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The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

The Student News Site of Texas A&M University - College Station

The Battalion

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The Battalion May 4, 2024

Longest day

 
 

As the sun dipped below the horizon on November 17, 1999, practice was nearing an end for members of the Texas A&M football team.
It was business as usual for the team that was preparing for the biggest game of the season against in-state rival University of Texas, which was a mere eight days away.
And then, in the early morning of the next day, everything stopped being usual.
Bonfire had collapsed, trapping 39 students beneath the countless heavy logs. No one knew how many survivors would be pulled from the massive pile.
And suddenly, as quickly as the stack had fallen, the football game the next week didn’t seem to matter anymore, even to those directly involved in it.
“By comparison, the game wasn’t even a factor in our lives anymore,” said R.C. Slocum, then head coach of the Aggies. “It pales in comparison in the reality of life and death. You can only imagine the anguish as a parent to be so proud of your child and to be so excited about their future, and then suddenly the exuberance turns into bewilderment, anxiety and despair.”
The complete attention of Aggies everywhere turned to helping in any way possible, including the attention of members of the football team.
Slocum called a team meeting and cancelled practice for the day. But, instead of spending time reflecting on their emotions, the players went to go help remove logs that were trapping fellow students.
“There was never any question if we were going to help out,” said Rocky Bernard, then a defensive lineman for A&M. “Once coach officially cancelled practice, we went out there. We did it because we would want someone to do the same thing for us in that situation.”
And, as the team arrived at the Polo Fields to provide their assistance, the tragedy sunk in.
“Everyone was in shock,” said Randy McCown, who was the starting quarterback for the Aggies. “It was such a big mess. It wasn’t going to just be picking up a few sticks.”
Shane Lechler, the punter and one of the players who helped gather the team to go help, echoed McCown’s sentiments.
“When you got there, you realized ‘This is real’,” Lechler said. “You had heard stories about it and seen some pictures and kind of understood what was going on, but you didn’t understand the whole thing until you got there. It really hit you hard.”
The team made its way to the stack and began to remove logs, sometimes moving logs faster than the cranes on site which had to move logs much more slowly and gently so as not to further disrupt the already scattered logs.
“All you could think of was the people trapped at the bottom,” Bernard said. “They were heavy logs, but it didn’t matter. It was a time of everyone pulling together, working together.”
The impact of the fallen Bonfire was felt throughout the state, especially in Austin. Texas head football coach Mack Brown said that the moment he heard of the collapse, he was stricken with grief just with the thought of losing a child. Brown immediately began to think of ways he could help.
“It wasn’t about a football game anymore, it was about kids lives,” Brown said. “I called R.C. and told him that we would do anything to be supportive.”
Brown stayed true to his word. He helped start a blood drive on the University of Texas campus, to which students responded in great numbers – lines for the blood drive vans had nearly hour-long waits at some points.
After disputes of whether to continue forward with the game were tossed around back in College Station, many decided to move forward. And so, football life reluctantly continued for the Aggies.
“It was a long, agonizing week,” Slocum said. “We just asked the players if they could take a couple of hours everyday to step aside from the grieving. I told them we’ve got an obligation to be prepared to give our best effort in the ballgame. The whole Bonfire was about the symbolic desire to beat Texas. It would only be fair that we came prepared and gave our best effort.”
Friday finally arrived for College Station and the Aggies but, similar to the previous eight days, it was a far cry from anything normal. Slocum delivered his pre-game speech to an uncharacteristically somber locker room.
“There wasn’t the normal giddiness and excitement about the game,” Slocum said. “There was just quiet focus and resolve to go out and play the game. I never told the team they had to win though, because I didn’t want to add any pressure. I just told them they were obligated to give their absolute, best effort – to play with all of their heart and souls.”
The Aggies exited the locker room out to Kyle Field, where they would find the stadium already more than half filled.
“When you stepped out onto the field, there was an energy that I had never felt before,” Bernard said. “It was like there was electricity running through the ground. It was an unbelievable experience.”
The Aggies scored first, on a three-yard run by running back Ja’Mar Toombs with only three minutes left in the first quarter. Texas refused to remain quiet though, scoring twice in the second quarter to take the lead at halftime.
“What really stuck out was the way we rallied around each other at halftime,” Lechler said. “We were behind, but it was a different feeling than normal.”
As the Aggies came out of the locker room for the second half, they were reminded once again why they were playing that day.
“We came out to the edge of the tunnel and the stadium was in complete silence,” Slocum said. “It was the most strange and memorable moment at Kyle, to see over 80,000 people in absolute silence. To me, that said a lot about not only our fans, but the Texas fans too.”
The Aggies would score once in the third quarter on a Toombs rushing touchdown and once in the fourth quarter on a McCown passing touchdown to take a 20-16 lead. With just under two minutes left in the fourth, Texas would begin a last drive down the field.
With 89 yards ahead of them for a score, the Longhorns marched down to the field on seven plays to the 45-yard line. As Texas quarterback Major Applewhite dropped back to pass, A&M’s Jay Brooks slipped through the offensive line and sacked Applewhite, forcing the ball to come loose. As the stadium erupted in cheers and tears, A&M’s Brian Gamble was near the mid-field point, holding the ball high in the air.
A&M had just sealed a victory.
“Everyone knew what we had to do that day,” McCown said. “We had to go out there and lay everything on the line. Bonfire was being built because of this game, and it cost those 12 their lives because they were supporting us.”
Both coaches met at the 50-yard line for the customary post-game handshake but, despite a loss to end the season, no frown could be seen on Brown’s face.
“I told him how much I respected the awesome job he did to prepare his team in the darkness of tragedy,” Brown said. “R.C. and the team should get all the credit for playing like they did, coming out behind at halftime and still playing with the passion they did. They deserved to win that ballgame.”
As the sun set on the empty Kyle Field later that night, things seemed to be somehow heading back to normal. Tragedy had occurred because of a football pre-game tradition, but it was a football game that helped bring a university even closer.
“That week, we had to hang onto each other to get through it,” Slocum said. “Similar interests and schedules tend to separate people into groups – Corps, fraternities, athletes and such. The day it fell, it was a beautiful thing of all the groups coming together as one. We were all in it together. We were all Aggies, working together.”

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