The dreadful tie with Ohio State would not keep the Badgers from focusing on the Big Ten title. Two weeks after that game, Michigan clobbered the Buckeyes leaving the door open for Wisconsin. With wins over Illinois and Michigan State (in Tokyo of all places), the Badgers completed one of the most improbable runs in college football history. It took thirty-one years for Wisconsin to return to the Rose Bowl, and this 1993 season would firmly plant my love for college football into the turf.
We made Pasadena, California a family trip that holiday season. Arriving in California really made me wonder if there was anyone left in Wisconsin. Look left or look right, all that could be seen was red. The Rose Bowl is UCLA’s home stadium, but they were outnumbered 70,000 to 30,000 in “The Granddaddy Of Them All” that day. Thousands more were shut outside the stadium having been unsuccessful in securing tickets. Through a fortuitous connection with Hill Street Blues star, Daniel J. Travanti, we were grateful to have access to this experience – one that I will never take for granted. Although my appreciation for college football was still in its infancy at this point, I credit this moment as the ignition to my fervent passion.
UCLA was favored in the game, as star wide receiver J.J. Stokes captured most of the attention. But the Badgers showcased a defense that many in gold and blue did not anticipate. Five forced turnovers would disrupt much of the glitter that made the UCLA offense sparkle all season. The steady and powerful Wisconsin offense flexed its muscle with two Brent Moss rushing touchdowns that set the tone. The most unpredictable score came from quarterback Darrell Bevell – an accurate passer and efficient manager of the game, but a slow and laborious runner. But, his 21 yard jaunt (complete with juke move), and subsequent dash to the end zone is burned into Badger lore.
With nightfall cast across the San Gabriel Mountains, and the Rose Bowl lit up in brilliant color, time became precious. Under one minute and behind by five, UCLA had the ball with one last opportunity to wilt the roses for Wisconsin. Tension beyond capacity drilled thorough Badger fans as UCLA quarterback Wayne Cook drove his team down the field for what would have been the winning score. I closed my eyes. I couldn’t watch the last snap. I found the courage to reopen them as my ears began to absorb the surrounding roars of hysteria. The scoreboard showed three seconds on a draining clock. Wayne Cook was frantically and hopelessly waving his arms. He had gotten sacked, and the clock could not be stopped. Wisconsin’s defense held firm and proved that strength and power can overcome speed and finesse. As the clock hit zero, flashbulbs began to blanket the stadium. Tears and cheers replaced the tension as the Badgers logged their first ever Rose Bowl victory.
Beyond the contest itself, so many little things made this trip memorable:
· When we landed in California, the pilot played “On Wisconsin” over the sound system.
· My sister high-fived Chris Farley in the line for the bathroom.
· We watched the Wisconsin Band pounding their way through the tunnel from ground level.
· The UCLA band played their fight song incessantly followed by a chant that still rings in my ears: “U- -C- – -L – -A, U-C-L-A. Fight! Fight! Fight!” To this day, when I watch a Bruin game on TV, my memories immediately shift to the 1994 Rose Bowl.
· My dad shook hands in passing with a disgruntled J.J. Stokes (UCLA’s star wide receiver) in the parking lot of the Rose Bowl.
· Daniel Travanti’s graciousness allowing us to stay with him and celebrate the victory in high style.
These memories stick well with me and they always will. Overall, I was thrilled to be a part of what would be one of my alma mater’s most defining football moments – and ultimately the defining moment for me as a fan of this historic and passion filled pastime.