November 14, 1998. Syracuse, NY. Two seconds remained on the clock as Donovan McNabb staggered over to the sidelines, wearily looked up at the 60,000 panicked fans in the Syracuse Carrier Dome, then vomited at the feet of coach Paul Pasqualoni. McNabb then wandered out on the field to perform a miracle in orange.
Somewhere... before McNabb's dramatic last gasp pass beat Virginia Tech 28-26.
Sometime... after tight end Stephen Brominski squeezed the football, buried beneath a mob of hysterical Orangemen players.
Someplace... in a sports bar or dorm room in Blacksburg, Virginia ...a few thousand Hokies fans probably vomited too.
That's the beauty of college football.
On the evening of January 2nd, 1987, I went to a restaurant in Cincinnati with some friends to watch the Fiesta Bowl between Penn State and Miami. My best friend from high school, Richard, bleeds Nittany Lion blue. As the game was being played, Richard frequently ran back in forth between the bar area, which had the television, and the restaurant, which did not. When the game boiled down to the final few seconds, he refused to watch, listen, or even profess to be interested in the outcome. That winter evening in 1987, while Richard was face down, eyes closed on the restaurant table, I personally told him that Pete Giftopoulis intercepted a Vinny Testaverde pass to clinch Penn State's national championship. When he lifted his head, I couldn't tell whether he was nauseous or ecstatic. Perhaps both.
My friend Mike from South Bend, Indiana, videotapes every Notre Dame football game. In his blue and gold family room, decorated with various Fighting Irish memorabilia, he has the complete library of Notre Dame victories from 1988 through 1999 on VHS tape. What about the losses? He records over them immediately, refusing to watch even part of the game. There is no room in the loyal fan's closet for heartbreaking memories.
I won't lie to you. I'm an avid Notre Dame fan, tamed down quite a bit over the years.
I've attended every Notre Dame home game, except one, since 1988. The exception, my sister's wedding in New York, September 20, 1997. Not coincidentally, the Irish loss to Michigan State that day, marked a consistent pattern of Notre Dame losses corresponding with Mandell family weddings. 0-3 to be exact. Recognizing this trend I scheduled my own wedding to fall during an off week for the Irish during the 1998 season. I felt confident that not only would this be better for the success of the Notre Dame team, but my local friends, Mike included, would actually attend the wedding instead of going to the Notre Dame game.
Much to my chagrine, a few months before our wedding, the University announced that the September 19th game with Michigan State had been moved to my wedding date, September 12th, to accommodate ABC television. The result: Michigan State 42, Notre Dame 23. Another Mandell wedding/Notre Dame loss.
I never took the time to look back and see how the Irish fared the day my parents took their vows. But after the ND debacle on my own wedding night, I felt it necessary to examine history. My parents were wed on October 5th, 1950. It was a Thursday. Two days later, Notre Dame played host to Purdue. The Irish were sporting a 39-game unbeaten streak under coach Frank Leahy.
Final score: Purdue 28, Notre Dame 14. I feel sick.
I'm sure you can recite your exact location, what you were wearing, and what you had for lunch the day your favorite school caught the miracle catch, made the impossible comeback, or choked in the final seconds. I can too.
I bounced around my house, screaming uncontrollably when Joe Montana hit Kris Haines with no time remaining in the 1979 Cotton Bowl to give Notre Dame a 35-34 win over Houston. I was a fourteen year-old in ecstasy.
In 1980, I had a six inch AM radio pasted to my ear, sitting on a Kentucky hillside at a high school marching band contest when Tony Roberts screamed over the Mutual Broadcasting Network, "It's Goooooood!!!!!" Harry Oliver's 51-yard field goal on the last play of the game had just given Notre Dame a 29-27 victory over Michigan. It still gives me chills to this day when I hear it.
In 1988, I ran onto the field and kissed the ground after Pat Terrell knocked down Steve Walsh's two-point conversion attempt and the Irish beat Miami 31-30. After Reggie Brooks' diving two-point conversion catch in 1992 beat Penn State 17-16, I high-fived everyone in section 18 of Notre Dame Stadium. Everyone, that is, except my Nittany Lion friend Richard, who was quite pale at the time.
I've also stood chilly and dumbfounded as Boston College's David Gordon booted the Irish from the number one ranking in 1993 with a 41-yard field goal as time expired. I was there when an evil yellow flag went floating across the Orange Bowl grass as Rocket Ismail streaked down the sideline with the "punt return for a TD that never was" in the final minute against Colorado in 1991. My first Notre Dame game ever was Purdue's amazing/depressing 15-14 victory over the Irish at Ross-Ade Stadium in 1981.
I've been nauseous. I've reached nirvana. I'm a college football fan.
Great finishes are not necessarily great games. In fact, many remarkable endings came at the conclusion of rather dull or sloppily played contests. Likewise, many "Games of the Century" had very anti-climactic finishes. The 1971 Nebraska-Oklahoma game is generally regarded as one of the greatest ever played. But the game essentially ended with 1:30 remaining. The famous 10-10 tie between Notre Dame and Michigan State in 1966 ended when Ara Parseghian decided to run out the clock instead of risking a loss. These were legendary games, not legendary finishes.
You'll notice there aren't many overtime games in the book. Essentially, overtimes ruin drama, like a motion picture that's twenty minutes too long. Admit it, when you played football in your backyard as a kid, you didn't yell, "It's the fourth overtime and if they score here and hold the Tigers' on their four downs they'll win the championship!" No, it was something like this..."Three seconds left, two seconds, one second, he throws it to the endzone...It's caught! Touchdown! Touchdown!!"
Division I-A adopted overtime in 1996. The other four divisions have had overtime since 1981 for conference-only games and tournament ties, and 1996 for all games. The few overtime games in the book are remarkable specifically for their regulation ending, in addition to the overtime finish.
Before you choke on your beer, upset about the games I've left out of the book, please remember this. Approximately 600 teams currently play NCAA college football. That's around 200,000 games played in the past 30 years. Which means that this book covers 5/100ths of one percent of all the games played in the past three decades.
There's some room for debate, don't you think? That's why the games in the book are not ranked, they are chronicled. They are the unbelievable, the astounding, the improbable moments that make college football so special.
This book is for you- the loyal, rabid fan who bleeds crimson and cream, garnet and black, green and white, maize and blue, and every other combination of alma mater colors. For you to remember those moments of soaring jubilation and utter despair. Chances are, there's a finish in this book that will make you sick. I'm sorry.
Just remember, for every distraught, losing fan throwing up in the bathroom, there's another ecstatic, winning one playing the CD over and over and over.
[Heart Stoppers and Hail Marys: The Greatest College Football Finishes]