In my sports-crazed mind, it’s one of the greatest stories ever told.
Boise State football didn’t stand a chance. Sure, they had won 12 games en route to an undefeated season and a Western Athletic Conference championship. But that was the problem — there was no number of games the Broncos could have won against their pillow-soft WAC competition that would prepare them to face mighty Oklahoma.
This was Oklahoma! Sooners dominance was a national tradition, and the 2007 team hadn’t disappointed. They had entered the season as contenders for the national title. Despite two narrow losses at the start of the season, they had won eight games in a row and been crowned kings of the powerhouse Big 12 Conference.
The two teams should not have even been on the field together. Oklahoma was a whopping 7.5-point favorite over their non-BCS opponents. But the crazy world of the Bowl Championship Series had pitted the two against one another in the Fiesta Bowl. And so we had our David and Goliath.
You can probably guess what happened next. Boise State came roaring out of the gate, jumping out to a shocking 21–10 halftime lead on the power of two touchdown passes by Broncos quarterback Jared Zabransky (now of Edmonton Eskimo fame). Things only got worse for Goliath in the third quarter, as an errant pass from Sooners quarterback Paul Thompson was intercepted and returned for a touchdown. A sea of fans clad in blue and orange danced wildly in the stands. 28–10 Boise State.
But the feel-good story slowly unraveled as Oklahoma’s superior talent recaptured the game. An eight-yard touchdown run. A 28-yard field goal. A five-yard touchdown pass followed by a two-point conversion. With 1:26 remaining in the game, the Sooners had tied the score at 28–28. Things then went from bad to worse on the ensuing Broncos possession. The FOX Sports announcers relayed the tragedy to the live national audience.
“Clock is running, they’ve set the ball, Zabransky a dangerous throw, and it’s intercepted! Into the endzone, Marcus Walker!”
The score was 35–28 Oklahoma with 1:02 left. Broncos fans stood in absolute shock as the Sooners mobbed Walker in the end zone. The ocean of fans in Sooner red pulsated as Zabransky stared blankly towards the scoreboard.
It had been a nice story, but this was Oklahoma football. The gods of sport don’t particularly care for feel-good stories.
Boise State got the ball back but went nowhere at the start of the ensuing possession. With just 35 seconds left in the game, Zabransky was positively dumped by a high-flying lineman for an eight-yard sack. On the next play, a beautiful 30-yard pass was dropped at the sideline. As Zabransky’s errant third down attempt fell for an incompletion, the Sooners’ players on the sideline gestured for Oklahoma fans to get up and prepare to rush the field. The Broncos faced fourth and 18 at midfield with just 18 seconds left on the clock. Games don’t get much closer to being over.
It’s moments like these when the greatest stories are written. Moments when our expectations for what is and is not possible are completely revised, all within the confines of a silly game. It’s moments when the sensible gives way to the magical that we are reminded why we love sports.
A solemn pronunciation of finality from the telecast team could barely be heard over the deafening cheers of the Oklahoma faithful.Zabransky stepped back in the pocket, then heaved a bullet down midfield. It traveled 15 yards to Drisan James, who was still three yards from the first down line and surrounded by three Oklahoma defenders. He took one step to his right, then turned and chucked the ball behind him.
Broncos receiver Jerard Rabb caught the ball running left while the Sooners’ defenders nearly tripped over themselves trying to switch directions.
“To the corner of the endzone, can you believe that!”
35—35. On to overtime.
But the Bronco defense still could not stop the mighty Oklahoma attack. The Sooners scored on the first play of overtime thanks to a 25-yard touchdown run by star running back Adrian Peterson.
42–35. Boise State would have one possession to answer with a touchdown.
The Broncos managed to advance to the five-yard line, but once again faced fourth down with the game on the line. They would have to pull another rabbit out of the hat.
Boise State’s second trick play of the night was sheer madness. Zabransky lined up as a receiver and started in motion to his left. Backup wide receiver Vinny Perretta lined up as a running back and took the snap. As a confused Oklahoma defense tried to adjust, Perretta tucked the ball and ran to his right. The Sooner defenders rushed forward to tackle him, leaving tight end Derek Schouman to run into the end zone guarded by only one defender.
“Perretta will take the snap, he’s going to throw it, into the endzone, touchdown!”
Perretta raced down the field with his arms raised in the air as Sooners coach Bob Stoops stared in confused disbelief. Just an extra-point field goal by the Broncos and the game would be headed into a second overtime.
You never go for a two-point conversion when you’re losing by one point. You just don’t. Teams only make about 40 percent of their two-point attempts compared to nearly 100 percent of extra-point attempts. What’s more, Oklahoma’s stingy defense had been getting the better of the Broncos on that final drive.
By going for two, Coach Peterson was accepting odds stacked against him. He was admitting a lack of faith in his defense. He was opening himself up to a lifetime of potential “fourth and 22” criticism. Most importantly, he was ending the game — Boise State would either score from the three-yard line to complete their undefeated season or they would fail and go home empty-handed.
“Boise State for the win.”
On the last play of the season, Peterson unveiled the third and final trick play in his book. The Broncos lined up all three receivers on the right side, leaving the left side completely empty. Zabransky received the snap, stepped back in the pocket, turned to his right and unleashed a mighty heave of his right arm.
But the ball wasn’t in his right arm. As the Oklahoma defenders instinctively turned to Zabransky’s right, the quarterback hid the football behind his back with his left hand. Broncos running back Ian Johnson casually jogged behind the quarterback. As the confused Sooners searched for the ball, Johnson grabbed it and raced to the left side of the end zone.
“They hand it off to Johnson! Boise State has won the Fiesta Bowl! Can you believe it?”
To put a little more icing on the cake, Johnson weaved through the raucous mob to meet his girlfriend, the head Boise State cheerleader. In front of a national TV audience, the hero of the 2007 Fiesta Bowl dipped to one knee and proposed. The two have been happily married since.
Why am I boring you with the legendary tale of the upstart Broncos? Because whenever I’m asked why I love sports, I think of the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.
For me, being a sports fan is about getting lost in stories. When you think about it, the wide world of sports is the perfect arena for narrative. These narratives exist in a wonderfully simple universe bound and defined by the rules of a silly game. Our rooting interests are developed so arbitrarily and yet leave us with clear protagonists and villains — there is no confusing good and evil.
These stories have no author and are thus unpredictable. They uplift our spirits because they just as easily can break out hearts. They surprise us and inspire us, constantly challenging our understanding of what is and is not possible within the simple confines of a game.
In the wide world of sports, there are stories everywhere you turn. Watch Augusta National on a Sunday and you’ll see a man who had everything, lost it all, and is now fighting desperately to revive his legacy. Head to Yankee Stadium for a game against the Red Sox and you’ll see two houses, bitterly divided for over a century, each jockeying to write the latest chapter in sports’ most historic rivalry. Catch a Heat game and you’ll be witness to a man who traded everything for victory and still hasn’t found it.
Or just watch the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.
Nothing gives me joy quite like hearing and telling these wonderful stories. It’s been a pleasure and an honor to relate them here each week in my little-read sports column. Thank you to everyone who has taken the time to listen to me ramble over the past two years. I hope you continue to seek inspiration in the narrative of sport.