It was 4 a.m. CST on Christmas in Baraki Barak, Afghanistan, when U.S. Army 1st Lt. Austin McNaul conducted a video chat with his little brother Bryce, a junior Northwestern outside linebacker.
Having gone two months without seeing Austin and weeks without having a conversation, it represented to Bryce the kind of gift money can't buy because it symbolized the ultimate cost his brother is willing to pay.
"The best Christmas present I've ever gotten," McNaul said Tuesday over the phone from Dallas. "This Christmas was the first time my two brothers and my parents weren't all together. It's probably the hardest year and something you don't really get used to. My thoughts are always with him, off the field and sometimes on it."
McNaul will start Saturday for Northwestern against Texas Tech in the TicketCity Bowl, one of 35 bowl games with changing names and corporate sponsors that make some people roll their eyes and snicker.
Illinois played in one Wednesday night in Houston against Baylor in the Texas Bowl.
Lest we forget Thursday night's New Era Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, N.Y., which has been mocked more lately than Rex Ryan. And the GoDaddy.com Bowl never will be confused as the granddaddy of them all.
Indeed it has become vogue for pundits around the holidays to suggest college football has too many obscure bowl games. Funny, you seldom hear those suggestions from anyone who ever has had the privilege of playing or coaching in such a game.
Try telling McNaul the TicketCity Bowl means nothing.
Before every Northwestern game since he saw his brother off in October, McNaul has found strength in a personal pregame ritual intended to remind him "of the sacrifices Austin and everybody over there have made." After games, Northwestern's third-leading tackler with 61 has sent updates to Austin via e-mail and Facebook.
"At the end of every message I add that I'm playing this year for him," said Bryce, a native of Eden Prairie, Minn. "One thing he wants us to do is live our lives and do what makes us happiest. For me that's playing college football."
Playing for a chance at Northwestern's first bowl victory since 1949 provides McNaul one more opportunity to do so. It also gives his brother fighting a war in Afghanistan something to look forward to on the Internet between missions nine time zones away.
Not every one of the 100 or so players on each of the 70 teams participating in bowl games has as profound a purpose to play as McNaul does. The personal levels of motivation and satisfaction fluctuate. The richness of each individual experience varies.
But reducing the number of bowl games only would limit all such opportunities for hundreds of student-athletes who never will play in the NFL.
And for what reason?
It would take a Hazmat team to clean up the PR mess created in college football recently. Auburn's Cam Newton won the Heisman Trophy he one day may have to return if further investigation reveals he knew about his father auctioning him off to the highest bidder. Revelations by former agent Josh Luchs in Sports Illustrated that he paid players for years made every potential first-round draft pick a suspect. Confidence in the BCS system has dipped so low that Mark Cuban has been portrayed as a hero after offering to raise $500 million to fund a playoff.
Yes, the sport has legitimate problems.
Too many bowl games isn't in the top 10.
"I'm a believer in the bowl season," Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald told me Tuesday in an interview on WMVP-AM. "There are 35 teams that are going to walk off the field as champions. Everybody wants a playoff and so forth. I'm not buying into it. It's going to kill the bowl season, kill the tradition and kill the opportunity for all of our programs, 70 of us, to get better and improve, and (enjoy) a great reward for a solid season."
Any playoff plan that would change the bowl landscape guarantees an undisputed champion for which so many clamor. But how many of those voices clamoring for changes in the system belong to the players? How can a system supposedly so broken still fulfill nearly 7,000 scholarship football players every bowl season?
The hue and cry over the problems of the BCS, much of it valid, has drowned out any murmurs about what the NCAA actually might be doing well when it comes to enriching postseason experiences for its Division I football players.
While the rest of sporting America obsesses on the destination, the majority of players dwell on the journey. It doesn't have to end in the most exotic locale under the biggest marquee for the bowl game to hold significance for a college football player.
"I've asked my brother before what do you say when people ask how do you like doing what you do in the Army, and he says it is very meaningful to him," Bryce McNaul said. "He's living his dream. So am I. When I go out there Saturday, I want to make Austin as proud of me as I am of him."
That's a bowl payoff impossible to quantify.