Fiery Perspective

San Diego State hopes post-fire victory is a turning point

College Football Preview: Week 11

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Nov. 8, 2007

By Carter Blackburn

Special to



Carter Blackburn covers various sports for CSTV and writes frequently for
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Three weeks ago, a frustrating career for San Diego State quarterback Kevin O'Connell may have reached its worst moment. In his four years at San Diego State, the Aztecs have never finished with a winning record; never reached a bowl game. In what was expected to be a breakout year in 2006, O'Connell opened the season by tearing ligaments in his throwing hand, costing him half the season. Then on Oct. 20, he made the play that should have given the Aztecs their first win over New Mexico in seven years. 


With San Diego State leading 17-13 with just over two minutes remaining, O'Connell sprinted for 17 yards on a third down and 11 play, and then fumbled the football. New Mexico recovered, took it 65 yards for the game-winning score, and dropped San Diego State to 2-and-5. 




"I was feeling pretty sorry for myself all Saturday night and Sunday," O'Connell said. "We have Mondays off [from football], so I turn on the news and all of a sudden there's fires raging all over." 


Thirty-six hours after O'Connell and the Aztecs left Qualcomm Stadium feeling like victims, thousands of fire evacuees began pouring into the same stadium. By Monday morning, the Harris Fire alone had burned 20,000 acres and the Witch Creek Fire had charred 8,000 acres. Twenty thousand Southern California homes were without power.


Safe to say, it put football in perspective for O'Connell.


"Oh yeah, you can definitely say that," said O'Connell, a resident of nearby Carlsbad, a few miles from the evacuation zone. "Police came by my parents' house and let them know that if the fire came up back the side of the canyon, they'd be forced to evacuate."


The entire Aztec coaching staff was forced to leave their homes and bunker down in the football offices.


"We had wives, kids, dogs all up here," second-year Aztec coach Chuck Long said. "I was a little worried about the carpet."


With classes at San Diego State and their weekend matchup with BYU cancelled, many of the Aztec football players, including O'Connell, volunteered at Qualcomm until most of the evacuees could return home at week's end. The Chargers came back to Qualcomm Sunday to whip the Houston Texans, 35-10, in a welcome distraction from the week's misery. A week later, the Aztecs were back on the field against Wyoming.


"We dedicated the game to the firefighters who worked so hard that week, for the victims of the fires, and for all of San Diego," Long said. "The Chargers lifted spirits here, and we wanted to keep it going."


Wyoming did not read that script, or at least was being coy about playing along. Twenty minutes into the game, the Cowboys led 21-0. No San Diego State team in recorded history, which goes back 30 years, had overcome a deficit that big.


Just before the half, O'Connell found fellow senior captain Chaz Schilens for a five-yard touchdown. Midway through the third quarter, O'Connell scrambled 29 yards for another score. A Wyoming field goal in the third staked the Cowboys to a four-point lead. But just like he had two weeks prior, O'Connell rallied San Diego State for a drive in the waning minutes.


This time, it ended not with a fumble by O'Connell, but with a 27-yard touchdown pass, giving San Diego State a 27-24 win in the biggest comeback in Aztec football history.


"It's as jubilant a locker room as I've ever been in," Long said. That's easy to grasp as head coach of the Aztecs, but Long won Big Ten titles as a quarterback at Iowa and a national championship as a coach at Oklahoma. "We're hoping it's a turning point for this program."


If it is a turning point, step one for the newly motivated Aztecs is this Saturday night at UNLV, in a CSTV-televised game. In O'Connell's only game at UNLV's Sam Boyd Stadium, he threw three interceptions in a 13-10 Aztec loss.


"That's definitely motivation," he said.


When San Diego State takes the field for the first time away from Qualcomm, there will be a firefighter decal on the back of their helmets to honor those who suffered through the flames. But the Aztecs will be able to focus on playing football, albeit it with a new perspective.