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Are you ready for some football?
Saturday night, professional football made its triumphant return to Sacramento. The 20,000 fans who packed into Hornet Stadium were treated to a barnburner, as the hometown Mountain Lions battled back from a 10-point fourth quarter deficit for a dramatic victory over the visiting Florida Tuskers.
For many fans, the evening was a win long before Daunte Culpepper found Rod Windsor deep down the sideline for the game-winning 33-yard touchdown pass with 37 seconds remaining.
Two hours before kickoff, the parking lots surrounding Hornet Stadium at Sacramento State were packed with joyous revelers, basking in the opportunity to cheer for professional football right here in the City of Trees.
"Sacramento is hungry for sports" Bob Rowe of Sacramento said. "This is just what we needed."
Rowe, who looked like a one-time offensive lineman and cut an imposing figure in his 1970s-era Jack Youngblood L.A. Rams jersey, had been there with his wife Annie since 4:15 p.m. They were at the head of a group of perhaps 200 revelers who had turned a swatch of grass between Lot 7 and the frontage road into a tailgating Shangri-La. It was akin to a big-time college atmosphere, and for a split second I was reminded of a pilgrimage I made to "The Grove" at Ole Miss for the Alabama game last year. The moment was fleeting, but that the thought passed through my mind at all is a testament to the festive mood.
"We've been chomping at the bit ever since we found out that Sacramento was getting a team," Rowe said. "This is what we've been waiting for."
Annie Rowe looked out over her fellow party-goers. "We don't even know any of these people," she said, a huge smile on her face. "Look at all the jerseys! It doesn't matter what NFL team you root for, everyone’s rooting for Sacramento!"
As I walked to the stadium, I was struck by the diversity of the crowd. It is hard to imagine a more heterogeneous group than the 20,000 who showed up to cheer on their Mountain Lions. Football, The Real Great Uniter.
The game was televised nationally on Versus, and it was certainly the place to be on Saturday night. Local celebrities abound. The national anthem was sung by Tesla lead singer and Sacramentan Jeff Keith. The mayor, KJ, was in attendance. Local MMA star Urijah Faber took part in an on field football skills competition with Kings star Tyreke Evans. The hoop star took it to the scrapper, kicking two field goals, each of which cleared the hospitality tent in the south endzone. They probably would have been good from 45 yards out. So he's got that going for him if the basketball thing doesn't work out.
The biggest star in attendance wasn't there in any official capacity. Roaming the Mountain Lions sidelines, a proud father cheering on his son, was Denzel Washington. John-David Washington is a back-up running back for Sacramento.
For a long while it seemed that the game itself would be overshadowed by the hullabaloo surrounding it. The first quarter ended with the Mountain Lions trailing 3-0, marred by four Mountain Lion penalties for 35 yards and a Culpepper interception.
The second quarter featured a bit of history. With 8:56 remaining, Culpepper hit Rod Windsor for a touchdown in the flat, giving the Mountain Lions their first-ever lead. The lead was short-lived, however, as the Tuskers answered with a TD of their own, a 14-yard strike from Brooks Bollinger to Cortez Hankton with 1:22 remaining.
Culpepper gave the crowd a thrill when he completed a 54-yard bomb up the sideline to Taye Biddle with 18 seconds left in the half, but they were unable to turn it into points when Culpepper was called for an illegal forward pass on the next play.
The second half started much as the first had ended, with a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing. Aaron Woods took the kickoff 98 yards for what appeared to be a touchdown, but much to the dismay of the raucous crowd, the play was called back due to a clipping penalty.
The two teams exchanged punts until the Tuskers broke through with seven-play, 77-yard drive that culminated in a one-yard Dominic Rhodes touchdown run. The score gave Florida a 10-point lead with eight minutes and 21 seconds remaining in the third quarter.
The 10-point deficit, in combination with the cessation of alcohol sales at the start of the third quarter, triggered a fairly sizable fan exodus that continued through the end of the third. The heartier souls who stayed until the end were handsomely rewarded for their steadfastness.
Still trailing by 10, the Molos opened the fourth quarter with a 54-yard field goal attempt that split the uprights, cutting the lead to seven.
The Mountain Lions forced the Tuskers to punt on their next possession and got the ball back on their own 20. They proceeded to mount a 10-play, 80-yard drive that culminated in a two-yard TD to Derek Strong. On the drive, Culpepper completed passes to five different receivers and willed his team to pay dirt. It was the kind of performance the Mountain Lions hoped would be commonplace when they signed the three-time Pro Bowl quarterback.
The Tuskers weren't going away that easily, however. Brooks Bollinger showed the skill and grit that won him last season’s UFL MVP award while leading his team on a 10-play, 64-yard scoring drive of their own.
With just over four minutes remaining, the Tuskers had a first and goal at the Sacramento two-yard line, but the Molo defense, led by LB Zeke Moreno, would not yield any further. They held the Tuskers to a field goal, and the Mountain Lions had one more chance, trailing by three with four minutes left in the game.
One chance was all they needed.
Aaron Woods returned the Tusker kickoff 19 yards to the Sacramento 30, then Daunte took over. The QB picked up where he left off on the last scoring drive, spreading the ball around and methodically leading his team up the field.
With 37 seconds left, he had gotten them all the way down to the Florida 33-yard line, well within their kicker’s range. As the media relations director passed out the overtime rules in the press box, Daunte rendered them moot by throwing that perfect strike down the left sideline to Rod Windsor. TD, Mountain Lions.
Another bit of history in the books, the first victory for your Sacramento Mountain Lions.
If they can continue to play as they did in the fourth quarter Saturday night, it'll be the first of many.
Photos courtesy of the inimitable Steven Chea. That's Steven, with a "v".