Before Miami could recapture its past glory, the Hurricanes first had to watch it slip away. Which brings us to Glenn Sharpe, now toiling on the practice squad for the Atlanta Falcons. In the course of a 20-minute conversation earlier this week, the word "interference" never crossed his lips.
Sharpe is an ex-Miami cornerback with zipper scars on both knees and a cameo in Hurricanes football history he would just as soon do without. Reflective and good-natured, he makes a habit of referring to the most infamous call in the annals of Miami athletics as "the act." As in: "A lot of my teammates and a lot of fans -- not just Miami fans but football fans, period -- have told me they feel I did not commit the act. So that's been a big relief."
The eyes of the college football world will be on Virginia Tech's Lane Stadium on Saturday, to see if the 2-0, ninth-ranked Hurricanes are all that; if Jacory Harris, he of the preternatural calm, fluid release and pinpoint accuracy, is as good as advertised; if this Miami defense, which most recently held Georgia Tech to 92 yards rushing, recalls the relentless, marauding Hurricane defenses of yore.
While they may yet get there under third-year coach Randy Shannon, these 'Canes are nowhere near as good as the juggernaut that was Miami's 2002 squad, which took a 34-game winning streak into the BCS title game against Ohio State. To the world's surprise, the favored 'Canes needed a 40-yard field goal at the end of regulation to claw their way into overtime, at which point they seemed to rediscover their mojo. After scoring a touchdown on its first OT possession, Miami forced the Buckeyes into a fourth-and-goal at the 5-yard-line.
After a timeout, the Bucks came out in a five-wide formation, with 6-foot-2 ChrisGamble split out to the right and looking across the line of scrimmage at a 5-11 true freshman named Glenn Sharpe, who knew what was coming. "I'm a rookie, he's one of their premier players, so I basically knew they were comin' at me," Sharpe recalled. "I just tried to keep my composure."
At the snap of the ball, Sharpe "set down the jam." In the replay we see him chucking Gamble's shoulders -- perfectly legal within five yards of the line of scrimmage. "As he progressed down the field, I'm looking at his hips, looking at his hips. When he sat down," he paused, "my intention was to play the ball through his hands."
We see Craig Krenzel's pass wobbling toward them. The ball clangs off Gamble's hands the instant Sharpe's left hand grazes the receiver's back. It caroms off the Buckeyes' facemask and falls to the turf. All this unspools directly in front of the line judge, who unhesitatingly (and, let's face it, correctly) signals incomplete pass. Seeing that, Sharpe leaps into the arms of fellow corner Antrel Rolle. Fireworks go off, christening the dynasty. Hurricanes pour onto the field.
It is around this time that field judge Terry Porter awakens from his slumber. Some four Mississippis after the fact, he throws the flag that changes the history of two programs. Porter signals holding, then changes his mind. It was pass interference. Yeah, pass interference -- that's the ticket.
I've heard the call savaged, I've heard it defended. Watching it again, my initial response was confirmed: it's weak. Extremely weak. I'm with Dan Fouts, who called the game for ABC with Keith Jackson, and whose emphatic response to the first ground-level replay was this. "Bad call. BAD CALL! I think the ball got there before Glenn Sharpe did!"
The Buckeyes scored two plays later, then won the game in the second OT. Sharpe was crushed, but his teammates and coaches had his back. "I remember [defensive backs coach] Mark Stoops sitting me down and telling me, 'Don't hang your head,'" Sharpe said. "'You're a young player with a bright future. You didn't do anything wrong, but sometimes you get the short end of the stick.'"
That call, that moment, serves as a handy high-water mark for an era of Hurricane dominance. It also set in motion a gradual decline that culminated in the catastrophic 2006 season, which saw the 'Canes drop six games and make national headlines by engaging in a helmet-swinging, crutch-wielding, all-out brawl with Florida International.
Sharpe's fortunes mirrored the team's. After blowing out his left knee against Tennessee late in his sophomore season, he returned for 2004. But the knee hurt so badly he was finished for the year after just two games. During a 7-on-7 workout the following July, he tore the ACL in his right knee. So much for 2005. In his comeback season he made 44 tackles, picked off two passes and deflected 14 balls. He won the Brian Piccolo Award, given to the ACC's most courageous player. (Discretion being the better part of valor, Sharpe didn't participate in the ugly aforementioned brawl. "I had a cousin playing for FIU," he recalled, "so I was like, 'Man, I don't think I need to get into this.'")
After an NCAA-sanctioned sixth-season at Miami, Sharpe was running practice 40s a week before the 2008 NFL combine when he pulled a quadriceps. He couldn't run, and wasn't drafted. He signed as a free agent with the Atlanta Falcons, who waived him (8/30/08), re-signed him to the practice squad (8/31/08), then elevated him to the active roster! (12/9/08) "Unfortunately," he said, "I never suited up for a game." Sharpe has since been released (9/4/09), re-signed to the practice squad, (9/6/09), waived (9/14/09) and (re-re-)re-signed to the practice squad (9/21/09).
"It's been a roller-coaster," said Sharpe, not discouraged in the slightest, "but I'm still here."
He's still there because he's smart, and a battler, and because he can play. Don't just take the word of Thomas Dmitroff, the Falcons GM who obviously sees something he likes in the kid. Click the link again. Watch Sharpe deny Gamble with the national title on the line. Regardless of what some tardy zebra decided, it was and is a great defensive play.
Part of me will be pulling for the U this weekend, because Shannon's getting it done the right way, and because this sport is a more interesting proposition when the 'Canes are in full swagger.
But I'm pulling harder for an uncomplaining practice squad corner who's due to catch a break.