Sometimes an athlete must wait to become a legend, even when there seems to be an irresistible rush toward his coronation and even when that player is the Notre Dame quarterback. Sometimes he must wait because there is this madness that appears in college sports at precisely the moment that things seem most predictable. "Sometimes," said Notre Dame senior linebacker Jeremy Nau, standing in the gathering twilight last Saturday outside Notre Dame Stadium, "roles get reversed, and you don't know how it happened."
There was to be a story written that day that would challenge plausibility. A sturdy, 20-year-old Pennsylvanian named Ron Powlus had become the Fighting Irish's quarterback after more than a year's anticipation. In his debut a week earlier he had thrown four touchdown passes in a prime-time slaughter of Northwestern, inspiring talk of multiple Heisman trophies and earning him more airtime in the ensuing days than Richard Ravitch and Donald Fehr combined.
And then with 52 seconds left in Notre Dame's home opener against Michigan on Saturday—a clash imbued, as always, with season-long ramifications—Powlus seemed to have rescued the afternoon for the Fighting Irish with a seven-yard touchdown pass to wideout Derrick Mayes at the back of the end zone. Powlus threw a dart, a high, tight spiral placed in the only available spot—just over Michigan free safety Chuck Winters—and it was snatched from the sky by Mayes, prompting a dizzying celebration. The extra point made it 24-23 for Notre Dame.
From the Michigan sideline, fifth-year senior quarterback Todd Collins watched impassively. He had chosen Michigan over Notre Dame as a high school senior in Walpole, Mass., knowing that as a Wolverine quarterback he would never be so praised as Powlus already has been. "That was part of the reason I didn't go there." Collins says. "I can easily live without all that." Now he heard those hosannas to Powlus, with less than a minute to play. "You were all ready to put him on the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and make him the Golden Boy, like Rick Mirer," Collins said later, referring to a 1990 SI cover that Michigan folk have never forgotten.
September 18, 1994
Also looking on from the Michigan bench was junior kicker Remy Hamilton. He is the anti-Powlus, a kid who was suspended from his team last January after being charged with shoplifting beer from an Ann Arbor convenience store. (Hamilton pleaded no contest and was absolved of any guilt.) He was reinstated in time for spring practice, but his technique was so poor that it seemed certain he would not win the first-string placekicking job. "He knew that he'd messed up, and his confidence was gone," said Michigan kicking coach Mike DeBord. "His technique was so bad he was missing PATs."
While Powlus spent his summer in preparation for a three-ring entrance onto the national stage, Hamilton was home in Boca Raton, Fla., kicking 50 to 75 balls a day at Patch Reef Park and Spanish River High. His parents, Harry and Dianne, would shag balls for the younger of their two sons. "We tried to help him get back in real good shape," says Harry. "It's a hard thing, to go out there and kick by yourself. You wouldn't expect a quarterback to throw alone." Some mornings—"mornings when I didn't feel like getting up, when I felt like going to the beach," says Remy—it was the parents who would wake the son and take him to his workout. He is, in a very real sense, this year's model of David Gordon, who kicked the winning field goal in Boston College's epic 41-39 upset of Notre Dame last Nov. 20. He is what wrenches the story line from its appointed course.
Used primarily for kickoffs last season and in the Wolverines' season-opening win over Boston College, Hamilton was told only Saturday morning that he would handle all the kicking duties against Notre Dame. Standing on the side of the field in the closing seconds of the game, he was stretching to keep loose, because the kickers' practice net already had been folded and put away. Collins took Michigan 59 yards in four plays: a 15-yard scramble, a 26-yard completion to tight end Jay Riemersma, a nine-yard pass to freshman wideout Seth Smith and, with 14 seconds and no timeouts remaining, a remarkable, nine-yard completion to Smith. Collins released the ball as he was thrown to the ground by Notre Dame linebacker Bert Berry, and then Smith dived out of bounds at the Notre Dame 24. Seven seconds remained.
When Hamilton lined up his 42-yard held goal attempt, he had already been successful in three of four tries against the Irish, but he had never in his life won a game with a kick. Before he could get the kick off, Notre Dame took a timeout because it had 12 men on the Held. Hamilton jogged to the sideline, where injured Michigan co-captain Walter Smith, an inspirational leader who limps to the center of the field for coin tosses even though he is out for the season, talked in the ear hole of Hamilton's helmet. "Be a dog," Smith told him. Translation: "It means, 'Play hard, have a strong mental attitude,' " Smith says. "You could say that's our motto." Another voice whispered to Hamilton, saying, "Good luck," a voice belonging to Mike Gillette. Notre Darners like to say that their stadium is inhabited by ghosts (at Friday night's pep rally, former quarterback Terry Hanratty went so far as to summon the ghosts of John Huarte and Joe Theismann, both of whom are very much alive), and Gillette is surely one who has been haunted.
On Sept. 10, 1988, exactly six years earlier, Gillette, then a senior kicker at Michigan, missed a 48-yard field goal as time expired, preserving Notre Dame's 19-17 victory and making a national hero of Irish walk-on kicker Reggie Ho, who had booted four field goals, including the 26-yard game-winner with 1:18 to play. Notre Dame went on to win the national championship. Gillette wore number 19, which Hamilton wears now. Gillette was a high school quarterback, as was Hamilton. One difference: Hamilton struck his 42-yard attempt sweetly and nailed the field goal that gave the Wolverines a 26-24 victory and a 2-0 record. "When I looked up," Hamilton said, "all I could see was the ball going into the middle of the net."
We will be lost these next two autumns—will we not?—as Notre Dame and Michigan interrupt this series, which for 10 consecutive years has been the matchup that truly began the college football season, Kickoff and Pigskin Classics notwithstanding. It was the series that made stars of Rocket Ismail and Desmond Howard and Mirer, that gave us Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz defending his decision to settle for a tie in 1992, that produced last year's 27-23 Notre Dame upset, an Irish triumph that foretold their quality. The last seven games have been decided by a total of 27 points.
Next year Notre Dame opens with Northwestern, Purdue and Vanderbilt, a gimme 3-0. Michigan's nonleague schedule consists of Boston College, Memphis and Miami of Ohio. "A terrible schedule." says Michigan coach Gary Moeller. It is, however—and this stinks—more suited to winning a national championship. But none of these games will teach us what Notre Dame-Michigan has taught us over the years.
On Saturday we learned of a Michigan running back named Tshimanga Biakabutuka, and he would prefer that you not call him Tim. Pilling in for Wolverine star Tyrone Wheatley, who's expected to return from his shoulder injury on Sept. 24 against Colorado, Biakabutuka rushed for 100 very difficult yards. You will hear much more of him, this sophomore from Zaire by way of Montreal, a fascinating youth who speaks four languages, strikes terror in ladders with his quick feet and evinces a terrific understanding of good-old-American, quick-fix hero worship. "People like me because they think my name is funny," he says. Correct. Mispronunciation was the hook to every feature done on Biakabutuka during game week.
We also learned that Michigan, which had lost four of its last seven to Notre Dame going into last week's game, now has a chance to reach October still alive in the race for the national championship. We learned that Notre Dame, even with Powlus, might be in a transition year between runs at finishing No. 1, with suspect front sevens on both sides of the ball.
And we learned most of all about Powlus, who bears an extraordinary burden. Notre Dame quarterbacks have always performed under the brightest of lights, but Powlus enters his term during a sports media explosion, with talk radio, teleconferences and live remotes, and with even-one of the Irish's 11 games on network television. "Everybody told me that when you're the quarterback at Notre Dame, things are crazy." Powlus said three days before the Michigan game. "They were right." Yet Powlus remains much the same fresh-scrubbed kid who was loved by all of Berwick, Pa. Each night he returns to his dorm suite in Planner Tower, which he shares with three other students, and he dutifully answers all of the letters that arrive in a small stack each day at the football office.
If the wait for his debut left Notre Dame fans frothing (Powlus twice broke his right collarbone last year as a true freshman and didn't play a down), his performance against Northwestern caused unbridled frenzy. "How many Heismans can this kid win?" gushed Brent Musburger on ABC. "Two." said Beano Cook on ESPN. On a dull, ordinary Wednesday in South Bend, he could not walk from the athletic offices at Joyce Center to Notre Dame Stadium, a distance of perhaps 100 yards, without signing four autographs. His number 3 jersey can be purchased in both adult and children's sizes at the Notre Dame bookstore and was seen in great numbers on fans during the Michigan game.
He completed 15 of 27 passes for 187 yards and two touchdowns in the loss to Michigan and held up under heavy heat that included six sacks. He was especially poised in the pocket, possessed of that rare ability to sense pressure before it reaches him. No surprise to his teammates. "I expected this from him last year," says Mayes. Powlus's lowest moment came with 4:35 to play, when he fumbled an exchange from center Mark Zataveski on Notre Dame's 37, a turnover that led to Hamilton's third field goal and a 23-17 Michigan lead with 2:15 to play. Barely a minute later, Mayes lay in the end zone, holding what seemed certain to be the winning score.
But lost in the crush to crown Powlus was the smoothly efficient performance of Collins, a lean, 6'5" pocket passer stamped from the same mold that produced Elvis Grbac before him. Against the Irish, Collins completed 21 of 29 passes for 224 yards, better numbers than Powlus's and produced with considerably less noise. Collins is most at home bass fishing on a lake in his native New England or slalom water skiing with 15 feet slashed off the rope ("Don't tell the coaches." he whispers, of the latter avocation), not in the center of swirling hype.
To set up Hamilton's field goal, he coolly scrambled for a first down, hit Riemersma on a middle streak that he had overthrown earlier, then found Smith twice, the second time throwing nearly from the ground. As the winning field goal went through the uprights, Collins shot both arms into the air. "Our turn this year." he said. And if Hamilton was Gordon, the Boston College kicker, then surely Collins was Glenn Foley, the Eagles' star quarterback of a year ago who is now a backup for the New York Jets and whose presence at BC helped discourage Collins from going there. All of this was a chillingly familiar scenario. "Dèjà vu." said Nau. "Exactly like Boston College."
In the Notre Dame dressing room, Holtz addressed his players and then slowly worked the room. I le slopped at Powlus's cubicle and patted his quarterback's head, which teammates took as a sign of both compassion and support.
Outside, near the deep tunnel that leads from the Notre Dame campus to the floor of the stadium. Hamilton, for the first time that he could remember, signed autographs. His father once owned the Bolero Motel and Bar, hard by the Atlantic Ocean in Wildwood, N.J. Remy was' born on Aug. 30, 1974, just before Harry and Dianne closed up the place for the summer. They named him Remy Martin Hamilton, after a fine cognac they used to serve. Saturday was his and theirs to toast.
For Ron Powlus, there will be many other moments on many other days, a legend built slowly and sure to prosper. How did the roles get reversed, you ask? Just a small slice of madness.