Spirit of ’88 Has Special Meaning to Alan Apple
Sept. 10, 2017
By Malcolm Butler
Dozens of members of the 1988 Bulldog football team will meet in Ruston this weekend to watch Louisiana Tech host Mississippi State at Joe Aillet Stadium.
It will be a great opportunity for friends to reunite, swap old gridiron war stories, and catch up on each other’s lives 25 to 30 years after college. That, in itself, will stir some emotions in these grown men.
An old friend will be there to greet all of them. The Spirit of ’88 has relocated in recent years, moving right inside the doors of the Davison Athletic Complex.
However, his magic is still real (the Bulldogs have won 15 of the last 16 games at the Joe).
For Alan Apple, this Saturday’s match-up and reunion with his teammates and the bronze Bulldog will strike an even deeper emotional chord.
As a redshirt freshman at Tech in 1988, Alan and the Joe Raymond Peace-led Bulldogs opened the season in Starkville against Mississippi State. Alan, a tight end at the time, saw action on special teams and a few offensive plays. More than 29 years later, he still calls it “probably the worst game I ever played.”
Tech lost 21-14 on that Saturday night in StarkVegas.
“I can remember after the game standing by the bus and my mom came down,” said Alan. “She was just bubbling over with excitement, I guess because her boy was playing college football. She was like ‘This is the greatest thing I’ve ever seen, and I’m never missing another game.’ She was going crazy.”
Alan’s mom, Ann, was proudly wearing her “My Son is No. 46” pin. He kissed his mother, told her he loved her and boarded the bus for the ride home, the loss on the field still fresh on his mind. However, within a few short hours, the loss would become meaningless.
Ann Apple along with the parents and girlfriend of Todd Griffith, Alan’s teammate and a Tech linebacker, boarded a private jet to head back to Texas. Proud parents.
Hours after the team arrived back in Ruston, news hit that the plane had crashed. There were no survivors. Both young men lost so much more that night than just a football game.
According to Alan, reports said the crash site was an array of torn steal and Louisiana Tech paraphernalia, littering the area. Alan said his mother was found still wearing her “favorite game day pin.”
The following week as the Bulldogs were trying to focus on preparing for a showdown with Andre Ware and the Houston Cougars at Independence Stadium in Shreveport, Alan was back in Texas preparing to bury his mother. He wouldn’t do it alone.
Two buses full of Bulldog coaches, players and University officials made the drive and lined the front walk of Grace United Methodist Church in Carthage.
“Although it was optional, I don’t remember there being one teammate who wasn’t there,” said Gene Johnson, a close friend and teammate of Alan. “Everyone wanted to be there to show him any level of support we could. It was such a tragic event. There was nothing we could say or do to make his world any better. But the team going to the funeral let him know how much we cared about him and loved him and wanted to be there for him at that moment.”
It was a gesture that even three decades later resonates with Alan.
“It was a terrible ordeal,” said Alan. “I was gone all week. It was one of the middle of the week practice days, and they were getting ready for Houston. I don’t know who all came. It was a ton of them. Two buses full. Dr. (Dan) Reneau was there. Coach Peace was there. All the coaches. One of them pulled me aside afterwards and said ‘Hey we need you back with the team.’ So the next day, I was back at practice and getting ready for Saturday.
“I remember walking down the ramp in half shells. Coach Peace walked over and said, ‘It’s good to have you home. We need you.’”
Todd never came back to the team, according to Alan. Instead, he took over his father’s construction business in Carthage.
When the Bulldogs took the field at Independence Stadium a few days later, they wore black armbands in memory of Alan and Todd and their families.
Tech lost to Houston, 60-0. Alan played in the game. Although it went down in the record book as one of seven losses by the Bulldogs that year, it really was a victory in so many ways.
“There is no doubt (the tragedy) had an effect on us as a team,” said Conroy Hines, who was a senior on the 1988 team. “When you have two of your teammates that have to go through such a tragedy like Todd and Alan did, it brought us closer as a team.”
“We learned to overcome a lot of things,” said Johnson. “But I really don’t think that the deaths meant anything to us from a football aspect. It was purely the emotions of the friendships with Alan and Todd. I would like to believe any expression of love had nothing to do with football. It was all about our care and concern for each other.
“If there was any football benefit to it, it was an afterthought. It certainly crystalized a lot of friendships. And made us rally around each other.”
Tech finished 4-7 in 1988. The 1989 team went 5-4-1 in its first year as an FBS independent. And in only its second year, it posted an 8-3-1 record and played Maryland to a 34-34 tie in the 1990 Independence Bowl. 1991 would see Alan and his teammates post an 8-1-2 mark.
This group found a way to overcome different levels of adversity and make Tech relevant in the FBS ranks in a short time.
“It was because we were playing together and playing in the moment,” said Alan. “We had been through adversity. It’s kind of funny. We aren’t around each other all the time now, but there is nothing we wouldn’t do for each other even today.
“Every time one of us was in the fire, we all were there. Every time one of us was in a scrape, we were there for each other. There was no place we wouldn’t go; there was place we wouldn’t play. Anybody that played us knew the next day they had been in a scrap.”
For almost three decades the Spirit of ’88 – a bronze bulldog statue – has been a symbol of the fight, the adversity and the challenges the 1988 team overcame. Every home game, each LA Tech player and coach touches the bulldog on the head on the way to the field.
“I can tell you, it is a magical thing,” said Alan. “I have experienced it. Walking down and slapping the head of that dog, it was a different thing. It is not Clemson’s rock or (Notre Dame’s) sign ‘Play Like a Champion.’ It is the embodiment of a group of guys that were totally in it together. And would face any odds to compete and go out there and do well. And we did.
“Some people say it was a bunch of football players who were playing over their head. No, it wasn’t. We were a group of guys that went out there and competed as equals against people who were very good as well. We got the heck beat out of us, but it wasn’t like we ever walked in thinking we weren’t going to win.”
Twenty-nine years and six days after losing his mother in a tragic plane crash following his first collegiate game, Alan Apple will watch his alma mater face off against Mississippi State, this time at home. And although Alan – who is a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army these days – won’t outwardly show it, the game and the reunion have special meaning to him.
“Alan is very stoic,” said Johnson. “He will never show his emotions, but this weekend will be a huge deal for him as well as for a lot of us.”
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