The first clue for Alabama’s football team was the smell of coach Nick Saban’s coffee brewing inside the visiting locker room of MetLife Stadium.
Coffee and two Little Debbie snack cakes are part of the coach’s pregame ritual, and when the players realized just how seriously Saban was taking this so-called "exhibition" game, a hushed silence fell over the Crimson Tide locker room.
Until that point the locker room had been filled with relaxed chatter, most of it about the extraordinary list of sports heroes who had spoken to the team during the buildup to the game, including hockey players from the Miracle on Ice team that won gold at the 1980 Olympics, the 1985 Villanova hoops team and, of course, Bama’s own Joe Namath.
But now the room was still, filled with the crackling tension of an imminent electrical storm.
Moments later, all remaining doubt about the seriousness of the task before them was erased when a member of the equipment staff quietly placed the team’s cherished WIN bar -- a small section of goalpost mounted on a cherrywood stand that each player taps before heading into battle -- just by the locker room exit.
There was no mistaking that sign. This was huge.
Saban walked to the door, placed his right hand on the WIN bar and then turned around to address his team:
Men, at this moment it no longer matters why we dared to play this game, to take on this great daunting task in order to transcend football and stand for something greater than just ourselves and, in doing so, helping so many people in need.
No, as important as that is, and as proud as I am that we have accepted this challenge, none of that matters.
All that matters now is the opportunity before you. The chance to achieve something that will stand alone in the history of sports for hundreds of years and give this team, and each of you, something greater than national titles, wins, trophies or even millions of dollars ... immortality.
NOW, LET’S ROLL ...
And with that, the doors burst open and the overwhelmingly pro-Alabama crowd roared as Saban and the Tide took the field for the game some were calling the gridiron matchup of the century: Alabama, the best team in college, versus the Cleveland Browns, the worst team in the NFL.
That the game was even taking place on this crisp but sunny Saturday in late January was a miracle in and of itself.
It started out way back in November with South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier speculating that Alabama could probably beat a handful of NFL teams.
Experts on the topic like Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, the former USC coach, rightfully scoffed at the idea. “It wouldn’t even be close,” he said.
Sure, maybe a handful of skill and speed players in college were ready to compete on a pro level, but they were scattered all over the map. Of the 10,000 college players each year, maybe two or three go on to become decent NFL quarterbacks.
Not that the college kids would have any time to throw, mind you. Scouts were certain that the men who manned even the worst interior lines in the pros would toy with their college counterparts to the point of it being dangerous for the kids.
Oddsmakers agreed, speculating that the line would be astronomical, up around 24 points or higher.
But then, the Northeast, hammered by a string of catastrophic bad-weather events, was in desperate need of funds to rebuild. And, during Roger Goodell’s visit to the White House, President Obama half-jokingly suggested to the commissioner that instead of the Pro Bowl, the NFL should give the people what they want and raise money and awareness for storm victims by hosting an exhibition game against Alabama on the open Saturday before the Super Bowl.
Historians were quick to point out that a similar game had been played for four decades in Chicago up until 1976, with the pros winning 31 in the series and the college all-stars nine (there were two ties).
Bama versus Browns was all a big joke, of course, until broadcasters secretly ran the numbers with potential advertisers. Turns out, when it comes to the lure of cold hard cash, the NFL and the NCAA have an awful lot in common.
Someone then leaked the one-day payday of $150 million -- $75 million for humanitarian efforts in the Northeast, $30 million for scholarship funds at Alabama, and $500,000 to each member of the NFL team that volunteered -- and, suddenly, it looked like it might actually happen.
Alabama then rolled to its second straight national championship.
The Browns, meanwhile, finished a dismal 3-13. Facing a full-on fan mutiny after more than a decade of futility, new billionaire Browns owner (and Tennessean) Jimmy Haslam -- known for thinking outside the box, and looking for a way to shake things up, reinvigorate his fan base and broaden his team’s appeal -- held a press conference at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Haslam looked into the cameras and, on live TV, said:
“The Browns say: Bring it on, Bama.”
Fairly quickly, the anticipation for Bama-Browns exceeded the pregame hype for the Super Bowl.
There was speculation that Saban agreed to play the game because of his roots at Kent State and with the Browns. Others believed he was essentially forced into it by school administrators because of the massive payday.
But the truth is, love him or hate him, Saban knows football. He knew he had a once-in-a-lifetime team that was still sharp, rested and healthy (and already running pro-style schemes better than a handful of NFL franchises).
The Browns, meanwhile, were ripe. They were winless on the road in 2012, losers of 25 of their 31 games under Pat Shurmur, riddled by injuries, dysfunctional and leaderless under the direction of rookie QB Brandon Weeden.
Most importantly, though, they were weak on both lines and had rushed for less than 90 yards a game while giving up more than 140 rushing yards a game on defense.
Not to mention, the team had almost a full month off before the game and had only come together for a series of halfhearted walk-throughs before flying to New York.
The oddsmakers had taken notice. So much so, that in the buildup to the game, the money started to pour in on Bama after the line dropped from 30 to 24, then down to 20.
A bet that quickly seemed foolish when the Browns' Josh Cribbs fielded Jeremy Shelley’s kickoff 5 yards deep in the end zone, bolted straight up the field, and then cut to the outside without being touched before being pushed out of bounds all the way up at the Bama 28. Pancaked Alabama tacklers littered the field like confetti.
Luckily for Saban, it was clear at first that the Browns were barely going through the motions, treating the game like a Pro Bowl scrimmage.
To the delight of both crowds, Weeden handed off on first down to former Alabama star and Heisman Trophy winner Trent Richardson, who ran right smack dab into 320-pound Tide defensive tackle Jesse Williams.
After two incompletions, rather than kick a field goal Weeden lofted the ball to the corner of the end zone to a wide-open Greg Little, who dropped what would have been a sure touchdown.
It went on like this for most of the first quarter: the Browns too loose and Alabama too tight.
A nervous AJ McCarron, his feet bouncing and his head on a swivel, misfired on his first five throws, one-hopping a pass that rolled to a stop at the feet of Saban, who kicked the ball away in disgust.
Running backs T.J. Yeldon and Eddie Lacy were no better and looked tentative and intimidated at the point of attack.
The Browns, meanwhile, were moving the ball well at the end of the quarter when junior cornerback Dee Milliner, a likely top 10-pick in the NFL draft, stepped in front of a wobbly Weeden pass, tipped the ball to himself and returned it up the Bama sideline to the Cleveland 31.
Weeden would struggle most of the day and end up 18-of-35 for 165 yards and two picks.
“Milliner could be starting on the Browns right now,” said one scout. “And probably on half the teams in the league.”
After the interception return, Milliner pinballed through the Bama bench, chest-bumping and head-butting teammates. It seemed to spark the Crimson Tide. Before they took the field to start the second quarter, Saban took a timeout to talk to his team. It was brilliant.
They had had a full 15 minutes to get acclimated, and the longer the game went on, the more confident they were becoming that they could hold their own physically in the trenches.
So, down the line Saban went, tapping his linemen on the helmet and yelling at them, from Chance Warmack to D.J. Fluker to Cyrus Kouandjio, then Yeldon and Lacy.
Do you wanna play in the NFL? Do you? Or you? Or you and you and you? Well, now’s the time to prove it.
“Coach wasn’t a little upset, he never gets just a little upset,” said Lacy later. “He was just reminding us that we didn’t agree to this game for the money or the fun of it, but because we thought we could win.
"But I think until that moment, maybe, he was the only one who believed it.”
McCarron settled in a bit and completed one crucial third-and-6 to keep the drive alive, and Alabama crawled and pounded its way down the field to the 5-yard line.
Yeldon then walked into the end zone after a perfectly executed draw play caught Cleveland napping to make it 7-0, Alabama. The stadium erupted and the Million Dollar Band blasted away as network cameras caught Goodell inside his luxury suite, furiously biting his nails.
It wasn’t just the play on the field. It was the tailgating. The band. The fans. The noise. The enthusiasm. The cheerleaders. The fun. The atmosphere. The NFL was getting schooled, top to bottom, in something it thought it alone had owned and perfected.
Shurmur reacted to the score by feeding the Tide a steady dose of All-Pro tackle Joe Thomas and Richardson for the rest of the first half, resulting in two long and effortless scoring drives that gave the Browns a 14-7 lead at the half.
Shurmur was so annoyed after the first 30 minutes -- both with his team’s sloppy play and what he thought was a gentlemen’s agreement with Saban to basically stage a made-for-TV walk-through -- that he ran right by the sideline reporter waiting to interview him.
“His message at the half was kinda, ‘OK, if they want to play football, we’ll play football,’” said Cleveland’s leading tackler, linebacker D’Qwell Jackson. “We opened up the playbook. Blitzes. Stunts. Audibles. Double-teams. Special teams. Throw everything at ’em, was kinda the message.”
Which, it turns out, was Saban’s plan all along.
As crazy as it sounds, Saban believed he had at least four top-50 picks in the draft on his line who could open holes and protect McCarron. He believed his team was more fundamentally sound and disciplined, and not prone to stupid mistakes and penalties. (Issues that plagued the Browns, especially on this day.)
And with Milliner and Deion Belue in the defensive backfield, he was actually hoping Shurmur would turn Weeden loose.
When all that happened just as Saban had told his team it would, Alabama got its swagger back, and in the third quarter the Tide looked a lot like the team that had won three national titles in the last four years.
Three times the Tide put together drives of more than 40 yards and moved the ball inside the Browns' 25-yard line. (Yeldon would end up with 85 yards rushing on 22 carries.)
But on the shorter field, the pro’s advantage in strength, speed, smarts and size took over, and Alabama came away with just three points on a 31-yard field goal by Shelley. He missed on his first attempt but got a second chance when Frostee Rucker was called for roughing the kicker, a play that began to ratchet up the bad blood on the field.
With the Browns up 14-10 heading into the fourth quarter, and with all the momentum squarely with the Tide, football history seemed to be unfolding inside MetLife Stadium.
But it was not to be.
When Cleveland’s next possession stalled after eight plays, kicker Phil Dawson set up for a 29-yard field goal. There was confusion at the snap, however. Whistles blew and flags were thrown after Bama lined up in the neutral zone.
Yet while the Browns stopped playing, Bama’s entire defensive front kept coming, en masse, steamrolling the Cleveland line back onto their butts and then obliterating the 37-year-old Dawson.
The beloved and respected kicker, who has been with the Browns for 14 seasons, lay motionless, face down on the turf, while Alabama players ripped the ball out of his hands and proceeded to dance and taunt their way 70 yards to the end zone.
Fans booed and the Browns' bench exploded onto the field in protest.
Dawson would be fine.
Not so much.
The incident awakened something in the pros. After the penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct, Richardson went over 200 yards on the day, gashing Bama’s exhausted defense on three straight plays to put Cleveland up 21-10.
On Alabama’s next possession, Jackson came free on a beautifully executed exit stunt blitz. The move tripped up not one but two Bama blockers, and Jackson hit McCarron so hard it sent an audible gasp through the crowd.
Like a cork, the ball popped straight up into the air and seemed to float there for a while until Jabaal Sheard caught it and walked into the end zone, untouched, handing the ball to the Bama mascot, Al the Elephant.
“We had awoken the giant,” Saban said later. "The one thing we knew we couldn't do."
Trailing 28-10 with 3:35 to play, McCarron was able to connect with Kevin Norwood twice and move the ball to midfield, operating in Bama’s two-minute offense.
On fourth-and-1 at the 49, though, the Browns' defense stuffed Lacy, who appeared to fumble on the play.
“All in all, I think we don’t have anything to be ashamed of,” said McCarron, who finished 11-of-22 for 174 yards after taking most of the first half to acclimate to the speed and pressure of a pro defense. “We helped a lot of people today and put on a good show but, to be honest, I’m really glad that’s over.”
Trying to run out the clock with a first down, with fans beginning to file out of the stadium, Weeden hit tight end Ben Watson on a shallow crossing route. At 255 pounds, Watson careened off one would-be tackler, spun, changed directions, stiff-armed a linebacker and then outran the rest of the Alabama defense to the pylon to end the scoring at 35-10.
Asked after the game if he considered running out of bounds or taking a knee short of the goal line, Watson laughed.
“I went to Georgia, man,” he said. “And at that point, I still wasn’t 100 percent sure we had the game locked up.”
Afterward, one of the greatest contrasts of the day was inside the winning and losing locker rooms. Watson and the Browns looked and acted like they had just finished a preseason game, while exhausted Alabama players, most of them bandaged or wrapped in ice bags, seemed to slowly and gingerly drag themselves to the safety and quiet of the team bus.
Later, at the postgame press conference, Saban and Goodell presented New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie with a check for $75 million.
And, in the end, that’s what the historic NFL versus NCAA experiment came down to -- relief.
Monetary relief for people in need.
Physical relief for a gallant Alabama team that was able to hold its own against pro players.
Emotional relief for the NFL at avoiding what could have been an embarrassing loss.
And comic relief supplied by Saban and Goodell.
Asked by a reporter if there would be a similar game in 2014 and beyond, both Saban and Goodell chuckled, shook their heads and then answered in unison:
“I don't know about him, but ... we’re never doing this again.”