Football, I think, is the sport that most inspires absurd prayers. Sure, there are miraculous comebacks in all sports — the sorts of comebacks that inspire announcers to use that wonderful sports cliche “Well, stranger things have happened” — but dreamers can PLAN those miracles in football. We can sketch them out in our minds. In baseball, seven-run comebacks just kind of happen. A walk, an error, a close call that the umpire doesn’t call strike three, there are too many scenarios to imagine. In basketball, the action in the final minutes is so choppy and comebacks so reliant on missed-free throws and timeouts, that it doesn’t excite the imagination. Three goal comebacks in the final minutes happen in soccer or hockey, but bizarre and unplanned things have to happen.
But in football — well think about how many times you have thought something like this:
“OK, if they score here, get the onside kick, score again, stop them on three plays, score again …”
I spent most of my childhood coming up with bizarre and thoroughly implausible scenarios that would allow the Cleveland Browns to come back and win. And even though the Browns were known for much of my childhood as the Cardiac Kids for the way they came back, they almost never actually lived up to to my most inspired plans. I really remember it happening only once. That was against the New York Jets in the playoffs in January, 1987. The Jets took a 20-10 lead with about four minutes left. The Browns looked utterly dead. Most people would remember one play from the comeback, the Browns faced a third-down and 24 from deep in their own end and Mark Gastineau was flagged for roughing the passer, giving the Browns a huge first down. Most people think that was the game-changer.
BUT … as someone who has watched that game at least 10 times, I believe that wasn’t the real game changer. No, following that penalty, Browns quarterback Bernie Kosar BADLY missed on two consecutive passes. They looked utterly lost. On third down, Kosar completed a dinky little pass, and the receiver was tackled short of the first down. BUT the official gave the Browns an absurdly good mark, giving Cleveland the first down.
Jets coach Joe Walton went bonkers. He was screaming like a mad man, trying to get the attention of the officials. And given those few seconds, the Browns regained their balance. They drove right down the field and scored the touchdown to make it 20-17 with two minutes left. They tried the onside kick and failed, but they still had a couple of timeouts and the Jets lost their minds (trying a quarterback draw which stopped the clock, committing a penalty on the punt that changed field position, committing a pass interference penalty) and the Browns tied the game (they could have won it in regulation but wasted time celebrating). They won it in double overtime (on Mark Moseley’s second field goal attempt — he missed a 23-yard field goal in the first overtime. Yes, a 23-yard field goal). It was awesome. The comeback happened just the way I wrote it up in my deluded mind.
I bring all this up because a football miracle happened Saturday — and I suspect almost nobody noticed. There was no real reason for people to notice — the game was between Kansas and Colorado. Kansas is terrible this year. Colorado is terrible this year. Almost nobody in Kansas or Colorado even cared about this game.
But they played the anyway. And Colorado destroyed Kansas. Absolutely crushed them. At one point, I went out to run an errand and the game was on the radio. Bob Davis, the radio voice, was describing a Kansas drive with his “Well, maybe the Jayhawks can get a consolation touchdown here” voice. Bob has had to use that voice plenty in his 27 years as Kansas play-by-play announcer. The color commentator said something about how the Jayhawks were not going to win the battle of the scoreboard, but they might win this fourth quarter.
The Jayhawks trailed 45-17. There were about 12 minutes left in the game.
There are not too many Kansas football fans this time of year. But there are some. And I have no doubt that somewhere, there was a Jayhawks fan, at least one, was was as irrational as I was as a kid, someone who was trying to work out the math that would lead to a Kansas victory. Stupid math. Dream math. No team, and certainly no team as ineffective as Kansas, can pull off that comeback.
The Jayhawks plodded their way down the field as I listened. The Jayhawks faced a third and 1 deep in Colorado territory and got stuffed for no gain. The clock wound down as the Jayhawks tried to decided what to do. They called timeout with 11:28 left. “They’ll go for it,” Bob Davis said with that inflection in his voice. The Jayhawks gave the ball to James Sims on fourth down and he shoved ahead for the first down, though not by much. The clock kept winding. On the next play, they gave the ball to Sims again, and this time he broke through the line, scored from 13 yards out. The Jayhawks were down 45-24. There was 11:05 left. They had their consolation touchdown. I turned off the radio.
Of course, the Jayhawks tried the onside kick — desperation, and all — and they actually got the ball back. It’s always a thrill when the kicking team recovers an onside kick. The offense plodded around — no gain, a two yard gain, a third-down pickup, the clock ticked down to under 10 minutes. Then quarterback Quinn Meacham connected with Johnathan Wilson* on a 38-yard touchdown pass. And then the score was 45-31. And there was 9:26 left.
*This is, I think, the first time I have seen someone spell his name “Johnathan” with the two Hs. But I think it makes perfect sense.
Now, Colorado had to be a little bit freaked out. The Buffaloes had not won a Big 12 game, and they were on the road, and a 14-point lead with nine minutes left is no longer anything close to insurmountable. The Jayhawks kicked deep and the Buffaloes got the ball on the 22. After a couple of clock-draining runs that did not drain nearly enough clock — what was the hurry? — Colorado picked up a first down on a good pass. They were in good position. On first down, they gained 5 yards, and the clock was at 8:00 … 7:59 … 7:58 … for those remaining Colorado fans it must have felt like classic Larry Munson line: “Somebody poured molasses on the clock!”
With 7:44 left, Colorado receiver Toney Clemons got his first carry of the game on a reverse. He fumbled. Kansas’ Tyler Patmon scooped it up, ran 28 yards for a touchdown. And the score was 45-38.
Colorado, undoubtedly, was now in full-fledged panic mode. The Buffaloes had built their lead with a blistering passing attack led by quarterback Cody Hawkins and when they got the ball back they decided they needed to get back to that attack. Of course, as every football fan believes, once things start turning bad, they tend to stay bad. Hawkins completed a short pass on first down, and on second down he threw an interception to the aforementioned Tyler Patmon. Five plays later, Sims scored from six yards out and tied the game at 45. There was still 4:44 left. The Jayhawks had scored four touchdowns in a little more than six minutes.
The rest of the game played out as it had to play out. Kansas kicked off and stuffed Colorado in three plays — the last a sack of Hawkins. A short punt, Kansas got the ball on its own 37. And five plays later, Sims scored on a 28-yard touchdown run. There were 52 seconds left in the game.
Colorado promptly drove right down the field thanks to a dumb Kansas penalty and a couple of big passes, but they failed twice to score from the Kansas 7 and that was it. Kansas had come back from a 28-point fourth quarter deficit with time to spare. It wasn’t big news, wasn’t really even small news nationally, because at the end Kansas isn’t good, Colorado isn’t good, the stadium was less than half filled when the miracle happened. That’s OK. It was still great. Stuff like this happens. And that’s why we keep watching sports even when there seems no realistic hope left.