The hardest part was saying goodbye to the seniors.
"Me and (senior wide receiver Shane Tucker) embraced and hugged, told him how much I loved him, that kind of thing," [MTSU quarterback Brent Stockstill] said. "I did the same with some other guys. We thought it was over."
The two then went to Firehouse Subs. Stockstill got the call from his father right after he placed his order.
"I'm outside, fist pumping back inside to Chase, telling him that we're in," Brent Stockstill said. "It was a pretty awesome moment. We've got one more game with our seniors."
The good news was made even sweeter, Tucker said, by the bad news that preceded it.
That’s from an Erik Bacharach piece in the Daily News Journal about Middle Tennessee scoring a Camellia Bowl bid against former Sun Belt rival Arkansas State.
The game took place on Saturday night in Montgomery. Unless you’re a fan of the Blue Raiders or Red Wolves, you probably didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about it last week, and you may not have watched much of it on ESPN. But the opportunity meant the world to a few people.
The act of merely fielding a football team is really difficult.
The New York Philharmonic has delivered nearly 15,000 performances since forming in 1842, featuring about 100 performers. In the last 12 months, it made 94 appearances, from New York to Ann Arbor to Antwerp, playing anything from Tchaikovsky to music from The Empire Strikes Back.
Numerically, this trumps college football. The most an FBS team will play in 2017 is 15 games, and it can only offer up to 85 scholarships.
But there is an orchestral beauty to putting on a football game. There are players and coaches. Walk-ons. A grounds crew. A support staff back at the office. A radio crew. Someone to fly the planes or drive the buses. Someone to arrange for countless hotel rooms and keep track of tickets for family members. Team doctors. Someone to inflate the footballs.
Someone to get balls from the sideline to the referees (who had to get their assignments and find a way to the game from out of town) between plays. Someone to arrange for the head coach’s midweek call-in show. Fans to call in. Someone to tack the decals on the helmets and sew the names on the jerseys. Someone to track the play-by-play stats. The band, cheerleaders, and mascots. Someone to schedule the game. An opponent dealing with all the same logistical hurdles. Postgame meals. And then you do it at least 11 more times, all while someone checks to make sure all those players keep going to class.
All for, in most instances, none of the acclaim of the New York Philharmonic.
It’s like this at every level of the sport, too.
In a run to the Division II title game, West Florida has played its last four games in Wingate, N.C., Carrollton, Ga., Livingston, Ala., and Indiana, PA. The reward: a trip to the finals in Kansas City. All after dealing with the effects of Hurricane Irma in September.
UWF’s opponent, Texas A&M-Commerce, has in the last month played two games in Minnesota and one in Washington and won them all.
Florida A&M began its season by taking a bus (well, buses) to Fayetteville, Ark., for a nearly guaranteed loss.
Hell, FBS' Hawaii played in Amherst, Mass., this September. All those moving pieces to play in front of 12,000 people in the most remote home-and-home in football history.
All that work, and I’m supposed to be upset that enough people want to keep going to fill 39 FBS bowls, rather than 10 or so?
The same people who complain that there are too many bowls, and that we're celebrating mediocrity and awarding participation trophies (God forbid), are the same ones who will tell you that college football players should be happy playing for the joy of the game, not for compensation or burgeoning draft prospects or anything else.
This is a massive contradiction.
Bowls are, for many, the ultimate in playing simply to play.
When MTSU thought its season was over, when the Blue Raiders thought they had been passed over for a bowl bid, according to Bacharach, "Players literally exchanged hugs and goodbyes during a 2 p.m. team meeting Sunday at the MTSU Sports Performance Center." Head coach Rick Stockstill said, "I told them, 'I think we are out. I don't think we are in.' I was emotional. They were emotional."
Playing as a team one more time appeared to have been denied. Tucker: "I was a little bit down because we had more to put out there on the table. We had more to give this season. When I got the news that we were in, man, it was a burst of light."
A burst of light. For getting to play a Sun Belt opponent in Montgomery in a game you probably won’t watch (but should).
Not every team will play its bowl with the same level of motivation. A player in seemingly every game will get sent home for missing curfew or doing something dumb in the lead-up. Some teams will lay outright eggs, either because they wanted a better bowl or they spent themselves in the regular season or [insert any other reason why 20-year-olds don’t act as expected].
But virtually every bowl will feature countless One Last Times.
A receiver catching his last pass. Roommates hugging each other on the sideline. A flautist playing the fight song for the last time. There will be emotional moments in the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl, for goodness’ sake.
Despite itself, college football produces boundless beauty. We pay coaches millions of dollars not to coach, pay search firms hundreds of thousands of dollars to help us make obvious choices, but keep finding reasons why we can’t let student-athletes sign autographs for money.
Bowl games, with their strange politics, title sponsors, and gaudy coach incentive payments, are the pinnacle of ridiculousness and excess. They are maybe the most cynical money-making exercises in a cynical, money-making sport.
And yet, bowls might be the most beautiful thing this sport produces.
Watch this video on mute:
That’s New Mexico State winning its sixth game of the season and clinching an eventual spot in the Arizona Bowl against Utah State, the Aggies’ first postseason bid in 57 years.
NMSU has been fielding a top-division team for nearly 85 years. The Aggies hadn’t been rewarded with a bowl bid in nearly six decades. Watching on mute as fans storm the field, players embrace, and head coach Doug Martin cries through his postgame interview, you’d think they’d just won the national title.
Every game means the world to somebody.
Early in the fourth quarter of Saturday’s Camellia Bowl, from the Arkansas State 30, Tucker broke open down the middle of the Red Wolves’ defense. Stockstill was watching for exactly that and hit him in stride at the 10. Tucker bounced off of a tackler and into the end zone for a score.
It was one of four receptions that Tucker didn’t think he’d get a chance to make, and it ended up providing the winning margin in a 35-30 MTSU victory. All Tucker, Stockstill, and the Blue Raiders wanted was a chance to play one more game with each other, and they took full advantage.
If you think about that, or if you watch New Mexico State’s celebrations above, and you still want to complain about championing mediocrity or handing out participation trophies, go ahead. I won’t listen.