By Mark Hendricks (Hillviews, Spring 2006)
We lost to Northern Iowa 40-37 in overtime on a frigid Friday night in December in San Marcos. Our Bobcats played their hearts out but, in the end, it just wasn’t enough. And that is how the season -- an otherwise glorious season -- ended. One game short of the national championship game.
But this is not a story about how things end. It is a story about how things begin. A story about lessons we learn, hopes we rekindle, friends we make along the way. Ultimately, it is a story about pride, and about spirit. And maybe, just maybe, about one spirit in particular who smiles on us still.
So how does the story of this incredible football season begin? With a win against Delta State? No, not really. A second-game blowout of Southern Utah? Nope. Strangely enough, the real beginning came with a loss. Not that loss to Northern Iowa or that heartbreaker to Nicholls State. But a loss to the mighty (well, they were considered pretty mighty then) Aggies of Texas A&M.
Our second-year coach, David Bailiff, led our Bobcats into College Station to play a game most experts said shouldn’t even be played. We were, after all, a team with a 23-year history of ineptitude at the Division I-AA level. We had no business in Kyle Field. No business playing a team expected to contend for the Big 12 South.
“Stay home, Bobcats, you’re out of your league,” they said.
They were wrong. Sixty minutes of what Jim Wacker used to call “smash-mouth football” later, we ended up on the short end of a 44-31 score. But we had shown the Aggies, the Southland Conference and Bobcat Nation that we could play this game again. We had given the Aggies all they wanted and a couple of heaping tablespoons more. At the end of that game, there was one worn out team. One team that wanted out of Kyle Field. One team that had had enough. And that team was not our Bobcats.
We were back.
The following Monday at the weekly luncheon of the Bobcat Athletic Foundation, the effort was summed up best by Bill Soyars. Bill is an Aggie, but he’s a San Marcan and a huge sports fan and supporter of Bobcat athletics. He stood that day and addressed Coach Bailiff.
“Coach,” he said, “I am a proud Aggie and I will be a proud Aggie until the day I die. But your Bobcats showed me something Thursday night. You just never quit. You never, never quit. I am a proud Aggie, but today and forever, I will also be a proud Bobcat.”
And a funny thing happened because of that nationally televised game from College Station. People began coming to Bobcat Stadium. There were tailgate parties. There were lines at the concession stands. Ninety minutes before kickoff, there were signs at the entrance to the parking lot.
“Lot full,” they said.
Later, during the playoffs, other never-before-seen signs would appear. These were on the ticket booths.
“Sold out,” they said. “Please watch the game on ESPN2.”
And what’s that we heard? Was that noise? In Bobcat Stadium? Oh, yeah. It was noise, alright.
“TEXAS!!” the alumni side of the stadium roared.
“STATE!!” came the cry from the student side.
And back and forth it went. Louder each time. Late in the season, the San Marcos Daily Record reported the cheer could be heard at the local WalMart across Interstate 35.
The wins piled up. The destruction of Panhandle State. Vindication for last year’s thumping by Northwestern State. A blowout of perennial power McNeese. A televised defeat of SFA.
Had it not been for an overtime upset on the road at Nicholls State, the conference title would have been well in hand long before the final regular season game against Sam Houston State. So, in the long run, perhaps that loss at Nicholls was a good thing. Because if the story of this season begins with the A&M game, the story of this season’s magic begins with Sam.
I was there. I saw it. I felt it. I may never really understand it. But I will never forget it. Nor will the 15,300 others who were there that day.
How did we win that game? Our team was out of synch. We committed an incredible number of turnovers. The Bearkats made amazing play after amazing play.
How did we win? With the help of 15,300 very powerful voices and one incredibly friendly ghost.
Time after time after time, we rallied our tired voices and screamed for our defense. And time after time after time, that defense responded. Until it could do so no longer. And then help came from somewhere else.
Sam Houston had the ball in the second half. It was third and long. Their quarterback dropped back and launched a 50-yard pass downfield to a receiver who went up and made the grab for what would just be a backbreaker for the Bobcats. It would likely end our hopes for a share of the conference title and any hope for a playoff invitation. And that receiver made that catch.
But then the ball somehow squirted out of his hands. So he reached out and caught it again. And it squirted out of his hands again. And he fell to the ground and the ball came down and hit him right in the chest, smack-dab between the numbers and before he could grab it yet again, it bounced harmlessly away.
What had just happened? My wife, Diana, leaned over and said to me, “Pass interference on Jim Wacker. He’s the only man here tonight who could have made that play.”
“Yeah,” I tell her.
Looking up beyond the stadium lights, I say, “Thanks, Coach.”
Jim Wacker, of course, was the coach of our back-to-back Division II championships. The teacher of David Bailiff. The man whose incredible spirit, enthusiasm, integrity and love of life were legendary on our campus for so many years until he lost a courageous battle with cancer. The man we honor at Jim Wacker Field at Bobcat Stadium.
His field. His legacy. His spirit.
His ghost, too?
We win that game by 3 in overtime. We are stunned. We rush the field in celebration and witness the presentation of the Southland Conference championship trophy in the end zone. President Trauth takes the microphone and addresses Coach Bailiff.
“Coach, there is one man here tonight who can be here in spirit only. Your coach. Your mentor. Your friend. Jim Wacker. He would have said, ‘This is UNBELIEEEVABLE!’ And he would be right.”
Bailiff’s eyes are closed. He is overcome by emotion.
To be sure, it is unfair to give credit to a friendly ghost for an effort that involved so many remarkable young men, hard-working coaches and a tireless staff. But lessons are not successfully taught unless they are learned. And Coach Bailiff learned lessons from Jim Wacker and, apparently, he learned them well.
In the midst of this amazing football season, Texas State is also experiencing a great volleyball run. Our team has won the Southland Conference tournament in Arlington and they have returned to San Marcos late at night, arriving by bus after 1 a.m. When the bus arrives at a quiet, dark parking lot at Texas State, one man stands outside the door to greet and congratulate the team. That man is David Bailiff.
Head volleyball coach Karen Chisum, misty-eyed, tells that story at the Bobcat Athletic Foundation luncheon and adds, “Can we all learn a few lessons about class from Coach Bailiff?”
Yeah, Coach Karen, maybe we can.
There is more magic: The phenomenal 34-point outburst against Georgia Southern in the first round of the playoffs that rallies the ‘Cats from a 35-16 third-quarter deficit to an impossible 50-35 win. A phantom fumble at the one-inch line by the Cal Poly quarterback that seals a second-round win.
A friend leans forward on that play and asks me, “Wacker again?”
It ends against Northern Iowa. But this is not a story about endings. It’s a story about beginnings. And Coach Bailiff said it well at a news conference after that loss.
“This is not the end. It’s just a start. It’s not going to take us another 23 years to get back here,” he said.
After that Sam Houston game and the trophy presentation that followed, Diana and I walk out onto the field. The night is cool and crisp. Stadium lights and stars. I look up at the scoreboard. It’s been turned off, but I can still read it in my mind. Texas State 26. Sam Houston 23.
I look down. At my feet on the 25-yard line are the words “Jim Wacker Field,” and I bend to touch his name.
“Thanks, Coach,” I am thinking.
And now, a few weeks later, I bang the keyboard and remember a remarkable season. Lessons learned. Friends made. Pride and rekindled spirit. And I think of David Bailiff.
“Thanks, Coach,” I am thinking.