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Road Trip - 2017 Cotton Bowl

by Randy Snow

Original to www.theworldoffootball.com, Saturday, January 14, 2017

For many years I have been touting Kalamazoo, Michigan as “The Center of the Football World.” It is physically located near some of the oldest NFL franchises in the league (Green Bay, Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland) as well as some of the most historic college teams in the country. (Notre Dame, Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State).

Just north of Kalamazoo, in Allendale, the Division II Grand Valley State Lakers won four national championships in five years (2002, 2003, 2005 and 2006). To the south, in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the St. Francis Cougars won a national football championship just this past season in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).

There are also a couple of nearby teams in the Canadian Football League (the Toronto Argonauts and the Hamilton Tiger-Cats) and, from 1995-2012, the College Football Hall of Fame was located in South Bend, Indiana, just a short drive to the south. The College HOF is now in Atlanta, but the Canadian Football Hall of Fame is in nearby Hamilton, Ontario and the Pro Football Hall of Fame is a short drive away in Canton, Ohio.

But this past season was one for the ages for Kalamazoo’s Western Michigan University football team, a member of the Mid-American Conference (MAC). The Broncos went undefeated during the regular season (12-0), beating not one, but two, Big Ten teams (Illinois and Northwestern) both on the road.  

The team received national attention when ESPN’s College Gameday pre-game show came to town on November 19 for the first time ever and broadcasted their show to the nation from the school’s campus.

WMU advanced to the MAC Championship game on December 2 at Ford Field in Detroit where they faced an Ohio Bobcats team that gave them all they could handle. WMU prevailed 29-23, thanks to a last second interception that sealed the victory and kept their record unblemished at 13-0.

Western Michigan was also nationally ranked for the first time in school history this past season. The #15 ranked Broncos accepted an invitation to the Cotton Bowl in Dallas where they would face the Wisconsin Badgers, who were ranked #8.

Over the last four seasons, WMU head coach P.J. Fleck and his “Row The Boat” mantra turned the struggling program around from a 1-11 record in 2013 to three consecutive bowl appearances. They also won their first bowl game ever in 2015 under Fleck, a 45-31 win over Middle Tennessee State in the Bahamas Bowl.

It was clear that this Cotton Bowl appearance was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so my sons and I decided we could not pass on the opportunity to attend the game.

I have been a WMU season ticket holder for the past two seasons and have attended many home football games over the last 20 years. My sons and I attended the MAC Championship game in Detroit and watched Western win their first MAC title since 1988. So, it was with great anticipation that that we bought tickets and a hotel package to the Cotton Bowl through the university web site and took to the road. My oldest son traveled with me down to Texas while my second oldest son drove down with some friends and stayed in a different location.

At 5 AM on December 29, my oldest son and I loaded up my 2000 Dodge Grand Caravan, which had over 195,000 miles on it, and we headed for Dallas. We drove all day and stopped at Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City that evening for the night. I spent 21 years serving in the Michigan Air National Guard and one of the perks of being a retiree is being able to stay in base housing when traveling for a reduced cost.

The next morning we continued on to Dallas. One thought kept running through my mind as we approached the Texas state line, “Will the McDonald’s restaurants in Texas have the McRib?”

Before we even checked into our hotel, the Four Seasons in Irving, we stopped at the Sparkman Hillcrest Memorial Park in Dallas to visit the graves of two NFL Hall of Famers, Dallas Cowboys head coach Tom Landry and Kansas City Chiefs owner, Lamar Hunt. You can read more on this in a separate article by clicking here.

The next day, New Year’s Eve, we decided to drive by AT&T Stadium, where the Cotton Bowl game would be played, and also find the parking lot where we would park for the game. On the way to the stadium, we made a brief stop on a residential street so that I could get my picture taken by a street sign. We were on Randy Snow Drive in Arlington. The street is named, not after me, but after a wheelchair-bound tennis player and motivational speaker who passed away in 2009. He had attended the University of Texas at Arlington. To learn more about his life and charitable organization visit www.randysnow.org.

New Year’s Day brought an opportunity for us to visit a couple of Dallas landmarks. We drove by the original Cotton Bowl Stadium, which not only hosted the college football bowl game from 1937-2009, but was also the home of the NFL Dallas Cowboys and the AFL Dallas Texans, owned by Lamar Hunt, in the early 1960s.

From there we visited the Sixth Floor Museum at Daeley Plaza, where President Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. My son described the experience as morbidly fascinating, and he was right. To be standing in the very place where history was made and the world was changed forever was something I will never forget.

That night we watched the Lions-Packers game in our hotel room. The Packers won the game and captured the NFC North Division title, but the Lions still qualified for the playoffs thanks to a loss by the Washington Redskins earlier in the day.

Finally, the day of the Cotton Bowl arrived. Monday, January 2. We checked out of our hotel that morning, loaded up the van and headed for the game. Prior to the game we attended a Broncos pre-game tailgate party at Globe Life Park, the MLB Texas Rangers’ baseball stadium located next door to AT&T Stadium. The Broncos Marching Band was there and played for the crowd, which was great. Unfortunately, other aspects of this event were a big let-down. We waited in line for an hour in the food line only to discover that there was another line and that we were in the less desirable of the two food lines. All we got was a donut, some fruit and a single breakfast taco that we made ourselves. We had wanted to get over to the Cowboys’ stadium early so we could check it out, but the time we spent at the baseball stadium was not worth what we paid for it. This was one of the few disappointments we encountered during the entire trip. 

From there we walked over to AT&T Stadium, took a selfie with the stadium behind us and went in. Wow. We have been to Ford Field in Detroit, the Indianapolis Colts’ Lucas Oil Stadium and the Carolina Panthers’ Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, North Carolina before, but this place put them all to shame. They say everything is bigger in Texas and this stadium is a prime example of that.

Our seats were in row one of section 343, in the corner of the WMU end zone, and they were awesome. Seeing the Broncos helmet and logo on the huge screen suspended over the field and on other screens all around the stadium was incredible.

I had not planned to buy any food at the game, but when I saw the collector cups with the Broncos and Badger logos and the Cotton Bowl logo on them, I had to have one. Two hot dogs and two soft drinks in collector cups, $26. I also had to have a program to add to my collection. That was another $10.

The game started out badly as Western ended the first quarter on the wrong end of a 14-0 deficit, but then they started to get their running game in gear and started to move the ball. WMU quarterback Zach Terrell capped off a 16-play, 65-yard scoring drive with a 2-yard TD run in the second quarter to make the score 14-7. The Bronco defense held Wisconsin to just a field goal after that and the score at halftime was 17-7.  Western scored the only points of the third quarter on a 27-yard field goal by Butch Hampton.

In the fourth quarter, WMU was backed up near its own end zone when Terrell threw a pass that was intercepted by Wisconsin, giving the Badgers a first and goal at the 12-yard line. Three plays later, Wisconsin scored a touchdown, making the score 24-10 with 12:26 left to play. But Western wasn’t done yet.

The Broncos went on a 16-play, 75-yard drive that lasted almost 9 minutes. It ended with a great touchdown catch by wide receiver Cory Davis in extremely tight coverage in the corner of the end zone. That touchdown occurred in our end of the stadium, so we had great view of the play from our seats. The point after by Western was no good.

The ensuing onside kick by Western, with 3:27 left in the game, was recovered by Wisconsin, who ran out the clock to preserve a 24-16 win. 

Even though Western suffered their first loss of the season, I would not trade the experience of attending the Cotton Bowl for anything. (Even if I didn’t get a McRib while I was there) The sights, and the sound of thousands of WMU fans on our side of the stadium yelling, “Row the boat, row the boat,” was a memory that will stay with me forever. I could not have been prouder of the team for the 13-1 season that they had. 

After the game, we hit the road once again and headed back to Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma where we spent the night once again.  We returned home the next day, ending a great trip.

This was the greatest season in Western Michigan Football history and it was great to be in attendance at some great games this past season. WMU will forever be a part of Cotton Bowl history and no can ever take that away from the school.

Who knows what the future holds for WMU football. Coach P.J. Fleck accepted the head coaching position at the University of Minnesota of the Big Ten Conference just a few days after the Cotton Bowl game. On January 13, Western hired a new head coach, Tim Lester, who was a quarterback at the school from 1996-1999, to lead the program into the post-Cotton Bowl era.

No matter what happens in the years to come, no one will ever be able to take this season away from the players, coaches and fans who lived through it. We will never forget it.    

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