Marked by airport delays, delicious but dangerous Mexican cuisine, extreme cold and ’80s music, the trip made by three Oracle staffers to cover the Brut Sun Bowl became a study in extremes.
The vacillations of photographer Marlow Gum between marking the journey as the “worst,” or “best trip ever” mirrored the feelings evoked by the city itself and a game which is best paralleled with the bullfights occurring daily just across the Rio Grande: a slaughter.
The Oracle, as some readers may already know, is financially and editorially independent from the University. This is extremely important in cases where the newspaper finds that it must be critical of administrators, but isn’t too handy when reporters on shoestring budgets want to cover a football game nearly 2,000 miles away.
On a tight budget, the best way we found to get to El Paso was via Albuquerque. There we could afford a rental car on top of airfare, which was essential for success in a typical American city: a sprawling locale with little usable public transport.
The weather upon arrival in Albuquerque was a balmy 17 degrees, and Gum had been intermittingly sleeping and playing videogames in the airport for six hours waiting for sports editor Joe Rienzi and myself to arrive on our delayed flight from Atlanta.
After picking up checked bags and settling on a bright yellow domestic compact at the rental car agency, we left Albuquerque at 3 a.m. local time. I drove down the dark desert highway for about three hours with little to no conversation, unsuccessfully scanning the airwaves for something other than Tejano, Christian rock or country music.
Rienzi took over about an hour and a half from El Paso ,and the next thing I remember is entering the western suburbs of the city with the sun trying to peek over the small Mexican hills to the west.
El Paso is a small, desolate city in the middle of a large, dry desert, sharing a border with the depressed Mexican ciudad of Juarez.
The burg’s downtown evokes feelings generally reserved for ’70s exploitation movies and its suburbs are spread out across a sandy brown wasteland. There are few trees, most of which sprout no taller than an Oregon offensive lineman – which from the Sun Bowl’s field seemed to be 10 feet tall – but there are mountains to add a bit of variety to the landscape.
After a day spent sampling the local Mexican cuisine, then lamenting the fact that we neglected to purchase a bottle of Gas-X on our trip to Wal-Mart for warm clothing and toothpaste, we struck out to experience some of the local nightlife.
We were resolved to mix with the locals, surpassing the modus operandi of mere tourists and actually experiencing the culture of the border town. We made the logical and easy choice for such an endeavor, and found ourselves shaking our groove things and moonwalking the night away to ’80s music at a local night club. Here we mixed with the local culture and found a pair of potential tour guides for some New Year’s Eve depravity.
The next day Gum and I awoke early to try to make it to the head coaches’ press conference, but due to some gastro-intestinal and traffic delays we arrived late, though just in time to hear Oregon’s coach Mike Bellotti extolling the Bulls’ finer points before the national media.
Later that day, after experiencing some of the local sites, we proceeded to the Fan Fiesta. It was sparsely populated but the crowd grew as time progressed. The event was slightly different from what we had expected, but had a pep-rally feel that seemed to engage the fans.
USF head coach Jim Leavitt and President Judy Genshaft made an appearance in a packed room with part of the band. The two exchanged pleasantries while singing each other’s praises and the band played all of the Bulls’ favorites.
Later, the Herd of Thunder and Oregon’s bands faced off in a showdown. The announcer withheld the judges’ decision, but Rienzi found it quite remiss that the Herd of Thunder failed to play any Journey while Oregon’s band played at least two of the epic band’s songs.
After the rally, all present were asked to walk outside for a fireworks display. If one holds the theory that everything is bigger in Texas, they could certainly add the fireworks to their catalogue of evidence. The display, which lasted nearly 20 minutes, looked and sounded like a constant finale, putting Busch Gardens’ Independence Day fireworks to shame.
After the display we went backto the hotel to rest up for the day to come. It promised to be long, as we had agreed to meet our newfound El Paso native scouts for another club-faring night after the Sun Bowl, for which we had high expectations.
We arrived at the Sun Bowl after checking out of our hotel room around 9:30 a.m. It was a beautiful day with dry air and bright sunlight, and we each had to shed a couple of layers of clothing to accommodate the previously absent heat which had seemingly returned for the Sun Bowl.
We entered the stadium expecting a spread similar to that which had greeted us at Raymond James Stadium on Saturdays throughout the season. But we neglected the fact that it was built to host an NFL team and the Super Bowl, whereas the Sun Bowl stadium usually hosts the University of Texas at El Paso’s Miners.
The photo trailer was outside the stadium and the press box was up approximately 1 million stairs. The trip left our thighs burning and stomachs rumbling, so one can imagine our dismay when the pre-game omelet station and post-game chili station were reserved for the CBS sports crew.
Still, excitement abounded as we were set to cover what promised to be the biggest game in USF’s short history.
All of the analysts had expected the game to be a nail-biter, most with USF pulling off the win, and Las Vegas had USF as a six-point favorite. Entering the game with this knowledge, we felt that the game would at the very least be a close one.
The first half didn’t disappoint. Gum, who was used to taking concert shots and more artistic endeavors, quickly adapted to the sports photographer role. I, on the other hand, struggled a bit with trying to get the video highlights we would need for the multimedia site as I was more used to covering Student Affairs than student athletes.
However, I slowly adapted and by the second half was ready to continue shooting. The teams came out and someone forgot to tell Leavitt that Oregon’s coach had set the difficulty on his Xbox to Junior Varsity.
The second-half score was more reminiscent of a video game than any real football game I had seen in recent memory, with Oregon scoring 28 unanswered points in the third quarter.
Despite a general lack of food – the Sun Bowl staff did bring fajita fixings for the plebeians of the press corps – and a boring blowout game with seemingly more penalties than plays, the experience was one not likely to disappear from our minds.
After the game we met up with our guides – not Natty Bumpo and Tonto, but Priscilla and Eva – and had a general sort of night on the town, Gum and I celebrating the New Year with 40-somethings on a dance floor and Rienzi finding El Paso’s true center at a UTEP house party.
After a four-hour, bleary-eyed trip back to a 7 degree Albuquerque, Rienzi and I boarded a plane separate from Gum and headed home knowing we had partaken in a once-in-a-lifetime affair.