The longest NCAA championship soccer game ever, between Duke and Indiana, was 2½ hours and seven overtimes old, the score was still tied at 1-1, and the field at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. last Saturday night was so littered with the lame and weary that it resembled a Mathew Brady photograph of a Civil War battlefield. The undefeated Blue Devils, ranked No. 1 most of the season, had Sweeper Back Joe Ulrich, winner of the Hermann Award, college soccer's equivalent of the Heisman. Indiana, with a tougher schedule, had won 20 straight games, after losing three of its first four, and had the Hermann runner-up, Senior Wing Back Gregg Thompson, alias Thumper. As the eighth OT began, heavy questions were being asked: Could either team lose? Would the game ever end? What exactly is meant by sudden death?
With 44 seconds left in that overtime, Thompson came up with all the answers. Having been switched to forward for the first time since his freshman year, Thompson had been awarded a direct free kick from 20 yards after Ulrich had tripped him. "I didn't know if I had any energy left to kick," Thompson said of the freebie. But he caught the ball on the inside of his right foot and sliced it around the wall of Duke defenders and just within the right goalpost to give Indiana its first NCAA title in 10 years of playing varsity soccer.
The game was wondrous to contemplate. Indeed, there had been something special about it from the moment the two teams qualified for it. For one thing, neither finalist was primarily a team of foreigners, which bodes well for the future of U.S. soccer. In fact, even the defeated semifinalists were virtually all-American teams—Connecticut, the 1981 champion, which lost to Duke 2-1, and Southern Illinois at Edwardsville, which fell to Indiana 1-0. And, oddly, Duke and Indiana had never played each other and didn't even have a common opponent this season. So the game had dramatic potential, and for 159 minutes and 16 seconds the play was the thing.
The Blue Devils were overpowering at first, but they failed to take advantage of the tentative Hoosiers. Then, at the five-minute mark, Indiana's man-to-man defense tightened; suddenly the Blue Devils' offense was going nowhere. Fifteen minutes into the first half Thompson took a loose ball in the Duke penalty area, trapped it with his right foot and thumped it home. Indiana led 1-0.
The nickname Thumper doesn't derive from Thompson's soccer kicking. His football coach at Stillwater (Minn.) High gave Thompson the moniker because he supposedly ran like the rabbit Thumper in Bambi. It was a compliment. In 1978, his senior season, he rushed for 1,500 yards in 10 games and was named Minnesota Athlete of the Year. He received football scholarship offers from Wisconsin, Iowa, Colorado and Minnesota, to name a few. But he decided to play soccer in college after playing club soccer in Stillwater, where it's played in the spring. "It was the toughest decision of my life," he says.
"He was an average player when he came to me," says Indiana Soccer Coach Jerry Yeagley, "but now he's a superlative one. And he's easily the best athlete I've coached in my 20-year career."
At halftime Saturday Yeagley said to Thompson and the other Hoosiers, "We're not going to sit on the lead, but we're not going to take any chances, either."
John Rennie, the Duke coach, told his troops, "From the neck up you played one of your worst 45 minutes ever. But I'm telling you this: The score's not going to be 1-0 when the game ends."
Midway through the second half, Thompson, who had been sidelined for five weeks in October and November with left knee and thigh injuries, went down again. He leaped for the ball with Pat Johnston, the Duke goalie, and fell to the ground clutching his left thigh. He limped off the field, and that seemed to inspire Duke. With 8½ minutes to play, the Blue Devils' Sean McCoy took a pass, dribbled the ball 10 yards to Indiana's penalty area and neatly chipped it over the head of Goalie Chris Peterson. Peterson had given up only nine goals in the 18 games he had played this year, and three of those were on free kicks, so Duke could hardly expect many more scores. But at least the Blue Devils had tied the game. And there it would remain—for a very long time.
With the 90 minutes of regulation time having ended, and the score 1-1, NCAA rules called for two 15-minute sudden death overtime periods. At 5:40 of the first one, Thompson, who had returned to action shortly after McCoy's goal, fell hard and went to the sidelines once more. Again his misfortune seemed to inspirit Duke, which began whipping shots goal-ward from all angles. The Blue Devils outshot Indiana 6-2 in those first two OTs. But Indiana held, and at the end of the second 15 minutes the game had stretched to two hours. The score, of course, was still tied.
The next step was to play as many five-minute sudden-death periods as would be needed to resolve this impasse. Presumably, the overtimes could go on all night. Thompson returned to play, but this time his presence didn't seem to daunt Duke. Ulrich, called "a maestro" by some of his backs, was directing the show from his sweeper position. The Blue Devils were controlling the ball, but the Hoosier defense was impenetrable. At one juncture, when Duke Defender Mike Jeffries fired on the Indiana goal, the only Hoosier who wasn't lined up in front of it was Goalie Peterson. But as tough as the Indiana defense was, its offense was as unyielding in quite another sense. The scene, it seemed, was being set for Soccer at Sunrise.
Or, maybe, M*A*S*H. As the fourth five-minute period began, Thompson went up for a ball with Jeffries, tumbled and limped off for a third time. Others who fell arose more and more slowly. There was a time-out, and the players looked like students in a mass outdoor yoga class, stretching their hamstrings and twisting at their waists. Play was getting sloppy, and as the sixth OT ended, it was announced that the coaches and NCAA officials had agreed to try 10-minute periods. As the first one began, 59 minutes of play had elapsed since McCoy had tied the score. Thompson returned, cramped up yet again and went out. Duke attacked. Indiana couldn't counterattack. And about the time that 10-minute period No. 1 concluded, Hoosier Assistant Coach Don Rawson turned to Yeagley, who had just said, "What a great game for college soccer," and asked, "Do you think the NCAA would consider declaring co-champions?"
"No way," Yeagley said. "I've waited 20 years. I'd rather lose it than be a co-champion."
Seventy-five seconds into the second 10-minute period, Duke Forward Tom Kain launched a kick from just inside the penalty area toward the Indiana goal, but it bounced harmlessly away after appearing to hit Hoosier Sweeper Dan King on the hands. It was the game's only controversial play. Duke players and fans screamed for a "handball," an infraction that calls for a penalty shot, kicker against goalie, one-on-one. Nine of 10 such kicks strike home. But Referee Al Kleinitis saw no handball, and the game lurched on. Minutes later, Paul DiBernardo, the 5'4" brother of Angelo, the Hoosiers' two-time All-America (1977-78), passed off to Thompson, who ran afoul of Ulrich, and the rest is very special NCAA history.
Ulrich, who has been drafted in the first round by the New York Arrows of the MISL and who's waiting confidently for word from the NASL, said afterward, "As sweeper I'm the last man before my goal, and Thompson is very quick. He was in the area where he could have scored easily. But I went for the ball, not him."
Thompson, a finance major with an A—average, was scheduled to graduate this week, and in three weeks he's to marry his high school sweetheart, Nelle Palmer. He has also been drafted in the MISL first round, by the Lazers, and an NASL offer looks like a sure thing. Further, on this interminable night in Fort Lauderdale he'd scored two goals in one game for the first time in his brilliant Indiana career. He was asked, "Do you ever regret choosing soccer over football?"
"Are you kidding?" he replied.