Twenty-two years after the Miracle at Michigan, Kordell Stewart’s Hail Mary heave to Michael Westbrook remains burned in my memory. It’s not the earliest individual play I can remember watching live, still in great detail, but no play holds a more significant place for me.
Colorado-Michigan wasn’t the first really hyped game I remember closely following, either; Notre Dame-Florida State the season prior has that distinction. However, this one had similar build with the fourth-ranked blue bloods welcoming the surging upstart, ranked seventh in the country and harboring national title aspirations.
In these days, Sportscenter was as much a daily-must for me as showering and brushing my teeth — perhaps more so than showering, giving I was an adolescent boy at the time. ESPN’s flagship show hyped up the impending Top 10 showdown of Big Ten and Big 8 powers like a heavyweight title fight.
That might not seem significant, given the hyperbole heaped onto at least one game virtually every weekend now. But with the Embrace Debate era still more than a decade away, the pregame anticipation for Colorado-Michigan was genuine. That title fight mystique proved valid, too, with the Miracle at Michigan providing a finish that for me is as iconic as any in my time watching the game.
“I do remember seeing it on the highlights,” Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre said. Then an assistant at UT-Martin, MacIntyre was predisposed as the play unfolded live, but he caught Stewart’s launch and Westbrook’s catch in the way most of the sports-watching nation consumed big moments in those days.
“That’s back when ESPN, I think, only had one channel, too,” he added with a laugh.
He’s close; ESPN2 launched 11 months prior, but lacked wide distribution. It aired such odds-and-ends as the Global Wrestling Federation and Jim Rome’s first TV show, infamous for the Jim Everett incident.
Not only is ESPN2 known nearly as omnipresent in any cable package as its predecessor, but football fans are inundated with viewing options. To wit, this year’s installment of the Colorado-Michigan series — the third since the Miracle at Michigan — will air on Big Ten Network.
1994 was much different. I became a true, die-hard college football fan the season prior, thanks to Charlie Ward’s ahead-of-its-time style, the Arizona Desert Swarm defense and a screening of Rudy alongside my dad and his high school basketball team at an old theater in Globe, Arizona.
In those early days of my fandom, I had the Saturday schedule down pat: ABC aired a game at 9 a.m. local time, usually Big Ten. Another Big Ten game aired opposite it on ESPN — I seem to remember a lot of Indiana and Wisconsin in those days. 12:30 p.m. meant Pac-10 football on ABC, usually USC or UCLA. Raycom Sports aired the Pac-10 Game of the Week on syndication in the late afternoon, where I saw plenty of the Dawgfather Don James.
As vividly as I remember the TV schedule, my memory of that late September day is even clearer. Stewart taking the snap from under center; Michigan showing a three-man rush that put zero pressure on the Buffs’ quarterback. That throw…a decade later when I first saw Napoleon Dynamite, Uncle Rico’s boast of being able to “throw a football over those mountains” immediately brought to mind that throw.
With all due respect to current Buffs quarterback Sefo Liufau, who’s certainly more Kordell Stewart than Uncle Rico, getting that ball to the end zone was a feat in and of itself.
Sefo: Hopefully it doesn’t come to a Hail Mary, but if it does, I’ll get the ball to the end zone.
— Colorado Football (@RunRalphieRun) September 13, 2016
Everything about the play — the throw, the stakes, a legendary program in Michigan against a legendary coach in Bill McCartney, and Keith Jackson’s voice to illustrate the action — is quintessential college football.