The 30th Anniversary of Hail Flutie

“With two time-outs left, it’s not impossible…”

Those were Haden’s exact words right after this happened:

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That’s Bratton soaring over the top of the pile for what many probably believed was the game-sealing score. It put Miami up by a field goal, and the extra point by Greg Cox made it a mandatory touchdown deficit for the Eagles. Yet there was Flutie, with 28 seconds on the clock and his team trailing 45-41, nodding his head affirmatively: “Yup, time to go to work.”

Viewers pondered what might happen next. Would Miami execute a squib kick, forcing Eagles players to contact the ball and start the game clock? Or would the Canes opt to plant Flutie and his troops deep in their own territory? The answer came when kickoff specialist Mark Seelig launched the ball into the end zone, and the BC offense took over at their own 20-yard line.

Flutie promptly found Stradford over the middle for a 19-yard gain, which took all of 8 seconds, and the Eagles declined a defensive holding penalty on Miami. Next, Flutie hit Scott Gieselman just across midfield for another first down, the tight end stepping out at the left sideline to stop the clock with 12 seconds remaining. Another pass attempt, intended for Casparriello at the 32-yard line, fell incomplete.

With six seconds now on the clock, the CBS producers switch coverage to a camera on the Hurricanes’ sideline, where Kosar is shown smiling and laughing on his sideline while accepting congratulatory pats on the back:

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Musberger presented the gravity of the situation for Boston College: “And now… Doug Flutie is down to his last at-bat…”

A chorus of referee whistles stopped time in its tracks just as BC snapped the ball on what would likely have been the final play of the game. After conferring, the officials picked up the flag and ruled there was no penalty. The drama interrupted for a moment, tensions built once again as the two teams lined up at the Miami 48-yard line.

Here’s the call from Eagles broadcaster Dan Davis and his analyst partner Gino Cappelletti for those final seconds on WRKO radio in Boston:

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Most fans who watched the play live can still narrate the minute details of its machinations in their sleep. A bank of wideouts spread to his right, Flutie drops back, gets flushed deeper and to his right by hard-charging defensive tackle Jerome Brown. Then he plants his right foot at his own 36-yard line, rears back with a high left leg kick like Juan Marichal preparing to deliver a pitch, and, with the clock hitting double-zeroes, launches a ball that travels 65 yards into a 30-knot headwind before being cradled in the arms of his roommate. A sea of Eagles mobs Phelan in a pig pile, while Flutie leaps into the arms of one of his offensive linemen and raises his clenched fist skyward.

A stroke of luck? Perhaps. At least two Hurricanes defensive backs appeared to be in position to knock the ball away. A defensive breakdown? Well, the phalanx of Canes defenders did allow Phelan to wander behind them into the end zone, underestimating the range of Flutie’s arm.

In a postgame interview among a gaggle of reporters themselves surrounded by swarming, jubilant BC fans, Bicknell explained the final play call as the “flood tip” in which a bank of wideouts race downfield to camp in the same area near the end zone. Should the designated target (Phelan in this case) be unable to catch the ball, he is charged with attempting a tip to a teammate. BC had executed the flood tip successfully earlier that season ‒ just before halftime in their win over Temple ‒ and it was Phelan who secured that pass for the score. “It’s the same play,” Bicknell said, “but [tonight] Flutie scrambled and they stopped having leverage on the deep guy, and [Flutie] threw another howitzer.”

In the Boston Globe one day after the cataclysmic victory, columnist Leigh Montville relayed a story from the Eagles’ locker room in which right tackle Mark McDonald, still in disbelief, opined on the apparent divinity of the moment: “That wasn’t Gerard Phelan who caught that ball,” McDonald said. “God caught that ball.”

Teammate and fellow lineman Jim Ostrowski responded with an alternate view. “No, God threw it.”

Epilogue

Both teams went on to play in New Year’s Day bowl games. The Hurricanes, whose setback with BC was their fourth loss of the season, would drop another heartbreaker in the Fiesta Bowl to UCLA (37-35) and finish 8-5 on the year. Boston College dispatched Houston in the Cotton Bowl 45-28 behind 196 rushing yards from Stradford, finishing 10-2. Flutie picked up the Heisman Trophy in New York, with Kosar finishing fourth in the voting. The following spring, Flutie headed to the USFL’s New Jersey Generals. Despite only two years of college experience, Kosar would also turn pro; by graduating early the Ohio native gained NFL eligibility and was selected by the Cleveland Browns in the NFL’s supplemental draft.

Dozens of young men took the field that November day in Miami: half left the Orange Bowl euphoric, the other half shell-shocked. Since then, most have lived their lives in relative anonymity, others got a taste of the spotlight, and a few, like Flutie and Johnson (both now TV commentators), still bask in the illumination of a victory long since past.

For some, the light has been extinguished altogether. Jerome Brown, the big Miami defensive tackle who chased Flutie from the pocket on The Play, went on to the NFL where he earned a pair of Pro Bowl selections with the Philadelphia Eagles. In June 1992, the 27-year-old Brown and two young nephews were killed when he crashed his Corvette in his hometown of Brooksville, Florida. Steve Trapilo, the BC lineman who held his jubilant quarterback aloft in a timeless pose, also played in the NFL spending five seasons with the New Orleans Saints. Trapilo died of a heart attack in June 2004.

The fabled stadium that hosted the event is also gone, demolished in 2008 to make way for the Miami Marlins’ new ballpark. The sands of time can never diminish the powerful memories of great sports moments, and the 30th anniversary of Hail Flutie marks one game that will never be erased from its place in history.

Follow Mark on Twitter @mabrowndog.

Mark Brown is the Executive Editor of Inside The Pylon, and has written about the dangers ofball watching, the finer points of strip-sacks, what it’s like to be a Jet, and what CFB you should watch, and is a proponent of using evidence to refute hot sports takes.

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