On a sun-splashed afternoon, the Big Ten champion Iowa Hawkeyes clashed with the Pac-10 champion Washington Huskies in the 77th Rose Bowl Game. The 90,000-seat stadium was packed with enthusiastic fans, and millions around the world were tuned in to ABC to hear the venerable Keith Jackson’s call of the game. But it wasn’t much of a contest. Washington raced to a 33-7 halftime lead and was never seriously threatened, winning 46-34. I was only eight at the time, so I don’t recall many of the details of game. But one thing I do remember is that Iowa kept playing. As the sun set and darkness fell across Southern California, the Hawkeyes never gave up. And a love affair was born.
Five years later, I sat on my grandparents’ couch as Cinderella Northwestern went up against the mighty Trojans of USC in the 82nd Rose Bowl. Like Iowa, the Wildcats fell behind in the first half. Like Iowa, they rallied, even taking the lead in the 2nd half. And like Iowa, they ultimately fell short on the scoreboard. But that game cemented the Rose Bowl’s place in my heart.
Every year since, I’ve watched the Rose Bowl on New Year’s Day…or whenever it was played. The games haven’t always been great and the outcomes haven’t always been what I hoped for, but it has always been the Rose Bowl. For me, it’s not just the actual game. It’s the setting—a pristine playing surface, warm sunshine, and the San Gabriel Mountains as the backdrop. It’s the iconic programs—Michigan, Ohio State, USC—with their winged helmets, buckeye stickers, and gleaming swords. It’s about a Midwest blue collar attitude colliding with a West Coast free-wheeling attack. It’s about events that make announcers say “Oh My!” and “Whoa Nellie!” It’s about flowery parade floats and ringing fight songs and pre-game flyovers and some really good football.
It’s about the start of a new year, the game’s first-half sunshine symbolic of the coming spring. I grew up in Big Ten country, where teams played on cloudy, blustery, November afternoons for the right to spend the holidays in sunny Southern California. I spent the holidays in cold, snowy environs, watching a television that seemed to exude West Coast warmth. New Year’s Day, and especially the Rose Bowl, was a promise of spring, a forerunner of the year to come.
It’s about the end of the old year, the game’s second-half dusk symbolic of the end of the college football season. The sweat of two-a-days in August, the trap road games in October, and the roses in the teeth in November all lead to this. A few of the players will go on to the NFL, and the underclassmen will return the following season. But for some, it’s the last time they will ever step on a football field. A life’s dream is about to be harshly interrupted by the alarm clock, and the Rose Bowl is the last few seconds of a fantasy world.
For me, the dream was to someday see my Cornhuskers play in the Rose Bowl. That moment came after the 2001 season, when something called the BCS mandated that the national championship be decided in the Rose Bowl. It was played at night instead of in the sunshine, it wasn’t on New Year’s Day but a few days after, and Nebraska got clobbered by a superior Miami team. But they still played in the Rose Bowl. And like those Iowa and Northwestern teams from my childhood, they kept fighting. Now Nebraska is in the Big Ten. Maybe some year, they’ll be back in Pasadena. Maybe as afternoon turns to evening some New Year’s Day, my Huskers will triumph in an epic Rose Bowl shootout.
Maybe more than anything, the Rose Bowl is about tradition. Every year, my family comes over on January 1st and we have breakfast together, flip back and forth between a host of afternoon bowl games, and then fill our plates with snacks and appetizers and our glasses with punch as we settle back to enjoy the Granddaddy of Them All, the Rose Bowl. It’s not about who plays, although I prefer the blue bloods of the sport, ideally wearing uniforms that clash nicely under the afternoon sun. And it’s not even necessarily about who wins, although I prefer a close game, ideally a shootout that lasts well into the night. It’s about the moments—questioning play calls with my dad (and food choices with my mom and sister) and waiting for Brent Musberger’s “You are looking live” and that moment when the sunset turns the San Gabriels a brilliant mixture of orange and purple and so many others—and it’s about the memories. Some year, they won’t play the Rose Bowl anymore. Or I won’t be able to watch it while I stuff my face with pizza rolls and smokies and deviled eggs. Or I won’t be able to share the experience with my family. But I will have the memories. Memories of Iowa fighting to the end, of Northwestern and USC staging a classic, and of my hapless Huskers who didn’t quit. Memories of food and fellowship as good as the football. Memories like today, where the cold outside will be no match for the warmth depicted on my TV, emanating from the fireplace, and felt in the words and actions of those I love.
So Happy New Year, everybody. Take some time to smell the roses.