Thursday, June 10, 2010

On Penn State vs. Nebraska

It's still the greatest finish I've ever witnessed in person, even though I didn't actually see the ending, even though I was shielded by a mass of body parts, even though I've since covered Masters and World Series and Final Fours, even though I was there the day John Elway pirouetted above a gaggle of Green Bay Packers. And maybe it was just the timing--I was nine years old, a kid growing up in a college town, and everything seemed bigger then, Penn State football most of all--but this was the first thing I thought about when I heard Nebraska seemed likely to defect to the Big Ten: I thought of a catch that never was, and I thought of a tight end named Stonehands.

This was 1982, in that sliver of time (a five-year span) when Penn State and Nebraska met on a yearly basis. These were the days of Turner Gill and Mike Rozier and Jarvis Redwine, of Todd Blackledge and Curt Warner* and Kenny Jackson, of Tom Osborne vs. Joe Paterno, the two most mythic figures in their respective states, arguably the two best coaches in America who had never won a national championship. Nebraska fielded a wave of farm-raised, scarlet automatons back then. They took three of those games, and in truth, they probably should have taken all five--they won 42-17 over a schizophrenic Penn State team in 1979, and they ground out a 21-7 win in 1980, and they annihilated Penn State 44-6 in the '83 Kickoff Classic. (Penn State slipped out of Lincoln with a 30-24 win in 1981.)

But '82 was the greatest game of them all. '82 was, arguably, the moment that changed Penn State football forever. You have to remember: College football was different back then. It was just becoming a national entertainment. An NFL strike loomed that weekend, and the start time of the game was moved to 3:45 p.m. so CBS had some football to show that weekend, and because Beaver Stadium did not have its own permanent illumination, portable lights were trucked in from Iowa, lending everything a weird sheen.

Now, that Penn State team was quite good: Blackledge was an excellent college quarterback, and Warner was a superstar, and the defense was solid all around, and they would lose only one game (to Alabama), and go on to win Paterno's first national championship in the Sugar Bowl against Georgia. But that Nebraska team was epic. This was their backfield: Turner Gill at quarterback, Roger Craig at fullback, and Mike Rozier at I-back. If that's not the greatest triumvirate in the history of college football, it's awfully close.

So anyway, this was the matchup; Nebraska, playing on the road, was still a favorite. And Penn State took the lead, and then Nebraska came back, and then Nebraska took the lead when Gill leapt into the end zone with one minute, eighteen seconds remaining.**(For some reason, that number always sticks in my head: 1:18. It is my Valenzetti equation; it is my 4-8-15-16-23-42. When I am measuring a victorious comeback drive, I measure it against that number: Seventy-eight seconds.) It didn't possibly seem like enough time to drive 65 yards against Nebraska, but then things just started happening: Blackledge completed one pass, and another, and suddenly the ball was at the Nebraska 34. Penn State ran an inexplicable (yet entirely predictable) draw play, and then Blackledge threw two interceptions, and it was fourth down. And this is how comebacks so often go: You exhale, and then you lose your breath, and then you exhale again, accept the disappointment, and move on.

But one out of every ten times, something completely insane happens, a series of events that seems inspired by intelligent design, and these are the moments that set sports apart from any other human endeavor. This was one of those times. Blackledge scrambled, and he found Kenny Jackson for a first down. Blackledge scrambled for six yards to the Nebraska 17. There were 13 seconds remaining. Thirteen seconds, and Blackledge took the snap, and threw to the left sideline, to a tight end named Mike McCloskey. This is that play. You will notice, if you are observing closely, that McCloskey failed to get a second foot in bounds. You will notice, if you are especially watchful, that McCloskey failed to get a first foot in bounds, as well.***It was a travesty. It was a miracle. Penn State had a first-and-goal at the Nebraska 2-yard line and nine seconds remained and Penn State inserted its second tight end, a young man named Kirk Bowman. Nickname: Stonehands. Bowman would wind up catching two passes all season (one came earlier in the afternoon). But Blackledge dropped back and McCloskey was covered and so he threw a soft little lob into the middle of the end zone, and Stonehands flopped to the grass and cradled the pigskin like a baby bird, scooping it off the turf.

I did not see any of this, of course. I was nine years old and standing on my seat, but eighty-five thousand people were standing, as well, and I had no idea what was happening until my father turned to me and screamed. I have only heard my father scream like that once or twice in my lifetime, usually about my performance in 10th-grade chemistry or an errant golf ball. But on that evening, my father did, in fact, scream until his voice was hoarse. "He caught it!" And then: "He caught it!" And when I asked who had caught it: "He caught it!"

He caught it. His name was Stonehands, and if I am being honest with myself, he probably never should have been in that position, for a myriad of reasons. A game was stolen that night, and such a sequence of events might never occur again in my lifetime. But because it did, I adore the very idea of Nebraska joining the Big Ten, of these two teams facing each other year after year. Because someday, another miracle will take place, and someone like Stonehands will catch another one.

*Still the greatest NFL player named Curt Warner, at least in my heart.
**Years ago, in college, I wrote a column about this game. It's terrible, so terrible I won't link to it here, because everything everyone writes for their college newspaper is inevitably terrible, but I talked a good deal about my father, a highly trained pessimist, who at that point seemed determined to beat the traffic.
***Sixteen years later, McCloskey admitted he was out of bounds during a speech at a Boys Town in Nebraska. The speech made headlines in the local newspapers.

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