Yard markers can become ingrained
In many sports, we measure immortal moments in rough estimates. Secretariat's winning margin in the 1973 Belmont was about 31 lengths. Jack Nicklaus' putt to clinch the 1986 Masters was about 18 feet. Christian Laettner's shot to beat Kentucky in the 1992 NCAA tournament was about 17 feet.
In football, there are no estimates. There are specifics. The yard lines are white measuring sticks painted on the field to record the distance of each play from the mundane to the memorable. And the yardage of scoring plays is preserved for posterity in the summaries that accompany box scores.
Thus for college football fans, the numbers associated with legendary touchdowns become lodged in their brains like family birthdays and anniversaries.
A 92-yard play can mean only one thing to Georgia fans -- the distance covered on a Buck Belue-to-Lindsay Scott pass that beat Florida and propelled the Bulldogs to the 1980 national title. Mention a 48-yard pass to any Boston College fan and watch him smile at the memory of Flutie-to-Phelan against Miami in 1984. Every school has its unforgettable play that began from an exact location on the 100-yard rectangle that stretches from goal line to goal line.
If only those yard lines could talk ...
Interview with the 36-yard line, Michigan Stadium.
"You betcha, I remember it like yesterday. I've seen a lot of epic plays here in the Big House over the decades, but nothing like that. Still a painful memory to those of us partial to the Wolverines. Not even Ohio State has snatched a game away in a single play like this one.
"It was Sept. 24, 1994, a beautiful early autumn day here, but by then the sun was setting. The ball was sitting on me when Colorado broke the huddle and lined up, needing a miracle. The Buffaloes were down 26-21, and this was the last play. I'm not sure anyone on either side believed they could win. Heck, I'm not sure anyone believed Kordell Stewart could throw the ball far enough, much less have anyone catch it.
"But then he went scrambling back inside my buddy, the 30-yard line, and he threw it halfway to Ypsilanti. And there went Colorado receiver Blake Anderson up in the air to tip it away from our guy, Chuck Winters, and suddenly Michael Westbrook was catching the thing and falling to the turf in the end zone for a touchdown after the clock had expired. Cancel 'Hail To The Victors.' The Big House was shocked that day.
"Sixty-four yards. Just like that, our guys had lost. The other Michigan Stadium yard lines have never let me live it down."
Interview with the 8-yard line, the Rose Bowl.
"Pardon the boast, but I was due. We are the most prestigious address in college football, on a different social strata from the vulgar artificial turf fields seen everywhere and the barren frozen tundras of the upper Midwest. We've been playing the Granddaddy of Them All on our pristine grass since 1923. We simply look luscious on your flat-screen every January.
"While other Rose Bowl yard lines had their star turns, I patiently waited for my time to come. It did on Jan. 4, 2006. That's when a delightful lad named Vince Young came calling.
"I remember the USC players getting in their stances and nearly wilting me with their gusts of breath -- they were exhausted. It was fourth-and-5 with less than half a minute left and the Trojans were clinging to a 38-33 lead. This play would decide the game, and the national championship. I was in my element.
"USC had seemed so unbeatable, but it couldn't stop the irrepressible Mr. Young -- hadn't stopped him all night, in fact. So it almost seemed inevitable when he dropped back, then stepped up and scrambled to daylight. He went gliding past me and to the near corner of the end zone, just inside the pylon. Cheers. Touchdown. My destiny was fulfilled."
Interview with the 1-yard line, Floyd Casey Stadium.
"Oh my gosh, do y'all have to bring that up again? It's 12 years ago, and it's still the saddest thing I've ever seen -- and trust me, partner, we know sad here at Baylor.
"Poor ol' Kevin Steele. It was his second game ever as head coach, and we'd lost the first one by a missed extra point in overtime at Boston College the week before. But that was nothing compared to the disaster I was part of. ... Yeah, I'll go back over Sept. 11, 1999, one more time.
"It was hot as blazes, in the mid-90s at kickoff, and we had a good crowd -- you always do for the home opener, especially with a new coach. By the end we had UNLV beat. We were up 24-21 with the clock running out, and the Rebels had no timeouts. We just had to take a knee -- take a doggone knee! -- to win the game. But ol' Kevin, he was excited and he wanted to send a message or some such about establishing a new identity, as coaches like to say.
"So he calls one more play and sends Darrell Bush up in there with a handoff to try to score. And Darrell is churning forward, and right above me is the worst nightmare unfolding -- the football is popping loose. Next thing you know, UNLV's Kevin Thomas is grabbing that sucker, and off he goes. Didn't stop until he'd scored the winning touchdown, 99 yards later.
"The Bears only won one game that year, and Kevin only won nine games in four years. If we hadn't given away those first two games, you wonder whether it might've been different. I don't know."
Interview with the 50-yard line, Bank of Phoenix Stadium.
"Hey, being midfield has its perks. I get a nice coat of paint with a big logo every game, I'm on TV more than any other yard line, I get the coin toss, and I usually get the postgame prayer circle.
"But a lot of the times you're pretty far removed from the scoring -- that's usually for the guys inside the 20s. That wasn't the case on Jan. 1, 2007, though. That night in the Fiesta Bowl, I made an unforgettable postseason debut.
"We were all pretty nervous -- this was the first time the Fiesta Bowl had ever been played on our grass, after decades at Sun Devil Stadium. But it was a great game -- Oklahoma had come from behind to lead underdog Boise State 35-28 in the final minute.
"The Broncos needed a miracle. It was fourth-and-18 from me, with 18 seconds on the clock. That's when Chris Petersen went sandlot, calling a hook-and-lateral. Jared Zabransky threw a 15-yard pass to Drisan James, who then lateraled it to Jerard Rabb, who ran the final 35 yards to the end zone untouched for the tying score. Bedlam.
"It only got crazier in overtime, but I say my play was the most dramatic and surprising touchdown in bowl history."
Interview with the 45-yard line, Memorial Stadium.
"I guess by definition football is, like, my existence -- but this is Berkeley, right? We're into a lot of other stuff, like climate change and freedom for Tibet.
"But the one game we really care about is Cal versus Stanford. And the one that made me famous was the Big Game of Nov. 20, 1982.
"Dude, I admit that I thought it was over. John Elway had beaten my Bears, leading a drive for the winning field goal with four seconds left. All the Cardinal had to do was kick off and cover it.
"They squibbed it, of course. That's when Kevin Moen scooped up the ball from right on top of me, and then everyone freaked.
"It was surreal, man -- Moen lateraled to Richard Rodgers, but he quickly lateraled it to Dwight Garner back where I was. So after two laterals, Cal hadn't really gotten anywhere. Garner ran a few yards, looked like he went down, but pitched it back to Rodgers again. It was around that time that the Stanford band charged onto the field, thinking the play was dead.
"But it wasn't. Rodgers ran a while and pitched to Mariet Ford, and he made a lot of progress -- into the band -- before flipping the ball blindly over his shoulder to the guy who started it all, Kevin Moen. Next thing you know, Moen was sprinting into the end zone and flattening a Stanford trombone player, and all hell was breaking loose.
"There is no acid trip as weird as that play was, man. At least, that's what I've been told."
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.