Forever And Ever, The Pass
Oct. 20, 1999
By Jack Clary
That wonderful moment on November 23, 1984 will never disappear.
Effects of time are beginning to fade the 15-year-old videotape, the forms of players on the screen seem more and more ghostly, and the football is less discernible as it still soars downfield in its majestic arc, toward the landing spot where it was intended. And when it lands there 15 years later, or 20, or 25, or 50, no matter how many, it still is as eye-popping to see as it was the moment it happened.
Fifteen years later, the results are still the same: Perfect throw, perfect trajectory, and perfect landing in Gerard Phelan's tummy.
Final score: Boston College 47, Miami 45.
It is the enduring link of the Boston College-Miami football rivalry.
It is one of the greatest moments in college football's 130-year history.
It is the greatest play in any game a Boston College sports team ever played.
It is forever known as The Pass.
In reality, the ball that quarterback Doug Flutie threw with the hope that it would be caught in the end zone by Gerry Phelan as an unrelenting clock in the Orange Bowl ticked off the final three seconds of an incredible game, was like the shot heard 'round the college football world because it jolted an entire nation the day after Thanksgiving in 1984.
In 1984, today's BC seniors didn't know Boston College, the University of Miami or Doug Flutie from a can of green paint. They could barely cradle a football in both their arms, let alone know the magic that was happening as that ball soared through the muggy, early evening drizzle, a guided missile of sorts outlined against the eerie glow of stadium lights. It is quite likely that in many of their homes that late fall day, those final moments were unfolding as their parents and older siblings sat enraptured with all that they had seen and couldn't tear themselves away from - the game's last play lest something even more dramatic take place. Doubtless, most of those BC-footballers-to-be were far away from their parents' television sets, heedless to an event about which they knew nothing, and cared even less.
Most of them also were probably scared out of their wits when those family members, like millions of television watchers around the nation, leaped from their chairs and screamed in utter amazement at what had just occurred.
Today, they are fully aware that those few seconds transformed an act of near-desperation into a defining moment whose bronzing is part of the Eagles football ritual.
And Saturday, as in the nine previous games the two teams have played since that day, that moment will be relived. It has been shown countless times on television (How many this week? Even today?) and still, it never ceases to amaze Eagle and Hurricane, alike.
The only thing that Doug Flutie could ever do to match - but never, ever surpass - that single act would be to replicate it in a Super Bowl to win the world championship. But would it have the same everlasting, electrifying impact the second time? Here's a vote for no because, except for love, as the tunesmith tells us, the second time around is never as wonderful as the first. Should Flutie ever do it in the NFL - and again, who would be surprised? - the two plays probably would be shown for generations to come on a split television screen because neither could be justly separated from the other.
It has always seemed fitting that a game for the ages would be concluded in such an apt manner.
That season had been absolute magic at the Heights - the culmination of the Flutie Magic that had made the Eagles and, yes, the entire university, a focal point of national attention. Game after game, since 1981, it seems that Flutie found new and utterly amazing ways to run and usually win a football game.
That wasn't supposed to be, claimed the so-called experts, because he was "too small." Too small?
Doug was the height of the average American male at that time, and he still is. Yet, some of those same experts still pooh-pooh his abilities, even his achievements, and they mask their discontent in the numbers delineating his physical stature.
But the secret of Flutie Magic, and of the greatest Hail Mary Pass in college football history, was never to be found in numbers. God knows, Flutie rolled out numbers during his four varsity seasons at Boston College that were rare at any level of college football - and certainly never seen at BC. Flutie Magic came from within his (barely) five feet, ten inches, from an indomitable spirit that always told him no play was ever over as long as the opportunity remained for him to make it work, that no game was ever over until an official fired his gun, and if his team still was behind, maybe not until he was on the bus en route to the airport or back in his dorm.
That's how it was in the Orange Bowl in 1984.
The worth of Boston College's football program, being eyed by a number of post-season bowls after winning seven of nine games to that time, was going to be tested by one of Miami's greatest teams. Bernie Kosar was the Hurricanes' quarterback, Jimmy Johnson, who later won a couple of Super Bowls with Dallas, was their head coach, and many of their stars were eventual No. 1 draft picks in the NFL.
BC had Flutie, a gutsy supporting cast and a resourceful head coach in Jack Bicknell who knew enough to give his quarterback all the offensive imagination he could muster to help him capitalize on the special talents that he carried onto the playing field.
And that's how the game went - leads gained, leads lost, even a 41-38 BC lead on Steve Strachan's run with less than four minutes to play, 86 points by both teams until there were just 28 seconds to play. Miami led 45-41 after fullback Melvin Bratton had scored what appeared to be the winning touchdown, his fourth of the game. Had the game ended at that point, it still would be considered a classic in the competition between the two schools.
But there was more.
Bicknell was a realist. His team had given everything it had and while he sent it out for one, last shot, he also began to think of some consoling remarks to help ease the pain of this apparent loss. But a few yards away, Flutie was thinking other thoughts and telling his teammates that all they needed to do was to get the ball into Miami's territory. "When we do that," he said, as if it was a foregone conclusion, "be ready for 'Flood Tip.'"
That was the technical name for the Hail Mary Pass. "Flood Tip" sent three receivers down the right side of the field toward the opposing end zone. Two of them stop around the five-yard-line, with the intention of either luring enemy defenders out of the end zone, or being available to snare a tipped pass and somehow, run in for a score. The third receiver went into the end zone where he was also available for a tipped ball, or should the defense be lured downfield, more open for a pass that would by-pass the receivers on the five-yard line.
With the kickoff returned to the 22-yard line and less than 20 seconds to play, Flutie passed 19 yards to running back Troy Stradford and eleven more to tight end Scott Gieselman. His next pass was incomplete.
Six seconds remained. Miami's end zone was 48 yards away.
Flutie stepped into the huddle and crisply called, "Flood Tip."
Phelan, Stradford and the other wide receiver, Kelvin Martin, headed for Miami's end zone. Flutie dropped back, saw pressure coming >from a Miami lineman and looped around to his right and retreated to his 37-yard line, all the time looking downfield and waiting for just the right moment to let the ball fly. He was squarely in the middle of the field when he stopped, planted his feet, squared his body and released the ball in a textbook, throwing motion.
"I thought it was incomplete," Flutie said later.
Stradford and Martin had run their pass routes to the five-yard line and began to cruise that area. Phelan kept going and quietly moved into the end zone. He had a nice open spot just at the goal line because most of the Hurricane defensive backs didn't believe the ball would reach the end zone and edged up to defend against Stradford and Martin. Phelan had a clear line of sight on the ball as it sailed over their heads and into his arms at the goal line.
For a moment, no one was quite sure what happened. Phelan began jumping up and down with the ball as an official raised his hands to signal a touchdown.
"I saw the referee's hands go up and I went nuts," Flutie recalled.
Who didn't? Who still doesn't?
Hold on a minute - what about the extra point?
When Gerard Phelan caught Doug Flutie's pass for the winning touchdown against Miami in 1984, everyone on the Boston College sidelines - players, assistant coaches, trainers, doctors, managers, friends - immediately sprinted for the end zone to join in the absolute mayhem that had erupted among the Eagles starters.
All except one man.
Head coach Jack Bicknell had become entangled in the myriad of phone lines that were suddenly loosened and, later describing himself like "a fly caught in a spider's web," he painstakingly had to untangle himself while the celebration went on.
By the time he freed himself and ran to join his joyous troops, many of them already where whooping into the locker room just beyond the end zone.
But in their joy, they had forgotten one last act - the extra point.
The game officials stood patiently by while the BC players celebrated and also made no move to stop the Miami players from heading to their locker room. Finally, the referee said to assistant coach Barry Gallup, "You want to kick the extra point?"
"Naw, let's forget it," Gallup replied after a moment of thinking how in the world he could every round up the extra point team. Thus, the score went from 45-41 to its 47-45 final decision.