The pass was a sweet, tight spiral, thrown by Colorado's Kordell Stewart into the early autumn gloaming. You can say that there was planning in this play—or even that providence had a hand in it—but at the time it seemed nothing more than the last, desperate act of a team destined to lose a football game. A hopeless stab at a 64-yard miracle with six seconds left. "I heaved it out there," said Stewart. "I just heaved it." The ball floated against the lights illuminating the south end of Michigan Stadium, and more than 100,000 Michigan fans waited only for the incompletion to become official before loosing themselves in victory.
For five seconds of real time the ball hung in the air with No. 4 Michigan leading No. 7 Colorado 26-21 last Saturday. For six seconds, for seven, eight.... Time for two unbeaten teams to wait, to measure the stakes, to gather their dreams.
In a converted garage attached to his house on Adam Drive in Marrero, La., across the Mississippi River from New Orleans, a 52-year-old jack-of-all-trades named Robert Stewart was engaging in one of them—barbering. He was cutting a neighbor's hair, and because his house isn't wired for pay-per-view (and Colorado-Michigan wasn't the network choice for his area), he was watching a replay of the pass on the local news, moments after it took place. He was watching stone-cold, unaware of the result, as his son dropped back, paused and stepped toward history. Robert had taken custody of Kordell when his former wife died of liver cancer when their son was nine, and for nine years they had lived like soul mates. Just the Monday before, they had embraced in Boulder as Robert ended a weekend visit. "My main man," Kordell says. "My daddy, my big brother."
Now the father watched as the son let fly. "I sure hope he throws a good, long pass," Robert said to his customer. "Throw it to that Westbrook boy," he shouted at the television.
In the front row of the huge bowl in Ann Arbor sat 43 of Michael Westbrook's family members and friends. His mother, Mercy Westbrook; his big brother, Alonzo; and his big sister, Falesha; were all there dressed in number 81 black-and-gold Colorado jerseys, and his father, Bobby Sledge, was there too, watching Michael run past the Colorado bench toward the end zone. Westbrook, a senior wideout for the Buffaloes, was raised on the west side of Detroit, not 20 miles from the Michigan campus, yet Saturday was the first time he had set foot on the Wolverines' famous field, because Michigan had not recruited him. "Growing up, I had Michigan pillows, Michigan bedspreads, everything," says Westbrook. "I always wanted to play in that stadium."
At the top of the stadium, across the field from the Colorado bench, Dick Anderson paced on the roof above an ABC-TV booth. Anderson, who had played for the Miami Dolphins in two Super Bowl victories, had been interviewed during the telecast about his son Blake, a 6-foot, 185-pound senior and sparingly used wideout for Colorado. Now Blake was on the field for the final play, one of three receivers deployed to the wide side of the field. The elder Anderson had been an All-Pro safety, so he knew the odds. "You just put a defensive back in the end zone and tell him not to get sucked up by anything," he said later. "It's what, one in 20? One in 30? One in a hundred?"
Facing each other across the field were Michigan coach Gary Moeller and Colorado coach Bill McCartney. They both had been given their first college coaching job by Wolverine legend Bo Schembechler, they had worked together at Michigan in the 1970s, and yet they are very different. Moeller is a coach's coach who lives to watch film and would sooner give up food and water than his sideline headset and the control it affords him. McCartney is co-founder of a nationwide Christian men's group. The Buffaloes and Stewart have prospered this season in large part because McCartney turned the offensive headset over to one of his assistants. Where Moeller often sees X's and O's, McCartney sometimes sees destiny. At stake for each was a run through autumn in pursuit of a national championship. Schembechler had called each of them on Saturday morning, and as if McCartney, a Michigan native returning home to an audience that included his 84-year-old mother, Ruth, didn't already understand the importance of the game, Schembechler told him, "I wish I was going to be on the other side."
And on a metal bench reserved for Colorado's defensive players, 6'3", 270-pound junior defensive tackle Shannon Clavelle stood as tall as he could and raised his arms to the heavens, signaling touchdown, even as Stewart's throw was only beginning its plunge toward the ground, with, by now, all zeroes frozen on the scoreboard clock. How could he have known? "Faith," Clavelle said. "Faith in my team."
The final play began after Stewart, having intentionally grounded the ball at the Colorado 34 because the Buffaloes had no timeouts left, faced his huddle and made the only call possible in such a situation: "Jets, Rocket, Victory." That's Colorado footballese for wide receivers (Jets) go long (Rocket), I throw it as far as I can, we hope somebody gets lucky (Victory). The huddle broke, and Westbrook, Anderson and sophomore Rae Carruth lined up wide left, with sophomore James Kidd off to the right.
It is a play the Buffaloes practice as part of a two-minute drill in their workout each Thursday. "The last play of the day," McCartney said. "And even then you're careful, because you don't want guys going up, colliding, getting hurt." Stewart throws the ball long, Westbrook and Anderson stop at the goal line and try to tip the ball to Carruth or Kidd, outside them. It doesn't often work.
How did Colorado get here, in dire enough straits to have to pull out this play, just seven days after erasing strong Wisconsin 55-17? After leading Michigan 14-3 on a splendidly executed option-read and pass from Stewart to Westbrook with 7:54 left in the first half?
The Buffaloes got here in a variety of ways. First, they had committed two turnovers and five penalties and allowed a 65-yard, second-and-10 touchdown pass from Wolverine quarterback Todd Collins to Amani Toomer, all in the second half. When it took possession on its 28 with 3:52 to play, Colorado trailed 26-14 and seemed certain to lose this Sadistic Schedule Bowl (Michigan: Boston College, at Notre Dame, Colorado, plus the Big Ten; Colorado: Wisconsin, at Michigan, at Texas, plus the Big Eight).
But in 10 plays and 96 seconds, the Buffaloes scored to pull to 26-21 with 2:16 to go. Stewart, who would finish with 294 passing yards on 21 completions in 32 attempts and 85 rushing yards on 20 carries, completed four throws for 28 yards on the drive, ran for 30 yards and pitched to Rashaan Salaam for a one-yard TD. The ensuing onside kick was recovered by the Wolverines, but a procedure penalty forced Michigan to punt, the kick pinning Colorado to its 15-yard line with 14 seconds left and no timeouts. "Honestly," said Collins, "I was thinking that 85 yards in 14 seconds was pretty tough."
The Buffaloes got 21 yards on a pass to Westbrook. As the clock ticked down to six seconds, Stewart slammed the ball into the grass. One play left.
It would be a play similar to the one that Colorado had run on the last snap of the first half from its own 44, when Stewart had thrown the ball 65 yards into the Michigan end zone, where it had been intercepted by free safety Chuck Winters. This time, from 10 yards farther back, McCartney doubted the ball would even reach the goal line. "I was watching our receivers, hoping for a penalty," McCartney said. "I thought we needed some more yards."
He underestimated his quarterback. Stewart took a seven-step drop, paused, stepped slightly left, shuffled backward and then drove into the throw, never pressured by Michigan's three-man rush. The pass traveled 73 yards in the air. (Westbrook says he has seen the 6'3", 210-pound Stewart throw a ball 85 yards.) There were six Michigan defenders inside the five-yard line when Anderson leaped with Winters and both batted at the ball, sending it toward the end zone. "I definitely hit it," Anderson said. Winters, a Detroit native who played Little League baseball against Westbrook, said, "The ball hit my hand." Behind the two of them, the 6'4", 210-pound Westbrook was slanting into the end zone when he jumped, took the ball off the back of cornerback Ty Law's jersey and fell to the grass cradling it against his chest. Officials on either side of Westbrook signaled touchdown, plunging the huge stadium into silence. "That was some sound, all of a sudden," said Buffalo free safety Steve Rosga, who watched from the bench.
Stewart said, "All I saw was this big muscular arm hit the ball, and then I saw somebody fall down, and then I heard the crowd get quiet, and it looked like a big old truck just swept our whole sideline onto the field." Stewart followed, running toward the celebratory pile in the end zone. "I was dying, running down the field," Stewart said. "I tried to yell, but my Adam's apple came up into my throat."
Back in Louisiana, his father put down the scissors as the film ran. "I was so happy for my son, I just didn't know what to do," said Robert Stewart. In the front row of the stands, Mercy Westbrook wept.
The extra point was never attempted, leaving Colorado with a 27-26 victory. It would be at least a minute before the scoreboard operator could bear to post the final six points.
The Wolverines shuffled from the field, helmets perched on the tops of their heads, blank stares on their faces. "This feels as bad as anyone would think it does," said Collins, who threw for 258 yards. The Michigan players are not unaccustomed to crushing disappointment—all-too-frequent losses to Notre Dame, last year's final-minute defeat at the hands of Illinois, and so on. But this game, and this season, had a different feel. The Wolverines had beaten the Irish, and then, for the matchup against Colorado, Tyrone Wheatley, the preseason Heisman Trophy favorite, returned after missing two games with a separated shoulder. He scored to give Michigan a 17-14 lead in the third quarter.
When it was over, Moeller stayed in character, diagramming the final pass in his head. "We all know how to defend it," he said. "They just caught it." So, too, did McCartney stay true to himself. "Amen," he said. "This is a testament to faith."
In the full darkness outside Michigan Stadium, while three buses waited to take the Buffaloes to the airport and on to the rest of a season that seemed instantly charmed, Stewart and Westbrook walked away from the friends and family and roommates and fans. They walked to the base of a maize-and-blue concrete wall, stood beneath a spotlight and hugged.
There was much in the miracle for each man. For Westbrook, it was the perfect ending to his chance to come home—"to finally play in front of my friends." And it more than justified the decision he made last spring to remain at Colorado for his last year of eligibility. And for Stewart, that rare and lethal quarterback who can both drop back and run the option, it washed away the pain of being called a choker after he fell to pieces in last year's 21-17 home loss to Nebraska.
As Stewart stood in the darkness outside Michigan Stadium, he was asked about a play made 10 seasons ago by a tiny quarterback in a huge game. "Doug Flutie," Stewart said. "I remember the play. Now it's Flutie and me."
It is a comparison that will be made, a debate that has now begun. Which is the more memorable play? Stewart's pass was 16 yards longer, Flutie's more improvised. Stewart's came in an early-season game, Flutie's came in the Orange Bowl, in late November. Flutie's led to a Heisman Trophy, Stewart's...we shall see. But most of all there is the image, replayed again last weekend, of Flutie running up the field, jumping aboard a teammate and of his Boston College roommate Gerard Phelan tumbling backward into the end zone with the ball cradled in his stomach. Of stunned Miami players, 47-45 losers. It is where we remember Flutie, always, never anywhere else.
Some people tried to enlarge the picture on Saturday in Ann Arbor, to give perspective to Colorado's victory. "This puts us in great position for the national championship," McCartney said. And so it may. But for Kordell Stewart, like Flutie, there is no need for enlargement. His pass was big enough all by itself.