MANHATTAN, Kan. — The Aggies taketh away, the Aggies giveth. Eventually.
“It’s quite fitting,” Brice Libel says, chuckling, “that Texas A&M is the one that potentially put us back into that.”
Libel was a wide receiver and special teams whiz on the last Kansas State football team, the only other K-State football team, to be 10-0. That was 1998, a Walt Disney script with a Stephen King ending. The Wildcats were unbeaten, then as now, jostling for a berth in the Bowl Championship Series title game, only to wind up as the best 11-2 team in school history, a shining, bittersweet beacon of what-if.
“I have a lot of repressed memories from 1998,” Libel says now, laughing again. “So, hopefully, we can put those to bed this year.”
He believes. He’s all-in. In recent weeks, Libel has been happily inquiring about tickets, scouring the Internet for the best deal to Miami, site of the BCS Championship Game on Jan. 7.
“I had been saying, ‘I’m going if they make it,’ ” the former K-State wideout says of the 10-0 ’Cats, who’ll take their No. 1 BCS ranking to Baylor on Saturday night. “Now I’m saying, ‘I’m going.’ I’m trying to stay positive that they’ll take care of business.”
Chris Harper was 9 years old in ’98, a Wichita kid with caviar dreams. He grew up playing quarterback, wearing No. 7 in honor of K-State’s signal-caller, the electric Michael Bishop.
“It wasn’t because they overlooked that team, you know, because Texas A&M is a good team,” the senior receiver says. “Nobody ever gives A&M any credit for beating them. (History says) they were a terrible team, and they weren’t.”
Harper says coach Bill Snyder doesn’t talk to the Wildcats of 2012 about the Wildcats of 1998. He doesn’t have to. It’s burned into the collective psyche of the Flint Hills, forever the One That Got Away. The events of Dec. 5 in St. Louis, against the underdog Aggies, live on, a reminder that the world is a cruel, nonsensical place, that nothing is promised.
“We were very talented, but, like I said, I’d venture to guess that this team has bought into it more,” Libel says of the 1998 Big 12 title game, the nadir of Snyder’s zenith. “Going into the A&M game in ’98, we were not a happy team. We were a mad team, a (expletive)-off team, because we knew that it didn’t matter if we won, that we were going to get screwed over, and there wasn’t anything that we could do. And that’s not the mindset that you want going into that game.”
Then, as now, there was a logjam at the top; Tennessee, K-State and UCLA were unbeaten. Then, as now, the Wildcats were viewed by the by many as the least-sexy option in the pageant.
Suddenly, fate smiled. The Bruins lost at Miami (Fla.). K-State jumped out to an early lead against A&M, and could feel destiny falling gently, like a leaf, into their collective grasp.
Then, just as quickly, it blew away.
“And from that moment on, it was all different,” Libel recalls. “They weren’t thinking about the game. They were thinking, ‘Holy cow, we’re going to the national championship.’”
You know the rest. After taking a 27-12 lead in the fourth quarter, the roof collapsed. Sirr Parker ran wild, K-State tensed up, and A&M won in double overtime, 36-33. In a matter of minutes, the Wildcats went from a rumba with the Volunteers for all the marbles to a waltz with Purdue in the Alamo Bowl (which they lost 37-34).
“I think everyone just got real tight,” says Grant Reves, a reserve offensive lineman on that ’98 team. “That’s what I point to.”
“Your eyes start to widen,” says Andy Eby, another lineman on that squad. “You start getting a little bit more sensitive.”
“Fourteen years later, you’re thinking, ‘God, what happened? Why could we not win two more games or played that one more quarter?’” Libel says. “And the biggest thing is, you think all these great things will happen in your life. This is something that’ll never happen to you again. In most of these kids’ lives, this will never happen again. So you’ve got to seize this opportunity.”
For the past few weeks, the ’98 Wildcats have been on the phone with one another, breaking down the most recent game, reminiscing about their former coach and his verities, and generally having a ball.
This isn’t the ’72 Dolphins. They’re happy to have company on Mount Snyder’s snowy peak, rooting for these kids to finish the job that they started, all those pounds ago.
Reves already has a hotel booked on South Beach. He believes. Eby does, too.
“Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, I was real nervous about,” he says. “Texas Tech has always been tricky with us and Oklahoma State has always been tricky with us. After that (Cowboys win), I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, the stars are lining up.’”
And maybe, just maybe, this time they’ll stay there.
“For me, the only advice I’d have is, ‘The game doesn’t change,’” Eby continues. “’You just can’t let the game get bigger than it actually is.’”
Saturday isn’t just big. It smells like a trap. Wildcats quarterback Collin Klein graces the cover of this week’s edition of Sports Illustrated. Baylor is 4-5, better than its record, and averages 42.7 points per contest. The Bears dropped 50 on Texas and 34 on Oklahoma.
Strange things happen in November. A week ago, A&M did the unthinkable — again — toppling No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa, this time helping to clear K-State’s path. A year ago, Oklahoma State was carrying the Big 12’s flag, 10-0 and ranked second in the country. The only thing standing between the Pokes and immortality was a 5-4 Iowa State team that was better than its record.
“That’s not pressure,” Harper says. “You can’t put more pressure than what we already put on ourselves. I understand what’s at stake. It’s not like they have to remind me, like, ‘Oh, yeah, I didn’t know that.’
“The only thing that matters is beating Baylor. I can’t say it enough. We got here. Hooray. If you lose, who cares? Nobody’s going to remember us.”
But you’ll remember, Libel says. You’ll never forget. Never. No matter how hard you try.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at email@example.com