ITP’s Mark Schofield wants to feel the power that Kordell Stewart wielded to silence 100,000 crazed Michigan fans within seconds.
By Mark Schofield
Silence is nothing; an absence of sound. Yet it evokes a powerful range of emotions.
Silence is calming. A quiet moment of meditation. Being home alone while the family is out on a Saturday afternoon in the fall.
Silence is unsettling. Waking in the middle of the night alone with your thoughts. As any parent of a young child can tell you, silence stirs panic – especially the moment the raucous toddlers go deafeningly quiet and the high-level parenting instincts kick into gear as you snatch the paper towels and intercept them at the flat screen TV before they cover it with yogurt and fruit snacks.
And silence can terrify. Try walking home alone at night through a wooded neighborhood, and somewhere in the blackness and quiet, you remember exactly why you never liked The Blair Witch Project.
But silence also exhilarates.
For an athlete competing at the highest level of sport, there are moments when he can drive thousands of fans – tens of thousands of fans – into silent despair. It’s an enormous power.
During the 2004 American League Championship Series, Curt Schilling relayed a story from his tenure with the Philadelphia Phillies. Terry Mulholland, his teammate, told Schilling, “the awesome thing about being a starting pitcher is you have the ability to make 55,000 people shut up when you’re on the road.”
Schilling opined that he could not think of anything better than making 55,000 New Yorkers shut their mouths. A few nights later, the pitcher – bum ankle and bloody sock – accomplished that feat.
Now picture silencing 100,000 fans and doing it as a college athlete. In the waning days of summer in 1994, Kordell Stewart did just that to finish off a worthy opponent on one of the biggest stages imaginable.
Setting the Scene
September 24, 1994. Upstart Colorado traveled east to the Big House to take on Michigan.
The year before, the Buffaloes compiled an 8-3-1 recording, capping it off with a triumphant victory in the Aloha Bowl. With a number of talented players returning to the roster – including wide receiver Michael Westbrook, running back Rashaan Salaam, and, of course, starting quarterback Kordell Stewart – Colorado began the season ranked in the top 10. After winning their first two games, they climbed to No.7 in the nation.
Facing the No.4 Wolverines, also 2-0 , would be a huge test.
Televised nationally on ABC, the broadcast company’s ace crew sat perched high above Michigan Stadium. Bob Griese handled the color commentary and the venerable Keith Jackson did the play-by-play. As far as big-time college football goes, it doesn’t get much better.
Colorado opened the scoring with a first-quarter touchdown, and when Stewart hit Westbrook for a 27-yard score in the second quarter, the visiting Buffaloes increased their lead to 14-3. The Michigan defense stiffened and the Wolverines offense responded, rattling off the next 23-points to take a 26-14 lead.
Michigan held the 12-point lead until late in the game. Poised to cut into the Wolverines’ lead with five minutes remaining, Stewart fumbled the football at the goal line. When the Wolverines recovered with 5:08 remaining, Jackson lamented, “What a crusher that is.”
The Buffaloes defense responded to the adversity. The unit forced a three-and-out and the offense scored on a short touchdown from Salaam to narrow Michigan’s lead to 26-21 with just over two minutes remaining. But the onside kick failed, forcing Colorado to make another fine defensive stand that led to a Michigan punt.
For the Buffaloes, one remote and final shot at victory from its own 36-yard line remained.
The Final Play
The play was called Rocket Left – your basic Hail Mary play. Three receivers split wide to the left: Westbrook, Blake Anderson and Rae Carruth. Stewart worked under center, saw a defense with only three players on the line of scrimmage, and everyone else deep in the secondary.
Griese commented on the pre-snap look, “If I were the defense I’d have a few more guys over there,” noting the huge cushion the Wolverines afforded Westbrook, Anderson and Carruth. All three took off vertically at the snap, heading for the goal line.
It was the second time Colorado ran this play during the game. The Buffaloes tried it at the end of the first half, but a heave from Stewart was intercepted by future New England Patriots star – and noted Peyton Manning slayer – Ty Law.
This time, Stewart took a seven-step drop at the snap, set his feet as he looked downfield and felt pressure to his left. Stewart retreated a few more steps, sliding to his left behind his running back and left tackle to buy time for his receivers to get downfield. When the time was right, he uncorked this throw from Colorado’s 26-yard line:
The throw traveled 71 yards before descending near the Michigan 3-yard line at the spot where Anderson was fighting with two defenders for the football. The ball caromed off Anderson and into the waiting arms of Westbrook, who cradled it to his chest before crashing into the end zone.
After the game, Anderson was asked why he didn’t catch the ball. The receiver indicated that if he had, the game ends on the three-yard line. Keeping the ball alive was the better play. As Jackson noted from the booth, there was no time left on the clock.
Seconds earlier, there was noise. Now, silence.
In the moments before Stewart unleashed the ball, the crowd of 106,427 was raucous. Boisterous. Loud.
But when Westbrook rose from the turf and the referee signaled touchdown, the sea of Wolverines fans was stunned. Silent. All one could hear were the cries of joy from Colorado players, coaches, and a handful of Buffaloes faithful who made the trip.
The power to stun 100,000 people into hearing a pin drop is an awesome thing. In this moment, Stewart wielded that power.
What always stuck with me most was his sprint downfield to celebrate with his teammates. I can only imagine what that sprint must have felt like.
In my years of playing sports, I experienced only one moment even remotely like it – a moment from my junior year in high school. And “remotely” is an understatement. But it helped me appreciate what Stewart did.
I was running indoor track during the winter season – I ran the 300-yard dash and also anchored the 4X400 relay team. I was undefeated in the 300 during the dual meet season, which earned me the top seed in the league championship meet.
But there was one other sprinter whom I never got the chance to race during the dual meet season. He had missed the opening meet of the season with an injury. His subsequent times were better than mine throughout the year, but, while I knew it was going to be a tough race, I had yet to lose and sure wasn’t ready to start on this night.
Sure enough, he beat me head-to-head. My second-place finish secured critical points for the overall team picture but such consolation was bittersweet at best.
Entering the final event – the 4X400 – our team was in contention for the league championship, an achievement that had eluded our school for a long time. We needed a win in the relay to make it happen.
Through the first three legs, it didn’t look good. By the time I got the baton, I was nearly half a lap down.By the time I had rounded the final turn, I had closed the gap and, with that other sprinter in my sights, the championship was within our grasp.
Just past the finish line was my entire team waiting there. Cheering. Urging me on as I somehow caught my foe – the same one who had beat me head-to-head earlier – and I passed him right before the finish line.
As I delivered the championship from half a lap down, the only audible sound in the entire complex was our team celebrating a spectacular upset. Fans and competitors from other teams, my rival included, could only look on in silence – a silence that we created.
Losing the 300 earlier in the meet only to deliver on a miracle finish in sudden death to secure a victory was my mini-redemption arc. But my story didn’t come on a national stage. It didn’t come against one of the best teams in college football. And it certainly didn’t come in front of 100,000 fans.
If I can still remember every moment of my small victory, I can only imagine just how incredible a moment that was for Kordell Stewart. It must have been amazing. I’d love to know for sure.
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