On our team, there was always a postseason bowl game to look forward to, regardless of our overall record and enduring failure to win the Southeastern Conference and national championships. I suspect that the 95 or so members of this year's Louisiana State football team, which plays Nebraska tomorrow night in the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, have already uncorked the beer kegs and mixed it up in that annual affair of disintegration we called the Perry Bowl.
For the record, it was a party of incredible significance to any Louisiana boy who ever dreamed of wearing the purple and gold and playing rough-and-tumble on the floor of Tiger Stadium. Admission to the Perry Bowl could not be purchased at any price, except maybe in blood and sweat over a six-month period on the great expanse of practice fields that bordered the Mississippi River. It was limited to members of the football team only and began immediately after a mandatory breakfast of grits and eggs and sausage in the jock dorm. Veteran Perry Bowlers always said you shouldn't attend without food in your belly, and if you did, you'd best first coat your stomach with a big swallow of Pepto Bismol.
"And wear old clothes," Spencer Smith, an offensive guard, once told a gathering of rookies. "You never know what'll get thrown on you."
The history of the make-do bowl is a relatively short and ignominious one, but I have no doubt that in time it will be a source of incalculable pride for all who knew it. Back in the early '70s, a reserve offensive lineman named Perry decided to create "The Game" when all the other, legitimate postseason bowls failed to invite him and his teammates after a remarkably good season that warranted but did not receive national recognition.
As designed, the Perry Bowl appealed to everyone but the teetotaling pantywaists among us, and even that small cadre generally found cause to disregard their high-minded ideals on that first Monday following the last Saturday game of the year. There was a pool stick, a bottle of tequila and a bar stool for everyone at the White Horse Tavern on the edge of Baton Rouge's Tigertown, and the billiards tables could turn into sleeping racks if you were absolutely devoid of feeling by closing time and needed a place to spend the night.
Looking back, I see the three other college postseason bowl games I played in as dutiful exhibitions of all the team had learned in the course of the year. The Sun and Liberty and Tangerine (now the Florida Citrus) bowls mattered less to the success of our seasons than we always made out, although I am certain that teams playing in the four major bowls -- the Rose, Orange, Cotton and Sugar -- entered those contests with a resolve that was perfectly desperate. Those teams had, after all, continued to work diligently through the Christmas holidays and come to claim the national championship, while our purpose, as an also-ran top-20 team, was always singular: to cram a whole year of hardball into a few days of party-hardy in a town far from home.
For us, that last game of football offered a respite from schoolwork and a much-needed vacation, which promised a swirling storm of adventure, in places such as El Paso, Tex., and Memphis, Tenn., and Orlando, Fla. Our coaches used always to tell us, moments before we charged into charging walls of human muscle and bone, "Hit it running, boys, hit it running." And I like to think we approached the bowl season with the same sacrificial fervor.
The Sun Bowl in 1977 saw Stanford beat us, 24-14, before a chilled crowd in a stadium surrounded at all points by snow-capped mountains. The Perry Bowl's swath of drunken revelry was a solid three weeks behind us, as were a number of equally manic performances on the streets of Juarez, the bustling town just across the Mexican border. We had arrived in El Paso about five days before the game was to be played, and I can still hear the chaotic castanets and the frenetic chords played by a mariachi band as we filed off the charter plane and into the terminal. There were two Continental Trailways buses parked in the breezeway out front, waiting to take us to the stadium for practice, and a gauntlet of handsome women -- "handpicked beauties," bowl officials loved to call them -- formed a path to their doors.
Sometime after we'd all found seats, Coach Charles McClendon held a thumb up in the air as a propitious warning. "There will be a curfew," he said. "Midnight."
There was, of course, a particular group of players on the team who never much appreciated being told when to go to bed, and it surprised no one to find a huddle of assistant coaches sitting outside our hotel room doors until 2 a.m. or so, every night, daring anyone to take a step toward trouble. I can still picture the cherry-red tip of Jim Collier's cigarette, flaming bright with each drag he took, from where he stood on the grassy lawn. And I can hear his voice spit like fire, imploring, "Ensminger, where on earth do you think you're going?"
A night stranded in a hotel room, for any red-blooded 19-year-old, was a torturous test that abetted the creation of more than one means of escape. Why, if you listened closely, you could practically hear Old Mexico calling you across the Rio Grande to its bars and open markets and dog races, which, we had heard, sold frozen margaritas for two bits apiece and practically gave away plates of jalapen o nachos.
At brunch or while suiting up for practice, stories moved in sibilant waves from locker to locker. One player, who always seemed terribly embarrassed around girls, had met two young women at the foot of the bridge crossing into Mexico and accepted their lascivious offer to "visit" their apartment, which turned out to be a lean-to at the back of an alley. They visited, all right, and when they were done and the poor fool was sent back out on the street, he found that there was nothing left of the $180 he'd hidden in a picture fold in his wallet. Distraught and certain he'd be found out by the coaches, he called his roommate, who courageously sneaked out of the hotel a short half-hour before daybreak and stole into Juarez, where he found his friend all alone in a seedy bistro, huddled over a Carta Blanca and weeping like a child.
A big-hearted team captain asked everyone to look with pity upon the poor fool -- I seem to recall our leader calling him a "victim" -- and took up a special collection to help replace the money stolen from his wallet. That dear fellow came away with more money than he'd lost, and was later seen throwing quarters around like Mardi Gras doubloons on the streets of Juarez and asking dark strangers the whereabouts of women who might be interested in paying him a "little visit."
My junior year, we played Missouri in the Liberty Bowl in Memphis, and lost our second straight postseason appearance, 20-15. The university had given us the choice of flying as a team on a chartered DC-9 or driving in a caravan of private cars and trucks and using the plane fare for gas money. Back then, except for the $32 cash players made each week selling their four game tickets, only the sons of filthy rich mothers had much money to speak of. I think most everyone would have preferred to drive anyway, thinking quite seriously on the mischief the road through Mississippi promised.
We took the $100 or so the university offered and packed as many players as we could in each vehicle -- that way the trip would cost less than the six-packs of generic beer we planned to load in the truck beds. The drive on the interstate through forests of evergreen found cars moving side by side, and players reaching through rolled-down windows and trading off bags of chips and brewsky. Some players sat in lawn chairs in the beds of trucks with camper tops and played poker and booray and listened to hillbilly music on the radio. That we made it into Tennessee without accident remains a testament of miraculous pilot.
Memphis at Christmas was a blinking string of multicolored lights and the smell of green wood burning at school and church bonfires and songs sung by men and women dressed in heavy tweeds and carrying lighted candles that seemed to explode like bottle rockets in the night. One evening we ate as a team at a cellar restaurant that specialized in baby-back ribs and giant coolers of Canadian lager. It was across the street and down a side alley from the Peabody Hotel, a magnificent old building that had served as the setting for much of James Jones' novel, "Whistle." The next summer I would go back to Memphis and read sections of the book while lounging in the Peabody lobby. For some silly reason, it sent chills down my spine.
Spencer Smith, a special teams headhunter who loved crashing spearlike into kickers and crushing their will to do much more than retrieve their tees, won a contest of bull-pride and daring one night at a Memphis disco, and although it earned him a fixed place in the lore of Tiger football, catapulting him up there with legendary figures such as Billy Cannon and Steve Van Buren and Y.A. Tittle, it almost cost him his position on the team.
I was listening to Christmas carols in the hotel piano bar the night Spencer challenged Missouri's toughest offensive lineman to a drinking contest. They sucked down shot after shot of liquor-varnish before Spencer tired of the weak challenge and, cheered on by a crowd of fans and teammates, bit off the rim of his cocktail glass and proceeded to chew the shards and fragments.
A high school all-American at linebacker, Spencer was as body-hard as any man I ever knew, built low to the ground with a monstrous chest and arms like andirons, but his tongue turned out to be made of simple pink stuff. Blood squirted through the corner of his mouth and dribbled down his chin, and his shirt absorbed the crimson spill. He bled for days, even with the run of stitches that put the inside of his mouth back together. At practice, he tried to give us encouragement, but his mouth was stuffed with balls of cotton and it all sounded like mournful false chatter. He never smiled and would mostly stand at some distance behind the team, shadow boxing. He punched at the bright air with a fury few possess, and no one doubted who the invisible Missouri player it was he pummeled.
I had heard about Orange Bowl teams busing down to a Seminole reservation in the Everglades and wrestling alligators, and about Cotton Bowl teams playing John Wayne at a big-sky dude ranch and lassoing wild Brahma. Those nights in Juarez notwithstanding, I suppose the wildest we came to any of that was challenging a great African elephant to a tug-of-war on the dirt floor of a Circus World arena.
This was in Orlando in 1979, my senior season. We were playing Wake Forest in the Tangerine Bowl, a game we would win by three touchdowns. The first few days we had practiced at a small high school miles from the Orlando corporate limits, on a soggy plow without line stripes or yard markers. The scoreboard looked as if it had been struck by mortar fire, and there were no locker rooms. Everyone rode back to the hotel smelling like cow manure and suffocating in the heat.
The week before the game, we toured Disney World and Sea World with free passes and partied at old town discos with "the bevy of Tangerine beauties" who ran around in fancy dresses and spike heels and perpetual smiles that gave you the creeps if you looked at them too long. One girl wore a crown, and we all figured she was a queen of some sort. Handpicked no doubt.
The elephant we rope-wrestled looked like a big fat boy when he entered the ring, what with his ponderous swaying from side to side and his gray hide jiggling like flab. He was as hairless as a baby's derrie re, and he snorted but never roared. "On your knees, cretin," some of the boys hollered, feeling cocky. "On your knees."
A funny-looking blond fellow in a tight sequined jump suit cracked his whip and kicked the beast into gear, and it was only seconds before the elephant had the 20-some men sliding belly-down across the indoor pasture.
As soon as it was over, my roommate, Big Eddie Stanton, tore out of the arena and headed back to the bus, wounded by the loss. He was the strongest man on the team, winner of the squat and bench press competitions in our weight and conditioning room, and a dumb elephant who'd never known the wonders of Olympic barbells and Nautilus exercise machines had all but made him cry for mercy.
Back at the hotel, Big Eddie left the room and walked down the busy city street to an all-night fruit stand, where he bought a bag of giant oranges for $5. There must have been 30 oranges in that bag, and all were fresh, ripe and sun-colored. Our room had a kitchenette, and Big Eddie, happy as you please, put the fruit in the freezer compartment of the refrigerator and slammed shut the door.
"You know what I'm doing?" he asked and flipped off his tennis shoes.
I said I didn't.
"It's our last game, right?" he said, lying back in bed.
I said it was.
"I'm going back to the beginning," he said. "Remember how we used to eat frozen oranges and popsicles during August two-a-days?"
"I remember," I said. "You always ate two of each."
"Well," he said and looked me over pretty good. "I bought the oranges."
"I guess you want me to buy the popsicles," I said, then said it again.
He only nodded and looked at the door.
That night, the one before the last football game we would ever play, Big Eddie Stanton and I split the bag of frozen oranges and a box of 12 torpedoes of flavored ice. We watched movies late into the night and took pictures of the last hotel room we would ever share together. We took still-life shots of the frozen oranges, before and after being peeled and eaten, and of our equipment -- helmets, shoulder pads, pants and shoes -- stacked against the bathroom wall. Now I see that gear stacked like so many memories in the corner of my brain.
On our team, there was always a game to be played, a town to see. It mattered that you won, but you really played to live. When the bowl season ended, everyone went home and talked about it. You talked about it until there was no more to say, and then you talked about it some more.