They played “Mo Bamba.”
As I stood in the barren stands, watching a comically large sea of fans pour onto the field and bask in the glory of the win, the familiar hook of Sheck Wes’ club opus suddenly blasted out of the stadium PA speakers.
From 38 rows up, I heard the mass on the field break into song, cheering the words in unison, as clear and loud as the words being piped into the stadium. The yell of the crowd was mingled ecstasy and memory, the voice of a nation of millions filling a stadium that, according to the box score, held 57,748 that night.
And I yelled back.
It was hoarse, largely incoherent and deeply felt. It was the last cry of an afternoon that had featured as much hootin’ and hollerin’ as I’d ever done in my life, a call so loud as to echo back to the moment that solidified that song’s legend in the minds of every Purdue fan who stood in Ross-Ade Stadium on Oct. 20, 2018.
The first Purdue game I ever attended became known as “49-20,” the night Purdue upset then-No. 2 Ohio State on the backs of Rondale Moore, Markus Bailey, a thoroughly unprepared Greg Schiano defense and that song.
“Mo Bamba” played after Purdue’s last offensive touchdown, a 43-yard reception from Moore in the last four minutes that capped his career-defining game. Five plays later, Columbus native Bailey returned an interception 41 yards for a defensive touchdown that spiritually gave Ohio State a negative probability of victory. It’s a reminder of the reason I bought into this team.
My dad, a lifelong Ohio State fan, had driven down to West Lafayette to visit me in my first semester in college and watch the team I had grown up cheering for right alongside him play the team I had adopted with my tuition money. Instead of an easy victory for a Buckeye team otherwise intent on the College Football Playoff, the Boilermakers broke my dad’s soul right in front of me.
How appropriate, then, that I should watch my team do the same thing to my mother and grandparents, lifelong fans of a Michigan State team I have also spent many years supporting, to the tune of 40-29 Saturday night. Purdue took down the then-No. 3 Spartans in Ross-Ade Stadium on the backs of 536 passing yards, David Bell, Dedrick Mackey and a trick play head coach Jeff Brohm said he stole from a YouTube highlight reel.
My family came down to West Lafayette to commemorate my senior year and bookend the first Purdue game I ever covered as a sports journalist — the Michigan State game directly after 49-20, which Purdue lost because the Spartans dogpiled Moore with senior defenders and because you should never, ever play Michigan State in bad weather in late October.
Like 49-20, I didn’t exactly expect Purdue to win last weekend. I was still entertaining doubt into the last quarter, as Purdue began settling for field goals and Michigan State found its stride for the first time all day. I knew victory was certain at last when Mackey grabbed an interception in the end zone and I pulled a muscle in my stomach from yelling.
I vaguely remember talking to a group of Michigan State fans before the game — I say “vaguely” because I had been, shall we say, tailgating for a bit by then — and hearing their story of traveling to Dallas in 2015 for the CFP semifinal game MSU played in the Cotton Bowl against Alabama.
Was their loss to Purdue worse than that 38-0 flattening?
Who can say?
But I can say Purdue’s win felt better than 49-20, at least to me. It didn’t have the fulfillment of Tyler Trent’s prediction behind it, or the momentum of a team that had started the season 0-3. But it had three years of experience behind it, three years of re-learning football by watching it as a reporter and three years of agonizing through boneheaded losses and nail-biting wins.
The song took on a new significance that night, a reminder of the reason I can’t ever quite let this team go despite all of that.
The win carries a symmetry I can’t get out of my head, a symmetry I’m going to continue when I go to Columbus this weekend to bring the cycle of watching the Purdue-OSU game with my dad to its conclusion. It was the first game I ever attended as a Purdue fan. It will be the last game I attend outside of a reporting context as a Purdue student.
I hope they get to play “Mo Bamba” again.