The Aggies want this game – no, need this game – because it’s the Causeway Classic.
It matters to people at UC Davis, and has since the regional rivals first met in 1954.
The same rings true with Sacramento State. The Hornets need this contest because the mantra in athletics is to always finish what you started – and to finish strong.
Saturday marks the 65th anniversary contest. Football matters, rivalries matter, memories matter.
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But there’s also a real-life issue at play here, one that ultimately affects whether the game will even be played this weekend, and maybe it shouldn’t.
The Camp Fire that continues to devastate Butte County, leaving the town of Paradise leveled in its wake, casts an ominous shadow over Yolo County, too. The coaches and players recognize the profound loss from the deadliest fire in California history and how football can suddenly feel trivial when some 600 people are still unaccounted for.
Athletes and coaches talked about the tragedy with sincere tones during Thursday’s Causeway luncheon at UCD. Officials from both schools will decide Friday morning if the game will be held as the air quality is so poor that every high school football playoff game in Northern California this weekend has been postponed for safety reasons.
Sac State and UCD canceled classes this week, as have scores of other schools. Members of the UCD band marched into the ARC Ballroom on Thursday, typically spirited with half of them wearing masks as they plowed through smoke that looked like fog.
UCD athletic director Kevin Blue said he has been in regular contact with Sac State officials and those from the Big Sky Conference about the air quality. The plan is to kick off at noon, fingers crossed.
Where could this game go anywhere in Northern California that isn’t clogged with smoke?
At 8-2, UCD has a lot riding on this game, including a chance to secure the program’s first Big Sky Conference championship and a home game for the FCS playoffs that start next weekend.
Sac State is struggling with injuries and mounting losses at 2-7 after posting its best Big Sky showing last season. The Hornets are eager to block and tackle one last time this season after their last game, a home contest against Northern Arizona, was smoked out. That contest was not replayed because there was no room left in the schedule.
“We may have to go to Reno to play it, or we can play at 5 in the morning before it gets too bad, or we can play it in the park,” UCD coach Dan Hawkins said in a light moment during the luncheon.
Mostly, the one-liners belonged to masterful emcee Bob Dunning of the Davis Enterprise. He has observed or covered every single Causeway Classic, insisting it’ll be his pass at the “pearly gates” for admission. He said the game could be held indoors with Arena Football rules.
The mood was otherwise serious, as Hawkins and Sac State coach Jody Sears can relate to small country towns where the high school is often the epicenter of good cheer. They grew up in such regions, Hawkins in Bieber in the northern part of California and Sears “on the back of a horse” in Washington state.
The coaches hurt for those in Paradise and the surrounding areas, for the people who searching for loved ones or who are sifting through the ash and rubble of what was once a home.
“It’s just so sad on so many levels,” Hawkins said. “The speed and ferocity of the fire was stunning to watch. We heard it covered 80 football fields in a minute. Can you imagine that? That’s just horrific. Look at that town, what’s left, and you wonder how to start over.
“It’s a little ironic that we’re trying to play a football game and a whole town up there is completely wiped out.”
Said Sears, “We get to celebrate this game, but what people up there are going through is sad. They’ve lost everything. We can all agree that they need our love, prayers and donations.”
Sac State senior defensive back Austin Clark badly wants this Causeway Classic, but he’s conflicted. He has not been in uniform this season, sidelined from an injury from the first moments of last season’s game, won 52-47 by the Hornets.
A Redding native who was a football star at West Valley High in Cottonwood, he can also relate to heartache. His hometown was scorched by wildfires earlier this season.
“I was on that Paradise High School football field just two weeks ago, and there’s nothing left of the town,” Clark said.
As for his injury, Clark was reflective and emotional.
“First play last year in the Causeway and I shattered my right hand,” he said. “I played the rest of the game with a club. I had five surgeries, told I may lose my hand or my life. I’m OK. Would I do it all over again? Yes. The Causeway memory is something I’ll always have.”
Sac State senior defensive back Mister Harriel said one final game would be do wonders for the spirit of the beleaguered Hornets.
“This wasn’t the season we expected,” he said. “We’ve battled adversity with a lot of injuries. We didn’t have our Senior Night last week because of the smoke, so we want this last game. We want to finish strong, to keep our heads up and to remember it’s just a game.”