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Penn State Football: When It Comes to the 1987 Fiesta Bowl Title Game, the Ending Makes Up for the Middle

by on May 02, 2020 12:28 AM

Until tonight, I had never seen Penn State’s 1987 Fiesta Bowl win over Miami. As someone who grew up in State College but was born in 1988 [Yes, to some of you I am young; get over it] I was aware of it in a general sense but not all that aware of the nuances beyond the final play [spoilers?]

After Saturday night’s broadcast on NBCSN, I can now officially say I’ve seen it.

The first thing that comes to mind: in reality there are a lot of forgettable sporting events. If you turned on the TV during the middle of the college football season you would see a whole bunch of games that didn’t mean much to you. Generally speaking you would forget them and then we would all move on with our lives.

But sports has always been a story of connection. You root for a team because they have become your escape, and over the span of the regular season(s) you grow to love this team, you come to love them for their good and their bad. You love them because you can’t help but be happy when they win and hate them when they lose.

Connecting to a team that didn’t fill that void can be difficult.

Take this game for example. Penn State forcing over a half-dozen turnovers and both teams seemingly missing out on turning over a half dozen more is not exactly the poster-child when it comes to the elegance of college football. It was not, by any conventional sense, a good football game. It was sloppy, it was a defensive battle, and while there have been plenty of good low-scoring games [as an aside some of my favorite games are lower scoring] this did not feel that way.

And that’s because I wasn’t alive then. I wasn’t around to hitch my wagon to John Shaffer or truly experience the dominance of Shane Conlan. I am just a 31-year-old guy who has had a peripheral knowledge of a game that I had never seen and would never experience in its true form. I didn’t care on Friday night and I wasn’t even alive to care when it actually happened.

So I am not one to judge how you feel about those memories. Especially a game watched by so many people, a game moved so more people could watch it, a game that canceled Miami Vice. National title games are an intimate experience, a connection between you and coming within inches of the near impossible. I will never know what that final interception felt like for those who really cared, I’ll never be able to judge those who witnessed Penn State’s offense struggle while its defense bent but did not break. I wasn’t there, I wasn’t you. [Although Penn State leaning on its defense seems wildly on-brand.]

And that is maybe the best thing about sports. It is what you make it and what it means to you. Games are as important as they are important to you. Nobody can tell you that the random soccer game you watched was dumb, or that baseball in August is silly. Nobody can tell you that what you care about isn’t worth caring about.

For nearly the entire game I felt this way, largely indifferent because it was close but also ugly.

But then there were 18 seconds left, and Miami sat yards from a national title, Penn State moments from a national title. Fourth-and-goal.A Heisman winner. Good vs. evil. Paterno vs. Johnson. A week of silence vs. a week of intimidation. This is why you watch the game. This is why kind of dumb games become great, where forgettable performances become classic moments.

And then Giftopoulos catches it, one final [a fifth] interception by Penn State. The crowd goes wild, you too, probably went wild.

It reminds a person how much the ending of a game can make the game. After three hours of forgettable football an entire season comes down to a play, an entire legacy comes down to a moment, an entire program finds pride in an instance, a single player, a single throw, a single mistake.

So sure, maybe I’ll never truly understand the moment. Maybe I’ll never have the response you would have after watching a long, tight and ultimately dramatic game. I’ll never be able to fake it. I went to bed tired. You went to bed wired.

And that’s fine. The best thing about sports is that you determine what matters, what becomes memorable, what feels intense.

Which boils it all down to this. Penn State’s 1987 win over Miami and its most recent national title was an ugly, forgettable and gross game to watch for someone who knew the ending. But it all came down to the final play.

And it doesn’t get much better than that.

Ben Jones covers Penn State football and basketball for He's on Twitter as @Ben_Jones88.
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