It was the third quarter, and the clock had stopped with 10:42 remaining. The deafening roar of 80,000 rabid fans had gone strangely silent. People who had paid $1000 per seat to see a football game were streaming out of the stadium. More than half of the stands stood empty. On the sidelines rested a belittled, humiliated and beaten horse-drawn wagon. Oklahoma was suffering the worst humiliation in its history. This was the scene at the 2005 college football national championship.
There is a certain splendor in the winter desolation at our beloved Cornell, but I was unfortunately unable to remain in Ithaca over the recent holiday break. Grudgingly, I took on the job of traveling to sun-ravaged Miami to see Oklahoma challenge USC in the Orange Bowl.
We arrived two days before the game and checked into a South Beach hotel. South Beach quickly lived up to its reputation as an international 24/7 party scene. There were endless numbers of babes — beautiful Brazilians, incredible Italians and even good-looking Germans. The dollar had taken such a beating in the first term of Bush the Younger that it is now cheaper for people from Europe to vacation in North America rather than on their home continent.
It was an electric atmosphere the night before the game. Trojan and Sooners fans clashed in the streets, exchanging intoxicated and increasingly hostile remarks. P. Diddy, Jessica Simpson, Nick Lachey and many other celebrity-types joined the revelers at the hot international clubs.
There were outdoor bars up-and-down Ocean Avenue. Stunning blondes clad in Armani and Versace sipped champagne while rowdy fraternity boys feverishly celebrated a one-night mega-Mardi Gras.
The night oozed and swirled, as if Dali had cast aside the elephants and clocks in favor of Miller Lite and chants of “We are — SC.” Hollywood had met Miami in a surreal fantasy of sex, decadence and, most importantly, football. It was a heavenly pandemonium, a lawlessness one might expect on Sunset Boulevard, Xin Tian Di or the Champs Elysee. Everything seemed unreal. The SC fans cavorted about with an unmitigated confidence only a Trojan song girl could manage. We’re hot, and we know it, they seemed to say. And we’re going to win tomorrow.
Two days before the game, on New Year’s Eve, the Las Vegas oddsmakers had listed USC as a two-and-a-half point favorite. By kickoff, that line had shifted to a half-point — in favor of OU. The final, damning stone had been cast. This carnival of absurdity had finally reached its zenith — the Trojans were now the underdogs.
As the game started, the dreamlike atmosphere continued. Injured Trojans like Lendale White somehow got off the medical table and gave breathtaking performances. Norm Chow was like an ancient Chinese magician high in the stands somewhere, divining yet more ways to make the Sooner “defense” look ridiculous. There were fireworks, bands, pom-poms, Bob Stoops and Ashlee Simpson all colliding in a hallucinogenic explosion.
Trojan quarterback Matt Leinart threw an Orange Bowl-record five touchdown passes. USC led, 38 – 10, midway through the second quarter. Virtually every Oklahoma fan left the stadium by the third quarter. At the post-game celebration, Leinart seemed to preside like royalty over a crystal bowl of oranges. And yet, even as he tossed the oranges gleefully to an enraptured clan of song girls, his most princely moment was yet to come.
The Oklahoma fans seemed to all leave South Beach early that night. The partying again went til dawn, with the only down note for SC fans being the virtual certainty that Orange Bowl MVP Leinart would forego his senior year of school and jump to the NFL. After all, no one in his right mind could turn down a certain $10 million to stay in school.
But a week or so later Leinart did the unthinkable. He had made a promise to stay at USC and he announced he would keep his promise — even if it cost him millions of NFL dollars. Leinart spurned the pros and kept his word.
Now on the eve of the Super Bowl, I find myself skipping over stories about T.0.’s ankle or Tom Brady’s sex life, and I’m still looking for news about Leinart. College athletes like Leinart are hard to find — kids who value their education over endorsements and classes over cash. Leinart and his values would fit in well at Cornell. Here, we have any number of athletes who play not to showcase their skills for the pros, but because they love the game. They play with an enthusiasm and commitment one rarely finds at the professional level. Cornell athletes tend both to go to class and to have class.
If more college stars around the country would follow Leinart’s lead, perhaps we could begin to put integrity back into sport. It would be a sad day for players like Randy Moss and Barry Bonds, but the rest of us might enjoy the games a little more.
Kyle Sheahen is a Sun Assistant Sports Editor. The Ultimate Trip will appear every other Thursday this semester.
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