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Tuesday, June 30, 2009
Aggies' emotional win after bonfire tragedy is No. 9 memory

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

Posted by ESPN.com's Tim Griffin

Bonfire game shows softer side of Texas-A&M rivalry

Date: Nov. 26, 1999
Place: Kyle Field, College Station, Texas
Score: Texas A&M 20, Texas 16

Just eight days after the most stunning tragedy in school history, Texas A&M had to refocus to play Texas in the 106th meeting of the storied rivalry between the two bitter adversaries.

Except this time, it was a little different.

Thousands of maroon balloons filled the sky, followed by the pregame release of 12 white doves -- one for each of the 12 current and former A&M students who were killed in the bonfire collapse. Four F-16 fighters flew overhead in the missing man formation, a tribute usually saved for pilots killed in the line of duty.

Earlier in the week, A&M missed practice for two days. When the bonfire stack collapsed, A&M players helped rescuers move the logs in search of survivors.

Texas players and the Longhorn football staff held a blood drive to benefit the victims. Texas officials also canceled their annual "hex rally" before the game in favor of a unity rally that also included hundreds of A&M students.

The Aggies jumped to quick lead on a 3-yard TD run by bullish tailback Ja'Mar Toombs. But the conversion backfired when holder Mark Farris bobbled the snap, leaving kicker Shane Lechler to try an ill-advised pass that was returned 96 yards by Lee Jackson for the two-point conversion.

But heralded freshman Texas quarterback Chris Simms led a pair of scoring drives later in the first quarter that gave the Longhorns the lead. Simms was starting only because Major Applewhite was ailing with an upset stomach.

A fumble by Texas A&M quarterback Randy McCown helped the Longhorns to score their first TD, provided on a 14-yard run by Hodges Mitchell. Texas extended its lead to 16-6 later in the quarter on a 1-yard TD plunge by Chris Robertson.

The Aggies blocked a punt later in the second quarter, but were unable to score as they trailed 16-6 at the break.

Many fans who were at the game still remember the halftime presentation by both bands as the most moving part of the game. The Texas band played "Amazing Grace" and members took off their hats at the end. The A&M Band honored the bonfire victims by marching off the field without its usual musical accompaniment as the Kyle Field crowd was eerily silent.

The inspired A&M defense was the difference in the second half, limiting Texas to only two first downs as Simms struggled and was eventually replaced by Applewhite in the fourth quarter.

Toombs, rushed for 126 yards on 37 carries to lead the Aggies, gradually wore down the Longhorns in the second half. His 9-yard scoring plunge pulled the Aggies within 16-13 with 4:47 left in the third quarter.

And with 5:02 left, McCown lofted a 14-yard lob into the end zone that was snagged by his roommate Matt Bumgardner for the game-winning score.

The Aggies' defense took care of the rest. With 23 seconds left in the game, cornerback Jay Brooks forced a midfield fumble by Applewhite. Linebacker Brian Gamble recovered the fumble to seal the victory.

A&M offensive lineman Chris Valletta wore a T-shirt with the names of the 11 A&M students and one former student under his pads and jersey.

"We had the thought and memory of those 12 who died in our hearts and minds every single play," Valletta told reporters after the game. "I hope this can ease the pain a little bit."

Factoids: There was early talk of canceling the Texas-A&M game after the bonfire accident, but officials from both schools decided to play as scheduled ... A record Kyle Field crowd of 86,128 was the largest to see a football game in the state of Texas at that time ... The victory extended A&M's 19-game winning streak at Kyle Field, which was then the fourth-longest in the nation ... McCown completed only 8 of 22 passes for 156 yards and a touchdown, misfiring on nine straight passes at one juncture. Simms was 10-of-21 for 130 yards and an interception. Applewhite was 5-of-11 for 56 yards ... Lechler finished his career with an NCAA record of 44.6 yards per punt and 37 games with at least a 40-yard-plus average ... With the victory the Aggies had won 12 of the last 16 games in the series against the Longhorns.

They said it, part I: "A lot of guys felt like they couldn't practice, knowing there were still people lying under that pile of wood. It was like it was our brothers, because we're a part of the A&M family," A&M linebacker Roylin Bradley, who told the Bryan Eagle of the emotion of the game.

They said it, part II: "It was a weird time, you know? You're getting ready to play a football game, and the team on the other side is actually being nice." -- Texas A&M wide receiver Greg Porter, describing the feeling along the Aggie sideline to the Bryan Eagle.

They said it, part III: "That was the most emotional game I've ever played in my life." -- Texas A&M linebacker Brian Gamble.

They said it, part IV: "We had 12 angels with us. They weren't going to let us give up," Texas A&M quarterback Randy McCown, telling The Dallas Morning News of his team's resiliency thanks to the inspiration of playing for the bonfire victims.

They said it, part V: "This is probably the toughest week I've ever had to coach. It was such a distraction. But whenever I started to feel sorry for myself, I also thought of the parents and friends of the victims." -- Texas coach Mack Brown.

The upshot: Texas A&M advanced to the Alamo Bowl after the victory. It struggled in a 24-0 loss against Penn State, finishing an 8-4 season that left A&M No. 23 in the Associated Press poll at the end of the season.

Texas also struggled after the emotional loss. The Longhorns dropped a 22-6 decision to Nebraska in the Big 12 championship game the following week in San Antonio. The Longhorns finished the season on a three-game losing streak with a 27-6 loss to old rival Arkansas in the Cotton Bowl.

That defeat, capped by an upside-down hook 'em sign flashed by-then Arkansas coach Houston Nutt, left Texas at 9-5 and No. 21 in the final AP poll. It marks the most losses and lowest post-season finish for the Longhorns under Mack Brown. The Longhorns have finished no lower than 13th at the end of any season since then.

The countdown:

10. Roll left: James Brown guarantees victory and then lives up to his prediction.
11. When BCS meant "Boo Chris Simms."
12. A Buffalo stampede: Six Chris Brown TDs lead CU to first Big 12 title game.
13. Run, Ricky, run. Ricky Williams breaks career rushing record.
14. Wild game, wilder post-game rants when Gundy and Leach meet in 2007.
15. Rout 66: No, that score wasn't a typo.
16. KSU finally slays the Cornhuskers.
17. Kingsbury and Long
hook up in a passing duel for the ages.
18. Henery and Suh make Colorado blue.
19. Stunning OSU rally leads to Stoops' first home loss.
20. It's never over for Texas Tech until it's over.
21. Reesing to Meier. Again and again.
22. A Texas-sized comeback -- Texas over Oklahoma State in 2004.
23. A Border War unlike any of the rest -- Missouri over Kansas in 2007.
24. Seneca Wallace's wild TD run vs. Texas Tech in 2001.
25. Baylor's "So Much for Taking a Knee" against UNLV in 1999.