STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — Grant Haley had a feeling it might be coming. The Penn State defensive back also knew there was nothing he could do to prevent it. Truth be told, he didn’t want to, even if he acted like he did.
It was Monday, Oct. 24, 2016, and the communications/advertising class Haley was walking into was his first of the week. That meant it was also his first class with a newly acquired identity as Ohio State Guy. You know, the guy who’d returned a blocked field goal 60 yards to beat the Buckeyes roughly 36 hours earlier, the Nittany Lions’ first win over Ohio State in five years and first win over a top-five team in 17 years and first over a second-ranked team in 26 years and … you get the idea. It was a big deal. One that will inevitably be in the minds of both teams when they meet this Saturday in Columbus, Ohio.
“My professor already knew who I was because Coach [James] Franklin always tells us, on the first day of class you introduce yourself to your teachers, and I had done that,” Haley recalled, still grinning through his embarrassment a full year later. “He called me up front, reminded everyone that I was the guy from Saturday night, and they gave me a standing ovation.”
We all know the plays when we see them on Saturdays. Those precious few split-second moments that snatch up an even more precious chosen few people and make them instantly timeless. All-Americans and walk-ons, household names and no-names, it doesn’t matter. Anyone could find himself perpetually galvanized by a one shining college football moment. They are awarded game balls. One day they will have posters of their moments hung in press boxes and perhaps even bronzed likenesses erected in front of stadiums.
But first, they have to go back to class.
“The difference in your life is pretty much instantaneous,” Gerard Phelan said. On Nov. 23, 1984, the Boston College wide receiver hauled in the Hail Flutie pass from his soon-to-be-Heisman-Trophy-winning teammate, Doug Flutie. The Eagles knocked off reigning national champion Miami on national television on that play.
If you’re too young to have seen it live, you should hang out with Phelan for an hour or so. Whenever people realize that the 54-year-old executive is Hail Flutie Guy, their reflexive action is to whip out their phones and show him the play. Again.
“That night, just getting off the plane back in Boston, we realized it was already bigger than we could have thought,” Phelan said. “Monday morning, yeah, campus was just cheering from one end to the other. I couldn’t have predicted that. And I certainly couldn’t have predicted that not a single day would go by since then that someone doesn’t bring it up.”
Every single day?
“Yep, every single day.”
This Thanksgiving marks the 33rd anniversary of the Hail Flutie. That’s more than 12,000 consecutive days of bringing it up. Has it gotten old?
Hunter Renfrow became National Championship Receiver Guy just 290 days ago. On Jan. 9, Clemson’s former walk-on receiver slipped through the Alabama defense to nab a Deshaun Watson lob in the closing seconds of the College Football Playoff National Championship. Before that night in Tampa, Florida, regular old Hunter could run to the local Wal-Mart to pick up shaving cream without causing an orange-and-white riot. National Championship Receiver Guy has triggered a Clemson “Hard Day’s Night” more than once. All he did was show up.
“I don’t know how many copies of each issue Sports Illustrated prints,” the soon-to-be-22-year-old contemplated aloud, “but I’m pretty sure I have autographed all of them by now. I’ve signed them everywhere, too. Some people have researched me and figured out where I eat or get gas, and stake me out.”
So then, it’s gotten old?
“Oh, no sir.”
By the way, did you also receive a standing ovation when you went back to class that week?
“Oh, yes sir.”
Michael Geiger’s classroom ovation came with a twist. On Nov. 21, 2015, he kicked a 41-yard game-winning field goal, boosting Michigan State to a 17-14 upset victory over third-ranked Ohio State. That boot ultimately boosted the Spartans into the College Football Playoff. The native of Toledo, Ohio, celebrated his kick by sprinting the length of OSU’s field while cranking his arm in an air guitar-style windmill, a la The Who.
“It was pure emotion,” Geiger said. “People ask if it was premeditated. No way. Even if you had a plan, like, ‘OK, if I ever hit the game-winner I’m going to do this.’ When it actually happens, that was all raw reaction.”
The official count was 22 windmills. When he reported to class on Monday morning, he was greeted by way more than that, as an auditorium full of classmates stood and reenacted his celebration. He got windmilled as he walked campus. He was windmilled whenever he went out with his buds. A handful of Ohio State players even mimicked it back when the Buckeyes got their revenge win in East Lansing in 2016.
— Lantern TV (@LanternTV) November 19, 2016
But the kicker got the last word on the matter. Last spring, as he received his diploma, he snuck in a half-dozen windmills as he crossed the graduation stage.
The Michigan State kicker is still celebrating. 😂 pic.twitter.com/uJsnHNUhvQ
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) May 8, 2017
“People sent me pictures of their kids kicking in pee-wee ball and windmilling,” Geiger said. “I’ve told people it made me B-list famous. Like, not quarterback famous, but kicker famous. Hey, I’ll take kicker famous.”
While most follow Geiger’s lead and happily own their monumental moments, others are reluctant. Ask Phelan about Hail Flutie and he’ll talk all day. But Flutie’s reaction is a more measured response. Are you asking because you’re emotionally attached to the moment, or are you just another person who doesn’t know what else to ask him?
Don’t misunderstand, Flutie appreciates his place in history. He and Phelan routinely recreate the moment and sign Hail Flutie photos to raise money for charities. But the QB has never been super-thrilled that his career — a College Football Hall of Famer who somehow played pro ball until he was 43 — has been boiled down to a single six-second play.
He’s not alone.
Only one play was so incredible that it’s known only as The Play, in a game so big it’s known only as The Big Game. On Nov. 20, 1982, The Play in The Big Game was so awe-inspiring it created celebrities on both sides of the final score. With eight seconds remaining, Stanford kicked a field goal to seize a seemingly ironclad 20-19 lead on the home field of nemesis Cal. The Cardinal band started moving out of the grandstand and onto the sidelines. Among them was trombone player Gary Tyrrell.
Tyrrell never saw the ensuing squib kickoff. Nor did he see the five laterals the Bears slung around trying to weave through Stanford’s defense. He was busy. The band was playing its signature victory song, “All Right Now.” By the time he saw Cal’s Kevin Moen running toward him, he assumed the game was over and the distraught opponent was headed for the locker room. But Moen had the football and was headed to the end zone, through Tyrrell.
Moen was one of four Bears to carry the ball during The Play. He just happened to be the last one. Tyrrell was one of dozens of band members marching onto the turf. He just happened to be one in Moen’s way.
Now, 35 years later, their lives are still intersected. They do joint appearances during many Big Game weeks and have co-signed countless photos of their collision. But Moen, a Southern California real estate agent, and Tyrrell, a retired venture capital CFO, both experienced periods where they wrestled with their very public identities in relation to The Play versus their very successful careers that followed.
“For us in the band, the initial experience, getting laughed at, that wasn’t great,” Tyrrell said. The kid with the bent trombone received no Monday classroom ovations. He was awakened by crank calls from shock jock morning radio hosts. “Even as I was learning to laugh with people about it, when I was younger there was definitely this feeling of, am I going to be defined by this for the rest of my life?”
Some big moment stars of today already share that same worry, including Haley. A year after becoming Ohio State Guy, the majority of his public attaboys are for that end zone dash, especially this week. Since that night, he also has made the plays that iced a Big Ten title against Wisconsin and in September he almost single-handedly demolished archrival Pitt via an early game interception and midgame sack. He’s an Academic All-American and projected to be a high 2018 NFL draft pick.
In 2016 Ohio State stormed into Happy Valley undefeated and winners of 20 straight road games. But behind a strong game from its special-teams unit, the Nittany Lions earned their first signature win under head coach James Franklin.
But like it or not, he now has two names: Grant Haley and Ohio State Guy.
“I have a lot I still want to accomplish, so that’s not really how I want to be defined,” he admitted, adding a laugh. “But, hey, there’s way worse things to be known for, right?”
Worse? Yes. Better? Not a chance.
“It’s good to be young and on TV all the time, right?” Lindsay Scott can’t help but smile when he hears of such modern concerns. When he was catching passes for the Georgia Bulldogs in the early 1980s he wasn’t on TV much. Back then, no one was. On Nov. 8, 1980, Scott and his teammates were undefeated, but trailing Florida 21-20 and facing third-and-11 deep in their own territory with barely a minute on the clock. Quarterback Buck Belue found Scott over the middle via a play titled “Left 76.” The only goal was to grab a first down and move one step closer to field goal range.
Instead, Belue, on the run, tossed a pass as lineman Nat Hudson executed a perfect midfield block. Scott smothered the ball and looked for daylight. He found 93 yards of it, dashing to victory as Georgia radio man Larry Munson nearly fell out of the Gator Bowl press box. From the moment he crossed the goal line, player No. 24 ceased being merely Lindsay Scott. He became LINDSAY SCOTT! LINDSAY SCOTT! LINDSAY SCOTT! And every year at this time — Florida week — he’s on TV plenty, thank you very much.
“There were so many moments that season that deserve to be remembered,” the 56-year-old said this week. Scott, Belue and Hudson all still live in Georgia, happily hearing about “Run Lindsay!” year-round.
“This was a team with that Junkyard Dawg defense and Herschel Walker and Coach [Vince] Dooley, but what people remember most is a long pass play,” he laughed mightily. “You think I get tired of that? You’re crazy, man. People spend their whole lives hoping for a moment like that.”
Like Scott’s catch, in most cases what makes a moment so memorable to so many is the context in which it happened. That touchdown saved an undefeated season that ended with a national championship in the Sugar Bowl.
Same for the play that took place 17 years later, to the day, in Columbia, Missouri, when Nebraska freshman receiver Matt Davison graduated from “Hey, who is No. 3 again?” to Guy Who Caught the Flea Kicker. What’s the Flea Kicker? It was the goal-line pass thrown by quarterback Scott Frost, with Nebraska down 38-31 as the game clock hit all zeroes. The toss slipped through the hands of receiver Shevin Wiggins, only to ride down his legs and be launched pinball-style into the onrushing gloves of Davison, bolting toward the play from the back of the end zone. The top-ranked Huskers escaped with an overtime victory.
Like Lindsay Scott, Matt Davison salvaged a national championship season. Like Scott, Davison still lives in the state where he became a folk hero, working the sidelines for his alma mater’s radio network.
When Colorado QB Kordell Stewart and receiver Michael Westbrook became Guy Who Threw and Guy Who Caught the Miracle at Michigan on Sept. 24, 1994, their 64-yard Hail Mary link won a matchup between top seven teams that had tremendous impact on the national championship chase.
“I didn’t appreciate it then like I do now,” Westbrook confessed. “When you’re young, you think, I’ll be doing stuff like that all the time. Now, I love it when people bring it up. I want them to. Every time they do it just makes me realize even more how much it means to so many, and now me.”
When Chris Davis became Guy Who Returned Kick-Six on Nov. 30, 2013, it was in the biggest Iron Bowl ever played, a top-five showdown with an SEC Championship invite and the inside track to the BCS title game on the line. When the Auburn DB ran the short field goal attempt back 109 yards for the game-winner, it was the second consecutive legend-creating moment on The Plains. In the previous contest, receiver Ricardo Louis beat Georgia in the closing minute via a tipped pass, aka Guy Who Caught the Prayer at Jordan-Hare.
But the context of greatness isn’t limited only to the grand scope of national championship implications. Every college football program, no matter how storied or unheralded, has a king of the moment, it’s own version of The Guy.
The nation might not remember former East Carolina quarterback Jeff Blake, but his 20-point fourth-quarter comeback heroics in the 1992 Peach Bowl vanquished hated backyard rival NC State. Blake’s 22-yard game-winning strike to Luke Fisher forever ensures that as long as he lives he will never have to buy a drink or plate of barbecue anywhere in Down East North Carolina.
You think Corey Lynch, the Appalachian State safety who blocked Michigan’s final field goal attempt in 2007, will ever have to pay for his lunch should he ever show back up at the Daniel Boone Inn?
“”Winning games and championships are great. But really, it’s about that feeling that you have in that one magic second or two where we’re all in this together, and man, doesn’t it feel so good? What a gift to be the kid who brought that moment to those people.””
And even with the volume of historic, championship moments in the history of LSU football, you know who has received the most “Let me tell you where I was when you did that” conversations? Not Leonard Fournette. It wasn’t even Billy Cannon. It’s Devery Henderson, hero of a game between two mid-pack, five-loss teams. On Nov. 9, 2002, he snatched a deflected Hail Mary toss out of the Kentucky sky to become Guy Who Caught the Bluegrass Miracle.
“You never know when that moment is going to come that really connects with people. It can come from at the strangest times and from the people you don’t expect. You know, like a seventh-string quarterback.” Those were the words of Erik Kimrey. The now head coach of the Hammond Hawks in Columbia, South Carolina, was just a local kid who’d played QB in high school and walked on with the South Carolina Gamecocks and their new head coach, Lou Holtz, in 1999. Yes, he was the seventh-string quarterback.
“We were so bad we signed every quarterback in the state,” Holtz recalled. “I think the equipment manager had played some intramurals, so he got a jersey too.”
The ’99 team went winless. The following year brought a new offense and Kimrey was bumped to back up QB but was by his own account “the crafty slow guy. I was accurate, but had no pop. I wasn’t going to be playing. Phil would do all the playing.”
Phil Petty took over Holtz’s new scheme and led South Carolina to a 3-0 record and upset of Georgia. Then 25th-ranked Mississippi State came to town. Down 19-13 late in the game, Petty went down. Kimrey grabbed his helmet and stepped onto the field facing fourth-and-10 at the 25. He’d completed four passes all year. Even worse, he wore No. 13.
Kimrey lofted the ball skyward, softly, toward the goal line, where it landed in the hands of receiver Jermale Kelly. Touchdown, Gamecocks. That moment, though remembered by few if any outside South Carolina, became so storied in the Palmetto State it earned the ultimate big moment honor, a nickname. Kimrey was now Guy Who Threw The Fade.
How big a deal is The Fade? Next week, South Carolina public television premieres an original documentary by the same title. Kimrey deadpans: “There’s a call you never expect to get. ‘Um, hey, we want to make a documentary about that one decent pass you threw, is that cool?’ I’m glad you asked about the film because my wife thinks it’s all so ridiculous, she refuses to talk about it.”
Kimrey has apologized to Kelly, Petty, and even Holtz for The Fade overshadowing their 2000 season, an 8-4 comeback year that ignited South Carolina’s greatest era of success under Holtz and then Steve Spurrier.
But they have no interest in letting The Fade, fade.
“Why do we all play this game or coach this game?” Holtz said. “Winning games and championships are great. But really, it’s about that feeling that you have in that one magic second or two where we’re all in this together, and man, doesn’t it feel so good? What a gift to be the kid who brought that moment to those people.”
The kid becoming The Guy who receives the initial Monday morning classroom applause. The kid who becomes the adult who spends a lifetime witnessing that unmistakable lighting up of a stranger’s eyes, the spark that can only come from the recognition of something — and someone — special. A connection made.
“I had this amazing inflection point in my life, and for a long time I denied it,” said Gary Tyrrell, aka Trombone Guy from The Play. “But those two seconds that happened to me 35 years ago in a football game, I think about the experiences I have had and the people I have met because of that. None of that happens without The Play. That makes it a very a special moment. It’s always good to relive that moment.”