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Refusing to lose: Robbie Bosco, BYU triumphed over adversity in 1984 Holiday Bowl

The framed photo hung in George Curtis' office for decades. The former head football trainer for BYU had it situated in the middle of a wall. The image showed Curtis at the side of Robbie Bosco, helping him off the field in the first quarter of the Holiday Bowl on the night of Dec. 21, 1984.

This is the 30-year anniversary of that 1984 team’s exploits — the undefeated season, bowl-game triumph and eventual national championship. Festivities are scheduled for the Houston game on Sept. 11 at LaVell Edwards Stadium to remember those accomplishments.

Curtis, now retired, cannot speak due to a disease called supranuclear progressive palsy. That night, he was volunteering away from his main job with the Los Angeles Express of the USFL, a nine-iron away from where he’d made a career at Santa Ana Community College in Orange County, California. He would become BYU’s head trainer the next year. Two other BYU trainers who worked furiously on Bosco for half an hour, Marv Roberson and Ollie Julkunen, have both passed away.

Bosco’s ankle injury in that final game of an undefeated season could have turned the Cougars upside down with three quarters to play. But it didn’t. Blaine Fowler came in for brief relief and Bosco returned and hobbled his way to a 24-17 comeback victory over Michigan to force a vote for No. 1 from Associated Press and UPI voters.

I asked Bosco and Fowler what went through their minds that night when Curtis helped Bosco limp off that field and into the locker room, a moment captured by that iconic photograph.

“I just couldn’t believe this was happening to me,” said Bosco. “It was the most important game of the year and the potential of not being out there with my teammates and not knowing how serious the injury was. As I went up the ramp to the training room, I began to think just how quick could I get back out there.”

Medical personnel examined Bosco and nothing sounded that serious. “I asked them if I went back out there and played, would it do more damage and jeopardize my career. Dr. Brent Pratley and the trainers told me it wouldn’t. I decided right there to return to the game. Trainers re-taped my knee and my ankle. It was my ankle that hurt the most. It was a high-ankle sprain, but my thoughts were to get back out there. People in the tunnel were relaying to me what was going out there on the field and it was nothing bad.”

As Bosco made a re-entry from the tunnel onto the field, he remembers a kind of quietness as eyes of fans in a packed Jack Murphy Stadium seemingly were all on him. Then a loud noise erupted. Bosco felt an immediate surge of adrenalin and emotion as he walked onto the sideline and field. After a few warm-up passes, he felt extreme pain and doubted he could perform. But he made up his mind and told quarterbacks coach Mike Holmgren he was ready to return.

“Are you sure?” Holmgren asked.

“I’m going back in,” said Bosco. And with that, he just went on the field where he and center Trevor Matich switched to a shotgun formation, something they’d never practiced that season. “Trevor’s first hike hit me right in the stomach and I wasn’t ready for it. This was all new, and I was in the middle of calling an audible when he hiked the ball. Fortunately, I got ahold of the ball and I hit Kelly Smith on a hot route.”

It didn’t hurt Bosco to run forward, but he had a lot of pain when he tried to move laterally or to back-peddle. Michigan defensive linemen sensed Bosco’s limitations and began blitzing him almost every play. Michigan led 17-10 in the fourth quarter on a field goal.

Bosco’s game-tying touchdown pass to Glen Kozlowski in the final quarter capped a 70-yard drive that saw him hit seven different receivers. His game-winning TD pass came on a scramble and strike to Smith.

Fowler, who parlayed his full-time medical equipment job into a career as a TV sports analyst for three decades, remembers that when Bosco left the field, his primary thought was: “Boy, this could be serious. Is he putting any weight on it?

"When you see somebody helped off the field, you think he isn’t coming back,” said Fowler. “That is what went through my mind.”

Next, Fowler thought this was his game now and he’d better be ready. “Holmgren said to me, ‘Are your ready to roll? Just go out there and do what you do and we’ll call plays that you can do.’” That gave Fowler confidence.

When he walked to the huddle, receivers Mark Bellini and Kozlowski came up to him within 30 seconds of each other and said the same thing, “Hey, I’m open all day long. Every play, I’m wide open, get me the ball.”

That made Fowler even more confident because he’d heard that campaigning all season in every practice. “Our practices were tougher than games because our defense knew what we were doing and would jump routes in anticipating a play. When we got into games, it was actually easier to execute because the opponent wasn’t as familiar with our sets and calls.”

Fowler also remembers thinking of something his father told him when he was in high school. “He told me when given big opportunities, soak in the moment and enjoy it because I’d remember it the rest of my life." Fowler actually took the time to look around Jack Murphy Stadium, see the crowd, look across the line at Michigan’s defense, and take a mental snapshot of the scene.

“I remember guard Craig Garrick coming up and saying 'We have your back. Nobody’s going to touch you, nobody is going to lay a hand on you.'” Garrick, who has also since passed away, has a sister who married current D-line coach Steve Kaufusi and their son Bronson is a defensive starter at linebacker for BYU.

“I remember Garrick, Louis Wong, Robert Anae, Dave Wright and (Trevor) Matich making it perfectly clear to me that they trusted me and were not going to let anyone get a hand on me," said Fowler. "It made me feel secure and protected.”

On one of Fowler’s pass plays, a Michigan tackle did get a hand on him and as he was falling, Garrick dove over and propped him up, keeping him on his feet and he completed the pass. “I think it was called back on a holding call, but you get the idea of how good that line was at doing their job.”

Fowler ended up 5 of 7 for 28 yards in his brief two-series appearance before Bosco returned in the second quarter.

Bosco threw three interceptions but was 30 of 42 for 343 yards and two touchdowns with a pass efficiency on a bad leg of 141.46 for the game.

Curtis has moved several times since retiring from BYU. An affable jokester and popular figure in the lives of hundreds of athletes over the years, he now communicates slowly by texting.

The photograph is in a box somewhere among his family belongings, packed away for safekeeping as they move again this summer across the street. His wife Jan said when she gets the time, she’ll find it and make sure it is on display once again.

The black-and-white exposure is symbolic in a sense.

It’s a reminder of a group of players that simply refused to lose.

Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at