On the morning of July 20, Paul Kennedy, the radio play-by-play announcer for Alabama football from 1983 to ’87, attended the funeral near Birmingham of his former Crimson Tide broadcast partner, Doug Layton, who had succumbed to cancer five days earlier at the age of 81. After the service, Kennedy, 61, now an in-studio television host for the Tampa Bay Lightning on the regional Fox Sports Sun network, had lunch with some friends and then got in his rental car and drove about 15 minutes north to the city. He still had a few hours before his flight back home to Tampa. He stopped at Legion Field. The stadium—once known as “the football capital of the south”—was deserted. He found an unlocked gate, slipped into the grandstand and made his way down to the field.
It was midafternoon, and the temperature was approaching the day’s high of 98. Kennedy walked out under the blazing sun and stopped at the right hash mark on the 42-yard line of the south side of the field. He pulled his phone out of his pocket and took a picture of the sight of the most famous call of his nearly 40 years in broadcasting. “It was just one of those things that happens in an instant and you remember forever,” he says. “Where did three decades go? Time goes by in the blink of an eye.”
Van Tiffin is 50. It has been 30 years since his 52-yard field goal on the last play of the game gave unranked Alabama a 25–23 victory over No. 7 Auburn in the Iron Bowl and made the 5' 10", 163-pound kicker one of the most unlikely heroes in the hard-nosed history of Crimson Tide football. Save for a head of thick, gray hair, he still looks very much like he did on Nov. 30, 1985. “He has worn the same size clothes since high school,” says his wife, Michelle.
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After his senior season in 1986, Tiffin attempted to make it as a placekicker in the NFL. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers picked up the undrafted free agent as a replacement during the ’87 players strike and he made five of six field goals and all seven of his extra points. Tampa Bay cut him after four games and the Miami Dolphins gave him a shot. He made four of four extra points in one game with them. But Tiffin didn’t have enough leg for the big kickoffs coveted by the pros, and the nomadic, uncertain life of an NFL kicker did not appeal to him or to Michelle, whom he had married the year before. He went back to Tuscaloosa and finished his degree in communications, then returned home to Red Bay and went to work at his father’s RV manufacturing outfit. He has been at Tiffin Motorhomes for more than 25 years, and is now the company’s manager of research and development.
And all along The Kick, as it has come to be known, has been with him. When the historic home that Tiffin owned in Florence was heavily damaged by fire in August 2005, news accounts of the blaze mentioned The Kick. His son, Leigh, was the placekicker at Alabama from ’06 to ’09 and is the leading scorer in school history, but most Crimson Tide fans remember him best as the son of the man who made The Kick. Every year around this time, Van is in demand for interviews and public appearances. On the afternoon of Nov. 17, just 11 days before Alabama and Auburn were set to square off in the 80th Iron Bowl, he spent more than two hours with reporters who wanted to talk to him about the 30th anniversary of The Kick.
“My dad is a very quiet, self-effacing person,” says Leigh, who’s 27 now. “The only time he ever talked about [The Kick] was when he was asked about it in news interviews. But I heard about it from other people all the time. I still do.”
“I had no idea there would be this much interest 30 years later,” says Van. “When it happened, a lot of people thought Van Tiffin was my last name. There are definitely days where I don’t think about it and it doesn’t come up. But in the fall, that’s not the case.”
The Kick still comes up because it was the climax to one of the most extraordinary games in the history of the Iron Bowl. As many thrilling moments as the rivalry has showcased in the last five years or so—mostly for the Tigers: think quarterback Cam Newton rallying Auburn from a 24–0 deficit to a 28–27 victory in 2010; or Tigers cornerback Chris Davis returning a missed field goal 100 yards for the winning touchdown in a 34–28 victory three years later—the dramatics of the 1985 game, the 50th in the series, which was played before a crowd 75,808 and a national audience watching on ABC, remain unmatched.
The Crimson Tide led 16–10 after three relatively tame quarters. But the fourth quarter was an epic brawl, with the teams trading haymakers and the lead changing hands four times. The game had begun in the sunshine of midafternoon, but it ended under the lights, in the gathering dark of early evening. “From 1985 until 2010, that was the Iron Bowl game of reference,” says Paul Finebaum, who was then covering the Crimson Tide for the Birmingham Post-Herald and is now the host of the state’s most listened-to sports radio show. “The fourth quarter was breathtaking. It’s still the greatest football game I’ve ever seen.”
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And in the most football-obsessed state in the nation it still resonates. For years the ringtone on the cell phone of one of Finebaum’s friends was the call of ABC announcer Keith Jackson as Alabama’s special teams hurried onto the field in the moments before The Kick: “And here comes Van Tiffin!” Birmingham sports artist Daniel A. Moore has commemorated the play with a painting, one of the best-selling pieces he has ever done. George Henshaw, the offensive coordinator for the Crimson Tide from 1983 to ’86, says that he once met an elderly man from Mobile who used to have his wife cue up a taped replay of Tiffin’s kick on his VCR every night so that he could go to bed happy. Larry Abney, who was the holder on placekicks at Alabama in ’85, now lives in Orlando, where he is an emergency response consultant. He says that he still gets asked if he is the same Larry Abney who held for Tiffin’s kick. “That thing,” says Abney, “will never die.”
The early 1980s are regarded as the golden age of the Iron Bowl. From 1973 to ’81, the Crimson Tide beat Auburn nine straight times. But in ’82, second-year coach Pat Dye and running back Bo Jackson, then a freshman, led the Tigers to a 23–22 victory in the last regular season game in the long career of legendary Alabama coach Bear Bryant. The Crimson Tide hired Ray Perkins to replace Bryant, who died in January 1983. Perkins went 8–4 in his debut season, but his 19th-ranked team lost to No. 3 Auburn 23–20. Jackson ran wild, galloping for 256 yards and scoring the winning touchdown on a 71-yard run around left end. The rivalry between the schools had always been bitter (they did not play between 1907 and 1948 because of disputes over a number of minor issues, including travel expenses) but it had mostly been one sided—Bryant won 19 of the 25 Iron Bowls in which he coached. Jackson and Dye turned the game into what it is today: the fiercest rivalry in college football.
Perkins struggled mightily to win over the Alabama faithful. He followed up the 1983 Iron Bowl defeat with the Crimson Tide’s first losing season in 27 years. The tetchy Perkins admitted that the emotions of fans ranged “from disbelief to sadness to disappointment to madness to hysteria,” but he bristled at the notion that he might be in some way responsible. The only saving grace to the ’84 season was that the Crimson Tide beat 11th-ranked Auburn 17–15 after Jackson, who was supposed to be the lead blocker for fellow running back Brent Fullwood, ran the wrong way on fourth-and-goal from the Alabama one-yard line with 3:27 left in the game.
“As impossible as it was to follow Bryant, Perkins had a personality that made it even harder,” says Geoffrey Norman, then a contributing editor at Esquire, who wrote a book (Alabama Showdown) about the rivalry between the Tigers and the Crimson Tide.
Perkins may have been irascible, but the coach nevertheless took a shine to Norman, and secured him a sideline pass for the 1985 Iron Bowl. The writer grew up on the state’s Gulf Coast, but he had never been to an Alabama-Auburn game. He was amazed by the experience. Tickets for the game were split 50-50 between supporters of the two schools, and no matter what was happening in the game, the stadium seemed to be in a constant state of uproar. “From the first play, you got it, you could tell that this was not your typical football game,” he says. “It was a really tough, hard-hitting game. I was exhausted and all I did was walk up and down the sideline.”
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The game began slowly, with the two teams trading punts. But midway through the first quarter, Crimson Tide quarterback Mike Shula led Alabama on a 13-play, 94-yard drive that ended with fullback Craig Turner scoring on a one-yard touchdown run. The Crimson Tide pushed their lead to 10–0 less than two minutes later, after 6' 7", 275-pound senior defensive tackle Jon Hand sacked Tigers quarterback Pat Washington and forced a fumble that was recovered at the Auburn 18 by freshman nose guard Tommy Cole. Four plays later, Tiffin booted his first field goal of the day, a 26-yarder from the right hash mark. He kicked another early in the second quarter—after flanker Greg Richardson’s 62-yard punt return—to give Alabama a 13–0 lead.
Dye had converted the Tigers’ offense from the wishbone to the Power-I before the season to take more advantage of Jackson’s rushing skills. But through the first 21 minutes of the game, Bama had been stacking the box and keeping him in check. He had run the ball eight times for just 19 yards. The Crimson Tide were daring Washington—a wishbone quarterback who came into the game having completed just 46.9% of his passes—to beat them through the air. On first down from the Auburn 47, he did, faking a pitch right to Jackson and hitting split end Freddy Weygand in stride as he streaked down the left sideline. The pass went for 44 yards, all the way to the Alabama 9-yard line. Two plays later, Jackson, who was celebrating his 23rd birthday (and playing with two broken ribs), blasted through a hole in the middle for a seven-yard touchdown run, cutting the deficit to 13–7.
Much to the delight of Jackson and the Tigers’ offensive line, Hand had left the game after injuring his knee during Auburn’s PAT. After the Tigers’ defense forced a Crimson Tide punt, Jackson took his next carry up the middle for 20 yards. The two teams traded field goals in the minutes before halftime—Tiffin’s third of the game was good from 42 yards—and the second quarter ended with Alabama leading 16–10. It was a good game, but not a great one. Not yet.
The only scoring opportunity of the third quarter came when Tiffin attempted a 52-yard field goal from the right hash mark. His kick had plenty of leg, but it sailed wide left. Tiffin was disappointed, but not all that bothered by the miss. Back then, he says, “Nobody expected you to make it anyway.”
Tiffin had always enjoyed placekicking, and he had worked on it some growing up in Red Bay. “We lived close to the high school,” he says. “I had two or three footballs and I would take them up to the high school and practice. It was just fun.”
Tiffin was wild about football, and dreamed of playing for the Crimson Tide. His father, Bob, knew that Van was too small to play any other position but kicker in Tuscaloosa. In November 1979, he showed Van, who was then 14, a story in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED about Dr. Edward J. (Doc) Storey, a kicking guru from Ft. Lauderdale. Bob called Storey the next day—“Just called information and got his number,” says Bob—and the following March, Van went to South Florida for spring break along with his older brother, Tim, and their friend Mickey Kennedy, an appliance repairman at Tiffin Supply Company, the hardware store owned by Bob’s father, Alex. The three stayed in an RV that Bob lent to them. “It was real nice,” says Bob. “The top of the line at the time.” Tim and Kennedy would drop Van off with Storey for practice sessions in the morning and the afternoon, then go fishing or golfing to kill time.
Van’s dedication to practice was total. Throughout high school, he went to Ft. Lauderdale two or three times a year to kick with Storey. When he walked on at Alabama, he would kick for the entire practice, even though he worked with the entire team for only 10 or 15 minutes a session. “We were off by ourselves, but we never went in,” says Darren Whitlock, the Crimson Tide’s long snapper in 1985. “We stayed out because we were team players.” On Sunday afternoons, Tiffin would take Michelle out to the practice field to shag balls. “It was fun,” she says. “I enjoyed watching him. He’s so disciplined.”
Jackson wasn’t the only man playing the game with broken bones. Tiffin had broken his right hand two weeks earlier when he fell after forcing a kick returner out of bounds during a 24–13 win over Southern Miss. NCAA rules at the time forbid him from playing with a cast, so trainers had taped it up. He doesn’t remember it bothering him as he stood on the sideline and watched one of the greatest fourth quarters in college football history unfold.
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Bama began the quarter on its own nine-yard line, but a 40-yard run around right end by freshman running back Gene Jelks moved the ball out almost to midfield. The drive ended two plays later, when Auburn cornerback Kevin Porter intercepted Shula in the end zone. The Tigers then went 80 yards in 16 plays and took a 17–16 lead when Jackson dove over the line and into the end zone from one yard out.
Auburn seemed finally to have taken control of the game while the Crimson Tide appeared to be coming apart. They nearly fumbled away the ensuing kickoff, which bounced out of bounds at the 11 off a confused cluster of three returners, and Jelks was tackled for a one-yard loss on first down. But then Shula hit junior flanker Al Bell on a crossing route for 16 yards to give Alabama a first down on its own 26. The next play was a pitch right to Jelks, who cut back through the line and tore down the left sideline for a 74-yard touchdown run. “They were beating us off the ball by a half-step,” says Jelks. “So Mike said we were going to go on sound—when he touched the center. It threw them off balance.”
Norman was standing on the Crimson Tide’s sideline and Jelks passed about three feet in front of him on his way to the end zone. “He looked like a racehorse, with his nostrils flaring,” the writer says. “There was still a kind of a Bryant ethos with that team. They were just not going to lose.”
Perkins elected to go for two, but Shula’s pass to freshman running back Bobby Humphrey in the flat was off target. Alabama led 22–17. There was 5:57 remaining in the game.
Jackson began the next drive with 24 carries for 114 yards. He carried seven more times for 28 more as the Tigers chewed the clock on an advance to the Crimson Tide’s one-yard line. From there, fullback Reggie Ware plunged into the end zone with 57 seconds left. Auburn went for two, but junior linebacker Cornelius Bennett batted down Washington’s swing pass to Jackson. The Tigers led 23–22. On the Auburn sideline, Finebaum saw sports information director David Housel hugging assistant athletic director Buddy Davidson. “Everybody thought the game was over,” says Finebaum.
But the 6' 2", 198-pound Shula, who’s now the offensive coordinator of the Carolina Panthers, had other plans. Almost three months before, he had led Bama to a comeback victory over Georgia with a five-play, 71-yard touchdown drive in the final 50 seconds. He’d been here before, but the drive did not begin in promising fashion. From his own 20, his first pass fell incomplete. On second down, senior defensive end Harold Hallman sacked Shula at the Crimson Tide’s 12-yard line. The game seemed to be over.
But Alabama then moved 34 yards in a breathtaking two-play sequence. Shula hit Jelks on a sideline route for 14 yards to the 26. On fourth-and-four, Henshaw, from his perch in the press box, called down to the sideline for a reverse to Bell. “There was silence on the phone,” says Henshaw. “I thought it would work because they had been pursuing so hard from the backside all day.”
Shula, who says he still can’t believe the call, pitched the ball to Jelks, who headed right and handed it off to Bell, who swept around left end—aided by a block from Shula that flattened 6' 3", 262-pound defensive end Gerald Robinson—for a 20-yard gain. Two plays later, Shula hit Richardson over the middle on a crossing route and the receiver dragged Auburn cornerback Luvell Bivens to the sideline to stop the clock with six seconds left.
As they had done countless times in practice, Tiffin, Abney and Whitlock sprinted out onto the field. Tiffin had a one-inch tee with a white dot in the center. The signal for Whitlock to snap the ball was for Abney to lift the middle finger of his left hand off the dot. It was a subtle gesture, and the three liked it because it did not tip the defense off to the snap of the ball. Abney usually looked back and got a nod from Tiffin before calling for the ball. But this time he didn’t. He raised his finger from the tee just as Porter was sprinting from across the line off the left edge to try to block the kick. He was offsides by a mile. The diving Porter and the premature snap threw Tiffin’s timing off slightly. “I was accustomed to having two to three seconds [before the snap], but I planted my back foot and there it was. You get a field goal off in about 1.2 seconds—that one took probably 0.2 seconds longer. Kevin Porter hit the ground before I even kicked the ball.”
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Up in the Alabama radio booth, Kennedy and Layton began alternating calls of, “It’s good!” Kennedy refers to their chorus as “the Alabama Tabernacle Choir.” In 1966, Layton had made international news when he and a fellow Birmingham DJ advised their listeners to burn Beatles records in response to John Lennon’s comment that the group was “more popular than Jesus.” To the wider world, it was his defining moment in broadcasting. But to fans in football-mad Alabama, his call of The Kick is better remembered.
To get a better view of the kick, Finebaum had climbed on top of a bench on the Auburn sideline. He looked to his left and saw Jackson standing on top of a bench, too, waving a towel and exhorting the crowd. When Tiffin’s kick sailed through the uprights, he flung the towel to the ground, dropped his head and stalked off the field.
Seven days after losing in the Iron Bowl, Jackson beat out Chuck Long for the Heisman Trophy in the closest vote in the history of the award. Forgotten was the fact that Jelks had outrushed him in the Iron Bowl by 50 yards. “That game put me on the map,” says Jelks.
But the 5' 11", 170-pound Jelks never became the Crimson Tide’s lead back. In 1986 he averaged 6.1 yards on 84 carries, but the 6' 1", 180-pound Humphrey led the team with 1,471 rushing yards and 15 touchdowns on the ground. Perkins left Alabama in 1987 to coach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and new Crimson Tide coach Bill Curry moved Jelks to defensive back. He went undrafted and bounced around NFL training camps and the CFL for a few years before falling out of pro football altogether.
Bitter at Curry and Alabama, Jelks turned on the university in 1992, claiming that an Alabama booster had funneled improper benefits to him while he was still in school. The allegations prompted an NCAA investigation which resulted in a one-year bowl ban and the loss of scholarships. Jelks has since apologized, claiming that he was manipulated by Auburn boosters, and is on good terms once again with Perkins and his former teammates. “We all make mistakes,” says Jelks, who’s now a Christian speaker in Homewood, Ala. “We lash out sometimes. I have grace with Alabama now. I have my season tickets back.”
There have been no such travails for Tiffin, who has kept his head down and worked hard after leaving football behind. He and Michelle raised two children who both graduated from Alabama—daughter Shelby is 24, and is pursuing her Ph.D. in audiology at South Alabama. Leigh, who has two children of his own, now runs a new motorhome business, VanLeigh RV, that Van co-owns with Bob. “When I started in this business, there were more than 100 companies doing what we do,” says Bob. “Now there are six, and only two are independently owned. We’re one of them.”
To relax, Tiffin and Michelle have taken to raising cattle and chickens on several pieces of property that they own near their home in Muscle Shoals. “We’re hobby farmers,” says Michelle. “We have about 50 head of cows, charolais, a few black angus. Van really likes to take care of them, spreading out hay, walking the fields. He loves it. They’re very peaceful animals.”
“If my kick had beaten LSU or Mississippi State, it would have been a big moment,” says Tiffin. “But I don’t think it would have had the import. Typically, when I get outside the state, there’s not much said about it. But things are different in Alabama.”