The Cal State Long Beach football team is on the road again. Fifth straight weekend. San Diego, Hawaii, Las Vegas, Boise, now muggy, rainy Tulsa. It's Friday night, 24 hours before the game with the University of Tulsa. The 49ers left Long Beach at 7 this morning, arrived at mid-afternoon, practiced and just finished dinner. Their spirits are high. They have won three straight games but will be the underdog.
The players are in a hotel meeting room that has plush carpeting and soft piped-in music. In sweatshirts and T-shirts they seem out of place in this room, which usually hosts businessmen.
In front of a green chalkboard is Mike Sheppard, the 33-year-old head coach. "People in Tulsa don't have a lot of respect for what we're here for," Sheppard tells his team.
Doug Gaynor, the quarterback and star player, agrees.
"I watched the news on TV," Gaynor says to his teammates. "They already think it's a win for them. They've been looking forward to us."
Sheppard asks how many points they will have to score to win.
"Twenty-eight," says Gaynor.
A grainy black-and-white film of Tulsa's plays is shown. Sheppard's finger is a black shadow on the screen as he points to areas that should be open for his pass receivers.
"We've got to feel we can throw the hell out of the ball against these guys," he says.
The 49ers watch a color movie on the Dallas Cowboys for, according to Sheppard, entertainment and motivation.
"They see spectacular plays, and we talk about making (those kind of) plays," he says.
After the movie, Sheppard calls on a "senior speaker," wide receiver Troy Ory, who sways nervously at the head of the room with his arms folded, searching for words to describe his feelings.
"We have a great opportunity tomorrow night, you guys," he begins. "I love you guys. I've played football since I was 8 years old. What I'll remember most is you guys because you're special."
Dessert waits in the hallway. The players grab dishes of ice cream and pie and head for their rooms and a Halloween movie.
"Lights out at 11," the itinerary reads.
Breakfast is in a banquet room Saturday morning at 10. Orange juice, iced tea, milk, fruit, sausage, eggs, potatoes and waffles. White tablecloths. Maroon-jacketed young men and women refill glasses for the 50 players and 10 coaches.
Sheppard gives the blessing.
At one table, defensive end Dave Komendat says to his roommate, 6-foot-6, 245-pound defensive end Tom Hensley: "You were snoring like a dog."
"Big guys always snore," says defensive back Gary Ryan.
At 10:45 the defensive players walk through formations--"eagle whip," "hog whip," "stack cover," "stack lightning"--on the hotel parking lot. It is hot and humid and last night's rain is evaporating on the black asphalt.
The offense walks through the plays that make CSULB one of the most effective passing teams in the country.
The sun catches the earrings of receivers Brian Browning and Kwante Hampton as they go out for Gaynor's imaginary passes.
"Be precise tonight," Gaynor tells them.
At 11, players meet with their positional coaches.
Gaynor and reserve quarterback Jeff Graham are in Sheppard's ninth-floor room which overlooks the GIANT discount store and Big Cheese Pizza. Flat land stretches to the horizon.
"I think everyone is confident of moving the ball," says Sheppard, sitting barefooted on his bed. "They've had three days to work on our (type of) offense--we ought to shred it (Tulsa defense)."
It will be the first time this season Tulsa has faced a passing team like Long Beach.
Sheppard reminds Gaynor that he will have to make "senior decisions," the main one being whether to throw the ball or run when he is being chased.
Offensive coordinator Mike Sanford arrives and he and Sheppard jot down the plays they will use.
Sheppard is highly organized but does not have the tense grimness of many other coaches. He does not want his players to think that this hotel is a prison.
"We are intense in the football aspect," he said, "but you shouldn't be so intense you lose the fun of the trip."
Free time starts at noon. Linemen John Stapleton, Jim Brooks and Joe Iosefa head for a room which contains video games and smells of chlorine from a nearby swimming pool.
Others go to their rooms to nap or think about the game.
Komendat and Hensley, stretched out on their beds, watch a football game on TV.
"You get so sick of laying around," Komendat says. "I brought books but haven't opened them.
"People at school think we come here to mess around. But this is tough. If you have classes on Friday, you have to miss school (to travel). I have to make up two tests Monday."
Hensley, sleepy-eyed and nonchalant, laughs and says, "Some guys like me schedule classes on Friday so we can miss them."
It's 2 p.m., time for the "throw around." On the parking lot, Gaynor and Graham pass to receivers who dodge cars to make the catches.
"Picture yourself making a great play during the game," Sanford instructs.
On the way back to their rooms, Gaynor and receivers Charles Lockett and Jamie Craft sit by the pool and dangle their feet in the water.
Gaynor holds a football and, spotting two young women sunbathing, kids Lockett: "Do a corner (route) to the bikinis."
The two women, stewardesses, say there is nothing to do in Tulsa so wide receiver Sheldon Gaines asks them if they'd like to go to the game. They say they've never really heard of the Long Beach State football team but would like to go.
Gaines goes upstairs to get some tickets.
The pregame meal is at 3: salad, ground steak, broccoli, baked potato. In a corner of the banquet room, players get taped. Sheppard sits with his thoughts, his chin resting on his hand.
Chapel--optional--is at 3:30. About 20 players listen as assistant coach Sanford talks about David and Goliath and says, "If you believe through the power of God we can do it, we can do it."
At 4:20, the players, wearing ties, file into the meeting room. It is quiet except for muted music coming from Walkman earphones.
Linebacker David Carter sits, unshaven, his eyes mean and penetrating, ready for the violence that lies ahead.
Senior defensive back Leonard Simpkins speaks: "This will put us on the map. I think it's about time. Keep believing in ourselves. I wish everybody good luck."
His teammates applaud and board buses for a quiet 20-minute ride along interstates to Skelly Stadium.
"This is where the assault will take place," says defensive tackle Mark Faust as he walks into the old concrete stadium, his shoes squeaking on the wet, rubbery artificial turf.
At 6:45, after their pregame warm-ups and 15 minutes before kickoff, the 49ers file into the dressing room, which is beneath the stands and has the charm of a dungeon. It is hot, gloomy and smells of nervous sweat.
"I feel like a mean son of a bitch," says defensive back Anthony Reynolds.
As the sounds of the Tulsa band drift in, the players, much more intimidating now with their white and gold uniforms, pads and tape on, sit on benches before a huge fan. Iosefa, a 300-pound tackle, lies on the floor, a wet towel covering his head.
Faust screams, "Remember the best game you played . . . play a better one."
At 6:50 Sheppard says, "All right you guys, grab someone." The players hold hands, get on their knees and pray.
Sheppard says, "They've got a huge cannon out there. Don't jump or be afraid when you hear it. Keep the damn cannon silent."
The 49ers run out into the eye of the Tulsa Golden Hurricane.
Tulsa jumps ahead, 3-0, before 12,000 fans. Then on a play Long Beach had walked through on the hotel parking lot, Brian Browning runs around right end for 55 yards and a touchdown.
But the 49ers can't stop Tulsa's option offense, the cannon is constantly booming, and Gaynor is not making senior quarterback decisions. He is sacked seven times and throws three interceptions.
At half time Tulsa leads, 24-14. Long after the rest of the team has left for the locker room, Gaynor remains on the bench talking with Sheppard.
The talk pays off. In the third quarter Gaynor, completing almost every pass he throws, moves the team beautifully on TD drives of 68, 59 and 80 yards, shredding the Tulsa defense as Sheppard had predicted.
With 17 seconds to play, CSULB leads, 35-34. Tulsa has the ball on its own 7 yard line and is out of timeouts.
On the sidelines the 49ers celebrate what appears to be their fourth straight comeback victory.
"Cardiac kids," they holler.
A pass sails 57 yards through the night sky and settles into the hands of a Tulsa receiver. On the 49er bench, hearts sink and profanity pierces the muggy air.
Another pass gains seven more yards and the receiver steps out of bounds to stop the clock with five seconds left. Then Jason Staurovsky kicks a 46-yard field goal and Tulsa wins, 37-35.
A final "BOOM!"
Long Beach running back Martin Sartin, who had scored four touchdowns, cries as he leaves the field, Frisbees thrown by frenzied TU fans landing all around him.
In the locker room, someone shouts, "Don't throw your helmets."
Sheppard gathers his stunned and angry players around him and prays:.
"Heavenly Father, help us learn from this experience."
Then he says, "It isn't anybody's fault. The fact that they scored 37 points is everybody's fault. We played our butts off. Today was their turn. All of us feel bad . . . 1 a.m. curfew."
Gaynor, his right shoulder in pain, meets reporters. "It's frustrating," he says, "but there's lots of good stuff ahead for us."
In an adjoining room there is no optimism. Defensive coaches Ken Visser, Mark Watson and Michael White sit staring at the floor, knowing they couldn't stop the cannon.
Back at the hotel, the players eat. Some stop in the bar for a beer. Just before 1, they go to their rooms.
The wake-up call would be at 5:30 and by 7 the 49ers would be on a plane leaving dark and rainy Oklahoma. Next week, at last, they would play at home.