Thirty years later, they still feel it.
The aches and pains, the joy and jubilation.
Robbie Bosco remembers being carried off the field during the 1984 Holiday Bowl in San Diego, his left knee and ankle injured and BYU’s national No. 1 hopes flickering in a haze of Michigan maize and blue.
Trevor Matich, the BYU center then, recalls the anger of his teammates triggered by a Wolverines cheap shot that leveled his quarterback Bosco – “The Rocket from Roseville.”
And certainly, Bosco and Matich recall the end result, BYU rallying behind its gimpy leader for a 24-17 victory over Michigan, which was without it’s star quarterback, Jim Harbaugh, who was injured. The Cougars stood tall as national champions in an era before “strength of schedule” and computer data were crunched and digested by a playoff committee.
Even if BYU was 13-0 now, like it was in 1984, it’s likely the Cougars would not have been in the top five, never mind the new four-team College Football Playoff.
“I’m not sure what we did will ever happen again,” said Matich, the Rio Americano High School graduate who, after 12 NFL seasons, has won nine Emmy Awards as a football broadcaster. “But we weren’t the ‘Little Engine That Could.’ We were big bullies on the block. We had talent, NFL guys all over the field. We could play with anyone.”
The Cougars played inspired that season. Bosco, a junior, had the daunting task of replacing All-America quarterback Steve Young, and he did so admirably, leading the nation in passing in finishing third in the Heisman Trophy voting.
Bosco had been knocked around plenty in 1984, and it wasn’t uncommon for him to lay face down on the plane after road games to ease his pain. Against Michigan, trainers carried him off the field in the first quarter after he was hit below the knee from behind, a hit that resulted in an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
“I’m thinking, ‘Oh, no, here’s the biggest game in BYU history, my teammates are there, it’s a season of miracles, no one had missed time, and I’m out,’” said Bosco, who has worked in the BYU athletic department in a variety of roles since 1989. “I just knew if I could get back out there, I’d do it. Tape me up. Whatever it takes.
“Then I saw my dad, Lou, in the tunnel. To this day, I don’t know how he got on the field and in the tunnel, but that was so cool. That was parenthood. He was checking on me. I had a huge adrenaline rush, and it’s amazing what adrenaline does to the body.”
Bosco returned to start the second quarter and told Matich they needed to go to shotgun snaps because he was hobbling on his injured ankle and knee. BYU, however, hadn’t practiced the shotgun all season. Matich’s first snap hit Bosco in the belly, but they settled in, as did the Cougars.
Bosco passed for 343 yards with two fourth-quarter touchdowns, including the game winner to Kelly Smith from 13 yards out with 1:23 to play in one of the most memorable college football games. Matich said the image of Bosco writhing in pain motivated the Cougars.
“Rather than a sinking feeling, I was furious,” Matich said. “I was livid. We thought, ‘There’s no way you’re going to beat us after a cheap shot to hurt our guy.’ ’’
After beating Michigan on Dec. 21, the Cougars had to sweat out the New Year’s Day bowl games. Bosco did so in Roseville, with family, as did Matich in Sacramento. No. 2 Oklahoma lost to No. 4 Washington 28-17 in the Orange Bowl, and that sealed it for the voters. BYU received 38 of 60 first-place votes in the AP writers’ poll and 28 of 40 first-place votes in the UPI coaches poll. Washington (11-1) finished second in both polls.
Bosco and Matich talked of “miracles” that season, and their careers. Bosco considered Cal and San Diego State coming out of Roseville but felt at home at BYU, where his assistant coaches included Mike Holmgren and Norm Chow. But his first start nearly rocked him. Bosco’s first three passes at No. 3 Pitt in an opener missed badly, though coach LaVell Edwards stuck with him, “and that changed my life forever,” Bosco said.
Bosco again finished third in the Heisman race as a senior in 1985, and was a third-round pick of the Green Bay Packers, though shoulder injuries kept his NFL career short.
Matich referred to himself as “Howdy Doody” growing up, a lanky and lean athlete cut by every team for which he tried out. He emerged as a senior at Rio Americano in 1978, fielding 60 scholarship offers. Matich was the 28th overall pick by New England in the 1985 draft. He enjoyed a long NFL career, playing four line positions and one season at tight end. The same work ethic he had in football carried over in broadcasting with ESPN on college football and pre- and postgame work with the Washington Redskins.
But the defining moment of his life, Matich said, came weeks before the 1984 Holiday Bowl. Matich was in Provo, Utah, where he got word that his kid brother, Dever, had both retinas in his eyes torn when inadvertently poked during a Rio Americano basketball game.
Matich had just finished a Sports Illustrated interview on the BYU linemen when he learned of his brother’s injury. He packed his VW Rabbit and drove 12 hours to get home.
“Dever’s blood pressure was dropping, he may lose his sight, he’s in shock, and I’m thinking, ‘I’d trade all of this for my brother to see again – the SI stories, the shot at a national championship, all of it,” Matich said. “Football wasn’t important. This was. My brother turned out OK, (and he) helped Rio Americano win the Northern California championship that season. He made a full recovery, not losing his vision, and that was the huge miracle in a season full of them; the best one.”
Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.