Fiesta Fiasco

January 13, 2003

There is slow: the imperceptible yellowing of the Mona Lisa.
There is slower: the inches-per-year movement of the great
glaciers. And then there is football game official Terry Porter.

Last Friday night at the Fiesta Bowl, field judge Porter took
four seconds to call pass interference on the play that decided
the national championship. Four seconds! That's a setting on a
microwave: Muffin, Pop-Tart, Terry Porter Deciding National
Championship.

In all my years of watching overweight, bespectacled guys in
striped shirts fling flags after pass plays, I've never seen a
flag flung so flagrantly late. You felt like you could've
assembled a ship in a bottle in that time. Mowed your lawn with
toenail clippers. Painted Red Square.

It was Ohio State's last chance in the first overtime.
Fourth-and-hopeless. The pass was headed for the corner of the
end zone. Buckeyes receiver Chris Gamble and Miami cornerback
Glenn Sharpe both went up, but the ball clunked to the earth.

The line judge standing at the goal line immediately signaled
incomplete pass. The world then turned to Porter, positioned in
the rear corner of the end zone, to see if he would call pass
interference. He did not. Game over. Season over. Fireworks went
off. Miami players leaped into each other's arms, dog-piled,
hoisted the Gatorade cooler to drench their coach. The national
championship was theirs. The winning streak was alive, at 35.

And then Porter finished his crossword, put down his cup of
coffee and threw his yellow pocket square.

"I couldn't believe it," said NFL Hall of Fame tight end Kellen
Winslow, father of the Hurricanes' tight end of the same name. "I
saw the ball land. Looked at the ref. Saw he wasn't going to call
anything. Celebrated. Turned again. Still didn't see a flag.
Celebrated some more. Turned again, and then saw the flag.
Unbelievable."

Porter's two-ounce swatch of yellow meant that torrential rivers
of people and confetti and emotion had to be suddenly reversed.
Unbridled jubilation had to be siphoned back into the bottle.
Cloud nine emptied.

Hundreds of Miami fans who had charged to the middle of the field
had to be rounded up and put back in the stands. Tight end David
Williams was doing an interview when he heard that no, it ain't
over even when it's over. Running back Jarrett Payton had
sprinted to the Miami student section and was going bonkers with
his schoolmates when a lone Ohio State fan in a red sweatshirt
yelled at him, "You gotta go back on the field!"

So, Terry, why did it take as long as a Wagnerian opera to throw
the flag? "I replayed it in my mind," Porter told the Associated
Press pool reporter after the game. "I wanted to make double sure
it was the right call."

Replayed it in your mind? A quarterback doesn't get to replay a
blitz in his mind before he runs for his life, and you don't get
to roll your belly-button lint into little balls while meditating
on interference calls. If we wanted replays, we'd do it with
machines. This is about you, Terry Porter, being a ref for 20
years, deciding right away whether it is or isn't a penalty and
selling the world on the idea that you know what the hell you're
doing.

"I don't think I interfered with him," said Sharpe, a freshman.
"[Gamble] got some separation between us, then I used my speed to
catch up. He tried to reach back over me to make the catch, and
he didn't."

I think Porter choked. I think he didn't know what to call, and
so he did the stupidest thing possible. Maybe he felt the coming
wrath of a stadium that was 90% Ohio State red and started
wondering if he'd make it out of there with both his kidneys.
"There's not another official in the history of the game that
would make that call," said Miami secondary coach Mark Stoops.

After Porter finally threw the flag, he even changed his reason
for having done so. At first he signaled defensive holding. "Then
I decided it was pass interference," he said, "because the ball
was in the air."

You know the guy at the grocery checkout who turns "paper or
plastic?" into "To be or not to be?" That's Porter. The man's
mind moves at the speed of cold honey.

The Buckeyes went from having a pit in their stomachs to having
the ball on the two. They scored three plays later to tie the
game again, then scored to start the second overtime to take the
lead. The game came down to the Hurricanes, who should've been
kissing cheerleaders by then, needing to score from the one to
force a third overtime. But Ken Dorsey's pass was knocked down
near the goal line, giving Ohio State the national championship.

Or so everybody thinks.

What they don't know is that just a few minutes ago, Terry
Porter, sitting in his living room, was replaying that last pass
in his mind again. He put aside his pork rinds, rose out of his
LaZBoy, reached around to his right rear pocket and....

Everybody back to Tempe!

B/W PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER

I've never seen a flag flung so flagrantly late. You could've
assembled a ship in a bottle in that time.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)