At the intersection of writing and life with the author of the Cameron Ballack mysteries

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Autumn Memories, Kevin McDougal, and Rockne's Ghost

One would think even I could get sick of football. I announce the games for Westminster Christian Academy's football team, which plays against St. Charles West in the state 4A quarterfinals this Saturday. We keep winning, so we keep playing. More football. My mom's alma mater, Scott Community High School, is trucking along in the Kansas 3A playoffs and should reach the state finals. My favorite Canadian team, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats, is poised to make the Grey Cup championship game, and my NFL faves, the Kansas City Chiefs, are flexing their muscles for a postseason run. 

No chance. Eventually I'll start paying attention to other things: hockey, the amount of food in my dog's bowl, stoplights.  But this is football season. No changing that.

And it's today that gives me some warm, happy memories from twenty-one years ago. Although my Notre Dame Fighting Irish were the second-ranked team in the country and playing at home, they were a decided underdog against top-ranked Florida State in what became the "Game of the Century" (highlight video of the game at the top of this post). This was a big deal. Seminole quarterback Charlie Ward would eventually win the Heisman Trophy that year. The Irish seemed outgunned. My seminary roommate (and present colleague) L.B. Graham and I bet dinner on the outcome. 

It was rare in that the game lived up to and surpassed its hype. Ward completed 29 of 50 passes but threw a critical interception. Lee Becton ran for 122 yards for Notre Dame, Adrian Jarell got a TD on a reverse, and the Irish led for the supermajority of the game.

They did it, too, with possibly the most underrated quarterback in Irish history. He is now in real estate in south Florida, but then Kevin McDougal was the man of the hour. Notre Dame has had a number of quarterbacks over the years: Terry Hanratty, Tom Clements, and Joe Montana from the 60s and 70s championship teams. Ron Powlus and Brady Quinn were highly heralded, as well. Tony Rice was an amazing option quarterback who got us the 1988 national title, Jarious Jackson was a dual threat, and Everett Golson has developed into quite the offensive show this year. But far and away, my favorite Notre Dame QB of all time has been McDougal. Cut from the same run-pass mold of fellow African-American ND quarterbacks like Rice, Jackson, and Golson, McDougal's greatest quality might have been his perseverance and competitiveness. He didn't throw that much (his senior year stats were 98 of 159 passes, 1541 yards, and seven TDs aside five interceptions), but what mattered was his generalship. He simply willed his team through every challenge. That day against Florida State, McDougal completed 9 of 18 passes and made no mistakes, running the offense to absolute perfection.

The game still came down to the final play, when Ward tried to thread a pass into the end zone to either Kez McCorvey or Tamarick Vanover, somehow ignoring a wide open Matt Frier at the goal line. Shawn Wooden knocked the pass down, setting off the celebration of the century (and a free dinner at Olive Garden for me). Over the din, NBC's Charlie Jones could be heard yelling, "The ghost of Knute Rockne is living...and he is smiling!"

A team quarterbacked by Kevin McDougal toppled a juggernaut quarterbacked by the Heisman Trophy winner that year.

The joy was short-lived, as my Irish got clipped in a last-second upset the next week against Boston College. The ending of that year was controversial, with Florida State--whom we beat--leapfrogging us in the polls for the national title after the bowl games. Yes, the Seminoles were deserving, but half of that championship trophy belongs to us.

So whenever November 13th comes around, forgive me if my eyes get a little misty. My thoughts have likely turned to an autumn memory from the poignantly beautiful landscape of Notre Dame, with an everyday hero like Kevin McDougal willing a legendary ghost to life.

No comments: