BOCA RATON – A young football program goes on the road and shockingly earns the biggest win in program history but nobody back home knows about it because they are busy dealing with a natural disaster.
A prediction for Saturday’s FAU football game at No. 9 Wisconsin?
No. FAU has already lived this tale.
In 2004, with Hurricane Frances targeting South Florida, FAU flew to Hawaii to face the Tommy Chang-led Warriors.
“We didn’t know anything about hurricanes then,” said Howard Schnellenberger, the Owls coach at the time. “We were really honed in on that game.”
It was the season opener for a highly touted Hawaii squad that would go on to defeat Northwestern and Michigan State, and beat UAB in the Aloha Bowl.
That year marked only Florida Atlantic’s fourth season of football and the Owls were beginning the move to Division I-A (now FBS).
The Owls never led during regulation but tied the score at 28 when quarterback Jared Allen hit Anthony Crissinger-Hill for a 31-yard touchdown with 23 seconds remaining. A blocked extra point sent the game into overtime, where Doug Parker’s seven-yard touchdown run gave the Owls the lead and a defensive stop cemented the Owls the victory.
Yet few in South Florida knew of the win. Many didn’t learn about it for weeks.
“It was a great big win,” FAU assistant head coach/linebacker coach Kurt Van Valkenburg said. “I guess everybody back home, some of them heard it, but their concern shifted real fast and the game was kind of an afterthought.
Safety Kris Bartels, a freshman walk-on and member of the scout team that year, didn’t travel with the team that year. With the FAU campus closed, Bartels headed to his parents’ Broward County home to ride out the storm – which hit about same time as the Owls took the field.
“I sat in my mom’s van during the storm and I listened to the game that way,” Bartels said. “And then I fell asleep in the car.”
Players and coaches didn’t have much time to savor the victory. In the hours that followed the victory it wasn’t certain the Owls would be able to get home.
They were booked to fly through Dallas on their way home and the game the following week was at North Texas, prompting serious consideration to spending the week in Dallas while South Florida recovered from Frances.
“It was a big win and we were all excited about it that night and even Sunday but immediately you got into a bind where, what are we going to do?” Van Valkenburg said. “All those kind of things came up. Where are we going to stay? How are we going to house everybody? Where are we going to practice? Even in our own mind I think (the victory) got pushed into the background a little bit.”
Frances made landfall in Martin County, about 60 miles north of FAU’s campus. It broke off part of the Lake Worth pier and created a sinkhole that closed I-95 in Palm Beach County, and caused seven of the eight light towers at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter to come crashing down.
Ultimately they chose to return home.
“I don’t remember knowing all the trees were uprooted,” Allen said. “Maybe I heard the campus was closed but I didn’t know what to expect. I personally didn’t have a full understanding about what we were going back to.”
FAU returned to a city devoid of fanfare. The campus was still closed and, truth be told, a large portion of the city still didn’t realize that FAU even had a football team.
An FAU police officer escorted the bus to the Oxley Center.
“When we got back to the facility, all that we were allowed to do was walk in and throw the bags and throw the equipment in the lobby,” Van Valkenburg said. “We weren’t able to go and do anything inside and then we had to get everybody off campus.”
FAU found a hotel in Fort Lauderdale where the Owls would stay for the week, busing back to the campus for practices that didn’t necessarily correspond with their normal schedule. But that only accounted for the travel team. The Owls still needed to contact the players who didn’t make the trip.
“You were trying to get a hold of everybody and communicate through cell phones and everything else but so many of the the towers and all that were down and you couldn’t reach anybody,” Van Valkenburg said. “It was an interesting scenario for two or three days”
Bartels was one of those players the Owls couldn’t reach. Even though campus was still closed, he arrived at the normal time for the first practice of the week.
“I remember coming back and waiting at the Oxley, just being a walk-on, just sitting there and nobody showed up,” said Bartels, now a member of the FAU radio crew.
FAU did eventually hold practices on the fields behind the Oxley Center. In the days that followed members of the scout team trickled back, even though the school remained closed. Power returned to the Oxley Center after a couple of days, allowing coaches and players, back inside.
But word of the Owls’ victory over Hawaii traveled slower than the lines for gas.
“Nobody knew about it because nobody was around to know about it,” Bartels said. “Everybody took off. Everybody went home. School was closed.”
FAU flies on charter flights now. On Friday the Owls are scheduled to depart for Madison. They are uncertain as to when they will be able to return. Plans are already in place for an extended stay in Madison, should that be required.
In 2004, following the Hawaii victory and a chaotic week of practice, the Owls traveled to Texas as planned and knocked off three-time reigning Sun Belt champion North Texas. In fact, FAU won its first five games that year.
The biggest victory no one knew about launched the Owls into a 9-3 season, still the second-winningest season in program history
“The great thing about the kids is that they took it in stride,” Van Valkenburg said. “They rolled along. It was amazing.”