On October 15th, 1994, the actor Jean Dasté, star of French classics L'Atalante and Zéro de Conduite, died at the age of ninety in his native country of France. The number one album was R.E.M.'s Monster, and the number one film was Pulp Fiction. Jean-Claude Van Damme's TimeCop held the top spot two weeks prior, and this is important because "Jean-Claude van Damme."
Jean-Bertrand Aristide was preparing to return to Haiti. The number one song was "I'll Make Love To You" by Boyz II Men, and the World Series would not be held due to a strike. The average life expectancy for an adult male was 75 years or so, and the infant mortality rate in the United States was 8.0 deaths per every 1,000 live births. Boris Yeltsin had the power to launch nuclear missiles, and was very drunk for a good bit of his time in office. In retrospect, you were so afraid of the wrong things.
The temperature in Gainesville, Florida in the early morning hours on October 15th was 63 degrees Fahrenheit. Visibility was 6.7 miles if you sat on the edge of Ben Hill Griffin Stadium and looked out across the glare-stricken green shag carpet of Alachua County. The skies were overcast. The wind panted occasionally off the Gulf, and the humidity hanging in air combined with the permafunk of Gainesville--soggy ground and rotting vegetation. Fall in Florida is living inside a refrigerator running low of freon. Something is going bad somewhere, and you will never, ever pinpoint its exact location.
Florida and Auburn kicked off in the afternoon. Brent Musburger and Dick Vermeil had the call, but I did not know that. I am eighteen years old, as stupid as an empty, grease-stained fast-food bag, and was playing Mahler on a marching French Horn in the Florida Gators Marching Band before marching into the stadium.
Gustav Mahler liked loud noises: when he saw Niagara Falls for the first time, he allegedly said "‘Endlich ein fortissimo!" ("At last, a fortissimo.") His symphonies are not as long as a football game, but come close if you take out commercials and pregame. The Third, the one my stupid, addled, and hungover head was rolling through that day, can go one hundred minutes with some leisurely conducting.
I do not know why the Florida band finished warmups with an excerpt from Mahler, but Gary Langford, the band's director, was a weird, mustachioed man with a pocket cornet who played racquetball like an assassin in a headband and short shorts. It made as much sense as anything else he did: to finish the runthrough of horrendous classic rock songs and fight music, pause for a second, and then have a bleating, perpetually off-key brass organ of a band shot through with shrill, dying woodwinds launch into the final movement of the Third: Langsam—Ruhevoll—Empfunden.
Translated: Slowly, tranquil, deeply felt.
I would like to say I remembered anything from the game but that moment, the moment when mild interest metastasized into something else entirely, the instant when Frank Sanders caught a perfectly thrown smash route for the touchdown, ending Florida's home winning streak against SEC teams. I do not. I only remember the sky glaring above, and the air pressure dropping as sixty thousand people gasped in unison, a small city's worth of humanity cooked sous vide at once.
The play was simple. I'm listening to Terry Bowden talk about it right now, rewinding and listening to him, now the coach at Akron, which is not Auburn, outline the game, but mostly the crystalline end.
We got down to that last play. With 17 seconds left we had a time out, so we flipped the formation. That safety they had--Galloway? He's a doctor now--he was a little shorter. We put a 6'2" receiver on a shorter safety. The corner slipped on the hitch, and the safety was trying to push Frank to the corner, and he was able to jump too high for Gilmore to get it.
I saw none of this. Across the field, there were only bodies, and the quick flutter of the ball flushed from Patrick Nix's hand into a waving maelstrom of arms blurred against the bodies of fans standing in the endzone. Then someone turned off the power to every Florida fan in the stadium, and left the lights on in the Auburn sections, tiny squares of people vibrating like bees in a freshly kicked hive.
The moment in a film when something horrible happens is bad, but it is far worse when the viewer has to go off only what is inferred. I have seen the winning play happen right in front of me, and it is always so much more bearable because of its irrefutability, its undeniable reality. The eyes saw the cold math of the situation, observed the ball go over the line, and recognized the clear outcomes and implications of the moment. Your skill is superior, and the day clearly yours, opponent.
I never saw Frank Sanders come down with that ball. I did hear the random scream of a woman somewhere in the stadium, and feel the clammy, lukewarm nausea of defeat roil through me. The unseen villain off-screen was again so much more terrifying than anything explicit you could ever show. Terry Bowden sprinted across the field to shake Steve Spurrier's hand well across midfield. The word Bowden used for the moment: "youthful."
Spurrier went to the corner to sing with the band, and then forgot that you do not sing after losses, and walked alone into the locker room. The lone safety lined up on Frank Sanders, the one who gave up the TD, was still in shock along with everyone else in the stadium--including a guy named Jonathan who wrote me just to say that he drove back all the way to Auburn just to see himself on VHS tape jumping up and down on television after Auburn's second TD.
The safety on that play was Dr. Michael Gilmore. He specializes in orthopedic surgery. He has three offices in the Florida Panhandle, but he is talking to me from Orlando, where everyone at one point in life must attend a convention. I ask him about the final play.
It was so loud the play wasn't called in, and I wasn't really sure what we were running down on the goal line. Everybody just kind of fanned out, and lo and behold I ended up on Frank Sanders. Before I could even get situated, I remember the quarterback looking over at him and I thought, "Uh-oh, here we go." He caught the ball, and everything happened before i could really even think about what was going on.
It was like putting your hand on a stove burner. "Oh, that's hot."
He remembers it like I do, at least in part: the oblivion of a loss, the shock, the real, dazed, physically recognizable shock of being so invested in a game that cognition is utterly trampled. He remembers more than most do, though. He remembers getting up at 4:30 the next morning to run stadium steps, because Florida was only halfway through the season, and still in play for the SEC title. He remembers returning an interception against Georgia, and then winning the SEC Championship Game in the first game played in Atlanta. They finished in New Orleans, losing to Florida State in the echoey, smokey reaches of the Superdome.
People asked him about it for ten years, when it appeared in Sports Illustrated, through the first semester of med school, through his residency, and into the early years of his practice. I am the first person to ask him about it in five years, he says. Michael Gilmore is frozen in most people's minds in that instant, but twelve hours later, Michael Gilmore was running stairs, probably too groggy to think about anything but the next humidity-stained concrete step in front of him. His job is now putting people back together, setting bones in their place and rearranging spent parts into something new, functional, and whole.
I almost hang up on him when he interrupts my goodbye.
They ended up making a portrait of that, Frank Sanders catching a ball on me. My mom lived up close to the Alabama state line. She went to the mall in Dothan and they had it in a store and she bought it.
Did she buy it to take it home and get it off the shelf, or just to buy it?
She thought it was cool that I was in a painting.
That game will be old enough to early enroll as a freshman this fall. While Michael Gilmore is sewing up soccer injuries, Terry Bowden will coach at Akron, his first FBS job since leaving Auburn in 1998. After winning twenty straight games to start his career, he would leave in the middle of the night in one of those situations you file under "Auburn things." There is a random phrase in my notes from Bowden about that twenty game streak to start his career:
There is absolutely no way you can appreciate the moment, where you are at that point in time.
Survival and time forbid most of that. Terry Dean, the Florida quarterback who threw four interceptions in a half, watched his football career evaporate before it had really ever started, and went to business school. Frank Sanders would have a fairly successful career in the NFL, while Patrick Nix fell out of coaching and into religious work. Danny Wuerffel, who threw the final spite-post* into the hands of Auburn defensive back Brian Robinson for his third INT of the day, first had to move his ministry from New Orleans when it was destroyed by Katrina, and then contracted Guillain-Barré last year. Steve Spurrier broke his "give-a-damn" at Washington before returning to coach South Carolina, where no one ever imagined in 1994 he would end up in 2012.
*Spurrier could have punted, but as Bowden said: "They kept going for the jugular. All you do is run the clock out. Spurrier was mad the whole time. They really had the much better team. I just think Spurrier was mad that they weren't winning by thirty. With about a minute left, he throws a post, and their receiver ran a flag. It went right into his hands, the receiver wasn't even near it." Lucifer the football coach would not go any other way.
They all moved on before even considering the moment, a moment part of my brain still has on permanent pause, jutting back and forth in the mind like a reel-to-reel paused at the moment just before the ball enters Sanders' hands. I can play it whenever I want and relive that horror, that intensity. What I cannot do is turn it off, or every fast-forward too far past it. It just loops, a GIF in the brain with no tiny X in the corner to punch, and thus close something that means less specifically and more universally with the erosion of time and faulty memory.
Even a bad musician--and I was horrendous, an atrocity, a tuneless fartbag of a horn player--knows what happens when you finish. You go back and do it again, because somewhere in the score you missed something. A note came in a hair too loud, or you missed a flat because your stupid brain completely forgot to shift keys, or maybe you hiccuped and missed a note completely. Maybe everyone misses every note. This happens.
Whatever happens, if you are lucky, you get to go back and do it again, this time with fewer imperfections, or at least an exciting new set of mistakes. Steve Spurrier and Terry Bowden, seventeen years and change later, will both go back and replay the score tonight, this time with teams of 1994's brawniest toddlers following (or not following) the wave of the baton. There will be no taglines, no records, and no complications. The clock will read 60:00, expire, and then reset the following Saturday.
And that, more than anything else, is what I want out of this season: I want that absolution, that death of the constantly present memory. It is the best thing about college football that players do not stay, and that people are not perfect, and that a flip of the formation after a timeout would put Michael Gilmore on Frank Sanders, and thus cave the roof in so spectacularly that eighteen years later it and the gigantic classical symphony attached to the catch would still clamp to my brain like a lamprey of the memory.
To arrive where it started, know the place for the first time: that is what I want, and what I get whether I want it or not. Tomorrow I see my second child on an ultrasound. It will look as fundamentally similar to every child every conceived as any, following a certain charted path of development with hopefully little deviation. As a static picture without names or labels, it will be as meaningless as a random illustration.
When you see it in motion, though, it will be the most beautiful thing you have ever seen, and even without a name you will call it yours forever and without reservation or skepticism or caution or regard for repetition. You will take every chance to do the thing a second time, and a thousandth time, and then a thousandth and first, because you missed something and need to go back, to do it again, and thus be resurrected in the moment of being there, of taking the chance to present, alive, and in full thrall of the thing itself.
And thus back to the beginning, and without hurry. There is no need to rush this piece. Note the instructions of the composer: Slowly. Tranquil. Deeply felt. The volume is set to fortissimo. At the end, there will be a long silence. Then we begin again.