He paced the floor with a combination of emotions marching in time: anxiety, apprehension and anticipation. Every second that ticked from the clock seemed like hours. The path was well trod and there was no need to watch the path taken; instead, his eyes were glued to the television screen in the next room where the clock was running down on the Boise State-Virginia Tech game.
Stealing glances in his direction was both amusing and a bit of deja vu. Often I had done the same thing (OK, in honesty there are times when I still feel the urge to pace), watching with a mixture of hope, fascination, joy and amusement. Amusement? Yep. I know what is being accomplished and I know where the Boise State football program has come from and like so many others, I still occasionally think of the Broncos as that 1-AA team that would fight and claw for the Big Sky title year after year. Now the Broncos are on a bigger stage, are indeed a big-time football team vying against the high-profile programs for rankings and bowl bids, and in a sense, it is a bit surreal.
Long ago (a lot longer than I really want to think about it), my career in the valley started as sports editor of the daily newspaper in Nampa, and the beat inherited was Boise State. The Broncos were 1-AA and a Big Sky contender taking on the likes of University of Idaho and Idaho State, as well as tough Montana and Arizona teams and that team from Nevada that still remains a schedule fixture. Idaho State University may have been left behind, but the Vandals continue to march along as a Division 1 team and University of Idaho I fans have every right to rejoice in their football team as much as Boise State fans do. Come Game Day, thought, the valley is not exactly popping with black and gold as much as it is blue and orange.
The Treasure Valley has embraced the Broncos with a pride and fervor that is remarkable. And “our team” is not exactly unknown across the nation. A year ago—while walking through the airport in Raleigh, N.C., wearing game-day colors—a few people (Southerners by the accent) tossed well-wishes in my direction for the Broncos. In Denver, a late-night cook came out of the back of the restaurant to look at my Boise State T-shirt and proclaim how much he loved the team. "They are the best!”
While at the friend’s house watching the Virginia Tech game, and watching the host pace as the game wound down, there were moments when joining him seemed like a good idea. But instead I wondered about the source of those feelings. I remembered the years of battling the Vandals and the players like Kenny Hobart and John Freisz, Sam Merriman and Tom Hennessey, Marvin Washington and Yo Murphy—all of them were as well known in the Treasure Valley as they were in Moscow. I remember being on the sideline photographing a game (many games) and looking at the opposition and thinking how much bigger they seemed than the Broncos and yet Boise State handled them all. Heck, I even have a patch of the first blue turf in a box somewhere in the house (local media received a sample).
Boise State was the team that simply went out and played the game, and generally did it better than its opposition. But back then, the opposition usually hailed from a town of equal size or maybe a bit smaller than Boise in terms of population, and the players were cut from the same physical cloth as those suiting up for Boise State. Bronco fans, however, were introduced and weaned on the wide-open offenses, the heroics that won games in the last quarter, the scrappiness of the defensive backs that—at times—looked too small or a little slower than the lanky speedsters running passing patterns on the other side of the line of scrimmage. But Boise State fans believed, and so did the Broncos.
The scene has changed but the tradition continues. From 1-AA to 1-A, from Big Sky to WAC and soon the Mountain West, from fighting in-state rivals to battling Top 25 teams as a Top 25 team. It’s a bit dreamlike, but it is a waking dream that continues to fire the imagination and to delight. Still, in watching my friend pace, I understood part of it. He also remembers where Bronco Nation was born—in the junior college ranks and the Big Sky—and his anxiety is a reflection of that.
In the hearts and minds of some longtime Bronco fans, Boise State is still that school from 25 years ago, the David battling Goliaths every weekend in the fall. That’s not quite the case anymore, if one looks truthfully at the caliber and size of the athletes, but it’s kind of like the parent who looks at the grown child and still sees the baby.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Bronco fans rejoice with each victory, anguish with each loss, but regardless of the outcomes, the loyal love “their team” and proudly show that with a commitment that is unwavering. The rest of the nation may embrace the Broncos, Top 10 or 25 teams may try to pooh-pooh them while studiously avoiding playing them, but while national affections may waiver, the faithful remain undaunted, bemused, anxious and proud … even when pacing.