Start with Rich Montgomery’s license plate, BGTIGER, and the ring tone on his cell phone, the University of Missouri fight song.
An MU flag flaps from his house in Independence, in front of which sits an 800-pound concrete MU bench.
In the basement within is a trove of Mizzou memorabilia, a byproduct of what the buoyant Montgomery calls being “brainwashed” early.
An impending move compelled him to box up a bunch, but you could still find everything from Tiger geegaws to the chair he sat in when he got his master’s degree in 1970, to the framed original game program from the 1926 inaugural season of Memorial Stadium.
Montgomery, 71, wasn’t at that game, but he reckons he’s been on that field for more games than about anyone between his time in the MU band and now into his 45th year on the football sideline crew.
Which takes us to his most singular and personal collectibles: a down marker rigged up to flash the number “5” and a signed print produced by The Bad Call Poster Company.
“They tend to even out,” wrote Bill McCartney, the former Colorado coach.
“Did you know?” wrote Bob Stull, the former MU coach.
Standing in the bathroom where they have been placed for a certain symbolic comfort, Montgomery smiles, shakes his head and repeats, “Did you know?”
Unfathomably now, bizarrely then, no one with the conviction or the authority to stop it knew on Oct. 6, 1990, that Colorado’s last play against MU was a fifth down.
The bogus bonus play — on which Colorado actually might not have scored — enabled the Buffaloes to win a co-national championship and perhaps altered the then-cursed course of Mizzou football.
Twenty-five years later, the notorious episode is etched in college football lore.
It remains seared into those who were affected in good, bad or ugly ways: careers made, jobs jeopardized and enormous emotional strain.
No one found it more piercing, though, than those who might have been able to prevent it.
Referee J.C. Louderback, the head of the officiating crew who also was a calculus teacher, absorbed the brunt of the heat and for years had to work just to move forward.
“Not happily, but go on,” he told me in 2000 when I interviewed him for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Ron Demaree, the linesman charged with signaling down changes, was in the throes of what he called depression for a year, he said in a 2010 interview with the Post-Dispatch.
He only began to return to normalcy, he said, when a friend got through to him with the sobering perspective that no one had died that day.
Then there was Montgomery, authorized to advance the down marker only at the signal of the linesman.
But, yes, he also had the latitude to nudge or offer reminders.
Montgomery reconciled all this by filtering it through a naturally upbeat disposition and a learned inclination to put things in their proper place.
He summoned the adage of not sweating the small stuff … and that in the end, it’s all small stuff.
Montgomery knows that true mourning is reserved for things like losing your father when you are 8 years old to an accident on “Bloody 13” between Bolivar and Springfield.
His positive outlook is why his friend wants him working as a greeter at Chick-fil-A, he said, “because they want somebody to smile in the dining room.”
“There’s something about having a good attitude,” said Montgomery, a retired insurance agent and former teacher whose default facial expression is, in fact, a smile.
Still, Montgomery was jolted when he realized what had happened.
As he drove home from Columbia, still uncertain of what had unfolded, Montgomery listened to radio analysis and replay that left no doubt.
Convulsed with nausea, he pulled over near mile marker 78 on Interstate 70 and vomited.
His son, Jeff, a former MU football player in his first year on the sideline crew, drove the rest of the way.
“I just sat there shaking my head,” Montgomery said, “(wondering) ‘How in the world did that possibly happen?’ “
Part of this absurdity is that many a step removed from being empowered to take action had an inkling of what was happening with MU leading Colorado 31-27 into the final seconds.
A group of about 200 students in one section were chanting “five, five, five,” waving their hands with fingers spread.
In the coaching box above the field, MU defensive coordinator Mike Church tried to tell coaches on the sideline but couldn’t be heard through his phone to get a timeout called.
In the press box, head statistician Jack Watkins was among those who recognized what had happened but couldn’t find the Big Eight officials, who’d gone AWOL.
Before the play, Watkins told the press box announcer to call it “fifth and goal from the 1.”
All those voices were muted, whistles in the wind, amid the chaos that one way or another confounded administrators, seven referees, a few dozen coaches on the field and the sideline crew.
“The number of times that I have told the sideline official, ‘Hey, it’s third down, hey, it’s second down,’ ” Montgomery said, shaking his head. “It happened all the time.”
So many things had to happen for the fiasco to unfold; so many things could have happened that might have prevented it — and it’s impossible to believe it could happen today with so many literally wired to games.
A split officiating crew worked that day, for starters — including some who hadn’t met until that morning, according to a 2010 ESPN Outside The Lines report. That surely factored into a lack of communication.
That season also marked the inception of a new rule enabling quarterbacks to spike the ball to stop the clock. According to that ESPN report, some officials had never actually seen it done before that day.
There were other curiosities, too, in how officials handled the clock in the final minute.
And in the middle of the frantic final seconds, Montgomery remembers a separate commotion in the stands behind the Colorado bench as a fan was having a heart attack and being moved to the field for treatment.
“They were actually pumping him with the paddles,” he said.
All these moving parts swirled wildly after the play that could have made this mess a moot point:
From the MU 9 with 38 seconds left, Colorado’s Charles Johnson passed to tight end Jon Boman.
Left abandoned on the MU sideline near the 5, Boman seemed certain to score the game-winning touchdown … only to slip and fall.
It was the umpteenth slip of the game for Colorado on MU’s treacherous Omniturf, and it was the most momentous.
On first and goal, Johnson spiked the ball to stop the clock.
Per protocol, Louderback signaled Demaree for the change of down. Demaree relayed it to Montgomery, and replays show the marker turned by the start of the next play.
Then Colorado handed off to Eric Bieniemy, now the Chiefs’ running backs coach.
(Across the field that day, incidentally, was Chiefs coach Andy Reid, then MU’s offensive line coach. A request of the Chiefs to interview Reid and Bieniemy together about that day was unsuccessful).
The crux of the confusion arrived in the aftermath of Bieniemy being stuffed at the MU 1.
With 28 seconds left, Colorado called timeout. As he went to the CU sideline to tell McCartney that was the Buffs’ last timeout, Louderback failed to signal Demaree to notify Montgomery to flip the marker to “3.”
Unsure years later, Demaree faintly believed he signaled Montgomery anyway, and thought he might have seen a replay that backed that up.
Montgomery has no recollection of being signaled by Demaree, and he recalls then looking to Louderback near the CU sideline.
As he waited for a direct signal that never came, he remembers noticing the man having a heart attack being moved to the track around Faurot Field for CPR treatment.
Play resumed with the scoreboard and marker still showing second down on what actually was third. Bieniemy was bashed back up the middle by MU’s defense.
Johnson then spiked the ball to stop the clock on what really was fourth down, an action he wouldn’t have taken had he known.
On fifth down with 2 seconds left, Johnson landed on his back as he squirmed toward the end zone and was awarded a touchdown.
Photos from the Columbia Daily Tribune and Columbia Missourian cast that TD in doubt and suggest Johnson put the ball over the goal line after being down.
But sprung by the 33-31 victory, the Buffs went on to the national title.
It was all the more unpalatable to many because of McCartney’s graceless postgame focus on the field conditions to the exclusion of the matter at hand.
In a phone interview years later, McCartney regretted how he handled it.
“Please forgive me,” said McCartney, a 1962 MU graduate who nonetheless added, “This is not going away. When they put me in the ground, they’re probably going to do it four or five times.”
In Stull’s second season, MU went from what would have been a second straight win over a ranked team into a dazed smackdown the next week when they lost 69-21 at Nebraska.
Stull never could turn the corner at Mizzou, where he went 15-38-2 before he was fired after the 1993 season.
A riot nearly ensued on Faurot Field. Bottles and rocks were being thrown as outraged fans roamed the field, some trying to get at those who’d let this happen, others venting at Colorado.
“It was just very surreal,” Montgomery said.
Louderback was hearing some disturbing static, and Montgomery remembers him running up and asking, “Rich, did we have a fifth down?”
“No way, no way, J.C.,” Montgomery remembered saying.
Way, as it turned out.
The officiating crew was suspended for a week, but that was nothing compared to the heaviness those involved would lug forever.
We all make mistakes, of course, and we all know regret if we’re honest with ourselves.
But how to process that is a never-ending question for many.
These men, though, showed us one way how: owning it helps keep it from owning you.
Perhaps that’s scant consolation to those who see sports as larger than life, but it’s inspiration to those who see it as a metaphor.
For their parts, wounded as they were, Louderback and Demaree embraced accountability.
Demaree would say that it was “especially” his fault and lamented that Louderback was left to own it.
Louderback, meanwhile, treated it as a teaching opportunity, just another one in a 40-plus-year officiating career that was notably honorable and unsmudged other than that day.
You don’t hide, he had always preached, and you don’t alibi. So he confessed to his embarrassment, took all the calls from the media and spoke to angry fans, at least until they got hostile.
He even welcomed a visit to his home in Arkansas City, Kan., on the 10th anniversary, when we watched a tape of the final series together.
Saddened as he was, Louderback learned to smile at the jokes from friends, like the wise guys who’d deal him an extra card on poker night to see if he caught it.
As I left that day, Louderback pointed to a picture on his refrigerator of “all four” grandchildren on a slide.
It was hard to tell him there were five pictured.
“It’s sort of gotten to the point,” he said, with a quiet laugh, “where I’m afraid to say the number ‘5’ anymore.”
As for Montgomery, he, too, knows this will never go away.
On a Mediterranean cruise with his wife a few years back, he overheard people randomly talking about the Fifth Down Game.
“Mary looked at me and said, ‘It won’t ever stop, will it?’ ” he said.
That’s why, before MU’s opener against Southeast Missouri, the sideline crew resumed what it had been doing for years now: “1-2-3, no fifth downs,” they chanted, then fist-bumped.
Yet Montgomery, who has missed just two home games since 1970, can’t say he regrets being there on Oct. 6, 1990.
Sure, he wishes with all his heart he’d been conscious of what was happening and found a way to intervene.
But he also figures better him than someone else.
“Because I think there would be some people that it would have really affected,” he said. “There’s a reason God put me there that day: Because he knew I could handle it.”
Plus, Montgomery knows, they all tend to even out.