Louisville football: Remembering one of the best nights of my life

DENVER, CO - MARCH 17: The mascot of the Louisville Cardinals performs prior to taking on the Morehead State Eagles in the second round of the 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament at Pepsi Center on March 17, 2011 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
DENVER, CO - MARCH 17: The mascot of the Louisville Cardinals performs prior to taking on the Morehead State Eagles in the second round of the 2011 NCAA men's basketball tournament at Pepsi Center on March 17, 2011 in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images) /

The Louisville football home game I’ll never forget.

Prior to the 2002 season, a close friend of mine, Bryan, had just received his Louisville football season tickets package in the mail. I was nineteen at the time, and had just moved into my first apartment (flop house) off Westport Road.

Since Bryan had a spare ticket for each home game, he decided to alternate friends to take with him to each game. Seemed totally fair.

He decided the easiest way to divvy up the tickets would be to allow the oldest friend in the group to have first crack at it. In our circle of friends, that was my brother, Aaron. My TWIN brother – OLDER THAN ME BY TWO MINUTES.

Without any deliberation, Aaron chose to attend the season opener against Kentucky, the most sought after matchup of the season. A no brained. But what was left for me to choose from? What was my consolation prize?

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In the prior season, Coach John L. Smith had led Louisville to an 11-2 record, capped off with a bowl victory. On the 2002 schedule, there were games slated that I really wanted to see in person.

Louisville had lost to TCU the year before, so there was revenge at stake there. Cincinnati was coming to town, and I was always up for that sweet “Keg of Nails” action. But, one game simply leaped off the page at me: Florida State.

I knew what I was in for here. A dog-walking. A behind-the-shed walloping. I really didn’t want to attend a beatdown. As I lamented about our seemingly unavoidable doom in that game, Bryan, in turn, began to sell it to me. “We’ll go with Kyle and Matt (two diehard fans and notorious partiers, who also happened to be current U of L students),” he said.

I didn’t take much convincing after that. It was a done deal. “We’ll lose but it’ll sure be a blast,” I thought.

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It all started with an epic Louisville football tailgate

Weeks after Louisville had dropped the home opener to Kentucky, I was taking comfort in the fact that my brother had spurned the opportunity to attend the FSU game, as I would’ve been scarred from losing to our arch-rival in such close fashion anyway (17-22).

Like we had planned, Bryan and I met Kyle and Matt in a large grassy parking lot just on the other side of Old Cardinal Stadium. The forecast was bleak. Projected precipitation percentages increased through out the evening.

We arrived with a youth-sized football, a case of Budweiser, and each of us had ponchos tucked under our armpits. We set out to find Kyle and Matt’s agreed upon meet-up spot, as none of us had cell phones yet. Once located, we were introduced to some new friends who were already feeling a extra social.

The area was chocked full of college-aged kids and other twenty-somethings. People were showing up in droves. The area was packed. I immediately caught a whiff of freshly burned marijuana. There was a fog from all the charcoal grill smokestacks. Somewhere in the distance Three-Six Mafia’s “When the Smoke Clears” album was blaring front-to-back.

You didn’t have to be a social butterfly to get into the mingling spirit tonight. As cheesy as it sounds, there was just something in the air.

We chatted it up with hundreds of kids we had never met. After about the second beer, the pregame conversation trend went from doubtful to full-on Muhammad Ali “I’m pretty” mode.

Before long, it was an hour before kickoff. We stuffed a beer in each pocket (four) and threw our ponchos over our hoodies and jeans, double-fisting two more for the walk to the stadium.

Along the way, the battle cries grew more and more boisterous, from commonplace “C-A-R-D-S” cheers to a brand new one: “F-S-Who”. There was at least 200 of us migrating like an ancient battalion marching into a war zone.

The game

It was a Thursday and the game was to be televised on ESPN. The whole country was watching.

The legendary Bobby Bowden-coached Seminoles entered the season as high as no. 3 in the nation before dropping two spots after a closer-than-expected win vs Iowa State on a neutral site. They had eventually climbed back up to no. 4 upon arrival in The Ville.

The mild drizzle of the rain had picked up into a steady Forrest Gump in Vietnam rain. It would go down on record as the wettest day of 2002.

Bryan’s seats were high and over near the visitor’s section of the stadium, but Kyle and Matt had other plans. We snuck our way into the lower corner of the closed end zone (back then it was the only one). We finagled our way right next to our friends and camped out in the row behind them where two seats were vacant.

I think it’s pertinent to point out that this was not a packed sellout crowd, though even at 39,000 (66% full at the time), it sure sounded like it.

In hindsight, if you go look at the box score, Louisville should’ve never had a shot at the end. Cardinals quarterback Dave Ragone didn’t throw for 200 yards, and though Louisville trailed only 13-6 at the half, every time they answered a Florida State strike, the Noles had a strike back of their own.

But somehow…some way…the Cards had evened the score at the end of regulation, 20-20. The rain had transformed into a consuming torrential downpour. Even now when you go back and look at the footage, it feels as though your tv might start leaking droplets of rainwater, like a scene from “The Ring”.

Throughout the evening, while knocking back our warm pocket beers, we had entertained the thought of something pretty cool. If we were to pull this win off that night, we were going to rush the field. That was all there was to it.

Florida State got the ball first in overtime, and we prayed to hold them to only three points.

On the first play, Louisville’s Anthony Floyd intercepted a pass from FSU’s Chris Nix, and the already-cuckoo stadium erupted into a frenzy. Had we done it?!

Bryan, Kyle, Matt, and I were all on the same page. We side-stepped over to the aisle and made our way down the stairs to the stone field barrier. Looking back, I’m really thankful for that railing. On our way down, which was only about 20 rows from the front, others were jumping out of their rows in front of us, some even hurdling stadium seats.

Louisville came out of the huddle. First and ten.

Henry Miller found a hole, and even though we were on the opposite end of the field, the deafening roar of the crowd told us everything we needed to know. We had off pulled the upset of a lifetime.

The celebration

Matt jumped onto the field first. Then Bryan and Kyle side-by-side simultaneously. Now it was my turn. I was already screaming with excitement. Everything was happening so fast.

As I propped myself up over the barrier, I looked down to notice a massively wide puddle that people were splashing into like one of those old inflatable backyard slip n slides. However, I had no time to survey anything. There were thousands eagerly pushing the people behind me. It felt like a mosh pit.

When I stood up, I could feel the cold from the puddle in my socks and underwear. I raised my arms screaming and ran up to the closest stranger for a high five. He obliged. I hugged the next three.

I sprinted down the field past players, coaches and other jubilant fans to a group of other fans climbing on the open end zone goalpost. I wanted up there bad.

Moments later I asked a man if he would help vault me up to the crossbar, but once I made it, the booze and slick surface made it impossible to remain up there. I lasted about 2.3 seconds. Minutes later that goalpost came down to the earth and I assisted the group in delivering it to the outside of the Howard Schnellenberger Complex.

At this point I had lost my group and thought my ride home had left me. Again we didn’t have cellphones, so for the next hour I stumbled my way back to the parking lot with complete uncertainty.

Alas, there they were. The lone remaining car in the parking lot. We went back to celebrate at Kyle’s dorm room. Upon arrival, we flipped on Sportscenter hoping at some point in the first segment they would cover our huge victory.

It was the lead-off story. We made a toast.

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A little later, I got back to my apartment to find that the celebration had only begun there. You know that Ice Cube song when he says “today was a good day”? That’s exactly what it felt like.