It still makes me physically ill to think about. Four years later, and really the moment took all of two seconds. But whenever I recall it, my stomach turns and knots up and I want to puke.
I’m of course talking about a football game. One game. One play, in fact. One second in the sixty minutes that make up a football game that four years later still hurts.
I was in my regular seat at Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field in Starkville, Mississippi on September 26, 2009. My Mississippi State Bulldogs were under the reigns of first year head coach Dan Mullen. Mullen had already produced some good results, with two wins in the first three games. There was optimism in Starkville that hadn’t been felt in several years.
Without fail, though, the Bulldogs had ended up with the toughest schedule in the country that year. In fact, it was a schedule so nasty that the NCAA would later call the 2nd toughest in the past 10 years. So fans weren’t OVERLY optimistic. And on this particular afternoon, they were having to go up against the Louisiana State Tigers, ranked in the top 10 and looking fierce. We didn’t have high hopes for the game, but we were optimistic. Cautiously optimistic.
Something you need to know about me: I’m the type of person that when something good has the chance of happening, I’ll go totally for it. It’s why I don’t play poker for real money. I’ll play nearly every hand, recklessly hoping for that one card that would win me the whole lot. I’ll raise like a madman if there’s even the slightest chance that a straight could fall into my hands and I will reap the rewards. It’s dumb, and in my life it will sometimes lead to some frustration and some hurt. Okay, not sometimes. Pretty often, I’m left with hurt and mess and confusion, but for that brief moment before then? When the world seems bright and hope is all around me? It makes the hurt and mess that is sure to come more difficult, but more worthwhile.
Mississippi State fans are not like that. We have seen too much hurt and mess and confusion to ever be too hopeful in anything. But this game? This game was unlike anything we could have expected. Instead of being totally blown out, like we thought we would be, MSU was hanging tough and staying close to the Tigers. I started to get that feeling. The feeling that there might be a light, and I should pour myself into that hope. And somehow, someway, hope infect the entire stadium. The world seemed bright. And we all collectively bought into that hope and that brightness. We bought into it hard, and we never looked back. This would be the moment where things would work out for us. This would be that moment.
Everything started to fall into place. Running back Anthony Dixon was unstoppable near the goal line, bowling through for two touchdowns. Quarterback Tyson Lee was making all the correct reads on running options, moving the ball surprisingly well against a stout LSU defense. The score was 30-26 in the 4th quarter, and Mississippi State was moving the ball. The clock was about to run out, and the Bulldogs were about to score and walk out with a massive victory.
We held onto hope. Against all odds and against our own human nature, we held onto hope. We saw even the faintest glimmer of light and the faintest chance of something working out in our favor, and we gave up everything to run after that hope.
What played out next is unlike anything I had ever seen before. The Bulldogs got to the one yard line, just like they had before. They handed it off to Anthony Dixon, just like they had before. But this time, he was stopped. In fact, on one play he got in but the referees didn’t see it and claimed he was short. All the things that had fallen so neatly into place? That made it seem like this was meant to be? They started to fall apart.
Then came the last play. The play that still makes me sick. The play that I can vividly see in my mind and feel in my gut. The play where everything froze as the 53,612 people in attendance felt the unjust payment for moment they decided to buy into hope.
Tyson Lee kept the ball. The defense had known it was going to Anthony Dixon, so he faked the handoff and kept the ball. Only this time? This time the defense didn’t aim for Dixon. They aimed for Tyson. And try as he might, he couldn’t battle his way quite into the endzone. He was stopped. All of that hope collapsed. What was meant to be simply wasn’t.
One inch short.
The stadium was silent. Even the LSU fans could hardly make a sound. How did any of that just happen? How did everyone know the outcome of a game, just to see it change suddenly before their very eyes? We all were certain about what was going to happen. And then….well, then it just didn’t.
Afterward, coaches would say they messed up the play call. Tyson Lee, being the ever gracious leader he was, would take the responsibility upon himself. There would be a million fingers pointed, but truthfully, nobody could say anything more than the fact that thinking about the game made them sad. Made them ill. They hoped in something fully that maybe shouldn’t have been, and it hurt them. It hurt us. And it hurts us still.
I think I learned something that day. Maybe we all learned something, or maybe wiser people watching already knew it, but I for one definitely learned something. I learned that sometimes you can do everything right and still lose. You can know exactly what to do, charge full speed ahead, and somehow still come up short. Maybe it’s just inches, but it can happen. I learned that that life operates in such an unfair way that even if the planning and execution line up perfectly, sometimes things still just won’t work out.
The question remains, though: how do you respond to that?
For those Mississippi State Bulldogs, the choice was clear. They shouldn’t have even had a chance to win that game, but they nearly did. So they came out the next week, battered and bruised and they did everything they could again. They fought. Hard. All year long. Against obstacles and opponents that they could have looked at and said, “Nope. Not a chance. Not worth the effort.” They somehow worked out five wins in a season that was set up for maybe two. And yeah, maybe those five wins didn’t get them to a bowl or even given them a winning season. But those wins came just as much from effort as they did anything else. And therefore, they were important.
They did everything right and came up short. But they never stopped. They never stopped.
And for me personally? Well, I should probably say that I looked at that moment as a chance to reevaluate how I placed my hope. To maybe be more cautious with that sort of thing, not throwing myself directly into whatever slight glimmer of an opportunity there might be. To put a bit more of a cynical shell around myself, so that I could avoid future disappointment and letdown. I should have learned that I have to hope less, be cautious more, and carefully consider the odds and obstacles before making a move.
But saying that would be a lie. I am still the same man, recklessly throwing my hope and my heart out at the chance that maybe, just maybe, this will be something that works out well for me. This might just be the chance where I do everything right and it actually pays off. And you know what? It might not be that chance. It might blow up in my face. Again. As it’s so very prone to do and as it has done countless times before. It might just cause more hurt and mess and confusion. And that’s okay. That football team didn’t look at the one inch they failed to earn and cancel the rest of the season. They continued, even if they knew that light of hope was so very faint.
And so will I. What choice do I have? I will hope recklessly for the chance to gain that one inch needed. To fight my hardest, to do the right thing, and to just maybe someday be rewarded for it.
On Saturdays in the Fall, you’ll find me in my regular seat at Davis Wade Stadium at Scott Field, throwing my hope and my heart into people that I know will at some point disappoint me. It’s more fun to hope and get burned than it is to approach the unknowns in life with cynicism.
Because that’s the beauty of coming up short. Sometimes you don’t.