Watching the now legendary last-second, court-length drive by Brigham Young's Danny Ainge against Notre Dame in the semifinals of the 1981 NCAA Eastern Regionals evoked memories for me of a similar feat, though in football, not basketball. The time: 1977. The place: Westerville, Ohio. The occasion: Otterbein College's season-ending game against Marietta College. The unlikely hero: a puckish, bespectacled defensive tackle named Joe Bringardner.
On the November evening in question, 11 Otterbein seniors, Joe and I among them, took the field for our last game of the season. We were the holdovers from a recruiting class of 55 that had been heralded, as such groups annually seem to be, as "one of the best ever." Four years, a dozen or so transfers, a bunch of injuries and countless wind sprints later, the remains of 1974's particular version of "the best ever" were set to quietly call it a career, Otterbein having had a 23-11-1 record during their stay. And with a single exception, that's exactly what we did.
The exception was Bringardner, or Bringo, as nearly everyone at Otterbein knew him. And nearly everyone at Otterbein did know him, at least by sight. His squat 5'11", 210-pound physique was—and still is—capped by a head of receding, curly hair that made him look like Larry of The Three Stooges. A pair of professorial wire-rimmed glasses, which always seemed much too small for his cherubic face, hugged a countenance that was anything but professorial. A chronic prankster and joke teller, Bringo was one of our two non-starting seniors; during his four years, he had seen only occasional action on various specialty teams.
At the time this article went to press, Bringo had a 23-4-1 career record as freshman football coach at West Jefferson High, just outside Columbus, Ohio. His 1980 squad—typically sound in fundamentals, disciplined and enthusiastic—ran up seven consecutive shutouts while averaging nearly 40 points a game during an 8-0 season. This success is perhaps attributable to the fact that, as coach or player, teacher or jester, starter or understudy, Bringo remains consistent on one count: He truly loves football.
In his last game at Otterbein, Bringo's devotion was oddly and unexpectedly rewarded with a single heroic moment.
The night was cold, but the 20° temperature and clear, late-autumn sky seemed almost agreeable in contrast to our memories of the freezing rain that had hammered us four weeks earlier in a game against Baldwin-Wallace. The rain and the host Yellow Jackets had been relentless, sending us home with a 33-7 defeat, the blot on the 7-1 record we brought into the season finale with the Marietta Pioneers. Bringo's sense of disappointment after the Baldwin-Wallace game had been deeper and more personal than the rest of us had felt over the loss of our perfect record and any realistic shot at the Ohio Athletic Conference title. Turning to me in the sporadic light as we sullenly traveled home along the glistening freeway, Bringo confessed, "Only four weeks left, Boltzie. I'm really going to miss football when it's all over." The loss had given him a sense of mortality: In less than a month, his playing days over, Bringo would have to say goodby to the game he had so enthusiastically courted for almost a decade.
Those final weeks and even the final game itself passed with unusual dispatch. My memory of our finale is hazy and fragmentary, probably because the game was undistinguished until the closing seconds, indeed, the final play. Then, in a single effort worthy of legend, Bringo bade farewell to the game he loved with an accomplishment as notable as Ainge's layup.
The game had been hard-hitting, but had lacked offensive fireworks. The Otter defense had sparkled throughout, holding the Pioneers to 127 yards total offense and keeping them off the scoreboard. Otterbein's offense had pushed across two touchdowns for a 12-0 half-time lead but had managed only a field goal in the second half. The Marietta defense had regrouped to completely bottle up our running game and disrupt our passing attack, in the process holding this writer (then a wide receiver) without a reception, as it had for four consecutive years.
After the last of our incomplete passes, the Pioneer offense mechanically took the field to play out the final four seconds of the 1977 season. On the sidelines, I had already begun shaking hands and exchanging bear hugs with coaches and teammates. Twelve years of football had come to an end for me, and though I hadn't caught a pass that night, a glow of fulfillment warmed my chilled body. Almost as an afterthought, I glanced at the field to watch Marietta run its last play.
The ball was snapped at the Pioneers' 42-yard line, and Mark Boy, their star running back, took a straight handoff and followed his fullback off left guard on a simple isolation play. Breaking from a mass of padded bodies, Boy scooted to near midfield, where he broke a tackle and began to pick up speed. A sudden roar from what remained of the crowd interrupted the celebration already under way on our sideline and directed all attention back to the field. Boy had reached the Otterbein 35, where he broke two more tackles and reversed his field, traversing nearly the full width of the field, with red-shirted defenders in frantic pursuit, before again setting course toward the goal line. At the 10-yard line, he sidestepped the tackle of Otterbein's all-conference safety. Bob Talpas, and seemed to be home free. But before he could reach the end zone, Boy was ridden down from behind by Bringo, who had been rushed into the game, almost patronizingly, for the final seconds. It was several minutes before the buzz of the crowd evaporated into the crisp November air. By that time both teams had haphazardly made their way to the warmth of the locker rooms and the chill of the ultimate off-season ahead.
The true beauty of Bringo's heroic touchdown-saving pursuit wouldn't be appreciated until game films were developed and inspected the next day, because who could have anticipated such a thing? In this respect, Bringo's play was very different from Ainge's. While virtually everyone in the Omni in Atlanta—and in America, for that matter—knew that Ainge had the ability to perform the miracle Brigham Young needed, absolutely no one expected Bringo, of all people, to preserve the shutout for his teammates.
Expectations aside, what the films revealed was a truly remarkable and inspiring effort. At the snap of the ball, Bringo, who had lined up at left defensive tackle, charged across the line of scrimmage to a point about two yards into the Marietta backfield. As Boy ripped through the pack on the other side of the center, Bringo crashed to the ground, cut down by a lunging Marietta lineman. The clock by now read 00:00; time had run out on Bringo's career. So, why didn't he simply lie there? What motivated him to fight to his feet and begin sprinting down the field in what would surely be a hopeless chase?
Whatever moved Bringo—love, instinct, reflex or fate—he reappeared on the screen when Boy was at the Otterbein 30. While several other Otter defenders were abruptly cut down by Pioneer blocks, Bringo's progression toward the northeast corner of the field was straight and uninterrupted. While others slowed, in fatigue or resignation, he sped past them, arms pumping furiously, barreling after the fleeing ballcarrier. At the seven he had Boy in his clutches; at the four he brought Boy to the ground, 54 yards from the line of scrimmage. Bringo had concluded his career where he most wanted and most deserved to be—on the field, at the center of the action.
I saw Bringo last summer for the first time in more than six months. Initially, he seemed every bit as comic and mischievous as he had been in college. But, as we worked our way through a pitcher of beer, I began to detect from time to time an incongruous look of dignity creeping out from behind his old Cheshire-cat grin. I later decided that the barley, hops and bad lighting had played their own jokes on my senses. After all, this was Bringo, the guy who had stacked 500 pounds of rocks against the door to my room in Davis Hall. Nevertheless, as our conversation shifted from reminiscence to the realities of the present, I asked Bringo to account for the amazing success his teams at West Jefferson, have enjoyed. His answer was immediate and direct: "My kids just love to play football more than other kids." And that, you can be sure, is no joke.