Each time they fell short, each time they failed to get their school's first bowl win since 1949, and along the way their quest grew into an obsession that drove them as surely as the great white whale drove the peg-legged captain. That is what they have been toiling toward since the end of the regular season, ending that losing streak and grabbing off a bowl win, but after practice Monday, there they were scattering off to their various homes for a holiday break.
But just as, in the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the rich are different from you and me, so are their breaks different from ours. "It's definitely a different experience," agrees Brian Arnfelt, the junior defensive tackle. "You definitely do appreciate the time you do have with your family because, obviously, we're not always able to be home with our loved ones. But always in the back of your head, and sometimes in the front of your head, you've got to think about the game. There's nothing more that I want than to send these seniors out with a win. I think it's just so important, after 62 years, to finally get that first bowl win."
"Speaking from experience, having done it the last two years with January 1 bowl games, it's kind of difficult. It's not your typical Christmas," echoes one of those seniors, the linebacker Bryce McNaul. "You're back (home), but your mind's in a different place. You're enjoying your family and you're enjoying everything that comes with that. But in the past, you think about your opponent and this year will be just the same. We'll be thinking about Texas A&M Christmas morning."
The Aggies are the 'Cats' opponent in the Dec. 31 Meineke Car Care Bowl of Texas and each night during his break, after his boys go to bed, coach Pat Fitzgerald will sit down and watch some tape on them. "No, no, no," he will quickly say when asked if he ever stops thinking of their game. Drake Dunsmore, the superback, says he too will watch tape daily, and also go to his old high school to do the workout that has been prescribed for him and all of his teammates.
"The biggest thing when everyone goes home is kind of getting their mind off football," he says. "Just get your mind refreshed, recharge the batteries, refuel and get some time off. That way, once we get back, everyone's kind of hungry again."
But do thoughts of the game ever leave him?
"No, they don't. We want this win. It's our No. 1 goal right now. Everyone's excited to go home and see their families. But once that's over, we're going to be excited to get back and go to Houston and start working again."
"No. No, definitely not," McNaul says when asked the same question. "And coming to the twilight of my college football career here, I'm kind of anxious, nervous to see what a life without the college football game will be like. So I'm in no hurry to get there and I'm just kind of savoring the moment at this point."
McNaul will do his workouts at a Life Time Fitness near his Minnesota home in Eden Prairie, where some Vikings show up as well, but quarterback Dan Persa will do his at his old high school, where he'll throw to a former teammate who now plays at New Hampshire or to current high schoolers always willing to come to his aid. "You can't celebrate too much," he says. "You realize you still have work to do, so even when you're home, you still want to be working out, throwing, doing all that stuff. But at the same time, you've got to enjoy Christmas. We've been going pretty hard for a month now and not to take a break would be going against yourself."
Does the game ever leave his mind?
"No," he says at first.
"Not really," he then says.
"Sometimes," he says next.
"When I go to bed, I guess," he finally says, and then he chuckles. <[> "No. No. Not at all," corner Jeravin Matthews concludes when asked the same question. "I'm always thinking about it. And my family is some of my biggest fans, so they won't let it slip away from my mind. The game is always there."
Quick hitters: The 'Cats reconvene on campus on Christmas Day, practice the next morning and then fly to Houston that afternoon. . . One tweak in the bowl practices that have been held so far is the matchup of the first offense against the first defense. During the regular season that never happens, the ones always matched against the twos. "After a little bit of a layoff, I wanted to go good on good, just go do what we do and do it fast," Fitzgerald said when asked about this switch up. "We hope to get 100 plays in by the time we get to bowl week, 100, 120, then once we're in bowl week we're in our normal game routine. That's been our plan the last three or four years in bowl prep. Get the equivalency of a game in before we get to bowl week.". . . Another part of Fitzgerald's holiday routine is not just watching other bowl games. When situations come up in those games, he says, "I think how I'd handle them.". . . Running back Jacob Schmidt and offensive tackle Pat Ward have been named Academic All-Americans, and the team's GPA this semester is north of 3.05. . . One last deep-stat pack for your holiday stocking: Persa's quarterback rating against the blitz is 165.3, the best in the Big Ten. Receiver Jeremy Ebert is also atop the conference with 21 clutch catches, which are defined as third or fourth-down receptions that result in a first down or touchdown. The 505 yards he gained after his catches are second most in the league behind the 550 rolled up by Iowa's Marvin McNutt.
And finally, Fitzgerald: "Honestly, this is the fun time of the year. You work your butt off for 11 months for this opportunity."