The Magical Reno Weekend: An award-winning story

The Magical Reno Weekend: An award-winning story

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Last week, Joe Udell, the Hawaii Herald’s online editor and staff writer, won first place for Feature Writing in the non-daily newspapers category at the 2007 Society of Professional Journalists Awards Banquet for his story, “The Magical Reno Weekend.”

The article was published in the Herald’s Dec. 7, 2007 edition. It recapped Joe’s reunion with three longtime friends in Reno, Nev. for the University of Hawai‘i Warriors-Nevada Wolf Pack football game last November as the Warriors tried to hold on to their undefeated season.

We’ve been getting a lot of requests to reprint the article in its entirety. So, brought to you by popular demand, here is Joe Udell’s winning article:

THE MAGICAL RENO WEEKEND
Football Memories From the World’s Biggest Little City

Joe Udell

“We should go to Reno to watch UH play Nevada in November; by that time we could be undefeated, a top-15 team and playing on national TV. Can you imagine how unreal that would be?”

Those were the words of my high school classmate Bobby over the phone before the UH football season started. It had been awhile since I had seen my very good friend — over six months, a lifetime for us. In high school, we played basketball together and saw each other every day; in college, we reconnected during our school breaks. Now that I live in Hawai‘i and Bobby works in New York, sadly, getting together isn’t as easy as it used to be.

But Bobby and I weren’t the only ones separated by thousands of miles. Our high school friend Geoff (who also hadn’t seen Bobby in quite some time) was distanced from his brother Jared for the first time in his life. The two once shared a house in Pauoa, where they were never apart for any extended period of time. This past year, however, Jared left for his first semester of college in California, leaving Geoff at home without a brother and a friend.

So the four of us lifelong UH fans — Bobby, Geoff, Jared and I — booked our reservations. It was a chance to see the Warriors together in what was potentially a once-in-a-lifetime season, but it was also an excuse to share a memorable reunion — and one epic weekend in Reno.

* * * * *

Anytime you reunite with friends, you always hope that things remain the same. Some change is inevitable — jobs, family, etc. — but, ultimately, you hope that the group dynamic and the personalities involved stay constant. Fortunately for Bobby, Geoff, Jared and I, change was not an option. Within moments of reuniting at the El Dorado (our hotel for the weekend) the night before the game, the jokes were flying and it was like being in high school all over again — only instead of a school classroom, we were hanging out in a casino and rather than circling around a desk, we were gathering at a blackjack table. It was everything I ever wanted out of the school system wrapped into one evening, and we celebrated like we had just taken our last final exams.

The following morning the four of us woke up with stinging but glorious hangovers — the inevitable result of cocktails and a heaping 3 a.m. serving of Reno’s finest corned beef hash and eggs. No one likes being hung over, but when you are reuniting with friends in Reno (or any place that allows gambling and/or offers free drinks for that matter), it’s a badge of honor: All you can do is smile. Besides, we had nothing to complain about; we’d had a fantastic first evening together, and it was finally game day. So we dragged ourselves out of bed like champions around noon and fought through our discomfort with some light gambling at the craps tables. It was like Michael Jordan’s famous flu-game in the 1997 NBA finals — we were dehydrated, nauseous and exhausted, but we endured courageously.

Sometime in the next hour we heard the news that none of us wanted to believe: Colt Brennan, who had suffered a concussion the previous week against Fresno State, would not be starting the game. The four of us decided we needed to regroup immediately. We rendezvoused at The Brews Brothers (voted the best brew pub in America by Nightclub & Bar magazine) and within minutes, we were frantically calling home, hoping for any updates on Brennan’s condition. All the reports were identical and equally apocalyptical: backup quarterback Tyler Graunke would start in Brennan’s place.

“Do you really think Graunke can start and win — on the road — against Nevada?” Geoff asked somberly. It was the question that held over our heads like a dark cloud for the rest of lunch. We tried to remain optimistic; after all, Graunke had played well in wins against Charleston Southern and Utah State. But we all knew the situation was troublesome: Hawai‘i had never won in Reno and Nevada was a tough team; earlier in the season they had pushed powerhouse Boise State to the limit before finally succumbing in four overtimes. And while Graunke was a capable backup, he didn’t possess nearly the same talents that Brennan had developed over the past two and a half seasons, let alone Brennan’s unique mastery of the Hawai‘i offense. It was obvious that we could all use a bit of encouragement. As if by chance, that bode of confidence came in the form of the Silver Legacy casino.

The Silver Legacy, the Warriors team hotel and arguably the nicest hotel in Reno (not saying much, but warrants mentioning), was coincidentally attached to the El Dorado; it seemed to be the perfect place to take in some pregame gambling. As we strolled over to the hotel, still reeling from lunch, we witnessed an uplifting sign: We saw one fan wearing a green UH T-shirt, followed by another, and then another; by the time we entered the casino floor, all we saw was an oasis of Hawai‘i faithful decked out in their finest Warrior gear. It was like stepping into the world’s largest UH tailgating party by accident.

For the first time all trip long, we were surrounded by scores of people who also believed in this Warrior squad, who were so compelled by the team that they, too, traveled the 2,500 miles to Reno just to see them play. It was completely invigorating. Bobby and I parked ourselves at a craps table with our fellow Hawai‘i brethren and immediately ordered two Heinekens — the unofficial beer of Warrior nation. Coming off the disheartening Brennan news, our time at the Silver Legacy was exactly what we needed: an experience in solidarity. Within an hour, we were pumped and ready to cheer on Hawai‘i. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect: Kick-off was in two hours.

* * * * *

We arrived at Mackay Stadium on the University of Nevada Reno campus expecting the worst; after all, we were the highest-ranked opponent that Nevada would face all year. What we found, however, was just the opposite. The Wolf Pack fans were surprisingly classy, giving us directions and even abstaining from taunting us, despite the fact that we were covered in Warriors gear.

After walking through the campus, it was easy to see why the hometown fans were so respectful: The entire football experience at Nevada exudes family. Mackay Stadium is nestled in between lush pockets of trees, giving it a refreshing, rustic feel. Families barbecue directly outside the stadium, their grills illuminated by the bright lights of the field; children run freely, tossing around a football while their parents gather at wooden picnic benches. It was a stark contrast from tailgating at Aloha Stadium, where the blazing sun and burning asphalt are always formidable elements. Best of all, the game kicked off at 8 p.m. — unheard-of for a game in Hawai‘i — so we had the rare treat of tailgating under the moonlit trees. If I didn’t know better, I would have thought we were camping.

If the Nevada pregame atmosphere is a throwback to family values, then Mackay Stadium is a reflection of a simpler time in college football. Unlike other cavernous football stadiums like the Rose Bowl or Michigan Stadium, which hold over 100,000 people, Mackay Stadium is quaint by comparison, drawing just over 22,000 fans for the Hawai‘i-Nevada contest. Complete with metal bleachers and a fence around the perimeter, it’s almost like stepping onto a high school football field, which made the game itself feel like an episode of “Friday Night Lights.” The only downside was that there was only one bathroom for both the upper and lower sections, which was kind of like a high school football experience, just not nearly as charming.

At about 6:30 p.m., the four of us gathered around an empty table and marveled over our luck. Not only had we actually reunited in Reno, but the Warriors had gone undefeated as well, entering the game ranked 12th in the country; it was exactly as we had hoped for months earlier. So many things had to happen just to get us to that point: Dan Kelly’s game-tying 49-yard field goal at Louisiana Tech in the second game of the season; the improbable comeback win against San Jose State in overtime; a thrilling Fresno State victory the week prior — not to mention coordinating our own individual work, school and family schedules just to get to Reno. It takes us 10 minutes to pick a place to eat on any normal evening in person; the fact that the four of us in California, New York and Hawai‘i planned this trip so far in advance was a feat in itself.

The moment was even more special when we reflected on the season’s narrow UH victories, how every game had been an increasingly tense, nail-biting experience weighted by the prospect of our trip. If the entire state was rooting for an undefeated season and a BCS game, we were doubly invested in the Warriors, who held in their hands the key to our grand weekend. After the LA Tech game, Bobby and I nervously joked that our Reno trip could have been ruined just as the season started. Following the exhausting San Jose State contest, Geoff and I met up with each other and celebrated the victory into the night at a karaoke bar, and while the Warriors played Fresno State, all four of us kept in touch via text messages and phone calls, knowing that the matchup was the final hurdle before our highly anticipated reunion. So we sat there, drinking cold beers under a Nevada moon, barely able to contain ourselves. “ This is . . . unbelievable,” Jared said as he cracked open another beer, still in disbelief that we were actually in Reno. The rest of us couldn’t have agreed more.

* * * * *

We had general admission tickets (the upper levels at Mackay Stadium are all first-come, first-seated), so we entered the stadium around 7:15 p.m. and corralled four seats in the front row of the 30-yard line. We couldn’t have had a more perfect perspective of the game. From our seats we could see the receivers’ routes, the holes in the defense and the mood of the UH sideline — not to mention that we were completely flanked by Hawai‘i fans and directly over the Warrior cheering section below us. The four of us had reached football nirvana, surrounded by a forest of green shirts, a few frosty beverages in hand, a king’s view of the field and just minutes before the opening kickoff.

General admission tickets do, however, have their disadvantages. After we took our seats, a group of Nevada students squeezed themselves in a few rows behind us and started blowing on plastic trumpets, clearly trying to aggravate us. Wynton Marsalis would have been repulsed, but we were in Nevada’s house and playing by Nevada’s rules; it was an unfortunate case of hometown gamesmanship. What wasn’t acceptable fan behavior, however, was the profanity that one of the students used. That did not go over well with some of the UH faithful with children in attendance.

Maybe they were just looking for a reason to lash out against the Nevada students — after all, I’ve heard a lot worse in my time at Aloha Stadium from parents and children alike — regardless, heated words were immediately exchanged and UH fans converged on the offenders from all directions. It didn’t take long before the Wolf Pack fans, clearly outnumbered, left with their tails between their legs. It wasn’t the prettiest of scenes, but it made one thing glaringly apparent: The Warriors may have entered the game as sportsbook favorites, but the moment team officials announced that Brennan would not start, UH became de facto underdogs and the Nevada fans smelt blood. What those fans weren’t expecting, however, was the pride of this Hawai‘i team, and if the UH faithful were any indication, the Warriors were not going to be pushed around by anyone.

What happened during the game is well-documented history: It’s been covered in the newspapers, talked about on television and on the radio, and rehashed countless times amongst fans: Graunke played out of his mind in a courageous victory; Dan Kelly’s field goal was, without a doubt, the biggest kick in UH football history and the entire state has yet to come down from its euphoric high. But what hasn’t been written about is what being in those stands was actually like. The atmosphere in those metal bleachers went far beyond the 358 yards that Graunke threw, or the 11 tackles that Desmond Thomas made, or even the final score of the game. It actually felt, in the most tangible way possible, what it was like to be a true Hawai‘i fan.

From the moment we stepped into the stadium, Bobby, Geoff, Jared and I, along with the hundreds of other loyal fans in attendance, were prepared for something special. Of course, no one knew that the end result would be so dramatic, but there was a feeling in the crisp Reno air that seemed almost surreal. That other-worldly mood was no doubt enhanced when the Warrior team faced the UH cheering section, and performed the ha‘a. Now when the Hawai‘i players perform the Hawaiian war chant at home it is sheer intimidation, but when it is performed on the road, like it was in hostile Mackay Stadium, it is a booming rallying cry. It was a moment that united both fan and player, and not only readied the team for the game ahead but prepared the Warrior crowd for the ensuing battle.

In the moments right before the game, the tension in the air was palpable. The road has historically been Hawai‘i’s greatest foe, rivaling even BYU and Boise State as UH’s own personal villain. With a perfect season and a BCS dream in the balance, no one was completely comfortable with Tyler Graunke under center in the Wolf Pack den. But in the earliest and uneasiest minutes of the game — the opening drive — June Jones put the crowd at ease. When he rotated Graunke, Brennan and the rarely used Inoke Funaki at quarterback in a five-wide receiver set, the crowd knew that UH had the upper hand. Jones approached the game with the cool of someone playing a game of Madden on Playstation, and it was at that tenuous stage that we knew the Warriors would be alright, with or without Brennan.

That didn’t mean that there was any shortage of apprehension, however. There were missed opportunities that let the air out of the crowd, like a delay of game penalty on Graunke on a crucial fourth-and-one that forced UH to punt in the first quarter; or a 17-play, 90-yard drive that saw Nevada dump and dive all the way to a field goal that gave them their first lead of the contest (20-19). In those restless moments we gathered together in unison, not just the four of us, but all of the UH supporters in attendance. We cheered, “ LET’S — GO — BOWS!” as the temperature dropped and the game seemed to hang in the balance. And when big offensive plays and huge defensive stops were made, we went wild, high-fiving complete strangers and best friends alike.

Those moments, those brief individual downs that ended in a celebration between nameless believers was the reward for traveling to Reno. There were some spectacular plays that still stand out in my mind, like David Veikune’s safety of Colin Kaepernick, or Keala Watson’s critical forced fumble late in the game, but by and large, it was the dozens of 5-yard gains that made the game so special. UH fans who watched the game on ESPN will always remember how the contest ended, but what I will remember most will be the small plays that often seem insignificant on television: the incomplete Nevada passes, the 3-yard Warrior runs, the anticipation between downs that united all of us in attendance. It was as if all the Hawai‘i fans collectively lived and died with each snap, as if the seconds between plays were saturated in more anticipation than we could handle. Those nuances are what makes watching sports in person so fantastic — the same intangibles that move fans to follow their teams on the road — and what made each individual play as endearing as the ultimate victory itself.

That shared bond was no stronger than on Dan Kelly’s final field goal attempt. In an instant that eclipsed mere fandom, everyone in the stands held hands as Kelly lined up for the game-winning kick. No one ordered us to do it, no one hesitated at the thought of embracing a stranger’s hand. It simply happened. In fact, it not only happened once; it happened twice: After Nevada coach Chris Ault called a time-out during Kelly’s first field goal attempt, everyone in the stands let out one deflated, nauseous groan and locked hands once again, holding on even tighter the second time around.

The rest of the story is now Hawai‘i legend. With one 45-yard kick, Dan Kelly was newly christened “Dan ‘The Man’ Kelly” and earned himself a lifetime of free poke in Hawai‘i. But as it was happening, it was one of those rare instances where everything seemed to unfold in silent slow motion. Whether the field goal was made or missed, Kelly was writing Warrior history with one swift kick and everyone in attendance knew it. The kick seemed long enough, but no one in our section could tell if it was on line. All we could do was squeeze even tighter and remember to breathe . . .

When the referees raised their hands, signaling that the field goal was good, our entire section erupted, combusting into joyous pandemonium. People began running in broken circles, jumping up and down, hugging random fans. Bobby, Geoff, Jared and I bounded up and down the bleachers, holding our hands above our heads in disbelief; it was a haze of bedlam that can only happen in the sports universe. The celebration was so wild that the next day, a UH fan seated in the section below us said, “ I thought the roof was going to collapse.”

As the Warriors gathered in front of the UH section one final time to perform two versions of the ha‘a, Geoff summed up the moment best: “ This is for the days of Fred von Appen, Dan Robinson . . . everybody.” With one kick, Dan Kelly extended Hawai‘i’s perfect season and exorcised the demons of scores of UH teams who toiled in near-anonymity, who endured four years without a road victory, and also for the fans who supported the program in its darkest moments. His kick transcended this magical year and actually touched generations of UH fans and players.

But Kelly’s kick also signaled that the expectations for this season were actually being met. Up until that moment, the Warriors’ campaign had been one of hope, of potential: if UH can enter Nevada undefeated; if the Warriors can win on the road. In every Hawai‘i football story this season, “if” was the operative word. Finally, as the crowd chanted “B-C-S!!! B-C-S!!!” the distant dreams of an unbeaten season and BCS glory suddenly became a reality. On that chilly November night in Reno, the hundreds of UH fans in attendance, and the thousands of Warrior faithful watching at home from Hawai‘i to New York, saw potential turn into lore.

“How unreal is this?” Bobby smiled, as the crowd roared on in the background. “Pretty unreal,” I said, my voice hoarse from cheering. Of course, that’s what we had planned on all along.

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