Sometimes an athlete must wait to become a legend, even when there seems to be an irresistible rush toward his coronation and even when that player is the Notre Dame quarterback. Sometimes he must wait because there is this madness that appears in college sports at precisely the moment that things seem most predictable. "Sometimes," said Notre Dame senior linebacker Jeremy Nau, standing in the gathering twilight last Saturday outside Notre Dame Stadium, "roles get reversed, and you don't know how it happened."
There was to be a story written that day that would challenge plausibility. A sturdy, 20-year-old Pennsylvanian named Ron Powlus had become the Fighting Irish's quarterback after more than a year's anticipation. In his debut a week earlier he had thrown four touchdown passes in a prime-time slaughter of Northwestern, inspiring talk of multiple Heisman trophies and earning him more airtime in the ensuing days than Richard Ravitch and Donald Fehr combined.
And then with 52 seconds left in Notre Dame's home opener against Michigan on Saturday—a clash imbued, as always, with season-long ramifications—Powlus seemed to have rescued the afternoon for the Fighting Irish with a seven-yard touchdown pass to wideout Derrick Mayes at the back of the end zone. Powlus threw a dart, a high, tight spiral placed in the only available spot—just over Michigan free safety Chuck Winters—and it was snatched from the sky by Mayes, prompting a dizzying celebration. The extra point made it 24-23 for Notre Dame.
From the Michigan sideline, fifth-year senior quarterback Todd Collins watched impassively. He had chosen Michigan over Notre Dame as a high school senior in Walpole, Mass., knowing that as a Wolverine quarterback he would never be so praised as Powlus already has been. "That was part of the reason I didn't go there." Collins says. "I can easily live without all that." Now he heard those hosannas to Powlus, with less than a minute to play. "You were all ready to put him on the cover of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and make him the Golden Boy, like Rick Mirer," Collins said later, referring to a 1990 SI cover that Michigan folk have never forgotten.
Also looking on from the Michigan bench was junior kicker Remy Hamilton. He is the anti-Powlus, a kid who was suspended from his team last January after being charged with shoplifting beer from an Ann Arbor convenience store. (Hamilton pleaded no contest and was absolved of any guilt.) He was reinstated in time for spring practice, but his technique was so poor that it seemed certain he would not win the first-string placekicking job. "He knew that he'd messed up, and his confidence was gone," said Michigan kicking coach Mike DeBord. "His technique was so bad he was missing PATs."
While Powlus spent his summer in preparation for a three-ring entrance onto the national stage, Hamilton was home in Boca Raton, Fla., kicking 50 to 75 balls a day at Patch Reef Park and Spanish River High. His parents, Harry and Dianne, would shag balls for the younger of their two sons. "We tried to help him get back in real good shape," says Harry. "It's a hard thing, to go out there and kick by yourself. You wouldn't expect a quarterback to throw alone." Some mornings—"mornings when I didn't feel like getting up, when I felt like going to the beach," says Remy—it was the parents who would wake the son and take him to his workout. He is, in a very real sense, this year's model of David Gordon, who kicked the winning field goal in Boston College's epic 41-39 upset of Notre Dame last Nov. 20. He is what wrenches the story line from its appointed course.
Used primarily for kickoffs last season and in the Wolverines' season-opening win over Boston College, Hamilton was told only Saturday morning that he would handle all the kicking duties against Notre Dame. Standing on the side of the field in the closing seconds of the game, he was stretching to keep loose, because the kickers' practice net already had been folded and put away. Collins took Michigan 59 yards in four plays: a 15-yard scramble, a 26-yard completion to tight end Jay Riemersma, a nine-yard pass to freshman wideout Seth Smith and, with 14 seconds and no timeouts remaining, a remarkable, nine-yard completion to Smith. Collins released the ball as he was thrown to the ground by Notre Dame linebacker Bert Berry, and then Smith dived out of bounds at the Notre Dame 24. Seven seconds remained.
When Hamilton lined up his 42-yard held goal attempt, he had already been successful in three of four tries against the Irish, but he had never in his life won a game with a kick. Before he could get the kick off, Notre Dame took a timeout because it had 12 men on the Held. Hamilton jogged to the sideline, where injured Michigan co-captain Walter Smith, an inspirational leader who limps to the center of the field for coin tosses even though he is out for the season, talked in the ear hole of Hamilton's helmet. "Be a dog," Smith told him. Translation: "It means, 'Play hard, have a strong mental attitude,' " Smith says. "You could say that's our motto." Another voice whispered to Hamilton, saying, "Good luck," a voice belonging to Mike Gillette. Notre Darners like to say that their stadium is inhabited by ghosts (at Friday night's pep rally, former quarterback Terry Hanratty went so far as to summon the ghosts of John Huarte and Joe Theismann, both of whom are very much alive), and Gillette is surely one who has been haunted.
On Sept. 10, 1988, exactly six years earlier, Gillette, then a senior kicker at Michigan, missed a 48-yard field goal as time expired, preserving Notre Dame's 19-17 victory and making a national hero of Irish walk-on kicker Reggie Ho, who had booted four field goals, including the 26-yard game-winner with 1:18 to play. Notre Dame went on to win the national championship. Gillette wore number 19, which Hamilton wears now. Gillette was a high school quarterback, as was Hamilton. One difference: Hamilton struck his 42-yard attempt sweetly and nailed the field goal that gave the Wolverines a 26-24 victory and a 2-0 record. "When I looked up," Hamilton said, "all I could see was the ball going into the middle of the net."
We will be lost these next two autumns—will we not?—as Notre Dame and Michigan interrupt this series, which for 10 consecutive years has been the matchup that truly began the college football season, Kickoff and Pigskin Classics notwithstanding. It was the series that made stars of Rocket Ismail and Desmond Howard and Mirer, that gave us Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz defending his decision to settle for a tie in 1992, that produced last year's 27-23 Notre Dame upset, an Irish triumph that foretold their quality. The last seven games have been decided by a total of 27 points.