Bubba McDowell, the Fifth Beatle

Bubba McDowell is a lot like Stuart Sutcliffe. No, he didn't die young or anything like that, but in what was a highly distinguished secondary at the University of Miami in the late 80's, he was a forgotten man. Sutcliffe, is forever known as 'the Fifth Beatle' who never got the acclaim of his former bandmates John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, who went onto superstardom without him.

For McDowell, it was Bennie Blades, Tolbert Bain, Darrell Fullington and Selwyn Brown who overshadowed his efforts.

A homemade banner used to hang high above the rafters of the Orange Bowl, a rough drawing of the quartet that paid homage to the famed 'Bennie and the Jets'. McDowell, was not on that banner, and he admits that irked him.

"It did, it really did," he says, with a chuckle. "I never let them see that, I never showed them. But I was envious, I wanted to be on that so bad but I wasn't because I wasn't a true starter. I was just a spot starter. The majority of the time I started, it was against a running team and we didn't play a lot of those teams, other than Oklahoma."

But make no mistake about it, McDowell was a key contributor throughout his years at Miami. Not only was he a versatile player- starting at free safety his senior year in 1988- after three seasons at corner, he was also a prolific punt blocker. It's just now that fans have begun to appreciate just how good the underrated McDowell really was.

And he'll be remembered for one key play in particular- knocking down Danny McManus' pass on a two-point conversion attempt that sealed Miami's heart-stopping 26-25 win over Florida St. It was widely hailed as the 'game of the year' and the key victory in Miami's second national championship campaign.

On an early October afternoon in Tallahassee, the third ranked Hurricanes would take on the fourth rated Seminoles. And for much of the game, the Noles dominated, behind the strong running of Sammie Smith. Against a usually stout Miami front seven, Smith would gash the Canes for 189 yards on 30 carries, surprising most observers.

"I would have been surprised if it was anybody but Florida St. because everyone knows that's a rivalry," said McDowell, of that game that was broadcast nationally on CBS. "One team can be up one year, another team can be down the next. But everyone knows with those two teams, it's all about pride and that's the type of game that comes out. We were playing at their home stadium and they had the upper hand at that time, we were just good enough to come back. And, I would also say lucky to come back and win that game."

There is a lot of validity to what McDowell says, FSU would have 25 first downs in that game to Miami's 11. They would out-rush UM, 225 to 52 and they had 426 total yards to Miami's 306.

Late in the third quarter, the Canes found themselves down 19-3. But there was no panic on Jimmy Johnson's sideline.

"The mood was just, 'Hey, we're down' but we never lost our confidence that we couldn't come back or we never thought that the game was over," recalled McDowell. "We honestly believed that we could come back and win it. And that's what we did and we knew it was just basically getting on a roll, kinda like what they did to us in the early part of the game."

Canes would start rolling when Steve Walsh would hit Melvin Bratton out of the backfield for a 49-yard touchdown. A two-point conversion to Brian Blades, would cut the lead to 19-11 at the start of the fourth and final quarter. The momentum had begun to swing and the Hurricanes would put up their trademark 'four fingers', to signal to everyone that they would dominate the last quarter. While other teams have picked up on this tradition, no team believes it as much as the Miami Hurricanes.

"Oh, no doubt," McDowell says, with conviction. "Everyone knew that when Miami put the four fingers up, it wasn't just another team putting the four fingers up, it meant something. What that meant to us was, 'Y'know what? The game is not over' and we knew we were going to play the fourth quarter just as hard as we did the first quarter, whether we were up and down."

And while FSU squandered opportunities to put the game away, Miami capitalized with two Walsh touchdowns passes to Michael Irvin. The second hookup was a 73-yard catch-and-run that gave UM a 26-19 lead with just 2:22 to play in regulation.

The Noles were down, but they weren't out. McManus, would lead FSU on an eight play, 83-yard drive that culminated with an 18-yard touchdown grab by Ronald Lewis with just 42 seconds to play. Now, Bobby Bowden had a choice, does he kick the PAT or does he go for the win? With his kicker Derrick Schmidt struggling so badly that day, missing two field goals and an extra point, Bowden would go for two and the win.

After an exchange of timeouts, the Noles would line up and McDowell would become the man on the spot.

"Donald Ellis got hurt, that was actually why I came in," McDowell remembers. "He got hurt the previous play and tore his whole knee up and we were basically in a 'man-underneath' zone coverage, two guys back and basically I was supposed to follow the receiver all the way in and all the way across."

As McManus took the snap he looked to his right.

"I started and then I stopped, looked at the quarterback and he was looking at Pat Carter all the way and that's what made me come off the receiver.

Eventually McManus after pumping once, would throw in that direction.

"Even at that time I was thinking, 'Hey, there's no way that they would be able to throw in the middle with Rod Carter and all those guys right in the middle,' it was too clustered in there and that's the reason why I came off." As the ball was lofted, McDowell would leap high into the autumn air to bat the ball down with his right hand. "He threw it short, but we had two other guys there as well, Selwyn Brown was behind me if I had not knocked it down."

Soon afterwards, Miami would recover an onside kick, to seal the comeback win, which would catapult them to the 1987 title. McDowell, had made the key play late, but it wasn't even the best play he made that day.

"The two-point play was great but a lot of people remember me when I actually ran down Sammie Smith and the fact I wasn't a fast guy compared to most of the guys out there," says McDowell, of chasing down a running back who just happened to have near world-class speed.

Late in the first quarter with FSU facing a 3rd and 11 situation from their own 19-yard line, the Noles would cross up the Miami defense with a well-timed draw. Smith would bust free up the middle and break a tackle from Blades and several other Hurricane defenders. Meanwhile, McDowell had gotten blocked by Pat Tomberlin and looked to be out of the play.

"I was fresh," said McDowell, who had played only a few plays up until that time. "I just came from one side, then he gashed us from the opposite side and I just kinda did a circle basically." As he would cut towards the sideline, eluding Bain, it looked like Smith would go all the way.

"GREAT RUN BY SMITH!!!," said Brent Musberger, who was calling the game for CBS, as Smith went past mid-field. "HE BREAKS FREE!!!"

As McDowell gave chase, he passed up several of his teammates across mid-field into Miami territory.

"Sammie hit up the middle, then back down the right sideline and I just took off running and then the next thing you know I went past Tolbert Bain and I was like, 'Hey, I'm getting kinda close.'

"GOOD BYE!!!," said Musberger as Smith hit the 35-yard line, on his way to an apparent FSU score.

But McDowell wasn't giving up.

"OHHHHHHH!!! A TREMENDOUS TACKLE, HE CAUGHT HIM!!! BUBBA MCDOWELL, CAME AFTER HIM AND WOULDN'T QUIT," exclaimed Musberger after Smith's 64-yard jaunt.

"I got close enough to where I could actually dive and trip his feet, I got lucky and hit his foot and tripped him up."

"Now, it surprised me that he got caught from behind," said Pat Haden, who was Musberger's partner that day, watching the replay. "But it shows you the tremendous speed that the Miami defensive backfield has."

"Oh, McDowell did a great job of catching Smith," marveled Musberger.

The play was a testament to McDowell's perseverance. Something that he would need during his tenure in Miami.

* In Part II, McDowell talks about his recruitment, his early frustrations on not playing, his near transfer and playing for Jimmy Johnson.

(Steve Kim, is a freelance journalist, who also runs his own web site, www.maxboxing.com. Steve is an avid Hurricane fan who has been logging onto CanesTime since 1998. He can be reached at k9kim@yahoo.com)

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