Lying there, with anxious faces peering down at him and the
plastic grass growing cold under his hands, Leeland McElroy felt
a buzz pass through his body, across his arms, to the ends of
his fingers. He didn't want to move. This was strange. This was
new. Clouds tumbled across the late-afternoon Colorado sky; you
could smell winter coming and something else going: McElroy's
Heisman Trophy, Texas A&M's national championship, the Aggies'
best chance to erase the humiliation of last year's
probation--all of it floating up like wispy smoke. "Never had I
been hit that hard," McElroy said.
The play had been Texas A&M's last shot. The Aggies had come
into Folsom Field last Saturday ranked No. 3 and rolling, had
come to play the No. 7 Buffaloes in the season's first marquee
matchup with McElroy, the college game's best tailback, on a
remarkable tear--averaging nearly 10 yards every time he touched
the ball and drawing comparisons with Walter Payton and lording
over his very own page on the World Wide Web, for god's sake.
But now it was late, and nothing had gone right. Now it was
Colorado 29-21 with 7:12 to play, and 'Lectric Leeland,
unplugged and unimpressive with just 52 yards rushing, was
pulling down a kickoff at the three-yard line. He had been
waiting for his one big play all day, and suddenly he was
running, cutting to the 10- ... 15- ... 25-yard line, maybe this
is it, finally, gaining speed....
No. The sound of the hit carried far, a crack of sickening
solidity, and suddenly a Colorado freshman named Hannibal Navies
stood over McElroy with his fists punching the air. McElroy was
on his back, barely moving his feet. "I don't even remember it,"
McElroy said after the game. "My whole body went numb, started
tingling." He didn't get up for 10 seconds. Then McElroy wobbled
to the sideline, his game essentially over.
"He's supposed to be one of the best running backs in the
nation," Navies shrugged. "That does something for me."
It did more for Colorado, which, by taking all of McElroy's
Heisman hype as gospel truth--and responding accordingly--emerged
as college football's September surprise. Last winter, when the
Buffaloes seemingly lost the heart of their team with the
departures of Heisman Trophy-winning running back Rashaan
Salaam, star quarterback Kordell Stewart, All-America receiver
Michael Westbrook and national-champion coach Bill McCartney,
the world had been quick to rank them as a second-tier power.
But now, after disposing of Texas A&M to go 4-0, "we're on our
way," said linebacker Matt Russell. "We feel like we've got a
shot at the national title."
McElroy won't argue. Under rookie coach Rick Neuheisel, Colorado
has quickly distinguished itself as united, aggressive and very
smart. After switching the Buffaloes to the 4-3 defense this
season, defensive coordinator A.J. Christoff secretly scrapped
that look last week--playing 12 men in practice to throw off any
would-be spies--for an ever-shifting hybrid featuring five down
linemen intent on keeping McElroy in check. Meanwhile, Neuheisel
ordered that WANTED posters of McElroy be plastered in the
Colorado locker room.
"I made a point to our guys: The Heisman Trophy belongs to the
University of Colorado until somebody takes it away," said the
34-year-old Neuheisel after the victory. "We certainly weren't
going to let somebody else come in here and campaign for it. We
put the posters up so everybody understood that Leeland was the
No-show is more like it. What began as a Heisman playoff between
McElroy and Colorado redshirt junior quarterback Koy Detmer
fizzled late in the first quarter when Detmer spun to avoid a
tackler and, untouched, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in
his right knee after his foot snagged on the artificial turf.
Team officials, citing the lack of any collateral damage,
project that Detmer might be ready to play in 10 days. But he
could well miss the rest of the season, a mean twist for a
player who has waited his turn for three years. In his first
three games as a starter, Detmer had shot to the top of the
passing ratings with uncanny accuracy. Some believed he was
better than his brother Ty, the 1990 Heisman winner. "I was like
a bottle of champagne that got shaken up and just exploded,"
Detmer said a day before the game. "I was so happy to get a
Detmer's leadership and raw exuberance were prime factors in
turning a Colorado rebuilding year into a bid for a national
crown; he made Neuheisel, his mentor, seem a genius. To have a
possibly terrific season short-circuited by a trip on the turf
is the ultimate in empty endings.
But for one day anyway, it didn't hurt Colorado because Detmer's
backup didn't flinch. Even though redshirt sophomore John
Hessler had only taken three career snaps, he lived one of those
dreamy collegiate dramas on Saturday, beginning the day an
unknown, passing for 177 yards and one touchdown, emerging as a
savior while the bigger names fell. By halftime Hessler had
commanded two touchdown drives--and had run in both himself.
It was the most embarrassing way for the Aggies to go under. For
decades Texas A&M has been trying to elbow its way into the
nation's elite, edging ever so close until some event revealed
it to be either an NCAA criminal or a big-time choker. Coach
R.C. Slocum's Aggies, who have sent 39 players to the NFL in the
six years Slocum has directed them, have never beaten a top-10
team on the road. Afterward, in the locker room, Slocum wept as
he addressed his players. There were too many wasted chances: a
simple, open-field slant pattern blown by quarterback Corey
Pullig and receiver Chris Sanders, and a momentum-killing,
third-quarter stall on the Colorado 11-yard line, capped by a
blocked field goal attempt.
"Our hopes of a national championship are now gone," said Aggie
cornerback Donovan Greer. "And we let it slip away."
The worst thing is that this chance passed with Texas A&M's
biggest weapon stuck in its holster. Slocum's staff never
adjusted to Christoff's defensive retooling, and McElroy never
caught one screen pass, one flare that he might have turned into
a huge play. In the fourth quarter McElroy's number was called
twice; he rushed for three yards.
"We needed to step up and make something happen, and we didn't,"
McElroy said. "That makes it even more frustrating." It is much
later now, getting dark; McElroy is walking toward the bus. He
is the last to leave. In many important ways, the season is
over. "I just don't want to talk about it," McElroy said. "It
makes me sick."
"That's my man!"
Neuheisel walks back toward the sink where John Hessler stands,
wrapped in a towel and the warmth of a very good day. It is 40
minutes after the game, and Neuheisel talks quietly to his
newest project. Last year, as Colorado's quarterback coach,
Neuheisel got credit for steadying Stewart and readying Detmer.
Now he has a far more unproven quantity. Neuheisel slaps Hessler
on the shoulder and walks out.
"We'll make a quarterback out of him yet," someone cracked.
"He is a quarterback," Neuheisel said firmly. "He was just
baptized. Right there."
They all were. Before beating the Aggies, this year's Buffaloes
paled in comparison with last year's: Stewart's shadow fell over
Detmer, Westbrook's over receivers Rae Carruth (five catches for
83 yards on Saturday), James Kidd and Phil Savoy, Salaam's over
Herchell Troutman (25 rushes for 91 yards). "All of us, we're
working hard to make our own names," said Carruth. "I'm tired of
hearing about Westbrook, Westbrook."
Saturday's win ended that for everyone, including Neuheisel,
whose Howdy-Doody demeanor and team inner-tube excursions during
summer camp--critics called it Camp Laid-Back--didn't sit well
with fans accustomed to McCartney's old-line conservatism. When
Detmer went down, Neuheisel pulled Hessler aside. "You never
know when your opportunity will come," he told him. "Yours is
now. Enjoy it."
He wasn't kidding. Neuheisel doesn't like this about his work:
"The highs are not high enough and the lows are too low. My
Number 1 goal this year was to change that: Make the highs
really high and the lows not so low." Even with Detmer hurt?
"It's time to celebrate," Neuheisel insisted. "Remember, when
somebody goes down, it gives somebody else an opportunity."
Neuheisel knows. He got his chance last November when McCartney
retired, and on Saturday he showed why: After the Buffaloes
scored to go ahead 26-21, Neuheisel's offense lined up for a
two-point conversion in successive formations Slocum never
expected, forcing him to burn two timeouts that he would
desperately need later. "I came out with a funky, razzmatazz
formation that we don't even have a play in for," Neuheisel said
later, laughing, "but I figured if they didn't call a timeout,
we always could." Yes, he was being disingenuous. Neuheisel
admitted he had about five plays he could have called. "But I
don't want them to know that!" he said.
As Neuheisel and Hessler rode in the golf cart up Folsom Street
to the TV studio on the hill, it was difficult to begrudge
Neuheisel anything. People walking by, sitting in cars at
traffic lights, couldn't believe their eyes. "There he goes!"
"Congrats, Coach!" "Good goin', buddy!"
In between waves, you heard Hessler say, "That was awesome," and
Neuheisel agree: "I knew they'd burn another timeout." You
couldn't mistake the excitement for anything but what it was.
The quarterback and his coach sputtered uphill in the twilight,
waving to all their new friends, baptized at last.