Sam Atkinson, the Gallaudet University Sports Information Director, set his alarm early and swung out of bed. It was the final day of voting for the Helmet Bowl I National Championship. His Bison had made it to the matchup, rallied thousands and thousands of votes, but was struggling against the San Diego State Aztecs and their deep red helmet with the Aztec calendar embossing.
He checked the contest. The matchup was essentially even when he went to bed, but now the Aztecs had pulled ahead by more than 1,100 votes. Only hours remained and the West Coast was barreling ahead. Sam had talked someone over at Channel 5 into interviewing him and some others from Gallaudet. Maybe they could drum up enough support to challenge the Aztecs in the last few hours. It was a long shot, but nothing else had worked well enough to ensure victory.
“We tried a couple strategies. We tried to figure out San Diego State’s biggest on-field rival and we reached out to them, but we got little traction.”
The entire week had been a struggle. Little Gallaudet, with 1,100 students or so, had jumped on the Helmet Bowl bandwagon and given the Bison a chance.
But San Diego State, with 30-times the number of students, stood in the way.
“We saw this as an opportunity—a fun way to rally our alumni, students, and staff around something fun to do for our community. We were proud,” Sam said.
But the fun was giving way to pressure. Second place would be fine, but what good is fine when you have a chance to hoist a national championship?
“It was really close throughout the whole week,” Sam recalls. “I left about 6 a.m. to get to the station. We were 1,100 votes behind.
“It seemed like we maybe were going to run out of time.”
Along with Sam was Tony Tatum, a Gallaudet star on the gridiron. They sat opposite a television personality and an interpreter. Sam and Tony would communicate by sign language. This was Gallaudet University, the nation’s deaf and hard of hearing school.
They talked about Gallaudet. They talked about the Bison’s historical place in football—they created the huddle more than 100 years ago. They talked about San Diego State. They talked about the Helmet Bowl I National Championship and they asked for votes. (Watch Sam and Tony's interview here.)
It was nearly 7 a.m. in San Diego. They had no idea what was about to hit them.
In D.C. the segment aired just before 9 a.m. The votes started coming in immediately.
“We saw it take off right after that,” Sam said. “We were making up ground—gaining 100 votes about every 20 minutes.”
At about 11 a.m., the teams were virtually tied. More than 25,000 votes had been cast. Still, we had no winner.
Then suddenly, Gallaudet was leading by 100 votes. Then 200.
Mary Matlin, Academy Award-winning actress, and deaf person, sent out a supportive tweet. Other celebrities did, too.
The Aztecs, meanwhile, were waking up, shocked at what was happening. The disbelief could be seen in the tweets. But it was too late. The Bison were leading, and their lead was growing. But mid-afternoon, San Diego State Equipment Manager Sonny Sanfilippo knew it was over. (See our profile of Sonny here.) He tweeted a congratulatory message. The next day he would call and personally offer his kudos.
By the time the clock ticked down to the final minute Monday afternoon, Gallaudet had extended its lead by 100 votes an hour, or more. The Championship in hand and the Bison would win by a vote count of 17,657 to the Aztecs’ 15,521. (See our story here.)
“People were overjoyed with our winning,” Sam remembers. “We saw a small little piece of light and shot through the gap—and won it.”
“It was big deal here. For six weeks, everyone was saying to everyone else: “Make sure you vote.’”
Sam reveals in Gallaudet’s place, now, in history.
“We will always be the first year winner of Helmet Bowl—We will always be National Champions!”
Gallaudet will be represented at the Athletic Equipment Managers Association convention in Phoenix, Arizona in June where Helmet Tracker will present the Helmet Bowl National Champion trophies—one permanent for the school to keep, one traveling.
As for San Diego State, they and the semi-finalists will get custom banners to hang in their equipment rooms.
“SDSU has an amazing helmet,” Sam said. “They were a formidable opponent and Sonny is a class act. We enjoyed competing against him and his team.”
For now, Gallaudet plans a year-long observance of their national dominance. They’ve made a place for a banner in their gym and space overlooking the football field. T-shirts may be produced and sold to support the program.
Sam said he hopes, along with Helmet Tracker, that the Helmet Bowl continues to get bigger and grow in its popularity.
“We hope we are able to set the standard for future helmet bowl champions,” he said. “As other teams win and are named Helmet Bowl champion, people will always look back and ask, who won the first one and the answer will be ‘Gallaudet University' every time.”
Learn more about Helmet Tracker here.
Learn more about Helmet Bowl here.