My Freedom Bowl Rapture

First, a Few Words on Rabbit Holes, Then Our True Story

Rabbit holes have gotten a bad rap lately and sometimes with good reason. Unwary rabbit hole-goers often don’t discover they’re lost in one of these time-wasting tunnels till it’s far too late; and the hole-goer wishes they could have that wasted time added back to their life. Of course it’s not this way with all rabbit holes. There is that rare rabbit hole one tumbles down and comes out the other side much elevated by the experience. And this is my true story of just such a rabbit hole  – of my disappearance into and emergence out of, an unforgettable once-in-a-lifetime rabbit hole located right next to Disneyland.   



We Begin in My Dim, Misty Past


I’ve been a rabid Syracuse University football fan since 1973 when as a 12-year-old some switch was activated inside me and I became enamored of this team located right there in my hometown. Much like puberty, it was found gold. My rabid feelings for the team were the good or nerdy kind of rabid associated with Star Wars and not the bad or face paint kind of rabid associated with storming the Capitol. Unfortunately, when I began following the Orangemen, they were at their gridiron nadir, prompting Sports Illustrated (the preeminent sports publication I subscribed to in the infinitely smaller media world of the early 70s) to publish an article entitled: When You’re Standing on your Head, Syracuse is No. 1. That’s how low the fortunes of these once mighty Beasts of the East had sunk. Syracuse University, the collegiate incubators of Heisman Trophy winner Ernie Davis and future NFL Hall of Famers Jimmy Brown, Floyd Little and Larry Csonka, were ranked a morbid #101st in the country, but they were #1 in my little boy heart – a heart that still resides in this big boy body today. Suffice to say I followed my team with prodigious avidity and even tribal intensity depending on how much Tang I’d drunk that day. 


Cut to 1989 when I’m living in Southern California and Syracuse’s football fortunes have experienced a notable uptick. Following an undefeated 1987 season and a stellar 10-2 mark in 1988, the 1989 Orangemen stood at 7-4 and teetering on a bowl bid. But where might that bowl game be? It set my fertile mind turning and potential rabbit holes multiplying.  Due to being marginally employed, I had time on my hands and began exploring bowl possibilities Syracuse might play in. One bowl venue candidate was right down the road from my San Fernando Valley apartment – the Freedom Bowl played at The Big A (Anaheim Stadium) not far from Disneyland.


As was my penchant for idle exploration, I ferreted out a phone number and called them on a landline and, in the days before phone trees, spoke directly with one of the Freedom Bowl principals. I queried a Mr. Rob Halvaks as to their interest in inviting the mighty Syracuse University football team to their bowl. He said Syracuse was in the mix, but that their East Coast origins, might not be the best fit for a West Coast bowl game. In other words they were a Plan C at best. It was a pleasant and extended conversation that touched on a variety of college football related topics in which we were both most conversant.


Again having more free time than is healthy for a 28-yr-old to have, about a week later I called Mr. Halvaks again to see if the bowl landscape had changed. It had changed and the ‘Cuse was on the outs. He commiserated with me and even gave me the pre-announcement scoop, the Freedom Bowl had enticed the PAC-12’s Washington Huskies and the SEC’s Florida Gators to faceoff in that year’s bowl. We continued talking animatedly and, sensing my keen interest and understanding of college bowl games, he suggested I come down to the stadium for a visit – that perhaps I might apply my acumen to this post-season collegiate endeavor.


What the Freedom was happening here? WTF indeed. I was on the cusp of something previously thought unimaginable – an intimate window on the inside world of a major college bowl game and Mr. Halvaks was perhaps interested in me helping them out in some capacity. The possibility of my full-fledged involvement in a college football bowl game from an insider’s administrative perspective was bewildering. This supreme opportunity was a bucket list item I didn’t even know I had. It had magically populated my bucket in the flash of one phone call.


Heart be still, I thought, as the tantalizing possibilities swirled about me. Still, but not too still. I mean, I wanted to remain conscious. While this opportunity wasn’t on par with say, being asked to fill-in for a sick Ringo on a Beatles  concert tour, it was close. I was starstruck as I drove to the Big A for my Big I (Interview). I drove to the Big A, not because I was going to shell out big bucks for a public sporting event, but because I, bowl-besotted David Hardiman, had an appointment on the top floor of the stadium with Freedom Bowl Associate Executive Director Rob Halvaks.


Previously I had only visited stadiums as a fan, a concert-goer or a gate-crasher. Now I was driving down the 5 in my sporty 1985 Buick Electra T-Type and fantasizing about working in this Monumental Citadel of Sports where resided the lavish, fascinating and muscular world of a true-to-life college bowl game. I was on the verge of something big – was it the Big A. No, it was the Big F*ckin’ A bubba. This would be my rabbit hole and I couldn’t burrow myself down it fast enough.


Soon I was driving to this sports mecca on yet another traffic-clogged freeway of Southern California. Approaching the complex, I cast my gaze upon its magisterial eminence. I’d been summoned, by forces unleashed in an innocent investigative phone call to a kindred spirit. And I was at the Big A, not for attendance at a sporting event, but for honorable and gratifying employment within the rarefied upper reaches of its plush beehive of offices.


This experience couldn’t be happening to l’il ole me. They must be on to me, my self-sabotaging little voice said. I was reminded of the millionaire baseball player who in an unguarded moment admits, “I’d play this game for free and I have no right making $7mil a season.” Well I had no right and was wholly unqualified to penetrate the rarefied world of post-season college football. I was a fraud. But the starry-eyed, good kind of fraud, not the Bernie Madoff duplicitous kind of fraud.


I just couldn’t reconcile all this good fortune smiling upon me. I had a dark vision of trying to enter the stadium only to find its doors locked. I’d rattle them angrily and then get ambushed by some film crew hiding behind a statue of Angel great Jim Fregosi. They’d rush up to me exclaiming, “Psych! Psych! You’ve been pranked.”


That is one Big A! This is an early 1960’s version before the outfield was filled-in for NFL football seating.

So  as I approached the stadium I was quite wary. I thought maybe the building would collapse or all the oxygen in the atmosphere would spontaneously ignite or maybe I’d awaken from this glorious fever dream. Somehow I would be denied this coveted experience. The only other time I was in a stadium for purposes other than to attend an athletic or concert event, was when my crew and I installed a mirror wall in the Manufacturers Hanover private box at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse. That was pretty cool, but that’s another story for another time.  


Arriving at the stadium entrance, I felt an anticipatory quiver as I spoke with the uniformed gate guard. Could I pass muster? Evidently so, as he saw my name on a list and granted me admission. I turned into Stadium Way, surveyed the sea of asphalt and wisely decided not to do donuts. Instead I parked my car right next to the stadium’s monumental entrance just like an Ultra-Platinum Titanium level donor did. Pretty cool start, right. But would the doors be locked?


You don’t normally think of a stadium as having working offices, but this one did in spades. In fact it was quite the conglomeration of major league sports teams: the Gene Autry-owned California Angels played there, the Georgia Frontiere-owned LA Rams played there and Executive Director Tom Starr superintended the Freedom Bowl’s operations here – quite the executive Sportsplex. All this sports magic was just a Jiminy Cricket’s hop away from the wonderful world of Disney. And unlike Disney, the Big A’s administrative offices were not some Mickey Mouse organization.


Much to the counter of Murphy’s Law, the main door was open and I had not been pranked. I strode into the colossal arena and headed for the elevators. At this point I’d raced down here at freeway speeds, slipped past the guard, slithered into the building and was now propelling my way to the forbidden membrane of the inner offices. I thought, “I’m either Indiana Jones or a sperm cell.”


I took the elevator to the top floor and upon the doors parting, I bore witness to an inspiring vista that filled up my senses like a night in the forest (w/apologies to John Denver). Laid out before me was the green grass, the empty seats and the spare, skeletal beauty of a barren stadium I’d seen countless times on TV. In entering the Freedom Bowl’s offices I had penetrated the last membrane between me and something I only recently thought was unattainable. It wasn’t so much that it was unattainable as there was no pathway to it – no pathway unless you went down a rabbit hole. A rabbit hole I willingly tumbled down. I was beginning to feel like David in Wonderland.  



The Job


I was thrilled to be here and after my chummy face to face with Associate Executive Director Rob Halvaks (the guy I had talked with on the phone), I was quickly offered the exalted position of House Marketing Agent. OK, I was a glorified ticket seller. But who cared about titles? I was on the inside now, peering out through the looking glass. My telltale heart pitter-pattered like a little boy on Christmas.  


After the skimpiest of briefings and the meagerest of introductions, I set to work peddling tickets. I felt completely clothed in the immense powers and full faith of the Freedom Bowl’s authority (whatever the hell that means). Never had an employee taken such pride and pleasure while cold calling small businesses and strangers to encourage attendance at the 6th edition of the Freedom Bowl. My pitch went something like this: “Hi, I’m calling on behalf of your local Freedom Bowl and I’d like to alert you to a unique ticket opportunity.” Pretty Slick, huh? This irresistible pitch worked like a charm catapulting me to sales of almost 9 tickets that first day – it was 7 actually, but that’s still almost 9. And of those 7 sales, I think 5 were mercy purchases and the other 2 were by a lady who thought I was Ed McMahon.


It would get better from there. Using a prospecting list provided me by the executive  committee, I’d cold call businesses and encourage them to become part of this must-see Dec. 30th 1989 football extravaganza. The game would feature QB Gary Conklin’s Washington Huskies taking on RB Emmitt Smith’s Florida Gators. This intersectional clash was almost a marquee matchup. Conklin had a limited NFL career, but Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith would become (and still is) the NFL’s all-time leading rusher, a 3-time Super Bowl Champ and a 1-time Dancing with the Stars champ. In this game the banged up future superstar was a non-factor, gaining only 17 yards on 7 carries.  Payouts were about $650K per team.


My office was in a well-appointed boardroom with a large boat-shaped table around which were gathered a few other salesman who were looking at this opportunity as a foot-in-the-door to athletic administration as opposed to me, who was simply rockin’ the experience in the Emerald City. We were each issued phones and made numerous prospecting calls from a list. We all had limited success in interesting people in a late December football game of little consequence between teams from opposite corners of the country.


Freedom Bowl Executive Director Tom Starr, who would direct 4 bowl games in his storied career, advised us salesmen to sell tickets in a manner to “dress the house” so the stadium wouldn’t look so threadbare on TV. He showed us where the camera shots would be and directed us to sell tickets in these areas only. Money wasn’t made through ticket sales. Any bills run up by the executive committee were paid by the ad revenue generated by NBC’s broadcast of the game. Savvy Mr. Starr just wanted the venue to appear respectably attended – so the stadium would look like a rich tapestry of frenzied fans instead of a tattered quilt of patchy stragglers.


None of these details mattered much to me because I was nourished by the ambrosia of simply being privy to a constellation of experiences in the behind-the-scenes world of a college bowl game – a game that brought unalloyed joy to my aforementioned little boy heart (the one I keep safely hidden and protected beneath my veneer of maturity). Christ was right when he said  “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” WWJD? I think, if given the choice, he’d do exactly what I was doing.



I’m Back in the Saddle Again  


It’s Gene Autry’s world. We just live in it.

This unsought, but most welcomed swashbuckling adventure presented me with many one-of-a-kind, charming and memorable experiences. For example, one morning legendary Country & Western film star/Angels owner Gene Autry and I parked our cars in front of the stadium at about the same time. Donning his 10-gallon cowboy hat, this accomplished honcho was all hat and cattle. The 82-yr-old mogul and I chatted amiably as we walked, then elevatored up to our respective offices.


At home on the field or home, home on the range.

Gene Autry’s exploits were myriad and prodigious. Where to start: The Singing Cowboy wrote such Christmas classics as “Frosty the Snowman,” “Here Comes Santa Claus,” and “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” He starred in 93 films and is considered the #2 pioneering figure in mainstreaming C&W music (behind Jimmy Rogers). He amassed great wealth through his films, TV show and the ownership of several TV and radio stations. A financially secure pillar of the community, in 1960 he was entreated by Major League baseball to own and operate the expansion Los Angeles Angels. Additionally, the Western Heritage Museum was his brainchild. Mr. Autry also lavished time visiting and singing to sick children in hospitals. My God. He had his foibles, but overall I’d have to admit, I never knew Los Angeles Angels flew so low. I was happy to have had a moment with him.  



It’s Getting Better All the Time


Another instance of an unexpected Freedom Bowl dividend came courtesy of the NFL and Monday Night Football. After a long Monday of enthusiastically explaining to disinterested parties why it was in their best interest to buy tickets to see this clash of slightly above average college football teams, I realized that Monday meant Monday Night Football and that this Monday the Los Angeles Rams would be playing the San Francisco 49’ers in a big game right here at the Big A. So when I left work that evening, instead of taking a right towards the elevator, I turned left and walked out into the stadium where I found a choice empty seat to watch Joe Montana and Jerry Rice work their magic. Actually in this game Rice was used more as a decoy and fellow WR John Taylor had 11 catches for 286 yards. The 49ers fell behind 17-0, but came back to win 30-27 courtesy of 2 Montana to Taylor TD passes of over 90 yards each. This was treasured happenstance and I was privileged to be there; and at a price I could well afford.



We Partied Like It was 1989 (probably because it was 1989)


We made quite the threesome.

The evening before the game there was a gala affair at the Anaheim Convention Center for all the pooh-bahs, muckety-mucks and football royalty attendant to the game. The occasion was infused with brawn, beauty and BBQ. It was an opportunity for me to rub elbows with former NFL players, beauty queens, corporate sponsors (Disney et al) and wealthy alumni of Washington and Florida. I took full advantage of this Freedom Bowl largesse and got as tipsy as a Mad Hatter – and I can prove it. Here’s a picture of inebriated David in Lala Land with the Freedom Bowl Princess at his side. Look at those red eyes. While I was not exactly 3 sheets to the wind, I was probably a contour sheet and 2 pillowcases to the wind.


This was my well-earned, red carpet Freedom Bowl game celebration. It was a feast for the eyes, stomach and liver. I spent some time talking with former Rams LB and NFL Hall of Famer Jack Youngblood. Beyond being vertebrates, we didn’t have a lot in common. The night was noteworthy because it was one of the few times in my life I managed to get drunk. Free call drinks will do that. Since the visionary Freedom Bowl brain trust understood the importance of our gametime duties that next morning, they were conscientious enough to put us all up at a nearby Sheraton – 4 to a room. I slept on a pioneer bed laid out on the floor. Which reminds me of the joke about the guy who slept in a barn one night, and woke up a little hoarse.



Game Day


Arising from the floor of my palatial Sheratonian digs, I managed to secure the bathroom for my ablutions and emerged fit, sparkling and ready to go. Go where? To the stadium, of course, where Rob had assigned me to emcee a Coaches Huddle breakfast event. It was a swinging affair where I introduced an assistant coach of the Huskies and Gators to speak to big ticket donors on insights into the game. These boosters had paid beaucoup bucks to feast on a catered breakfast buffet and be a part of the VIP backstage pass experience.


In my opening remarks I drew sharp and entertaining parallels between the Freedom Bowl and the Freedom then breaking out in Europe with the collapse of communism. I pointedly referred to its demise as the sacking of Communism and a touchdown for democracy. Pretty slick, huh? And from the from the tame clinking of teaspoons in coffee cups, I think my bon mots left listeners very stirred. And to think I thought of this whole Freedom comparison all by myself without anyone’s help. In all honesty it was great, heady fun to be a part of such insider festivities. There may have been no free lunch at the Freedom Bowl, but I had managed to score both a free dinner (at the gala) and now a free breakfast. Enjoying other peoples’ money had never been so fun (and nutritious).


My gametime duty was to guard the NBC endzone camera for a half to ensure no one interfered with its operation. So for the first half I stood sentry in the end zone and enjoyed a field level view of the game while chatting with an old NBC cameraman. Later on when I watched the game I had recorded, I could see a few shots of myself hovering near the camera. After discharging this task, I was free the 2nd half to roam the Stadium thanks to my double-secret, all-access lanyard.


A few days prior I had laid a couple of free tickets (more swag) on some friends and went up to visit them in the nose bleeds, but still within range of some camera angles – this house was dressed. And wouldn’t you know that’s when the scoreboard emblazoned my name (and others who helped in administering the game) on the Jumbotron – this was almost a peak experience standing in the upper reaches of the Big A basking in the glow of a job well done while my name is writ large for the entire stadium and my friends Steve and Anne to see. From unassuming phone calls great things may come.


It was a dud of a game with Washington manhandling the Gators 34-7. Emmitt Smith probably had the worst game of his career and the tepid crowd of 33,858 announced (maybe 24,000 fannies in the seats), cheered mostly in the purple Husky section.


My post-game duties were primarily secretarial – to distribute stat sheets and the like to the press. Driving back home the 60 miles, I remember a feeling of extreme self-satisfaction washing over me. I had tumbled down a rabbit hole that somehow allowed me the experience of a lifetime. And the hits just kept on coming. When I arrived home I discovered that my beloved Orangeman had beaten the vaunted Georgia Bulldogs that day 19-18 in the Peach Bowl. For a few hours life didn’t get any better than this – a few hours I relished with all the unbounded joy this world allows.  





Two days later, at my debrief with Assistant Director Gail Petersen, I gave Ms. Petersen my thoughts on how to improve the event (more MNF games, fewer client hang-ups ) and picked up my well-earned check for $10,000. 10 Grand, not bad. And it would’ve been 10 Grand if $500 equaled $10,000. Walking with $500 suited me fine. It was never about the money. It was about emerging gratified and exalted from this glorious rabbit hole I’d stumbled down. Unlike most time spent down rabbit holes, I didn’t want this 3 weeks of my life back. In fact I wished I could relive it again and again – just as I did by writing this memoir.




  • The now defunct Freedom Bowl played its 11th and last game in 1994
  • Tom Starr – Executive Director Mr. Starr (no relation to Ringo) helmed 4 bowl games in his career: Sun Bowl, Freedom Bowl, Pigskin Classic and the Fort Worth Bowl. He’s a graduate of, and former Sports Information Director at Iowa State. Retired.
  • Rob Halvaks – Rob continued climbing the sports administration ladder from Associate Executive Director of the Freedom Bowl to the recently retired Big West Conference’s Deputy Administrator.
  • Gail Peterson – Maybe Petersen. Lost track. Anybody know?
  • Gene Autry – The venerable tycoon owned the Angels and continued his philanthropy until his death in 1998 at the age of 91
  • The 3 Beatles with Jimmy Nicol.

    Ringo Starr – Did miss some of the ’64 Australian Tour due to tonsilitis and was temporarily replaced by lucky Jimmy Nicol.


Comments are closed.