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The tragic end
After loss, K-State fans wonder: How do you cope when your dreams brush past you?
It was so hard to believe. Many Wildcat fans and Andre Beard, above, were in shock after the loss to A&M.Friday's Mercury: What led up to the 1998 season, and why it was so special for K-State fans.
The 1998 season will forever be defined by one game when it all went kaboom. Or pffft, like a balloon with a very fast leak.
K-State was to play Texas A&M in the conference title game on Dec. 5 in the Trans World Dome in St. Louis 10 years ago this weekend. The Aggies had lost their first game of the season to Florida State, then won 10 straight. But they lost to Texas to finish the regular season, and remember that the Wildcats had pummeled Texas. Furthermore, the Aggies' starting quarterback, Randy McCown, got hurt. So most fans and oddsmakers in Vegas made the Wildcats the big favorites.
K-State was ahead 17-6 in the second quarter when the announcers came on the PA to say that UCLA had been beaten by Miami, which every K-State fan knew meant that the Wildcats' last possible obstacle to playing in the national title game had been removed. All the Wildcats had to do was beat A&M. The crowd went nuts. Stan Weber, the color analyst for the K-State radio network, jumped up and down and shook his fists in the booth a show of emotion he still regrets, according to a book he wrote. But it appeared to be the final star aligning.
Looking back, there were dozens of ways the Wildcats could have, would have and should have won the game. They fumbled once near the A&M goal line. They completed a Hail Mary pass at the end of regulation, but the receiver fell down at the 2-yard line.
It was just a bizarre combination of circumstances and events. Even Bill Snyder recalls it as a totally unique scenario: "Enough happened in that five-hour timeframe to last you a lifetime," he recalled.
To start with, A&M's quarterback, Branndon Stewart, was actually its backup, playing because of the injury the week before to starter McCown. Stewart got blasted on one of the early series and stayed down quite awhile, meaning the punter, Shane Lechler, was in line to play quarterback, which he hadn't done since high school.
"I about had a heart attack," then-A&M coach R.C. Slocum recalled. "We wouldn't have won the game" had Stewart not recovered. But he did.
Slocum pointed to what he considered another key, little-remembered now: At the end of the first half, A&M was called for too many men on the field. That's 15 yards, if the refs consider it "unsportsmanlike conduct." That would have put Martin Gramatica, K-State's powerful kicker, clearly in range.
"I was jumping up and down and yelling at the line judge: 'You guys are screwing this thing up,'" Slocum said.
The refs got together and thought about it and decided it was an inadvertent mistake by A&M, which made it a 5-yard penalty, so they walked the ball back 10 yards.
"Of course now Bill Snyder's going crazy," Slocum recalled with a chuckle.
K-State did not score at the end of the half.
"If we'd allowed them to kick the field goal and everything had stayed the same, we would have lost the game," Slocum said. "It was a critical part of the game."
But K-State still led 27-12 heading into the fourth quarter. The Wildcats were never able to pull away entirely, and A&M continued to move the ball. The Aggies got it to within eight points at 27-19, but then the Wildcat defense made a stop on fourth down at the K-State 24-yard line with 3:36 remaining.
A&M had only one timeout remaining. Michael Bishop, who accounted for 442 yards in the game, scrambled for a first down with the clock inside two minutes, and, as Snyder said later, "we felt like we could run out the clock." But on Bishop's scramble, he kept fighting for additional yards while in the grasp of a defender, and Dat Nguyen an Aggie linebacker was able to knock the ball loose and recover it.
Then Sirr Parker (whose name alone can cause K-Staters to cringe, even now) caught a 9-yard pass and the two-point conversion with 1:05 left, tying the game.
In overtime, both teams kicked field goals to make it 30-30. In the second overtime, K-State kicked a field goal and then had A&M backed up on a third and 17 from the K-State 32. Stewart threw a slant to Parker, who angled to the corner of the endzone. The referees said he made it in, although replays showed otherwise.
Final score: Texas A&M 36, K-State 33.
Snyder said as he walked off the field, he was in shock. He thought of the players and the coaches, and he thought of the guy who had told him the Copper Bowl was the highlight of his life. And he thought of the 13,000 fans who had been in the stands when he started in 1989 "those loyal, loyal, loyal K-State people who so desperately wanted to be able to stick their chest out about their school."
"They were still sitting in the stands" as he walked off the field in St. Louis; he knew they were hurting, "and there wasn't anything I could do about it. That was a helpless feeling."
Grown men and women sat in their seats, crying. Wefald, K-State's indefatigable president, called it the lowest point of his 20-year tenure in office. Kristin Hermes, a K-State senior at the time who had traveled to the game, put it this way: "It's like they took Christmas away."
The headline in the next day's Manhattan Mercury: "The dream dies."
Rather than playing for the national title in the Fiesta Bowl against Tennessee, the Wildcats tumbled to the Alamo Bowl. That was due to arrangements the other top bowls the Orange and Sugar, for instance had made, assuming a K-State win. The Wildcats never recovered and stumbled through a 37-34 loss to Purdue.
Maybe the "Moonlight" Graham character in "Field of Dreams" put it best: "It's like coming this close to your dreams, and then watch them brush past you, like strangers in a crowd."
Rich Clark, a huge K-State fan from Manhattan, took his own life on April 8, 1999, about four months after the A&M game.
Jan Pinsince, his widow, wants to be clear: It's not that Rich killed himself because K-State lost that football game. But there's no doubt the loss was a factor.
"I would confidently say that the day of that game started a spiral downward," Jan said.
Jim Gregory, Rich's good friend, agrees. He and Rich talked almost every day, but after that game, Rich stopped calling, he dropped his golf membership at Stagg Hill, and he stopped going to K-State basketball games. "That game sent him into a tailspin," Gregory said.
There were several other factors. First and foremost, Rich and Jan's son Tim died in March 1996 at age 14. He had muscular dystrophy.
Initially, Jan was emotionally broken up over Tim's death, and Rich sort of held things together, Jan said. "I was kind of a mess, and somebody had to stay sane," she said.
But over time, Jan dealt with her grief. She's not sure that Rich really did. Perhaps, Gregory and others said, K-State football was filling that void in Rich's life.
But then came the A&M game. Jan, Whitney and Rich were at the game in the dome in St. Louis, like everybody else in purple ready to celebrate the coronation.
"When they announced over the loudspeakers that UCLA had lost, everybody in our section was just bawling," Whitney said. "That was only the second time I ever saw Dad cry."
(The first: At Tim's funeral.)
"This was our chance," Jan said. "It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. How many times are the cards going to fall right like that?"
As A&M closed the gap, Rich grew more nervous. During the overtimes, Rich "was too antsy to sit down," Jan said, so he got up to stand and pace the concourse behind that section.
After the game, Rich was stunned like everybody else and decided that the family was going to drive straight back to Manhattan, rather than using the hotel room they had booked in St. Louis.
"We just went straight to the hotel, got our stuff, and left," Jan said. "He was so upset. But (Whitney and I) didn't mind. We were upset, too."
They didn't go to the Alamo Bowl game, staying in Manhattan and going to a party at the house of some close friends. Rich and Jan left when the game was at halftime.
On Jan. 4 the night of the Fiesta Bowl national title game Rich had a bad car accident. He said he had gone to take a picture related to an insurance claim he was working on. Jan is uncertain about that, as well as the circumstances. In any event, he lost control, the car rolled and went over an incline.
"Typically, if he'd have lost control of the car, he would have regained control and been OK," Jan said. "With this, he was just like…it wasn't intentional, but he didn't try to recover from the situation."
The doctor in the emergency room asked Rich if had ever thought about suicide. Rich said yes.
"That was the first I heard anything like that," Jan said.
They went to their family doctor, who recommended medication and counseling. The counseling was discussed several times, but no appointment was ever made. Jan said she later learned from a co-worker of Rich's that he might not have taken the medication consistently.
On Jan. 20, Rich turned 50. He took that hard, commenting about how he should have accomplished much more by that point in his life. In the same time frame, the dot-com stock bubble popped, and Rich lost some money on investments, Jan said. He felt personally to blame for that, she said.
In March came the three-year anniversary of Tim's death. At Easter, Jan's father asked to see the renovations and expansions taking place at KSU Stadium. Rich took him there and just sort of drove by and casually waved at it a real sign of something unusual, Jan said. He also had lost weight and had been having trouble sleeping.
So there were signs, and plenty of factors.
"It was just a combination of things," Jan said. "I knew he was depressed and I knew it was serious. I should have taken it more seriously. But I'm not blaming myself; I never did."
As she thinks back on the loss to A&M, given the circumstances, Jan Pinsince said it seemed that the chance to become national champions was "like a balloon floating past us…within our grasp. We were trying to grab it, and we couldn't…and then it was gone."
And with it, her husband.
"No one would say he killed himself over a football game," Jan said. "But his battle with depression seemed to begin with that game."
Neither Jan nor her daughter Whitney gives much time to "what ifs."
"I don't think things would have been different if we'd won the game," Whitney said. "The final outcome would have been the same."
"But put it this way: It didn't help," Jan said. "You never know."
Rich Clark's story is not the story of all K-Staters. But there's no doubt that there was real grieving throughout the community.
Allen Raynor of Manhattan, who had a seat at the 25-yard-line in St. Louis, said he was in a funk for several weeks. His wife told him to get over it. "It's not like you've lost a child," she said.
"No, I could get another child, but I can't ever get this opportunity again," he said.
He was joking. Ruefully.
Raynor now manages the Manhattan Town Center mall, which he said had "the worst Christmas in a long time" in 1998. He didn't have any figures, but he attributed the drop in sales to the football game.
"People just weren't out buying," he said. "The whole community was sad-faced. It was like the Grinch came in and stole Christmas."
For Dave Dreiling, it's a little easier to come up with a number: $100,000. Dreiling, who owns GTM Sportswear in Manhattan, figures the loss cost his company that amount in lost opportunity. "We had a lot of sales contracts lined up," he said.
Whether it was financial or emotional, the toll was heavy. Dreiling recalled having a big steak dinner for his family planned in advance in St. Louis; it all tasted bland after the game.
"It had a wet-blanket effect on the community," said Steve Hall, who was mayor at the time. "The spirit had been raised so much and it was so close...and yet, it was still elusive."
"The joy of winning does not come anywhere close to the agony of defeat," Raynor said. "When you win, you just sort of go, 'OK, what's next?' But when you lose, you hurt bad. The pain kind of hangs in the air. And the bigger the contest, the greater the loss.
"It hurt for anyone who had bought in," he said, "and by '98, everyone had bought in."
Bob Hemme, an outpatient therapist at Pawnee Mental Health, agreed that the loss affected many people in the community. He said it didn't appear to be the primary reason people came in for therapy, but the subject would often come up.
"Losing it the way we lost it, it was just a dagger in the heart," said Hemme, who's been in his job in Manhattan since 1978. "We had been bad for so long; this was our one shot."
Plus, football is unique in its effect on fans, he said. It's "more intense," Hemme said, because of the communal experience it entails, the "feeling of oneness." It's wrapped up with individual and community self-esteem.
"Even though none of us were on the team, it felt like we were all on the team," said Gregory, who said it took a long time for him to get over the emotion of the A&M game.
Hemme said the grief after the A&M game was similar to the grieving from other types of loss. "It shouldn't be that way it is just a game but some of the principles are the same," he said.
It goes through stages, eventually leading to acceptance and recovery. Part of it, of course, was looking for somebody to blame.
Fans looked to blame the PA guy for announcing the score of the UCLA game, saying it made K-State look ahead and lose focus. Most players and Bill Snyder have said there was no effect; if anything, they said it made them play harder, knowing they had a real chance to get to the title game. (In fact, Snyder said in a recent interview that he asked the PA people not to announce the score of the game because he was afraid that if UCLA won, his team would be dispirited, figuring it had nothing bigger to play for.)
Another scapegoat: the assistant-coaching staff. Mike Stoops and Brent Venables had already decided to leave K-State to go to Oklahoma as assistants to Bob Stoops, another former K-State assistant. Mark Mangino was also obviously being courted; he left for OU a month later.
Did they take their eye off the ball? Did their impending departure serve as a distraction to the players? Did they sabotage the efforts? No, Snyder said.
"It had some unsettling effect," he acknowledges, "but that wasn't the issue."
In time, K-State fans have dealt with their grief more or less. A big upset win over Oklahoma in the 2003 Big 12 title game over some of the coaches who had left in 1998 certainly helped.
But 10 years later, fans look back and still figure it was the best chance the Wildcats will ever have at a national title, even with Snyder now back at the helm. That fatalism probably ties back to the history of bad football here, and the self-deprecating nature of Kansans and K-Staters in particular. People seem to figure the whole Snyder era was a bizarre lucky break, and the 1998 team was when everything Snyder had built clicked into place. Virtually nobody thinks that kind of talent and good fortune will combine again. It hasn't helped matters that KU won a national basketball title in 2008, or that KU's football team won the Orange Bowl that same year under Mangino, the one-time Snyder assistant.
Bring up the subject of the A&M game, and many people still react as if you've hit them in the gut.
"I remember the pain well," said Hemme, the mental health therapist.
"I wouldn't wish it on anybody," said Robert Lipson, who has been to every K-State game for decades. "Even if the Lord himself had told me we were going to lose that game, I would've thought otherwise."
"Look, you can't lose what you never had," said Raynor, the mall manager. "But we lost what we could have, should have had. We had it won. All we had to do was hang on. We had it packed up in the trunk but we didn't bring it home.
"We had the only opportunity ever to go from worst to first," Raynor said. "So it's not just losing the football game. It's losing that piece of history."
In memory, 1998 was unique, Snyder acknowledges, and the A&M game is the emotional centerpiece of that memory. That's unfortunate, he said, because it can obscure the accomplishments of that remarkable team. "You hate for it to be a black hole that sucks everything down with it," he said. "It was not a bad year, by any stretch of the imagination. It was just a bad period of time that was confined to four or five hours."
In other words, Snyder and by extension, the football program dealt with the grief by compartmentalizing it. In doing so, he provided an example of how to cope.
Yes, the team stumbled through the Alamo Bowl loss to Purdue. Snyder acknowledges now that he probably tried too hard to lift the team's emotions. He became a little bit too peppy, he said, and should have just continued to be himself.
But the next year, and for several years afterward, he and the football team did what Hemme said a person needs to do in recovering from grief: They put one foot in front of the other. They moved forward. They just kept going. They got back to the weight room, the film room, and the practice field. They got back to getting a little bit better, day after day. They got back to normal.
"Well," Snyder said, "it's not like there were a lot of options."
Hope, energy and passion followed.
The 1999 team went 11-1, losing only to a top-10 Nebraska team in Lincoln. The 2000 team won 11 games, as did the teams in 2002 and 2003. The 2000 team drilled Tennessee in the Cotton Bowl, which would have been the opponent in the '98 title game, which of course made fans wonder again what might have been.
That string of success is still stunning, and nearly unprecedented in all of college football winning 11 games in six out of seven years.
In fact, Snyder now says that he could build a case for any of the teams between 1997 and 2003 as the best of the era, with the oddball exception of the 6-6 team of 2001. All of them were just a few points and/or a few breaks away from being undefeated. He's partial to the 1999 team because it was able to recover from the heartbreak in 1998, along with the emotional toll of the loss of assistant coach Phil Bennett's wife, who was killed by a lightning strike while jogging in Manhattan.
They were able to move on. They moved ahead.
But always with just a little bit of grief deep down inside for the loss of what might have been.