"I understand you're digging up some ancient history about the Holiday Bowl. This almost puts you in the field of paleontology, doesn't it?"
-- John Kormylo, BYU Class of '79
"How many years? I can't be that old."
-- Bill Ring, BYU Class of '79
San Diego Union-Tribune article written on December 27, 2002
They have traveled the world on missions, some religious and some military. A few served in the NFL, a few served in Desert Storm. Some remember the game as though it were yesterday, others aren't quite sure what year it was played.
But regardless of where they've been or what they've done in the last quarter-century, the members of the 1978 Brigham Young University and United States Naval Academy football teams share one common bond: They participated in the first Holiday Bowl.
It was just the Holiday Bowl then, too. No sign of sponsors to come such as SeaWorld, Thrifty Car Rental, Plymouth, Culligan and now, beginning this year, Pacific Life. But someone had the idea it would be around a while: The cover of the first program reads "First Annual."
As the event organizers like to call "America's Most Exciting Bowl Game" prepares for its silver anniversary game tonight at Qualcomm Stadium, players from the initial game were asked for their memories of that first week in Holiday Bowl history, which ended with Navy defeating BYU 23-16 on Dec. 22, 1978 at what was then known as San Diego Stadium.
"It was the M&M Bowl -- Middies and Mormons," joked Charlie Meyers, a Navy cornerback who retired from active service last year and now works as a defense contractor near Washington, D.C. "It was a great week for all of us."
Meyers' reaction was typical of Navy players who were thrilled after playing in the academy's first bowl game in 15 years -- in a city with a huge Navy presence, no less. They beat a BYU team with future NFL quarterbacks Marc Wilson and Jim McMahon to finish 9-3 and ranked No. 17 -- the first and last time since1963 the Middies ended a season ranked.
"It has been one of the proudest moments of my Navy career, even after flying combat missions in Desert Storm and commanding a squadron (at Miramar)," said defensive back R.J. "Herb" Wilson, who attended several Holiday Bowls while stationed at Miramar for 12 years and now works as a Naval Mission Planning Systems training analyst in Virginia Beach, Va.
"I have a lot of fond memories," said Navy defensive end Mark Stephens, a Delta Airlines captain who lives near Atlanta. "They treated us very well. A team like Navy, we were not used to being fed that well."
But even BYU players obviously disappointed by the defeat looked back fondly at the first of the school's seven straight Holiday Bowl appearances.
"Going down to San Diego at that time of year, any college athlete would die for it, especially coming from Utah," said Rod Wood, a linebacker who owns and operates a gourmet candy company in Salt Lake City. "It was a great experience other than we lost the game."
Many players remembered -- or are remembered for -- many different experiences, both during the week leading up to the game and the game itself.
Navy wide receiver Phil McConkey dressed for the Holiday Bowl thinking it would be the last time he put on football pads.
"The odds were highly against anyone getting out of a five-year commitment to the Navy and going on to play pro football," McConkey said, "especially someone who weighed 165 pounds."
But McConkey always was about overcoming the odds, and after serving his Navy commitment, he "fought and scratched and clawed" his way onto the New York Giants roster in 1984. Six seasons and one Super Bowl ring later, he finally played his last game -- and he did it at San Diego Jack Murphy Stadium, as a member of the 1989 Chargers.
"I was thinking 1978 would be the last time I ever put pads on," McConkey said. "Eleven years later, it was true."
McConkey, who was ill with a 103-degree fever the day before the Holiday Bowl, wound up as the MVP with four receptions for 88 yards and two carries for 42 yards. He scored the game-winning touchdown on a 65-yard pass from Bob Leszczynski with 11:44 left in the fourth quarter.
"It was much more of a great catch on Phil's part than any kind of great pass on my part," recalled Leszczynski, who was stationed at North Island for three years and now co-owns two pubs in his native Milwaukee.
"I remember Phil McConkey all over the place," said BYU linebacker Tom Enlow, hospitality director for a fish processing company in the Aleutian Islands fishing port of Dutch Harbor, Alaska. "I have nightmares about that, still. He single-handedly made the difference."
McConkey, now living in New York and working as a partner in an institutional equity block trading firm in Greenwich, Conn., said the impact of the game was "huge" for the Midshipmen.
"For Navy to go to a bowl game and do it in a Navy town . . . Maybe to someone else a first-year bowl game wouldn't be as great, but for us it was the Super Bowl, Rose Bowl, everything wrapped in one," he said.
"We had a tight-knit group of guys. We weren't real big, we weren't real talented, but boy did we persevere. That was something we could keep and remember for the rest of our lives. Here we are talking about it 25 years later."
McConkey tonight is scheduled to attend his first Holiday Bowl since "his game." He will take part in the ceremonial coin toss.
Several Navy players recalled being granted temporary title to Official Holiday Bowl" cars for the week.
"I ran into former Navy athletic director Bo Coppage last month at a Navy game," said kicker Bob Tata, now a lawyer in Norfolk, Va. "He relayed the story of how when we got on the plane the morning after the game to fly home, they had still not found and turned in about a dozen of the cars. Hopefully they have turned up by now."
Definitely gone were magnetic signs that proclaimed the cars as official Holiday Bowl vehicles. As Tata said, a few players still have those signs "stuck to our garage refrigerators."
"I had one at my parents' house for a while," added safety Fred Reitzel, now a technology salesman in Ashburn, Va. "The sticker, not the car."
The Trivia Answers
Mike Chronister was living in Los Angeles about 15 years ago when the local newspaper published a trivia question asking for the identity of the player who scored the first touchdown in Holiday Bowl history.
"I called in and said, 'Me' " Chronister said. "My claim to fame."
Nearly 25 minutes into the game, Chronister ran a short out pattern, caught a pass from Jim McMahon -- who split time with starter Marc Wilson -- and carried the ball into the end zone. Just like that, he had made history.
"I actually use that line every year about this time," said Chronister, now a general sales manager for XO Communications. "It's fun to be the answer to a trivia question."
Brent Johnson knows the feeling. The BYU kicker actually beat Chronister by scoring the first points in Holiday Bowl history with a first-quarter field goal (with Chronister as the holder).
"That's something that can never be broken," said Johnson, who lives halfway between Salt Lake City and Provo and sells flooring to contractors. "You can't score the first points of a bowl game ever again."
It beats Johnson's other Holiday Bowl memory -- the next year, with BYU trying to complete a perfect season, he missed a 27-yard field goal in the final seconds and BYU lost to Indiana 38-37.
"I wish I had a buck for every time since someone asked me how I felt," Johnson said.
Thanks to Chronister's touchdown, BYU led 9-3 at halftime. But Rick Bott, Navy's starting right tackle, said the Cougars were just a little too confident at that point.
"I remember how overtly cocky BYU was in thinking and acting and talking like the game was basically already over and they had won," said Bott, now a senior vice president of LaSalle Bank in Chicago. "Like me, many of the Navy players overheard the same cocky comments that I did and it served to fire us up at halftime.
"I think it was Phil McConkey who said to all of us, 'Hey, these guys think that they've won this thing already, and that's bull.'
As they say, the rest is history."
The Late Hit
Reitzel recalled making a game-saving interception in the end zone with a minute to play, only to have it nullified by a roughing-the-passer penalty.
"It was an important play and I never got any credit," Reitzel said.
He either didn't remember who committed the penalty or was too nice to point the finger at a teammate, but linebacker Tom Paulk accepted responsibility.
"One of my assignments was if the quarterback rolled and broke containment, I would come out of coverage and cut him off," said Paulk, who now owns a personnel staffing company in Chesapeake, Va. "Jim got outside and threw the ball, but sadly that wasn't the end of the play.
"I had such a good head of steam, I smacked him. I just drilled poor Jim. Normally I didn't play like that, but apparently I lost consciousness. Sadly, it was my best hit all year."
The penalty gave BYU a first down at the Navy 34, but after a sack, two penalties and a scramble for zero yards, McMahon's pass on third-and-30 was intercepted by Stephens with 31 seconds remaining.
The Aircraft Carrier
Among the bowl traditions (that continue today) is an annual lunch for both teams on an aircraft carrier. a Navy ship. Touring the carrier USS Ranger wasn't just a thrill for the Navy players, either.
"They probably took a little bit more interest in it than we did, but the sheer size of it put us in awe," said BYU guard Danny Hansen, who lives in Salt Lake City and works as a transportation manager for an oil refinery.
Said Johnson, the BYU kicker: "They were in their dress blues . . . It was pretty impressive. The professionalism of Navy, the way they conducted themselves, the mystique of the armed forces."
Many BYU players "couldn't believe it," said Navy punter Art Ohanian, who now works for a defense contractor and lives in Springfield, Va. "They said, 'You live on this thing? For how long?' We'd say, 'Only six or seven months.' "
Navy's Wilson recalled several Midshipmen "disappearing" during lunch because "we knew what was coming. The BYU players were not so fortunate. About 20 or so of them became ill after eating the ship's meal. The joke the rest of the week by BYU coach LaVell Edwards was it was a deliberate tactic by Navy to poison his players before the game."
The 'Rice Paddy'
December is a rainy month by San Diego standards and the week of the first game was no exception. Nick Mygas, a Navy linebacker who now lives in Virginia Beach and works as a high school teacher and football coach, said he recalled one practice taking place on a field that resembled "a rice paddy" and another at a local Navy field.
"We looked like a sandlot team that just showed up and practiced," Mygas said.
Navy coach George Welsh said the team showed up at one field "and they didn't have it lined. We had to step it out and put markers out. I was worried about our game preparation, but I thought we ended up ready to play."
Among the mementos given the players at the first bowl was a watch. Evidently they weren't built to last. McConkey made a reference to his "non-working Holiday Bowl watch" and a couple other players also made mention of the lack of longevity.
"It didn't work for more than about a year," Tata said. "And there it is, just sitting in my drawer . . . But that's about the only thing I know of that didn't work in that first Holiday Bowl.
"We all have fond memories of San Diego and, being in the Navy, we get back from time to time. Many of us also watch the Holiday Bowl each year and are happy to see that it is usually one of the most exciting games."
For a listing of where BYU's 22 starters are now, see below:
Where are they now?
Lineups for the first Holiday Bowl
SE Mike Chronister, General sales manager, communication co., Salt Lake City
LT Al Gaspard, (not available)
LG Tom Bell, Works for State Dept., Maryland
C Scott Neilson, Franchise salesman, Chandler, Ariz.
RG Danny Hansen, Transportation manager, oil refinery, Salt Lake City
RT Nick Eyre, Orem, Utah
TE Tod Thompson, Chiropractor, Hendersonville, Tenn.
QB Marc Wilson, Real estate development, Woodinville, Wash.
FB Bill Ring, Money management, Portola Valley
TB Casey Wingard, (not available)
FL Kent Tingey, VP for University Advancement, Idaho State, Pocatello, Idaho
K Brent Johnson, Contract sales, Riverton, Utah
DE Ross Varner, (not available) Holladay, Utah
DT John Kormylo, Owns Utah Prosthetics and Orthotics, Logan, Utah
DT Doug Stromberg, Physical therapist, Logan, Utah
DE Mat Mendenhall, Raises cutting horses, Alpine, Utah
LB Tom Enlow, Hospitality dir. for fish processing co., Dutch Harbor, Alaska
LB Rod Wood, Owns gourmet candy company, Salt Lake City
LB Larry Miller, Administrator for concrete business, Las Vegas
CB Bill Schoepflin, Policeman, Arvada, Colo.
CB Dave Francis, (not available)
SS Jason , (not available)
FS Ron Velasco, Middle school teacher, Anahola, Hawaii
P/QB Jim McMahon, Restaurant owner, speaker, celebrity golfer, Chicago
Coach LaVell Edwards, Retired after 2000 season, New York City
WR Phil McConkey, Partner, institutional equity block trading firm, New York City
LT John Taylor, Financial consultant, Richmond, Va.
LG Frank McCallister, Program manager for information technology company, Arlington, Va.
C Steve Kremer, Navy Capt., commanding officer of Naval Station Bremerton,Wash.
RG Tom Feldman, (not available)
RT Rick Bott, Sr. V.P. of bank, Clarendon Hills, Ill.
TE Curt Gainer, (not available)
QB Bob Leszcynski, Co-owner of pubs, Milwaukee, Ill.
TB Mike Sherlock, In Navy, stationed in Japan
FB Kevin Tolbert, Michigan asst. strength and conditioning coach, Ann Arbor, Mich.
WB Sandy Jones, (not available)
K Bob Tata, Lawyer, Norfolk, Va.
DE Mark Stephens, Commercial airline pilot, Peachtree City, Ga.
DT John Merrill, Commercial builder, Sarasota, Fla.
MG A.B. Miller, (not available)
DT Steve Chambers, Commercial pilot, Mission Viejo
DE Charley Thornton, (not available)
LB Tom Paulk, Owns personnel staffing company, Chesapeake, Va.
LB Nick Mygas, High school teacher, football coach, Virginia Beach, Va.
ROV Greg Milo, Commercial airline pilot, Jacksonville, Fla.
CB Chuck Zingler, Navy captain, U.S. Euro. Command
CB Charlie Meyers, Def. Contractor, Manassas Park, Va.
S Fred Reitzel, Technology salesman, Ashburn, Va.
P Art Ohanian, Works for defense contractor, Springfield, Va.
Coach George Welsh, Retired in Charlottesville, Va.