and generally curious about a Washington team they knew absolutely nothing about. What can you do? They’re an SEC team whose entire world revolves around the SEC.
The funniest part of the game was listening to the Alabama fans bitch about Lane Kiffin. “God dang it, Lane!” was shouted whenever Bama went away from the run game. Suffice it to say, they like Lane Kiffin about as much as any other fan base who has had to have him as their coach/coordinator, or any other fan base who has had their team go up against his, or just anyone else in general, because Lane Kiffin seems like he’s really unpleasant as a human being. I’m sure Florida Atlantic will regret hiring him in no time.
So, all right, let’s get into the game itself.
To start, I couldn’t be prouder of this team and especially this defense. The 2016 Huskies have, without question, a world championship-calibre defense. Are they better than Alabama’s defense? Probably not; that was probably the best defensive effort I’ve ever seen in my life. What Alabama was able to do with five and six-man fronts in stopping the run, while doing what they did to shut down our passing attack, was legendary. Nevertheless, Washington’s defense wasn’t that far off. Had our offense come to play, we had a legitimate shot at winning this game.
I’ll always wonder “What If” with this one. I mean, it’s absolutely remarkable how we were able to march right down the field in the first quarter to take a 7-0 lead, followed by how we were totally and completely shut down the rest of the way! We went 64 yards on 8 plays, in just under 4 minutes, and at that point – when Pettis made the fantastic catch in the endzone – it looked like the Huskies had the blueprint to beat this Bama team!
Then, Alabama showed everyone why they’re so highly regarded. On the very next drive, they ran on 8 of their 9 plays, moving the ball at will to tie the game at 7. From there, you had to wonder if we’d ever stop their run game. I mean, they did it like it was nothing! Like we weren’t even standing there! If they would’ve replayed that game and just ran the ball on every down, you could’ve talked me into Alabama winning by 50 points, just based on that one drive alone.
But, it’s a testament to how stubborn Lane Kiffin is that he’d continuously go away from the one thing that was working for his offense. Alabama’s quarterback, Jalen Hurts, wasn’t able to do much through the air, completing 7 of 14 for 57 yards; and we even held him in check on the ground, with 50 yards on a whopping 19 carries! If you’d told me he’d have that type of output before the game, I would’ve bet on the Huskies shocking the world.
This game came down to field position and 3 key plays. There wasn’t much we could do about the field position. Our offense couldn’t do a damn thing to flip it, and even the few times we did, Alabama was able to get enough yards to get to around mid-field, where their punter was able to pin us inside the 10 yard line more often than not. I mean, I get that Alabama gets all the best high school players from around the country, but how is it fair that they also have the best punter in college football to boot?
On a related note, the one thing the Alabama fans around me were impressed with when it came to Washington’s football team was our own punter. They were mesmerized with how many yards he was able to get – with his rugby style of punting – on the bounce, when their return man kept coming up short on the fair catch.
The field position thing could’ve been overcome – I’ll always believe that – had we not suffered the 3 key plays I referenced above.
Play 1 – The John Ross Fumble. We’ve since come to learn what was plainly obvious all year: John Ross has declared for the NFL Draft. It was pretty brutal how much of a non-factor he was in this game, considering he’s the best player on our team (I was honestly shocked it didn’t come out that he’d already declared for the draft midway through the first half of the game). Compared to all the athletes on the Crimson Tide, John Ross looked slow as shit on his kick returns; no impact there. He ended up with 5 catches for 28 yards on offense; no impact there. And, with Washington once again moving the ball near the end of the first quarter, immediately after the Alabama touchdown to tie the game, near midfield, Ross caught a short pass and had the ball knocked out of his 1-handed grasp. It was obviously pretty demoralizing – because all anyone is thinking about if you’re a Husky player or a Husky fan, is that you CAN’T CAN’T CAN’T turn the ball over against Alabama if you expect to win (indeed, you probably have to play a perfect game, and even that might not be enough) – but our defense was able to hold Bama to a field goal, so it wasn’t the worst thing in the world. At that point, as a Husky fan, all I was thinking was, “John Ross will make this up to us somehow.” Of course, he would not, but I don’t know how much of that was his fault necessarily.
Play 2 – The Pick Six. This was the back-breaker. I’m going to have nightmares about this one for a good, long while. The Husky defense had settled into their dominating performance, having forced three punts on the last three Alabama possessions. You had to believe, from a Husky standpoint, that if we’d just kept it a 1-possession game, we’d be able to break through at some point. Then, Jake was pressured, and threw out into the flat before taking the sack. Unfortunately, he was throwing to Lavon Coleman, who isn’t an ideal target in that scenario. And, he was wildly off-target on top of that, throwing it right into the waiting arms of the defender who had an easy touchdown in front of him. When you factor in we were under 2 minutes left to go in the half, and we had a little momentum with a couple of first downs to that point in the drive, and there aren’t any words to describe my despair at that moment. Scoring on that drive would’ve been huge, but going into halftime down just 10-7 would’ve at least given us hope for a second half run! But, going into halftime down two scores felt like the game was over. I wanted to go home right there. At that point, it felt over to me. Alabama’s defense had hardly given an inch aside from our lone scoring drive, there was no way we’d be able to make up the difference unless there was some freaky defensive score on the horizon. But, I mean, Bama could’ve just knelt down three times and punted on each of their second half drives and let their defense do all the work and it would’ve ended up with nearly the same result. Nevertheless, I stayed all the way to the bitter end, which was made all the more difficult after Play 3.
Play 3 – The 68-Yard TD Run. Bo Scarbrough was the offensive MVP of this game without question. He had 180 yards on 19 carries and 2 TDs. Even without this run – where he broke about a million tackles en route to crushing our hopes and dreams – he still averaged over 6 yards per run the rest of the day. And, mind you, that’s a day where – as I said before – the Husky defense played out of their minds! At this point in the game, we still had most of the 4th quarter left to go. Had we stopped him, I don’t think the Huskies could’ve come up with the 10 points they needed to tie the game. But, we didn’t stop him, and with that it was decided. A 17-point lead for Alabama with a little over 11 minutes to go is absolutely insurmountable.
I should’ve left right there and gotten a jump on the nearly 2-mile walk back to the hotel, but I sat and suffered. I mean, when would the Huskies ever get back to this point again?
It’s at this point that I’d like to take a minute to address all these Husky fans who keep saying that we’re “ahead of schedule” in this thing. Look, I’m as guilty as anyone of “just being happy to be there” when it comes to being in the final four and in the College Football Playoffs. I could never honestly believe that Washington was going to beat Alabama, and quite frankly it was hard to even imagine a way we’d win this game without the Crimson Tide starters suffering simultaneous heart attacks on the way to the stadium. And, aside from that, I can appreciate how far we’ve come from how low the program was after the 2008 winless season. Chris Petersen has done a PHENOMENAL job in his three years, and I absolutely believe he’s the right man for the job.
We came into the 2016 season hoping for some improvement – maybe even an outside shot at the Rose Bowl – but we never expected all this. We set our sights – probably wrongly – for the 2017 season as the target season to start thinking about national playoffs and whatnot. In that sense, sure, you could say we’re “ahead of schedule”, but the thing is: there IS no schedule. There’s no guarantee the Huskies will even be within a game or two of the Pac-12 Championship next year! There’s certainly no guarantee we’ll be better next year than we were this year! Sure, you figure the guys we’ll still have around – particularly Browning, Pettis, and Gaskin, among many of our young studs on defense – will be improved with another year’s experience. But, do you realize the impact we’re going to face with all of the guys leaving for the NFL draft? On top of John Ross, and the obvious outgoing seniors, we’re also talking about almost the entire starting secondary! That’s the strongest part of the team we’re going to have to fully refurbish! In a conference that prides itself on its high-flying passing attacks!
The 2016 Husky defense is the best defense we’ve had since those early-90s Don James teams. It’s certainly the best one we’ve had since I’ve been a fan, and it might be the best defense Chris Petersen EVER has! Which is why it’s so frustrating to have to look forward to next year, when our chance was NOW! It’s fine to be pleased with the direction of the program and look forward to the coming seasons. Husky football should be in the national conversation for at least the next two years, if not much longer (however long Coach Pete wants to stick around, anyway). But, these playoff appearances don’t grow on trees. You have to grab your opportunity by the horns when it comes, regardless of whether or not you’re “ahead of schedule”. Even if the Huskies win the Pac-12 next year and even if they somehow manage the same record in the process, there’s no guarantee we’ll be invited back, considering it’s still a committee of human beings who decide the top four teams. This might be the ONLY team Coach Pete ever takes to the college football playoffs; we won’t know for many years probably!
That’s why I’m taking the loss as hard as I am. Even though this Alabama team was a lot like the 1996 Bulls and our Huskies were a lot like the 1996 Supersonics, this still may have been our only opportunity for a National Championship in my lifetime, and to get so close, only to have three plays dictate your defeat … it’s just a lot to take in as a sports fan.
In the closing minutes of the game, a couple of Huskies were taken out by some cheapshots from a couple Alabama players during an interception return. I didn’t see what happened, but it looked pretty shitty to see a couple of our players on the ground in a game that was clearly over. It was doubly shitty when the majority of Bama fans in the stadium were chanting something afterward (S-E-C, I would come to learn later). I was too demoralized to really get in much of a huff about it, though. It was pretty funny to see a very large individual, with a very large red beard, in a Husky jersey with the number 69 on it, and his very large father, with very large white hair, both standing in the first row of our section, saying nothing, but holding two furious middle fingers in the air towards the Alabama bench. I don’t know what they were hoping to accomplish – getting on the jumbotron maybe? – but I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen two people quivering with so much rage.
It should probably come as no surprise after the clock reached double-zeroes, and the confetti started blowing around the stadium, when a drunken Alabama couple ran down the steps of our section, waving their red & white pom poms around, dancing next to the large front row seat dwellers, when the younger one – like a rampaging rhino – bulled into the couple, knocking the female over in the process, as he ran up the stairs and out of the stadium. It happened in an instant, and I was too flabbergasted to turn around and see if anyone stopped him, but if I’m being honest, I don’t know if anyone – or even a group of anyones – could’ve slowed the beast. It was quite the spectacle, to be sure.
I didn’t stick around much longer after that, so I don’t know what came of him or his father. It was a long, cold, hilly walk back to my hotel. By the time I got there, the Fiesta Bowl was on and Ohio State was in the process of getting blown out twice as worse as we did. So, you know, at least they knocked the Huskies off the front page. And, in the end, more people came away impressed with our defensive performance than they did rubbing it in about how we “didn’t belong”. Considering Michigan and Penn State both lost their bowl games as well, it’s hard to make much of an argument for the Big 10 this year. Were they the nation’s best conference? Hardly. They just had the most highly-ranked batch of over-rated losers come bowl season.
I spent New Years Eve in the room, with two bottles of wine and more leftover pizza. I couldn’t move. Not after all the walking the last two days. Not alone in a strange city, where quite frankly there were more nearby police sirens going off on the reg than I like to hear. But, it’s okay. I wasn’t really in a partying mood, and New Years Eve is the Big 10 of holidays. Plus, I had a flight to get up for the next day.
I was up by 8am, no worse for the wear from the wine, and I left shortly after to get to the airport for breakfast and sitting. A short flight to Baltimore and an insanely long flight to Seattle later, and my dad was picking me up. They DVR’d the Seahawks game for me, so I got to see us settle for the 3-seed while enjoying a few holiday Bud Lights. Not much of a consolation, but it’s better than nothing, I guess.