Just Like Dragons
By Mike Fasano
About this time of year the Ghost of Christmas Past always pays me a visit. He always comes to tell me how I'm screwing up my life.
This is not really necessary. I already know how I'm screwing up my life. After all, I've had over fifty years of practice.
Perhaps sensing this, the Ghost changed his routine. This year – perhaps out of kindness - he brought me a gift. A gift from the past. It was a trip to a Rutgers game long ago.
November 3rd, 1979 to be exact.
That was the day that Rutgers football took one of its first steps into big time college football. It was a game against the Tennessee Volunteers.
Much like the present team, there was a lot of talent on that 1979 squad. Rutgers had gone undefeated three years earlier and reaped a recruiting bounty. Those players were juniors in 1979 and were eager to prove themselves against a top caliber opponent. They found such an opponent in eleventh-ranked Tennessee and the Knights were pumped for the game.
They were also in for a rude shock.
When they got to Knoxville the Scarlet they were welcomed – not as a legitimate opponent – but as the joke of the town. As they headed to their hotel the night before the game the windows of stores and businesses had posters predicting the final results of the game.
Tennessee 90 – Rutgers 0
Tennessee 110 – Rutgers 0
And so on.
Hotel clerks and waiters were nice enough but they couldn't help but betray a smile. And they were smiles that said, "Rutgers Football – you must be kidding", "You guys expect to beat Tennessee – you're not serious, are you?"
It was no different in the press. Local reporters tagged the game with just one redeeming virtue. Bowl scouts would in attendance. The pasting that the Vols were about to inflict on the Knights would showcase Tennessee's many talents.
That, of course, was the best they could say about the coming "laugher".
The worst they could say was something else. At worst it was: "What's a Rutgers".
One writer, you see, was so disdainful of the Knights that he wrote a whole article mocking Rutgers and its football program. "What is a Rutgers?", he mused. "Rutgers", he noted, "must always come in pairs, you can never have just one Rutger." The article got worse from there. There was no worry that this sarcasm would become "bulletin board" stuff for the Knights. After all, the game was a "lock". Writers could let the mockery rip … and they did.
The Rutgers players - who in high school had been recognized as some of the best players in the state - were being treated as laughingstocks.
They were the butt of jokes, a foil for humor, a target for barbs.
Their feelings of humiliation, however, gave way to something else. In fact, by the time that they got to the stadium they didn't feel like laughingstocks at all. They no longer winced at being the butt of jokes. They no longer felt the sting of ridicule. Another emotion had taken had taken its place.
No, by the time that they got to Neyland Stadium, the young Knights were just like dragons … they were breathing fire.
The first half played dead even. Tennessee struggled to a 7-0 lead but they couldn't hold onto it. Late in the second quarter the Knights moved the ball to the Tennessee 37 yard line. Then Rutgers quarterback, Eddie McMichael, called a post pattern to wide receiver David Dorn. Dorn, like McMichael, was one of Rutgers' hotshot juniors. He was the first legitimate sub 4.4 sprinter ever to play football for the Knights.
McMichael took the snap. Dorn faked a couple slow steps and then exploded past the Tennessee secondary. Meanwhile McMichael spun away from the Tennessee pass rush and rifled a pass towards the endzone. As the Volunteer corners frantically tried to recover, Dorn cut towards the ball and hauled it in. There wasn't anyone within five yards of him when he burned across the goal line.
Rutgers fans went absolutely wild but they were only a handful. Their celebrations went largely unheard amidst the stunned silence of 85,000 Volunteer faithful.
It was 7-7 at the half.
In the locker room the Rutgers coaching staff knew that the Scarlet's chances were slim. Tennessee had great athletes - stud competitors drawn from every corner of America. Their coach was the legendary Johnny Majors. He was certainly raising hell with his players and the Knights were bruised and wounded from warring with such princes of the sport.
Head coach Frank Burns and assistant coach Dick Curl used every motivational trick they knew to try to get Rutgers to play their hearts out for just one more half, to get them to lift themselves for just thirty more minutes of play.
But, in truth, Burns didn't need to say a thing. Curl didn't have to utter a word. Though injured and battered, the Knights wanted one thing and one thing only.
They wanted to get back on the field.
The second half turned into a war. It was less a game than it was room-to-room combat. Tennessee threw every nationally coveted athlete they had against the Rutgers defense.
It didn't matter.
The Vols couldn't score, they couldn't string together first downs, they couldn't move the ball.
Johnny Majors began to sense serious trouble and upped the ante. He reached into the reserves of talent from Tennessee's bottomless bench trying to grind the Knights into submission. Rutgers fought back with the only thing they had – a will to win. Time and time again Tennessee assailed the exhausted Scarlet defense. Time and time again the Knights ground them to a halt. Though battered and spent, the Rutgers defense contested every yard, every foot, every inch. In the end, Tennessee's spectacularly gifted offense shattered itself against the self respect of eleven kids in scarlet.
But that, of course, wasn't enough. The Knights didn't want a tie. They wanted a win and they wanted it badly.
Head coach Frank Burns sensed the power of the emotions emerging in his young players and came up with a daring plan. Burns would hurl the rising spirit of the Scarlet Knights like a pile driver against Tennessee's defensive front. And Burns chose an eager freshman fullback - Bryant Moore - to carry the battle to the heart of the enemy. It was a audacious - almost foolhardly - strategy. But on radios throughout the Northeast, Rutgers fans heard the result.
"McMichael hands off to Moore up the middle, BIG HOLE, Moore goes for five yards, no, he's still driving, six, no, seven yards before he's taken down."
"McMichael to Moore, BIG HOLE, Moore for crosses the forty-five, the fifty, first down for Rutgers."
The offensive line was performing miracles. They weren't just opening holes, they were opening Grand Canyons. They were pancaking the finest defensive linemen in the nation.
In the trenches the thoughts of the Knights linemen were almost audible.
"What's a Rutgers, huh? So you want to know what a Rutgers is?"
Then the announcer.
"Hand off to Moore, BIG HOLE, Bryant bulls his way down to the 40."
Over and over again the offensive line opened holes for Bryant Moore. Over and over again the freshman Bryant Moore bullied the Tennessee linebackers - two, three of them at a time.
Twice, Rutgers warred its way into Kennan Startzell's field goal range. Twice, Startzell drilled it.
The Scarlet pulled ahead 13-7.
That was all they needed. Behind Bryant Moore's 20 carry, 103 yard effort, Rutgers ate up the clock, sealed the win.
A great story. A true story. Twenty-six years ago.
But I have a question.
Are tales of Rutgers glory only to be found in the past?
I like to believe that they'll be found in the future also. In fact, maybe twenty-six years from now, on a Christmastime night, in a bar in New Brunswick, we'll hear about another team. A team that went into a bowl game breathing fire. Maybe we'll hear a conversation that goes something like this.
First fan: "You're wrong. It was Brian Leonard. He carried three Sun Devil linemen into the end zone with a minute to play. Leonard. It was clearly Leonard."
Second fan: "Yeah, but without Girault's interception, Leonard never gets the ball. Girault ripped the ball away from their tight end while they were both in mid air for God's sake. He saved the game, set up the win. You just can't match a performance like that."
Third fan: "Match it? Ryan Neill exceeded it.
After his first five sacks, the Sun Devils were triple teaming him and it barely
slowed him down. He was a madman that day. I am telling you, it was Ryan Neill."
This goes on for about 15 minutes. It was Tres Moses says one fan, it was Shawn Tucker says another. Quintero Frierson, Ryan Hart, John Glass, Ray Rice. The names go on and on, one after another, the argument getting hotter and louder until finally, one fan holds up a glass and shouts.
"You're all wrong. Every one of you is wrong."
"It wasn't Brian Leonard that changed the course of Rutgers football. And it wasn't Ryan Hart, either. It wasn't Ryan Neill. It wasn't Clark Harris. In fact, it wasn't any of those guys who made Rutgers football what it is today."
He pauses for a second while everyone turns to hear what he has to say.
"It wasn't any of them."
"It wasn't any of the players you mentioned who changed the course of Rutgers football."
"You're all wrong because ... because it was all of them."
"And let's drink a toast to the team of 2005. Let's drink a toast to the guys who changed Rutgers Football forever."
Everyone lifts a glass. Everyone drinks a toast.
And let me join. I'll drink a toast to that also,
… to the Scarlet Knights of 2005. May they come into the Insight Bowl just like dragons,
… and to a Rutgers win over Arizona State
… and to, yes,
… and to a Merry Christmas and a Happy Holiday to the Rutgers Team, it's coaches and to its fans wherever these holidays may find them.
Go Knights, Beat ASU.