Many of us have walked the long eventful journey of Arkansas State football. We have walked through it for so long we still don't fully understand how to enjoy success. We are at the point where four Sun Belt Championships in five years almost feels like a dream. Remember when A-State was a team that was know for almost losing to Division II (not even the current FCS) teams?
Several times I've heard my father talk about how one can often see the different generations of A-State football fans. You have your old-timers, your 70s fans, your 80s fans and then there's a massive gap in the 90s. Not that it's surprising. The Indians at the time were a miserable football team. Highlights of misery include losing to the 1-AA Nicholls State Colonels, winning two games in a season (one against then Division II UCA and the other against 1-AA Missouri State) and barely avoiding going winless in a season by blasting North Texas in the final game of the season.
And yet I stayed loyal. I grew up in Central Arkansas, not rooting for the Westerners. Truly a foreign concept to my peers.
Often I would be asked, "Why don't you root for Arkansas? You're from here." So is Arkansas State.
I was often the first person to let them know our school even existed. My 2nd grade teacher gave my class the assignment of coloring in map of the 50 states, and specifically to color Arkansas red for the other team. I went out of my way to raise my hand to tell her I was going to color it black for the Arkansas State Indians.
Every so often there would be glimmers of hope that our time had finally come. We lost in overtime at NC State back in 2000 and we all thought we could have a great season before going 1-10 with the lone win being the final game. And we had plenty of other close games against college football's elite. The infamous loss at Texas featuring a phantom penalty on A-State's successful onside kick stands out.
And then finally it was our turn, we beat Texas A&M in College Station. The conquering heroes returned home to thrash Texas Southern 83-10 and caused me to miss class that Monday waiting in line at the Design Shoppe for the famous 73% off sale (the margin of victory for home games). And sure, we lost to Southern Miss the next week, but I had never felt so much energy at what is now Centennial Bank Stadium. When A-State made a stop to set up the potential game-winning drive, it was like being hit with a wall of sound. It was incredible. It wasn't enough. A-State meandered through the rest of the season culminating in an embarrassing blowout loss at Troy with the Sun Belt Championship on the line. Suddenly, we were right back where we had started, 6-6 at best without a ring to show for it.
I was on campus listening to students tell me we couldn't hope to do better than 6-6. Why fire our coach when that was obviously the best we could hope for? I would mention how we got Joe Hollis, winner of the Rose Bowl at Ohio State as the offensive coordinator, and how we already had Hugh Freeze on campus, but nobody was willing to believe we could be better and I often wondered if they were right.
Despite only a 4-8 record in 2010, we were all enamored with our new offensive coordinator, Hugh Freeze. The offense was explosive, he had charisma, and he knew the program. He was our guy and the administration listened. Cautiously I allowed myself to be optimistic for 2011, but outright excitement wasn't something I could mentally do. Not after the previous 22 years of Arkansas State experience I had gained.
The Red Wolves came out flat against a so-so Illinois team. Cautiously optimistic was definitely working out. Until the next week when I finally got to see Arkansas State beat Memphis. And not only beat them, but dismantle them by 44 points. It was like Freeze understood my pain and hatred of Memphis and was trying to make up for the misery they had caused me (I missed the hail mary game in Memphis and the second half of the comeback game). But it was just Memphis. They weren't actually good anyway. It felt nice to beat the tar out of them, but we still had most of the season to get through.
We beat Western Kentucky in dramatic fashion to open the conference season. We best ULM after, followed by a win against FIU, then North Texas, FAU, ULL. We're 6-0 in conference and nothing can stand in our way. Finally, Arkansas State can win a conference title. We finally believe. Except, now we have to travel to Middle Tennessee.
It never seemed to matter what the records were, Murfreesboro, Tenn. was the place our dreams of conference glory went to die. Arkansas State had never won at Middle, and it was usually a nightmare game for us. Even back in 2005 when we were in a three way tie for the Sun Belt crown, Middle pounded us 45-7. The games were never close in Murfreesboro. This wasn't 2001 when we lost 54-6. This wasn't 2004, 2005, 2007, or even 2009. This was our year and MTSU were 2-8. The title would be ours.
Filled with confidence and hope, my father and I traveled just beyond Nashville to watch Arkansas State finally crush MTSU and claim our Sun Belt Championship. Arkansas State took an early lead and we weren't going to look back for a second. That is, until things started to turn. Our lead started to evaporate. After a classic, ill-advised Hugh Freeze fourth down attempt, Middle headed to halftime down by only three points and with all the momentum.
This was supposed to be our year. This was finally our chance to beat these bastards and we were throwing it away. All that confidence and hope fades away and is replaced with the same despair we all knew too well.
Only it hurts more this time.