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Reverence and Rivalry: Remembering the “Bonfire Game” Texas-A&M; 1999

Longhorn, The Crucible

Most college football games are played for petty consequence. Rivalry games are played for spite. But on November 26, 1999, the football teams of arch rivals Texas A&M; and the University of Texas, played a game that buoyed a disoriented university in the wake of tragedy. The “Bonfire Game,” as it has become known, serves as an example of the power of sport to unify disparates and dull the pain of open wounds.

Tragedy Falls
On November 18, 1999 I woke up, brushed my teeth, and stole a 30 minute nap in the shower. Drying off, I turned on the news to check the weather. Instead of the smiling weatherman, images of pain, shock, and confusion filled the screen.

At 2:42 am the bonfire that A&M; students had been constructing in preparation for the 106th showdown with the University of Texas collapsed. Twelve Aggies were killed. Shock waves shot across the state. In spite of the tragedy, the game would be played as scheduled.

November 26, 1999: The “Bonfire Game”
My memories of the play on the field that day are a montage of streaking images: Aggie bulldozer, Ja’Mar Toombs rumbles through Texas defenders as he crosses the goal line; Matt Bumgardner makes the catch in the corner of the end zone to give the Aggies the lead late in the 4th quarter; Jay Brooks jars the ball loose as he sacks Longhorn quarterback, Major Applewhite; Linebacker Brian Gamble recovers the fumble to seal the Aggie victory 20-16. But the true highlights of this historic game focus on moments when the human spirit trumped those of the human body.

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Catharsis and “Amazing Grace”
I can still picture the Longhorn Band lowering its own colors and raising the maroon and white of A&M; while playing “Amazing Grace”– a display of reverent empathy honoring the Aggies and their fallen brethren.

I can hear the cathartic cries of the 12th Man as Brian Gamble recovers the fumble that seals victory for the Aggies, then collapses to his knees, hands raised and eyes lifted–touched by the Divine.

The “Bonfire Game” cannot be measured by the final score or statistical analyses alone. The Longhorns handled their role in the crucible of the “Bonfire Game” with grace, serving as friend and foe, support and opposition–lifting the spirit of a student body and revealing the character of a state.