Joe Santoro: Painful time for Wolf Pack | NevadaAppeal.com

Joe Santoro: Painful time for Wolf Pack

Joe Santoro
Special to the Appeal

The Nevada Wolf Pack football nation weeps.

The Fremont Cannon, a true blue resident of Northern Nevada for much of the past three decades, is now painted red and living in Las Vegas thanks to a stunning 34-29 Wolf Pack loss to the UNLV Rebels on Saturday at Sam Boyd Stadium.

The loss, which saw the Wolf Pack throw away a 23-0 second-quarter lead, hit the Wolf Pack football alumni like a cannonball to the gut.

"It made my stomach sick," said former offensive lineman Tom Werbeckes, a member of the 1990 Wolf Pack that beat UNLV 26-14 in Las Vegas.

"I was at the game and to see the cannon go over to their side was tough to swallow," said former Wolf Pack defensive lineman Mark Drahos (1988-91).

"This could have been a great year for Coach (Jay) Norvell but losing makes the season feel incomplete," former Wolf Pack wide receiver Geoff Noisy (1995-98) said.

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"It puts me in a bad mood," former (1993-97) Pack lineman Jake Nady said. "This is not how things are supposed to go. I have to remind myself that football is (just) a game."

"I was let down," former (1989-90) Wolf Pack wide receiver Ross Ortega said. "To get up 23-0 and then lose the game really chaps my hide. I hate red and will continue to hate red."

"It hurts," said David Neill, the Wolf Pack's all-time leading passer with 10,901 yards from 1998-2001. "The hardest part is trying to explain to my boys, Tyler and Andrew, how important that game is to the Wolf Pack program and how sad it is to see that cannon go."

Frank Hawkins, the Wolf Pack's all-time leading rusher with 5,333 yards from 1977-80, is a Las Vegas resident and captured the emotions of former Pack players perfectly this week.

"The loss is unacceptable," Hawkins said. "If you only win one game a year, you must beat UNLV. I'm sick about the loss."

All 18 of the losses the Wolf Pack has suffered to UNLV in the 44-game, 49-year-old Silver State rivalry, have understandably crushed the Pack nation. The entire city of Las Vegas, after all, was nothing but a pile of dust and a few wandering scorpions when the Pack started playing football in 1896.

"Losing to little brother down south hurts," former (1994-97) Wolf Pack defensive lineman James Cannida said. "I'm proud to bleed blue but I'm just sick the cannon is gone. It leaves a bad taste in your mouth when you lose to your rival."

This loss to UNLV clearly hurts more than most the Pack has suffered at the hands of the red devils. Blowing a 23-point lead to any team (it's the largest comeback in UNLV history), after all, is unforgivable. But to do it against UNLV is, well, unthinkable.

The Rebels, which scored under 30 points in 35 of the previous 43 games against Nevada, outscored the Pack 34-6 over the final 44 minutes. The Pack, which saw its four-game winning streak fade into oblivion, punted four times and tossed three interceptions over its final 10 drives and allowed UNLV to score a touchdown on five of its last nine full drives. This is also the first year since 2004 the Pack didn't earn the sweet satisfaction of wheeling the Fremont Cannon into its locker room in front of the Rebel fans at Sam Boyd Stadium.

It was clearly a silver and red nightmare for the Wolf Pack and the players, coaches and fans all hurt right now. But the ones who might hurt the most are the former players who watched Saturday's game from the perspective of a player and a fan. This loss rocked them to their silver and blue core.

"To be up 23-0 and still lose is unacceptable," said Noisy, whose 4,249 receiving yards is second most in Wolf Pack history.

"Unfortunately, the Pack didn't show up in the second half," said former (1987-90) Wolf Pack offensive lineman Mike Micone, who was at Sam Boyd Stadium on Saturday. "It was hard to sit and watch the Rebels dominate my team. It was hard to see them out-coach us and out-play us. They deserved to win and we deserved to lose."

None of the nearly two dozen former Wolf Pack players we contacted since Sunday morning have any ill will toward the current Pack players or coaches. In fact, the exact opposite is true. As someone who truly knows what the Fremont Cannon game means, the former Pack players all have passion and understanding for the current team.

Their newest silver and blue brothers, after all, are hurting right now and they will not add to that agony. Although the Pack still leads the rivalry 26-18, most former Pack players know the pain of losing to UNLV. The Pack lost nine of 13 games in the rivalry from 1970-1987, five in a row from 2000-2004 and also at home in 2013 and 2015. Former players, more than anyone, know how long it takes for the anguish of losing to UNLV to disappear. And they don't wish that suffering on anyone who has ever put on Wolf Pack pads.

"I'm very disappointed in the loss," former (1990-93) running back Zeke Moore said, "but not with the effort these young men left on the field."

"I feel for the kids on the team, especially the seniors, because I know the work they put in during the course of the year," Drahos said.

Norvell still has overwhelming support from the Pack players, despite what happened on Saturday. The former players, many of whom played for ex-Pack coach Chris Ault, see a lot of Ault in Norvell.

"I was highly recruited," former (1994-95) offensive lineman Mike Rockwood said. "I took trips to Cal, Memphis State, BYU and Utah State and chose Nevada. Coach Ault showed up on my doorstep on Christmas Eve. He took time away from his family that night. I told myself that night that, '(Nevada) is a program that is about family and pride. I am going to school there.' It was the best choice I ever made in my life. The Pack is my family. I will live and die a member of the Pack. I believe coach Norvell is the right guy. He has that family and pride attitude similar to coach Ault."

The loss on Saturday, though, brought back painful personal memories for the former Pack players.

"You never want to lose to your rival and giving up a big lead is tough on a team," former (2007-10) offensive lineman John Bender said. "But as much as I enjoyed my wins throughout my career, the pain of the losses seemingly hurts more."

The Wolf Pack's loss to the Rebels in 1994 is also one of the most painful in Nevada history.

"My senior year was 1994 when we gave up the cannon in a tough loss in Vegas to our coach who abandoned us the year before," former (1991-94) Wolf Pack offensive lineman Mike Breaux said.

If there's a loss to UNLV that hurt even more than the one on Saturday night, it's the 32-27 loss at UNLV in 1994. That game pitted Ault against former Pack head coach Jeff Horton for the first time. Horton coached the Pack to a 7-4 record in 1993 and a day after the season ended he announced he was the new head coach at UNLV. A Big West Conference championship and the only bowl invite for the conference that season (the Las Vegas Bowl) was on the line on Nov. 19, 1994.

"I cried and puked in the locker room (after the game) and I could have bent steel with my bare hands," Breaux said. "I felt like I got hit with a 10-ton hammer."

The 1994 Wolf Pack, which had not lost to UNLV since 1987, finished 9-2 and ended its season with the loss to UNLV.

"(That loss) will forever haunt me in my dreams that I let my community, my team and myself down," Breaux said. "I allowed what coach Ault associated with the color red — communism, the devil and UNLV — saunter off with the prize that adorned Cashell Fieldhouse for the entirety of my playing days."

Breaux said that loss tainted even one of the best seasons in Wolf Pack history.

"We finished that season 9-2 and tied for the conference championship," Breaux said. "I was First Team All Conference guard and was voted the team's Most Inspirational player. But the only remembered fact of 1994 was that my (senior) class let the cannon get away. The season was a blundering failure, not worth remembering. I was a senior on a team that gave up the cannon and it will haunt me to my grave."

Losing to UNLV never goes away. That's why the former players feel for the current players.

"I remember when I played in 1987," said Micone, of a 24-19 loss at UNLV. "That next year I dreamed about the next time I got to play UNLV. I worked out every day with my team and we talked about the next chance. We talked about getting it (the cannon) back. It was all we wanted to do."

The pain of losing the cannon is undeniable. It's real. Players who played in the game can taste it. It never goes away. That is why the former players made sure to offer some words of comfort to the current team.

"The nice thing about this interstate rivalry is that it is fun," former (1994-95) wide receiver Alex Van Dyke said. "Yes, it's disappointing when the University of Nevada doesn't win because the cannon looks so much better in blue and silver."

"This is an exciting time," former (1996-97) quarterback John Dutton said. "The program is heading in the right direction. What this should do is motivate the guys that no matter how much better the team is, you still have to go out and play four quarters. They have a whole year to think about that."

"As far as rivalries go, records go out the window and anything can happen," former (2007-10) running back Courtney Randall said. "That's what makes a rivalry legitimate."

Last Saturday proved more than anything else the Wolf Pack-Rebel rivalry has indeed become legitimate in recent years. The two teams, after all, have split the last six games.

"Game results should create either a huge sense of pride that is seen and felt every day throughout the year or a constant reminder of something lost but not forgotten and something that provides an ultimate goal to reach until the next game," former (1972-75) kicker Charlie Lee said.

That constant reminder is the Fremont Cannon. It's the cannon, after all, that makes this rivalry game special. It becomes a treasured part of the program for the winning team. It's painted the school's colors. It's seen year round by the players and coaches as a symbol of achievement. Just wheeling it off the field after winning the game or watching the other team celebrate with it is a memory no player can forget.

"From an alumni perspective the loss is more than a number in the season record," said Lee, who's eighth in kick scoring (175 points) and field goals (29) in Pack history. "It's a loss of a traditional icon (the Fremont Cannon). The cannon has become the symbol of state football dominance. It is a constant reminder of a victory that is hard fought and well deserved."

And now it's in Las Vegas and painted red.

"The cannon is more than a trophy for us," Drahos said. "It's a symbol of pride for all of the alumni and Northern Nevada."

"As an alumnus I know the meaning of the rivalry and the importance of having the rights to the Fremont Cannon," former (1993-94) kicker Armando Avina said. "I know the feeling of walking into Cashell Fieldhouse with the cannon on display and the feeling of having to win it back. Winning the Fremont Cannon in Mackay Stadium next season is imperative and must be a priority."

"I hope the returning players (in 2019) remember how it feels to watch the cannon be hauled away," Micone said. "The most prestigious college trophy will be red and they can't do anything about it."

The former Pack players all have faith the cannon will be blue once again a year from now.

"My advice to the Nevada players is to learn from this," said Neill, who won his first two games (1998-99) against the Rebels and lost his last two (2000-01). "It takes losing to remember how good winning feels."

"I hope this loss will motivate them for next year, when they walk past where the cannon was (in Cashell Fieldhouse) and it is not there," Werbeckes said. "I know in my heart the cannon will be back next year."

"Next year they come to our house and there will be a huge chip on the shoulder of Nevada's sideline," Drahos said. "I can't wait to watch us take the cannon back."

"We'll be back to collect our cannon next year for sure," Moore said. "In the meantime we look forward to seeing them on the basketball court and getting some revenge."