I’m Kyle Oppenhuizen, a lifelong Iowa State fan. I am documenting my journey to attend every game of the 2021 season, with plans to publish a book at the end of the season. Preseason expectations, fan excitement at an all-time high, and the ability to attend games after a season of social distancing added up to this being the perfect storm to go all-in on the 2021 season as a fan (and yes, I’m still all in despite the early losses). Join me on this journey to experiencing every suspenseful, exciting and heartbreaking moment in this Cyclone season. Below is my recap from the Baylor game. You can find more blog posts on my website, where you can also sign up for updates.
Perspective. It can be tough to keep in life sometimes, particularly when you really want something.
On Saturday in Waco, Texas, I was reminded of how important it is to keep perspective. Surrounded by hundreds of Iowa State fans tailgating at the Iowa State Club of Dallas/Fort Worth’s tailgate party, Iowa State Athletics Director Jamie Pollard said a few words to the crowd.
Pollard shared an anecdote about his experience at the Fiesta Bowl to cap the 2020 season. How for years he had dreamed of that experience and having thirty thousand-plus Cyclone fans in attendance to celebrate, but instead the stadium was nearly empty due to pandemic protocols. He reminded us that sometimes we, as humans, focus so much on the destination that we forget to enjoy the journey. The destination can be great, but may not live up to what you build it up to be in your mind.
The journey is what makes the destination worthwhile.
The words hit home with me as I continued on my own journey as a fan following my favorite team. I took a look around and thought about where I was. I had taken a trip, by myself, to a town in the middle of Texas to watch a game. I went on the trip not knowing anyone who would be there and trusting that I’d be able to make friends. At that moment I was enjoying a beautiful day surrounded by Cyclone fans who were just happy to be there, many of whom do not get the chance to attend games as often as I do living in Iowa. It was the kind of experience I would never have dared taken just a couple of years ago.
Enjoy the journey. Don’t worry about the destination, I told myself. Indeed, as I wrote way back in the forward, I chose this season for what it could be, not what I knew it was going to be. There was never any guarantee that Iowa State would live up to preseason hype, but I was going all in this season regardless. It was a perfect storm of factors for this season and for my life to take this journey.
A few hours later, I again reminded myself to enjoy the journey. Iowa State was down by eight to Baylor in the final minutes, but had the ball and was driving down the field. It wasn’t the greatest position to be in, for sure. My anxiety was telling me that even if Iowa State manages to score a touchdown, it would still need to make a two-point conversion just to tie the game — essentially a fifty-fifty proposition. And if the Cyclones did tie the game, they’d need to stop Baylor from getting into field goal range in the final seconds. And if they did that, they’d still need to go into overtime, where anything could happen. A lot had to go right for Iowa State to win.
I took a deep breath and reminded myself I can’t control the outcome. I can only enjoy the journey. I was surrounded by hundreds of passionate Cyclone fans in a road venue (Cyclones vs. The World!) and I was watching a team led by some all-time great Cyclones try to lead an all-time great moment. This was exactly the type of situation I had in mind when I decided to write about this season. The chance to see my team do something improbable, and great, in a situation that just maybe would become an all-time great moment in my fandom.
It had been a frustrating game, but maybe, just maybe these Cyclones could make magic happen.
They did. And then they didn’t. We got a brief few moments of cheering and high-fiving when Iowa State scored a touchdown with less than thirty seconds left. And then my fears came to fruition on a regrettable two-point conversion attempt. Just four weeks ago we were dreaming of the College Football Playoff. Now, after a 31-29 loss, Iowa State was 2-2, 0-1 in the Big 12, and the dream season was becoming considerably less dreamy.
As we walked out of the stadium, a group of what appeared to be Baylor students were heckling Iowa State fans as they walked by. I was walking with my new friends Adam and Nicole, who hosted me for the weekend. To our surprise, Nicole walked up to the group. Oh no, I thought. I was worried about a verbal argument. Instead, Nicole offered to chug a beer with them. I immediately knew this was a story Adam and Nicole would tell for years, and I was again reminded about the nature of the journey. We were disappointed, but we don’t do this to see our team win championships (as much as we want that to happen). We do this to enjoy being part of a community of fans, to feel emotions about the outcome of a game, and to make memories. Even in a loss, we made memories that would keep us coming back for more.
Despite the fact that I had made plans to go to every game in 2021, there was an asterisk all offseason due to a personal conflict during the Iowa State road trip to Baylor. I spent most of my encounters telling people “yeah, I’m going to every game, except one.” The “except one” was a qualifier I had to continue to throw in when describing these plans.
The reason was a good reason. A good friend of our family was set to get married on the day of the Baylor game. My wife, Paige, was a bridesmaid. I was torn. Do I go to a friend’s wedding, or do I go to the Iowa State game? Normally, it wouldn’t even be a question. However, I’m only doing a journey like this once, not to mention writing a book about it.
As the season started, I had become set on going to the wedding. Until, the week after the Northern Iowa game, when my thought process began to change.
Now, as I’ve gone through this journey, I have tried my hardest to not let the fact that I’m writing a book influence the interactions I have with friends, family and Cyclone fans. The stories I have told are authentic, which I thought was of utmost importance for the integrity of this journey. That said, it’s difficult to get around the fact that publicly stating I was writing a book about this season led to an opportunity that is now part of the journey, and therefore part of the story.
Anyway, the week between the UNI and Iowa games, someone who read my UNI recap online reached out to me. He let me know he lived in Waco with his young family, was an Iowa State graduate and was helping plan a tailgate party for the Iowa State game at Baylor. If we needed a place to stay for the game, he said, we were welcome to stay with him.
A free place to stay, and a road tailgate with Cyclone fans? It seemed like a great opportunity, exactly the kind of experience I was hoping to have when I set out to go all-in on this season.
I was now even more torn.
The other factor is that I was discovering how much of this journey was contingent on being there. Seeing the tailgate lots fill up for the first time in two seasons for the UNI game. Feeling the anticipation for the Iowa game, the type I’ve rarely if ever felt before. Seeing the Zombie Cyclones make their way to and from Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. These were once-in-a-lifetime experiences that I will not soon forget. To do this right, I began to feel like I had to be there.
After quite a few conversations with my wife, and the sincerest apologies to my friends, I decided the day after getting back from Las Vegas to take the trip. Even as I typed these words I still felt a little guilty, and more than a little melancholy, to be missing a special day — a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for dear friends. I also felt extra grateful for the encouragement and understanding they showed in supporting me as I chased a dream of writing this book.
After all that, on two days’ notice, my wife, Paige, helped me book a flight out of Des Moines International Airport into Austin, Texas, and a car rental from Austin to drive the ninety minutes or so to Waco. My new friend Adam, the Iowa State grad who so graciously offered me a place to stay, let me know to book a spot at the Iowa State Club of Dallas-Fort Worth tailgate. As I looked into it more, I discovered that it seemed the DFW Cyclones took great pride in putting on a party for the Iowa State fans in the area who may not get to Jack Trice Stadium on a regular basis. In the past, they had hosted 700 people at this tailgate. They pointed out that for the cost of admission, they would provide the food and drinks, removing the need for tailgaters to worry about packing a cooler. This sounded like a perfect option for someone like me. Furthermore, there was an option to buy tickets through their group where we could all sit together. Perhaps the best part was that proceeds would go to support the DFW Cyclones Scholarship Endowment Fund and the Texas Firewalkers Disaster Assistance Fund. It was a no-brainer to register for the tailgate and purchase tickets through this group.
I particularly enjoyed how organized the group was and how seriously they took their role in supporting the Cyclones. In a follow-up email, after I registered, the club reminded fans that Baylor tends to wear gold, green and black (they announced the day before the game that it would be an all-gold uniform, and that Bears fans were encouraged to wear gold). Therefore, we should “Color it Cardinal.” “We will have a really nice contingent and we want those TV cameras to see us in full force,” the email said. That made my wardrobe decision easier. The Cyclones were set to wear Cardinal helmets, white jerseys and white pants. I, however, would be wearing a Cardinal t-shirt. (In fact, it would be the same “walking Cy” logo t-shirt I had worn to the UNLV game. Keep the good luck going, I figured.)
The email also reminded fans to be respectful of opposing fans and represent our university well — always a good reminder. It pointed out that a number of parents of players were expected to be at the tailgate, another fun bonus. And they encouraged locals to bring a few extra lawn chairs for those of us who were flying in for the game and therefore would be unable to pack one ourselves. Much appreciated.
I found my gate at Des Moines International Airport on Friday afternoon. It didn’t quite resemble the pictures I saw from the trip to Las Vegas, but there were a handful of people wearing Iowa State gear. My decision to make this flight was feeling a little less crazy.
Ironically, my brother and his wife were traveling with some friends to Las Vegas. Our time at the airport overlapped by just a few minutes. I begged him: “Please don’t bet on Iowa State.” I reminded him of what happened when I bet on the Cyclones in a game that ended up 71-7 in favor of Baylor. I didn’t need that bad mojo. As a Hawkeye fan, he didn’t seem that concerned. “New era. New coach,” was his mindset. I couldn’t help but wonder if he just enjoyed seeing me superstitiously fret.
I was seated on the airplane across from a couple who was also on their way to the game. “Go Cyclones,” we said to each other, followed by a brief two-person “Cyclone! Power!” chant between the two of them. I was enjoying the festive atmosphere already. We struck up a conversation for a few minutes. Although they typically went to only a couple of home games a year, they had never been to Waco and thought it would be a fun road game to see. Perhaps someday I’ll be more like these fans and just go to a few games a season, I thought. But not today.
We landed, pulled into an airstrip away from the main terminal, and took a shuttle mostly full of Cyclone fans to the main terminal, which took what felt like a half-hour. It gave me a chance to be around a few Cyclone fans, one of whom was a players’ parent. It was great to hear that his son enjoyed playing for ISU coach Matt Campbell and reminded me that these players were still college students, younger than me by more than ten years. It was perspective I needed to keep following the next day’s game.
I made the ninety-minute-or-so drive to Waco and met up with my hosts, Adam and Nicole. I was slightly nervous, taking a chance on staying with people I didn’t know. My fears were immediately eased. It’s difficult to explain how I knew, but I just knew they were good people, and we clicked.
Adam and I took an Uber to a bar in downtown Waco, where the DFW Cyclones had hosted a happy hour earlier in the evening. A few people were still hanging out. A group that had also flown from Des Moines met up with us, and one person in the group knew Adam from Twitter. A Baylor student came up to our group to let us know she was from Iowa and was happy to see us here. We asked who she was cheering for. “Baylor, but I also hope Iowa State does well,” she said. That wasn’t quite the answer our group wanted to hear as a few people gave her a hard time (all in good fun, of course). I’m pretty sure her friend — with no Iowa ties — had no idea what she was getting into.
Adam and I checked out Waco Ale Company, a brewery with a nice selection of IPA’s and friendly bartenders. Some more Cyclone fans who Adam knew came to our table to catch up. I could tell this was a reunion of sorts for Cyclone fans living in Dallas/Fort Worth, Austin, Waco and surrounding areas.
The next morning, we got up early to head to the tailgate. Despite the fact that it was a 2:30 p.m. game and the tailgate didn’t officially begin until 9:30 a.m., Adam wanted to get there early to help with setup. We left his house around 7 a.m., with me wondering how I was ever going to catch up on sleep after the trip the week prior to Las Vegas and now an early tailgate start in Waco. All part of the journey.
As we drove, I checked in with my brother. “Gameday!” I texted. He let me know he was up placing his bets. Including one on…. Iowa State to cover. I tried to warn him, but as he later pointed out, “I figured I would win either way,” with a wink-face emoji. As a Hawkeye fan, it didn’t bother him that much if Iowa State were to lose.
We arrived at the tailgate and began help with set up with the handful of other volunteers. Adam was a great friend to have, as he introduced me to a number of the volunteers. I was struck by the pride the DFW Cyclones took in being part of this group. They even had merchandise with the I-State logo modified to include the design of the Texas flag. I, of course, had to buy a t-shirt.
I met one fan who lived in Texas and had season tickets to Jack Trice Stadium. “How do you make it to all the games,” I asked, feeling impressed at this dedication. “We are able to plan our schedule and travel around it,” she said. Another fan still had family in Iowa and had just made it to the UNI game.
The tailgate began to fill up as more people arrived. I noticed a lot of the people seemed to know each other. They planned similar tailgates whenever Iowa State played road games against other Texas schools, and I suspect a community has formed between them. For some, I imagined this game had to be similar to the feeling I feel on the opening game each season like it was Christmas morning and they could barely hide their anticipation. Hundreds of people showed up. It felt like a home game.
I ran into a friend and former coworker, a big Iowa State fan who has traveled to most road games for years. He introduced me to a few of his traveling buddies. One of them told me “It’s fun to cheer for a good team. But if they weren’t good, I would be here anyway. It’s an addiction.”
A little while later, one of the organizers announced over the speakers that the team buses were on the way, and would be driving by any second. “Let’s go wave at them,” he encouraged us. People headed toward the side of the road, and here came the buses. People waved and cheered as a number of buses pulled through. The scene made me tear up just a little bit. I’m a sucker for those sorts of things.
I saw the same people I had met at the bar the night before who had flown from Des Moines. We took in the scene and remarked how amazing it was that so many people had shown up to a road game tailgate. Across the crowd, I saw someone who I was almost sure was a former marching bandmate. Is that her? She began to walk over and I realized it was. She and her husband, who live in Iowa, had also decided to make the trip for the weekend. I also struck up a conversation with a man who was in the marching band years before me and is still heavily involved in the Iowa State Alumni Band. We swapped old band stories — such as having cans of beer or other projectiles thrown at us at opposing stadiums. We could laugh about it all these years later.
Pollard showed up and gave his remarks. He mentioned that normally he was on the team bus when it pulled through and assured us that the players notice the fans when they gather and cheer as the buses pull by. He reminded us to enjoy the journey.
A few minutes later, Jeff Johnson with the ISU Alumni Association led the crowd in cheers. When I was a student in the band, Johnson would come on the field before games and lead the crowd in cheers like “I-S-U!” or “Cyclone! Power!” It was a shot in the arm for the stadium at that time. I don’t know how else to explain it other than… we just didn’t really know how to do that sort of thing all that well. Eventually, we learned how to do it ourselves and Johnson wasn’t needed in that role anymore. I also remember when we would play as a band at pep rallies or donor events before games or student orientation that Johnson would also be there leading cheers. Seeing him do it for the DFW Cyclone tailgate brought me back. It felt just like it did before as Johnson pointed at different sections of the crowd to direct them when to cheer. “We’re going to do Cyclone Power. Watch where I point to know when to say your line!” He would jokingly chide us if we weren’t paying enough attention. Every now and again he’d stop and encourage us to be louder. By the end of it, everyone was in the gameday mood.
A little after 2:00 p.m., we headed to the stadium. As we got closer to the gates, I began to truly realize for the first time that day that Iowa State was the road team. Although the tailgate felt similar to the experience in Las Vegas in terms of being surrounded by Cyclone fans, the stadium would be hostile toward Iowa State.
I was struck by the beauty of McClane Stadium. It is located on the Brazos River, and Nicole pointed out it was just one of a few stadiums where people could “sailgate” on boats before the game.
We filed in and mixed in with the Baylor fans. It felt a little bit like we were on the strip in Las Vegas as every now and then we’d see other Iowa State fans and say “Go Cyclones!” The DFW Cyclone sections were in the 300 level at the very back of the stadium behind the endzone. Adam and Nicole’s seats were a section over, so we went on our separate ways. I walked (and walked) all the way up to row eighteen, with just a few rows behind me. The other end of the stadium was open, and we could see the river in the background. I didn’t notice any sailgaters today. It could have been too hot to be out on a boat in the sun on a day in the upper 80s. It was nice where I was, surrounded by Cyclone fans in the road team stadium, and in seats that were covered by the stadium’s overhang. A little lower and we would have been stuck in the sun as many people on our half of the stadium were. I noticed this year Iowa State was allowed to have its tents on the sideline.
I took my seat next to some other Cyclone fans. Over the course of the game, I got to know them a bit. One man was from the Dallas/Fort Worth area, one from Houston and one from San Antonio. The San Antonio Cyclone told me he had always wanted to come to a DFW event and decided to make the drive today. We discovered that we both had Pella ties (my hometown, his college town). He talked about how much fun it had been to have Iowa State play in the Alamo Bowl in San Antonio in 2018.
We cheered as the Cyclones ran onto the field, being as loud as we could in the road stadium. Iowa State took the ball first. Let’s go score, and we can take control of this game early, I thought. Iowa State began driving down the field but faced a fourth-down-and-two at the Baylor twenty-six-yard-line. I expected Campbell to send the field goal unit out, but he didn’t flinch. Iowa State was going for it, a sign in my mind that the team was going to show more urgency in conference play. Running back Breece Hall picked up a nine-yard-gain to pick up the first down and scored three plays later on a two-yard run to loud cheers from our section. Iowa State 7, Baylor 0. “Best drive of the season so far!” I texted my friends watching from home.
I was feeling good. Iowa State’s defense had been lights out so far during the season. I didn’t think Baylor would have the lead during this game. I was wrong.
The defense looked the worst it had all season giving up an eight-play, seventy-five-yard drive to allow Baylor to tie the game at 7-7. Ouch. On its next possession, the Cyclones picked up a first down but were forced to punt. That’s OK, I thought. Reverse the field.
If there was a Bingo card on “Iowa State Miscues” that it feels like we have seen too often over the years, the next play would have checked a box. The punt went only fifteen yards. (In the stands, we thought he just shanked it, but later I learned it was partially blocked. Either way, it’s a play that just can’t happen for Iowa State.) Baylor took the ball near midfield, and again began to drive. The Baylor crowd was very much enjoying this, with many fans giving an enthusiastic standing ovation as the first quarter ended. On the first play of the second quarter, Baylor again found the endzone on a twenty-one-yard pass from Gerry Bohanon to Tyquan Thornton to take a 14-7 lead. This was not the defense we were accustomed to seeing.
I still had confidence. It became a trend during 2020 that the Iowa State defense would give up drives and points early but tighten up as they adjusted to the opposing team’s game plan. After the Cyclones answered with a field goal drive to make it 14-10, I remarked that now would be a great time for the defense to do what they do. Instead, Baylor marched right down the field again for a nine-play, seventy-five-yard drive, capped by a thirty-three-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open Ben Sims. A long touchdown pass, so rare in the Campbell era, felt too familiar to other less successful periods of Cyclone football. Check another square on the Bingo card. The Bears were seemingly doing whatever they wanted offensively, and Iowa State hadn’t found an answer yet.
Now down 21-10 with just more than five minutes to play in the half, we had the feeling Iowa State really needed to answer going into the locker room. The Cyclones put together another good drive, which stalled as they faced a fourth-and-eleven from the thirty-yard-line of Baylor. This time Campbell sent the field goal unit out for a forty-seven-yard attempt. The Baylor crowd made noise to try and distract the kicker, and the crowd’s cheers told me it was no good even before I saw the ball go wide left. Missed the field goal. Another box on the Bingo card.
Iowa State’s defense finally made a three-and-out stop to force Baylor to punt. “This is a tough spot for a freshman,” the fan next to me said, referring to Cyclone punt returner Jaylin Noel, who had just begun fielding punts a week ago at UNLV. A cannon of a punt went fifty-eight yards and Noel had to chase it backward… and dropped it around the fifteen-yard line. What a disaster! It looked like the Baylor defender was going to pounce, but somehow Noel fought for the ball and recovered it. The Bingo card box of “fumbling a punt return” had been checked, but the disaster was averted due to a gutsy effort by the freshman to make the play.
Iowa State again put together a good drive, settling for a thirty-eight-yard-field goal that went through with four seconds left in the half to cut the deficit to 21-13 just in time for the half.
For as poor as the first half had felt at times, the Cyclones were still very much in it. Now is the time for the defense to tighten up! I thought. Instead, Baylor again moved the ball down the field before Iowa State’s Isheem Young forced Bohanon to fumble. Iowa State’s Kym-Mani King recovered to give the Cyclones new life.
Iowa State again drove down the field, but on third-and-six Purdy missed an open Xavier Hutchinson, again forcing Iowa State to settle for a field goal attempt. This time, kicker Andrew Mevis put it through the uprights to cut the lead to 21-16. Slowly but surely, Iowa State seemed to be turning the tide.
I went down to the restroom and tried to get back to my seat before the game resumed. As I returned to the concourse, I knew what was happening before I saw it. I heard the crowd cheer and looked through the openings in the concourse to see Baylor fans come to their feet. Baylor was returning a kickoff, and far. I was able to catch the feed on the stadium video board just in time to catch Baylor’s Trestan Ebner complete a ninety-eight-yard touchdown return. Kickoff return coverage had been an Achilles heel for Iowa State in 2020 and was widely considered one of the top areas the team would have to fix if it was to compete for a championship in 2021. Most kicks on the day went for touchbacks, exactly to plan. This one did not, and it cost Iowa State dearly. Another box checked on the Cyclone Miscue Bingo card. I got back up to my seat and sarcastically asked my seat neighbor from Austin if I missed anything. He started to answer seriously, and I cut him off. “I know. I saw it.”
Iowa State was now down 28-16, and as I had been in the UNI game, as I had been in the Iowa loss, I was again forced to begin to come to terms with what an Iowa State loss would mean in this journey. Nothing good. It looked even direr when Iowa State went three-and-out and was forced to punt. This time, though, the Iowa State defense had begun to find its groove and forced a returned punt (another tricky punt this time caught cleanly by Noel). The Cyclones were able to put thoughts of losing out of my mind. Hall, who had not performed quite as well as the high level we had expected coming into the season, broke a forty-one-yard-run. In a game that seemed to get wackier as it went, the Cyclones were called for a fifteen-yard penalty when the referee tripped over someone on the Iowa State sideline. From my seat, Campbell appeared to be furious with the ref as we all wondered if we had ever seen a call quite like that. No matter. On the next play, Purdy found Chase Allen for a twenty-four-yard gain, and two plays later found Charlie Kolar for thirty yards down to the two-yard line. Hall ran it in for a touchdown from the two, and Iowa State was back in it down 28-23. A few minutes later, as the game headed to the fourth quarter, the hundreds of Cyclone fans in our area of the stadium made our voices heard. “Let’s go State! Let’s go State! Let’s go State!” we chanted. The momentum was on our side. Adam, sitting a section over, texted me “30-28,” referencing that he thought the Cyclones were going to score another touchdown and win the game. I returned the text: “37-28.” I was feeling good. Time for a Cyclone win.
That’s when we saw two plays that I am convinced would have led to an Iowa State win had they gone the Cyclones’ way. First, on third-and-11, with the Cyclone fans making noise, Bohanon was sacked by ISU defender Will McDonald and fumbled the ball around the twenty-five-yard line. We held our breath as the players fought for the ball. Could this finally be the really big turnover we’ve been waiting for?? And then the ref signaled: Baylor ball. Still, we cheered the defense off the field for fourth down. On Iowa State’s second play of the possession, Hall broke free again for thirty-four yards. On second-and-six from the Baylor twenty-two, Purdy wound up to throw to Kolar, who was wide open heading to the endzone. I’m pretty sure I started cheering as I saw the pass released, and I looked at Kolar with nobody around him. I was just waiting for the ball to fall into his hands. Where’s the ball? I heard a cheer, and my brain registered this is too loud to be a cheer for Iowa State. I hadn’t even seen a Baylor defender tip the ball at the line of scrimmage and another defender intercept the pass. A sure touchdown turned into a costly turnover. Another Bingo square checked.
The Cyclone defense had found its game now, forcing another punt (which Noel again fielded nicely while running backward). Iowa State was forced to punt it right back, and Ebner fielded a line drive with space around him. The Baylor crowd again came to its feet as Ebner broke a long gain. It felt as though this might be the final blow, but Iowa State forced him out of bounds at the sixteen-yard-line — the same spot where the punt had originally occurred. It was going to take another great defensive effort to keep the Cyclones in the game, and it was. Iowa State forced a field goal, making the score 31-23 with just over five-and-a-half minutes remaining.
During previous games during the season, I had sat next to my close friend Chris, who had developed a bad habit of verbalizing his negative predictions. Chris was back in Iowa for this game and was watching on delay and therefore not texting me during the game. A section over, Adam took his spot. “Somehow we are still in this,” I texted him, trying to put positivity into the world. “It’s a tease,” he responded. Bad omen, dude!
He wasn’t wrong, unfortunately.
Iowa State took the ball back, and it became clear the Cyclones were in no hurry. Their plan was seemed to be to score on this possession, tie the game with a two-point conversion, and go to overtime. I would argue what happened next would be remembered as one of the great drives in Iowa State football history, at the moment it needed to happen the most… if only the game outcome would have turned out differently.
With the Baylor crowd roaring (or at least what was left, as a number of fans on the sunny side of the stadium had exited early), Iowa State put together a methodical drive. Purdy found Allen for a twenty-one-yard-gain to start it. On third-and-one, he found Kolar again for a two-yard gain to move the sticks. Iowa State faced a fourth-and-one, with the game hanging in the balance. Hall powered ahead for two to keep the drive alive. Enjoy the journey, I told myself. Purdy ran for ten yards for another first down to the twenty-two. The clock ticked under a minute. On third-and-six, Purdy found Hall for seven yards and a first down at the Baylor eleven. Purdy then threw to Kolar who got into the endzone as we erupted in cheers. But wait. “There’s a flag down,” my neighbor from San Antonio pointed out. The refs talked for an agonizingly long time. The call was an ineligible man downfield against Iowa State. Another losing in the margins play, and another Bingo card box checked.
Instead of scoring, Iowa State had to run a play from the sixteen-yard line. Purdy threw it to Hall, who slipped a defender and walked calmly into the endzone. Iowa State had scored again, this time with no penalty, to make it 31-29 and give itself a chance to tie with a two-point conversion.
I was simultaneously impressed, ecstatic and quite nervous. I had been so close to mentally giving up a few times that day. Iowa State had seemed to overcome mistake after mistake, and multiple times had narrowly avoided completely getting blown out. Now it was down to one play to keep the game alive. I had a bad feeling; my perception has long been that the Cyclones for some reason struggle in short-yardage situations close to the goal line. I have no data to back this up, but it just feels like it.
I felt a little more confident as Iowa State came to the line. The players seemed to have a purpose. Purdy lined up under center, which is very unusual (he usually lines up in a “shotgun” formation a few yards behind the center). They seemed to be trying something outside the box. Immediately it became clear the play wasn’t going to work. The snap was clunky, and Purdy had a difficult time handling it. By the time he had a firm grip on the football, he was under pressure from the Baylor defender and had to heave it desperately toward the endzone, where it was intercepted by a Baylor defender as the crowd let out a roar.
It struck me just how much the players wanted it as I saw Kolar and others sit on the ground dejected for a few seconds. As upset as I was, I knew they had to be heartbroken.
Still, Iowa State had one more chance. Baylor was called for unsportsmanlike conduct on the two-point attempt, meaning the kickoff with twenty-four seconds left would be moved up fifteen yards. If Iowa State could recover, they could get into position for a field goal with one or two strong plays. Having seen the Cyclones nearly convert an onside kick successfully against Iowa, there was reason to believe it was possible. The kick, however, went right into the hands of a Baylor receiver. My seatmates began to leave, until.. “Offside, on the receiving team.” Iowa State would get to move up five more yards and try again. “How many times has this gone against us? Maybe just this once it can go our way,” one fan said. Unfortunately for Iowa State, it was the same result. Baylor ran out the clock for a 31-29 win.
My text message chain was devastated (besides Chris who wouldn’t be devastated for a few more hours). I was numb. As we filed out, I caught up with Adam and Nicole and the same friends we had met the night prior at the brewery, who asked how I was going to put this into words. I didn’t know yet.
The reality I needed to come to terms with was that Iowa State was no longer a playoff contender. That possible destination was gone by September. Nobody envisioned this. It was pretty much the worst possible scenario to begin the season (other than a loss against UNI). The whole backdrop of this being a special season, for now, was off the table. Iowa State would have a lot of work to do even to make it back to the Big 12 Championship game, which now felt like the ceiling for the season. One of the reasons I had picked this season to take this journey was now proving to backfire.
Baylor fans were happy, now at 4-0 with a win over a ranked team (though Iowa State dropped out of the AP rankings the next day). It’s a special kind of sports misery being forced to walk out of a road team stadium after their team wins and your team loses. Luckily their fans were good-natured.
I checked my phone, and had a text message from my mom. “So sorry! Love You!!” She is the best.
We walked by one spot outside the stadium where a number of Cyclone fans were standing around. I realized that this must be the players’ parents as a number of them were wearing jerseys and they were standing by what looked to be a potential entrance to the locker room. I couldn’t recall ever having seen the players’ parents after a loss. It’s something I likely wouldn’t have noticed at Jack Trice Stadium, but was more noticeable in the road venue. Perhaps I was projecting my own feelings, but they seemed dejected. I thought about how difficult it would feel to be as invested as they are and witness a heartbreaking loss, knowing the pain their sons were feeling. I reminded myself again: As bad as I felt, they felt worse.
As we got ready to cross the street, we noticed some Baylor college students who seemed to be in an animated conversation with a few Iowa State fans that were walking by. It was a close game, with one team scoring a thrilling win and the other a frustrating loss. Naturally, all it would take would be a few ill-timed words to flare tempers a bit. I pointed out the scene to Adam and Nicole when a Baylor fan approached us. “I hope you don’t make judgements based on that,” he said. “Nah,” I replied. “Did you have fun?” he asked. “Well, other than the outcome at least?”
“Yeah, it was actually a lot of fun,” I replied. “You have a nice stadium and that was a really entertaining game. I can’t complain.”
Around that time, Nicole was on her way to have a few words, or rather, a drink, with the college-aged fans. “That’s one way to make peace!” I told our new Baylor friend as we went our separate ways.
We got back to the tailgate as it was being torn down. The energy was considerably down from earlier. There’s something so deflating about a loss like we just witnessed, especially after what had been a wonderful day, and especially while there was still work to be done in tearing down the tailgate party.
The mood was bittersweet. The letdown from the game was interspersed with the feeling of a successful tailgate and the recognition that a good time was had by all. After merchandise was packed up and tables were put away, everyone began to say their goodbyes. The common refrain was “great tailgate.” I wholeheartedly agreed.
As we drove away, Adam and I discussed the game a bit more. We were frustrated by the special teams play, questioning the two-point conversion attempt play call and generally distraught that Iowa State had ultimately outgained Baylor by nearly two-hundred total yards, had gained twelve more first downs than the Bears and had held onto possession for eleven more minutes than Baylor. And still lost. The Cyclone Miscue Bingo card items — the kickoff return for a touchdown, the missed field goal, the ill-timed interception and the rest — cost Iowa State the game. I should have stayed off Twitter but I couldn’t help but scroll through. It was not a happy place.
“I think it’s time to readjust expectations,” I said. We agreed that there was still a lot of hope for this team, but the margin for error was gone.
The next morning, I flew out of Austin early and had a four-hour layover in Charlotte, where I reflected and wrote much of this chapter.
I had to accept reality. This team was not going to make the College Football Playoff. This team could ultimately be significantly less successful than we hoped. All offseason I had assumed 9-3 was going to be the worst Iowa State could possibly do. Now a worse record didn’t seem to be out of the question. I thought again about the fact that I had chosen to write a book about this season, the season I was hoping was going to be so special.
And for some reason, I was relaxed.
Pollard’s words ring true. Enjoy the journey. Saturday’s journey, outside of the final outcome of the game, was a great and memorable day in my life. I truly had a fun time, and I wouldn’t have done it without the pull of the Cyclones and this particular Cyclone team. I thought of the fan who told me he’d be there whether or not the team was good. I thought of the pride I had in the team itself, which kept coming back despite so many times it could have given up. The group of seniors who had given so much to the program, and the parents who surely had to comfort their sons after a tough loss. They would all be there next week.
And I was reminded that the Cyclones were 13-2 in the month of October since 2017. There was still time to make this a good season, or even a great season, or even a special season.
I decided it was time to enjoy the journey without worrying about the destination. For better or worse, I was part of this and this was part of me. Whatever happened, I was going to be there to cheer on the Cyclones.