St. Louis: So, you want to be famous? How much are you willing to pay? You want to be talked about like a god for the next 10 years? What are you ready to risk? You say you'd like to be a hero, worshipped by children, desired by beautiful women... What will you venture to make it so? You want to bask in one glorious moment, an instant where your name will live forever? How far will you go? Will you risk your reputation, probably your job? Will you chance malicious ridicule of yourself, and school-yard taunts for your kids for the rest of their lives? Would you chance -- for an inch of artificial turf -- all you'd worked for? How badly do you want it?
Would anyone today know the name of Wyatt Earp were it not for a risk-it-all chance at O.K. Corral? We know the name Hannibal 1,700 years after his death. Why? Because he did something "impossible." His army, transported by elephants, crossed the forbidding Alps and destroyed the Romans in 218. In 1968, a cocky young quarterback named Joe Namath, playing in a second-rate league -- a man heretofore best known for knee surgeries, a Fu Manchu mustache, and hanging out with gangsters -- predicted, to the assembled world press at Super Bowl III, a Jets victory against the unbeatable Baltimore Colts.
These men had a defining moment, an instant of time reserved just for them. A private moment. Theirs alone. John Mackovic had such a moment, the details already burned in Texas lore, a frozen moment in time. It came on December 7, 1996, at the TransWorld Dome in St. Louis, Missouri. It was about 3:30 on a warm winter afternoon. The University of Texas, playing gamely against a Nebraska football machine which has been in the Top 25 every week since October 12, 1981, is desperately clinging to a very, very precarious three-point lead. The Longhorn defense, which had literally been on the field the entire second half (Nebraska's time of possession was, fantastically, double UT's) is visibly exhausted. It's fourth and inches. The ball is on your own 28. Nebraska has already burned two precious time-outs; it now will need more than life itself. Only 2:28 remains on the clock. A punt, after running the clock down to two minutes, is the only sane call to make. Maybe try to draw Nebraska offside. To go for the six inches is to risk all. To fail, in this situation, means a probable Nebraska win: a game-tying field goal at the very least.
In a thousand games, in this situation, I've never seen a coach not punt the ball. It was the right thing to do: the only thing to do. Send the Children of the Corn back to their own 30. Make a quarterback who can't pass drive his team -- with only one time-out -- 40 yards to attempt a field goal. The worst likely outcome? Another chance in overtime.
This is John Mackovic's moment: opting not only to go for the first down, but to do it on a risky pass play -- to a seldom-used receiver -- where any number of things could have gone awry; from a dropped pass, to a forced throw, returned for a game-winning score. To fail? John Mackovic's name will be bitter ash on the tongue of every Longhorn fan for eternity... or longer.
Junior quarterback James Brown's moment came earlier in the week when, à la Namath, he arrogantly predicted a Texas victory. Not only a victory, a victory by three touchdowns. Like Broadway Joe 26 years ago, he backed up his talk with a dazzling afternoon.
This game, its rhythms and flows, was quirky and capricious in almost every way. Since Nebraska's loss to Arizona State, they've outscored their opponents 430-83. The Cornhusker defense -- the vaunted Blackshirts -- ranked in the top five nationally in all major defensive categories. A defense which, by itself, had outscored its last 11 opponents' offenses. Yet this group, which had allowed only five TDs in 11 games, gave up four in three hours. An example of total offensive dominance? Texas punted only once, you read that correct, once, the entire game.
On the other hand, the Nebraska offense was not equipped (so the experts said) to come from behind: Get ahead of Nebraska (easier said than done!) and force Scott Frost to pass the ball. But they did come from behind, over and over again. As is their custom, the massive offensive line relentlessly grounded and pounded the smaller, tiring Texas defenders into the bright green turf. The vilified Frost was steady, methodical, and patient. His passes were not pretty, but were usually effective. His running was devastating. Nebraska's #3 tailback, 18-year-old DeAngelo Evans, ripped through the beleaguered Texas defense for 130 yards and three touchdowns.
This unlikely victory was accomplished without luck. None of the 37 points were providential or tainted. It was accomplished with the best performance of Brown's career. A game where he magically regained all the elusive quickness so apparent two years ago. It was done with a courageous, gut-check effort by a beaten-up defense. It was done, most of all, with an out-of-character, go-for-it-all decision. It was the instant where a legend was born.
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