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Texas A&M reboots season with Alabama upset, led by a QB with St. Louis roots

Texas A&M reboots season with Alabama upset, led by a QB with St. Louis roots

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Mizzou football coach Eli Drinkwitz quickly discusses the team's previous game and what he expects from Texas A&M. Video by Mizzou Network, used with permission of Mizzou Athletics

COLUMBIA, Mo. — It will go down as the easiest $100,000 check Texas A&M ever spends on athletics. Or pocket change as they call it in College Station.

The Southeastern Conference fined the school that amount for violating the league’s “access to competition area” policy when fans spilled onto Kyle Field to celebrate A&M’s last-second game-winning field goal to beat No. 1 Alabama on Saturday, the SEC’s biggest upset this season.

The Aggies (4-2, 1-2 SEC) were ranked as high as No. 5 this season, but losses to Arkansas and Mississippi State dropped them to last place in the SEC West by kickoff of Alabama’s visit to Kyle Field. By late Saturday night, those 18-point underdog Aggies threw the biggest party on campus with a 41-38 upset.

The fine was worth every cent, especially for a school that prints money like few others in college sports. Just last month athletics director Ross Bjork lugged another wheelbarrow of cash to coach Jimbo Fisher’s front doorstep, adding four years to his already lush, fully guaranteed contract with a raise from $7.5 million to $9 million, perhaps to keep Fisher from batting eyes with Louisiana State should the Tigers enter the head-coaching market. But A&M can afford such luxuries. For the 2019 fiscal year, according to USA Today’s annual report, only Texas generated more athletics revenue than Texas A&M’s $212 million, the bulk of that via ticket sales ($49 million) and donations ($85 million.)

Fisher is one of four active FBS head coaches to win a national championship — that came in 2013 at Florida State — and this, his fourth Aggies’ team, seemed positioned to make a run at the College Football Playoff until a swarm of injuries depleted a talented roster.

But nobody’s feeling sorry for the Aggies after Saturday, when the Crimson Tide rolled into College Station and left with a whimper.

Starting with Saturday’s game at Missouri (3-3, 0-2 SEC), the Aggies now must answer the obvious question: Are they the team that fiddled around in September or the powerhouse that toppled the Tide?

Ben Frederickson and Dave Matter preview Saturday's game, asking if the Tigers can rise up and make some magic this season, like the Aggies did when they upset Alabama.

Either way, Fisher’s challenge this week is avoiding a natural letdown against the Tigers.

“If they quit reading y’all, turn social media off and listen to me it wouldn’t be hard at all,” Fisher told reporters this week. “But if they listen to everyone patting them on the back and everybody at home, it becomes a tough thing. I joke about that because that’s (how you) eliminate the clutter. … It takes maturity. It takes take leadership. It takes trust. It takes everything. And that’s the hard part about everything you do with kids — and with grown-ups.”

That challenge becomes easier with a standout quarterback. Fisher appears to have one — but not the QB everyone expected this fall. When a broken leg sidelined starter Haynes King last month against Colorado, Fisher handed the offense to redshirt sophomore Zach Calzada, then watched the offense flounder in consecutive losses. Somehow, though, against the Tide, the Aggies discovered their potent attack.

Calzada, a Georgia native with deep family roots in St. Louis, looked more like a Heisman Trophy candidate than an overmatched backup, completing 21 of 31 passes for 285 yards and three touchdowns, including an improbable go-ahead TD heave to Ainias Smith as Tide defenders smashed into his knee.

Team trainers rushed Calzada into the sideline medical tent, but the QB soon emerged and promptly set up A&M’s game-winning field goal.

“He played with great toughness,” Fisher said. “He competed in the game. He got banged. He got bruised. He got off the mat, didn’t know he threw a touchdown when he got banged up … found out everything was fine with his leg, comes back out and leads us on a two-minute drive. I’m very happy for him to stay in the saddle, to stay in there. Like I say, when you’re a quarterback you get all the glory and all the blame. … When he was getting all the blame it wasn’t true. Right now, he’s getting all the glory, it’s not true. You gotta eliminate the clutter, block it out, come back and practice and prepare like you did last week and do the same.”

From Buford, Georgia, Calzada was a three-star recruit in the 2018 recruiting class, ranked the No. 20 pro-style QB prospect by 247Sports.com, seven spots behind Mizzou’s Connor Bazelak. But his family history traces back to St. Louis.

In 1960, Calzada’s paternal grandparents, Hector and Maria Del Carmen Calzada, fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba and settled in Panama, then Miami before the U.S. government moved the refugees to St. Louis in 1962. Hector held several jobs in St. Louis and for a while bartended on the weekends at the Chase Park Plaza, according to a recent story in Our Esquina, a media site covering Latino sports and culture. The Calzadas worshipped at Webster Groves Christian Church on Lockwood Avenue, where they formed lifelong friendships with members of the congregation.

Hector Jr., Zach Calzada’s father, was born at Deaconess Hospital in 1965, and though the family moved to Atlanta four years later, the Calzadas never forgot their Missouri past. Saturday marks a homecoming of sorts.

St. Louis, Hector Jr. told the Post-Dispatch this week, “is considered sacred to my family.”

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