For the love of the game (Peter King on Rutgers)
PISCATAWAY, N.J. -- I am running the veer this morning, skipping for the moment a compelling but not playoff-vital NFL Sunday (only one Sunday game, Bears-Giants, matched teams with winning records) to dwell on a college football story that is so much more than a college football story. The Rutgers win over Louisville last Thursday night, and the players involved in it, are what sports should be about.
This Rutgers football team is akin to the Patriots of 2001, minus (almost certainly) the championship. The national title is almost insignificant. The Cinderella-esque joy and some middle-class football players' reward for hard work toward a ridiculous pipe dream, that's the significant thing.
As I stood behind the Rutgers sideline Thursday night after Rutgers came back from a 25-7 deficit to beat nation's third-ranked team 28-25, I saw the savior coach get teary-eyed and I watched fans pour from the stands in utter jubilation and the kid who kicked the winning field was paraded around the stadium on the shoulders of Rutgers students -- all with looks of shock and unfettered glee -- and complete strangers hugged and one kid with a face painted red looked up at the sky and shrieked: "There is a God!'' As all this happened, I could only think of one thing I hoped for these players and coaches: "Enjoy this. Savor this. Some of you might be in the NFL someday, but there is no sporting moment in your life that will be more fun.''
• Rutgers losses in 2001, Greg Schiano's first season as Rutgers coach: 61-0, 50-0, 80-7, 42-0.
I've covered the NFL since 1984, and I don't think there are moments like this one in pro football. Close, but not quite. It has to do with enthusiasm and 20-year-old players who aren't jaded yet. It was so gratifying to see kids who understood this. The Rutgers kids did. I've been around Super Bowl-winning teams after games for the past 22 years, and only three times have I seen anything close to the sheer joy I saw Thursday night. There was an ebullient Jimmy Johnson after Dallas crushed Buffalo 13 years ago, Steve Young after the monkey-off-his-back Super Bowl win two years later ("They can NEVER, EVER, EVER take this away from us!!!'' he said), and Tom Brady holding his head in euphoric disbelief after New England's first Super Bowl win.
There's a lesson in this, and it has to do with living in the moment and not viewing money as your god. Hard to do today, when you're bombarded with so many messages about money equaling success and happiness. Hard to do in sports, when contracts obliterate team goals.
The Rutgers-Louisville game ended at 11:05 p.m. At 11:08, I ran into Shaun O'Hara, the New York Giants center, as jubilant students rushed past us to the field. "My senior year I was 0-11 on this field,'' he said. Then he thought for a second. "You know, I've got the Bears this week. I've got to get home. But you think there was any way I was gonna leave here before this one was over?''
• Schiano's first two games against Temple: Temple 30, Rutgers 5 ... Temple 20, Rutgers 17.
The last Rutgers player left the field after celebrating with the fans at 11:38. When the star running back, Ray Rice, walked through the tunnel and toward the locker room, he spotted starting left guard Mike Fladell -- 11 inches taller and 127 pounds heavier than Rice -- and shouted, "My linemen! My linemen did it for me!'' And he jumped into Fladell's arms and stayed there like he was velcroed. When he got off, Rice pumped the hands of two mustard-coated Fiesta Bowl execs, "How you doing? Ray Rice,'' he said, shaking their hands.
About an hour after the game, I got to meet the poster child for this moment -- a kid named Brian Leonard. You probably have heard of him in this wave of post-Thursday Rutgersmania. (I am not exaggerating when I say that in my town, Montclair, about eight miles west of the Meadowlands and 30 miles north of the Rutgers campus, interest in the Rutgers-Louisville game tripled interest in the Giants-Bears game last week.) The Leonard story has been told far and wide, but here is the very abridged version.
After his older brother went to Rutgers and loved it, Brian spurned Notre Dame to attend Rutgers in '02 ... and the Knights promptly went 1-11. One night, when some partiers discovered a football player's car was near, Brian got a beer bottle smashed on the roof of his car. He worked himself into a 6-2, 235-pound fullback, and after totaling 1,308 rushing/receiving yards and 17 touchdowns last year, thought seriously about declaring for the NFL draft. People in the know said he'd be a third-round pick, maybe second. But Leonard said no, he'd stay for his fifth season. He told a Rutgers basketball crowd at halftime of a January game that he was coming back to play in a BCS game. And this fall, as the closest thing Rutgers football has ever had to a cult hero, Leonard has seen RU grad James Gandolfini wearing his number 23 jersey to football games.
On this night, the game was tied at 25 with 2:18 to play. Rutgers had the ball at its 35, third and six. The most important third-down conversion of the year was about to be attempted. If Rutgers converted, the Knights would at least be able to play for overtime while keeping it away from Louisville. If Rutgers failed, Louisville would have enough time and timeouts to get into field-goal range -- provided the Cards could move the ball better than they had throughout a listless second half. Though the most explosive offensive player on the team clearly had become Rice, Schiano wanted the ball in the hands of his most trusted player on the biggest play of the night. Leonard took a swing pass up the right side, got great blocking and plowed 26 yards. Now it was a matter of time.
• Nov. 11, 2005: Louisville 56, Rutgers 5. With a 49-5 lead in the fourth quarter, Louisville throws seven passes on a 97-yard drive to a final touchdown. There are some stupid things you can do in college football, but kicking a rising team when it's down by throwing with a 44-point lead and a few minutes left is one of the big ones. Nice motivation, Cards.
"Sickest feeling I've ever had in my life,'' Leonard says.
The minicams, four of them, jostled with the print reporters last Thursday to get in a question to Leonard, a polite kid who patiently explained what this night meant.
"This is why I came back,'' he said. "This night. This game. My dream's coming true right now. I've been through the worst around here. My first year, we went 1-11. We had people swearing at us. I had my car smashed with a beer bottle. And tonight I stood on the field after we beat the number three team in the country, watching our fans swarm all over us. People thought I was nuts for staying here instead of going to the NFL, but no money can buy this feeling I have right now. None.''
The waves leave, and it's me and him now. I asked him if he was happy that he stayed, even though his draft stock might have fallen as his stats plummeted this year with Rice emerging.
"Very,'' he said. "This is the happiest day of my life.''
His voice began to waver.
"This is a dream we're all living right now, a dream you can't put a price on. I'm the type of guy who feels like every moment is good, no matter what the stats are. Blocking for Ray is good. The little catches are good. The moment is good. This win is good. I love it all.
"The NFL's good. Money's good. But I never had money growing up. My family didn't have money. My mom's an accountant. My dad's a cable guy. They don't care that they weren't rich. They're the two happiest people on the planet. They live life the way it should be lived and passed that on to their kids. Money doesn't buy happiness. I'll tell you what is happiness to me: Jumping up and down on the 50-yard line, right on the "R,'' surrounded by three cops and my teammates. That's happiness.''
His voice wavered again, and he looked up at the ceiling for a second.
"We beat the No. 3 team in the country! And they're a great team! Amazing.''
That might not be the only amazing thing happening.
It'll be hard enough for Rutgers to run the table before the bowl season begins, with a Dec. 2 game at West Virginia capping the regular season. The BCS brains out there think any number of one-loss teams would trump a 12-0 Rutgers team. But by the end of the night Saturday, three of those teams had been upset -- No. 4 Texas, No. 5 Auburn and No. 8 Cal. So instead of jumping from No. 13 in the BCS rankings to, say, No. 10 with the upset of Louisville, Rutgers jumped to No. 6.
Dream for a minute. Michigan loses big to Ohio State. USC loses to Cal or UCLA. Notre Dame loses at USC. Arkansas loses to LSU. Florida loses the SEC title game to Arkansas.
Rutgers runs the table.
Ohio State-Rutgers, Jan. 8, 2007. For the championship.
One last NFL thought from Leonard: "I don't like the 'me' guys very much. This is the biggest team sport in the world. I don't understand why a team fights so hard to get to the end zone, and one guy scores, and he just wants to celebrate by himself. He should be celebrating with his team, shouldn't he?''
I walked out of the stadium that night thinking: Once Tom Brady gets to know about Brian Leonard, he'll politic for the Pats to draft him next year. What a perfect sledgehammer and safety valve for the Patriots.
Or, for that matter, for any of the other NFL teams. I have a feeling we'll be seeing an influx of Leonard and his pals in the NFL in the next few years. But guys, we can wait. Enjoy this while you can. It'll never be better.
Re: For the love of the game (Peter King on Rutgers)
I so badly want this Rutgers story to have a happy ending. Almost as badly as I want the words "Iowa State" to substitute every time "Rutgers" is listed in the story. It's hard not to get at least a little excited/emotional about what Rutgers is doing right now.
Another great job of reporting by Peter King.