Long after midnight in Northgate, the collection of college bars just off Texas A&M’s campus, “Sweet Home Alabama” blared from one of the bar sound systems as A&M students leaned over the bar rails and flooded the area streets celebrating their team’s monumental 41-38 victory over the Crimson Tide. A group of Aggie students screamed along with their own lyrics, “We own Alabama,” they chanted in time to the song.
Outside the Dixie Chicken, the iconic campus bar with a live rattlesnake inside, a group of Aggie fans stood on the sidewalk behind the bar, “Can you believe,” one fan asked another, “that we actually won this game?”
Not to be outdone, a loud chant began to emanate from the students, “Fuck Nick Saban,” they all chanted, before transitioning into a “Fuck Joe Biden,” chant. As the chant died out a student walked by me and added, for good measure, “And fuck Bill O’Brien too!”
Shortly thereafter the most legendary living Aggie, Johnny Manziel, swept by in a tide of celebratory Aggie humanity, it had been nearly a decade, nine years in fact, since then-redshirt freshman Manziel took his Aggie team on the road and won in Tuscaloosa, launching himself into celebrity status in the space of one iconic Southern afternoon. “What a night,” Manziel said, beaming, when I caught up with him for the first time in person since we’d been on a panel together in Costa Rica “what a night!”
Now nine years later history was repeating itself, a two loss in the SEC A&M team that was nearly a three touchdown underdog had just pulled off off a stunning, remarkable upset. Only this time the quarterback helming up the upset, Zach Calzada, was so anonymous most had no idea who he was. Yes, we tend to think of Alabama losses as occurring against first round draft picks or Heisman trophy winning quarterbacks like Manziel, Cam Newton, Deshaun Watson or Trevor Lawrence, but there’s another shadow cadre of gridiron signal callers who step from oblivion and play the games of their lives.
Quarterbacks who are almost entirely known by their fan bases for the epic upsets they helped to engender – Ole Miss’s Bo Wallace, South Carolina’s Stephen Garcia, Ohio State’s Cardale Jones – quarterbacks who didn’t go on to gridiron excellence, whose names aren’t garlanded with strings of football accomplishments, guys who end up having regular jobs one day, but for one night were better than the best of the generation.
Which is why the emotion most prevalent in College Station was shock.
Pure, unadulterated joy.
So many people stormed the field on Saturday night that Dr. Fauci may never recover. This was the opposite of social distancing, Aggie humanity en masse, an indistinguishable writhing tide of maroon clad shared ecstasy, it was a night that no one in College Station will ever forget.
It remains to be seen what Zach Calzada’s career will become in the years ahead, but this win was so big, and so memorable, he’s guaranteed himself one thing — he’ll be an Aggie legend for the rest of his life. People will still be buying him beers based on this game fifty years from now.
This wasn’t a team and this wasn’t a quarterback who was supposed to pull off an upset like this. In back-to-back defeats to Arkansas and Mississippi State there was no suggestion this performance lurked in the Aggie football DNA. All day long as I walked around Kyle Field and met fans at their tailgates, not one Aggie fan, not one!, forecast victory.
The only person with a shred of optimism was TexAgs.com owner Billy Luicci who told me Friday night at dinner, “My guys don’t lie to me. They feel like this has been the best week of practice all year. They think they have some things drawn up that are going to work. But,” he said pausing, “it’s Alabama, no one really comes up with that much that works.”
Which was why the predominant emotion well after midnight was joyful shock.
“I don’t know,” said a recent Aggie graduate in a bar, “if you understand how much we hate Alabama,” she said. “Or how much they don’t hate us. I hate that they don’t hate us. I hope they hate us now.”
Back in Nashville my eleven year old son, the Alabama Crimson Tide fan, was blowing up my phone with text messages during the game. A sampling: “Both our tight ends can’t catch.” “The PI call was stupid.” “They didn’t show the extra point on camera,” “If they call that targeting then the other one A&M did should be.”
In the fourth quarter, I’d texted him, “Nervous?”
And he’d responded with a green check mark and written “defense in the second half certified.” (I don’t even know what this means. I mean, I know he means the Bama defense played well, but who describes a defense as certified and what does the green check emoji mean? I’m getting old. When I saw Manziel out in Northgate I thought about how fast nine years had passed, how it felt like the blink of an eye since that memorable game A&M at Bama game. And this morning as I read back through my texts with my 11 year old I couldn’t help but think that in nine more years my middle son would be twenty, older than Manziel was, even, when he became a star on a Saturday afternoon in Tuscaloosa.)
But that would be in the future.
For now, it wasn’t just the fact that A&M had won, it was the way they won. For most of the night they’d gone toe to toe with Alabama, but now in the fourth quarter the invincible juggernaut Tide had taken their first lead since the first quarter and they’d just gone for two to make it a 38-31 lead, which based on the Aggie second half offense felt insurmountable. A&M hadn’t moved the ball for nearly thirty minutes and now they had to go the length of the field to score for the tie.
After all this the Aggies were in danger of being like the hated Longhorns had earlier in the day against Oklahoma, a team blowing a double digit second half lead in a monster game.
Over 106,000 fans at Kyle Field felt like they knew how this game ended. The Aggies had fought valiantly, played the Tide far more competently than almost any A&M fan had expected on this evening, but now it was Bryce Young and Nick Saban’s time. This was when dynasties showed they were dynasties.
But then something strange happened.
Alabama buckled to Zach Calzada, a quarterback most of the country couldn’t identify if you gave them five faces and picks. The quarterback who was only in the game because Haynes King, the young quarterback who makes Aggie fans glow when they discuss him, was out injured.
First came a kick out of a bounds, a penalty that gave the Aggies the ball at their own 35 yard line, a play that doubtlessly led Darth Saban to air choke his kicker for in the locker room after the game. Then on the first play of the drive a Calzada pass uncorked for 17 yards for a first down. The stadium exulted. Seven yards, four yards, 12 yards more and suddenly A&M was at the Alabama 25. The Tide defense, looking wobbly in the second half for the first time all night, blitzed, Calzada saw it, and lofted a pass high into the Texas sky. So high that almost every Aggie eye didn’t even see the brutal Calzada hit, instead they saw the arching ball, defeat to victory, forgotten game to legendary one, come slowly descending and nestle into Anias Smith’s arms for a tie score.
But even as the celebration roared through the Texas night, Calzada, barely able to stand on his knee, was carried off the field, where he’d gone straight to the pop up tent. Jimbo Fisher followed him in, perhaps to work his own Mr. Miyagi magic. A third string quarterback warmed up on the sideline. Sure, it was tied, but this was still Alabama. And there was still just under three minutes left on the clock. Surely the Tide would drive and end the game, steal the joy that was so close to erupting, football’s own Grinch, Nick Saban, wasn’t going to let the Aggies and Jimbo Fisher have any nice things. He never lost to assistants, after all.
Only, yet again, Alabama buckled.
Three and out with two drops.
Just like that A&M had the ball back. And Calzada, who had been carried off the field moments ago, was back. Daniel Larusso’s gonna fight!
A 17 yard wheel route for a first down, confirmed after a tantalizing review. Could this really be happening? An 11 yard scramble? Really? On that knee? A 12 yard pass, a running clock, a pass interference penalty and suddenly only a 28 yard field goal stood between the Aggies and the second most memorable win of A&M’s tenure in the SEC.
Nine years after Johnny Manziel pulled off a monster upset in Tuscaloosa, he stood on the sideline filled with nerves like every other Aggie fan.
Maybe time really was a flat circle after all.
Toe met leather and the ball appeared to be headed left before suddenly careening back to the right, just inside the right goal post.
Improbably, incredibly, amazingly A&M had won!
The Aggies had done it again, pulled off a shocking upset.
As maroon humanity flooded the field, I looked down at my phone.
“We should,” texted my 11 year old, “have scored 22 more points but we settled for three twice when we had TDs and Bryce threw a pick from the four.”
“Good game though,” he texted me, “it was about time we lost. We haven’t lost since 2019.”
On Sunday morning I texted my 11 year old to ask if he hated A&M now.
“No,” he wrote me back, “they aren’t Auburn.”
As I finished typing this story I took a break to open the blinds in my hotel room and look out to see the weather, overcast and grey, on the Sunday after A&M shocked the football world, again.
I’m directly across the street from Kyle Field and from my hotel room I can look into the stadium and see the scoreboard.
Which is still on, has been on all night, still circling through all the game statistics this morning in College Station, including the final score — Texas A&M 41 Alabama 38, as if even the Aggies themselves can’t bear to erase the evidence of what happened late last night from their own scoreboard.
“They were lucky,” my Bama fan son wrote, “it happens.”
I wrote this piece in lieu of my traditional Starting 11 column, which will be up later today.
Here are my SEC power rankings in the meantime:
4. Ole Miss
7. Texas A&M
9. Mississippi State
12. South Carolina