The pass was a sweet, tight spiral, thrown by Colorado's Kordell Stewart into the early autumn gloaming. You can say that there was planning in this play—or even that providence had a hand in it—but at the time it seemed nothing more than the last, desperate act of a team destined to lose a football game. A hopeless stab at a 64-yard miracle with six seconds left. "I heaved it out there," said Stewart. "I just heaved it." The ball floated against the lights illuminating the south end of Michigan Stadium, and more than 100,000 Michigan fans waited only for the incompletion to become official before loosing themselves in victory.
For five seconds of real time the ball hung in the air with No. 4 Michigan leading No. 7 Colorado 26-21 last Saturday. For six seconds, for seven, eight.... Time for two unbeaten teams to wait, to measure the stakes, to gather their dreams.
In a converted garage attached to his house on Adam Drive in Marrero, La., across the Mississippi River from New Orleans, a 52-year-old jack-of-all-trades named Robert Stewart was engaging in one of them—barbering. He was cutting a neighbor's hair, and because his house isn't wired for pay-per-view (and Colorado-Michigan wasn't the network choice for his area), he was watching a replay of the pass on the local news, moments after it took place. He was watching stone-cold, unaware of the result, as his son dropped back, paused and stepped toward history. Robert had taken custody of Kordell when his former wife died of liver cancer when their son was nine, and for nine years they had lived like soul mates. Just the Monday before, they had embraced in Boulder as Robert ended a weekend visit. "My main man," Kordell says. "My daddy, my big brother."
Now the father watched as the son let fly. "I sure hope he throws a good, long pass," Robert said to his customer. "Throw it to that Westbrook boy," he shouted at the television.
In the front row of the huge bowl in Ann Arbor sat 43 of Michael Westbrook's family members and friends. His mother, Mercy Westbrook; his big brother, Alonzo; and his big sister, Falesha; were all there dressed in number 81 black-and-gold Colorado jerseys, and his father, Bobby Sledge, was there too, watching Michael run past the Colorado bench toward the end zone. Westbrook, a senior wideout for the Buffaloes, was raised on the west side of Detroit, not 20 miles from the Michigan campus, yet Saturday was the first time he had set foot on the Wolverines' famous field, because Michigan had not recruited him. "Growing up, I had Michigan pillows, Michigan bedspreads, everything," says Westbrook. "I always wanted to play in that stadium."
At the top of the stadium, across the field from the Colorado bench, Dick Anderson paced on the roof above an ABC-TV booth. Anderson, who had played for the Miami Dolphins in two Super Bowl victories, had been interviewed during the telecast about his son Blake, a 6-foot, 185-pound senior and sparingly used wideout for Colorado. Now Blake was on the field for the final play, one of three receivers deployed to the wide side of the field. The elder Anderson had been an All-Pro safety, so he knew the odds. "You just put a defensive back in the end zone and tell him not to get sucked up by anything," he said later. "It's what, one in 20? One in 30? One in a hundred?"
Facing each other across the field were Michigan coach Gary Moeller and Colorado coach Bill McCartney. They both had been given their first college coaching job by Wolverine legend Bo Schembechler, they had worked together at Michigan in the 1970s, and yet they are very different. Moeller is a coach's coach who lives to watch film and would sooner give up food and water than his sideline headset and the control it affords him. McCartney is co-founder of a nationwide Christian men's group. The Buffaloes and Stewart have prospered this season in large part because McCartney turned the offensive headset over to one of his assistants. Where Moeller often sees X's and O's, McCartney sometimes sees destiny. At stake for each was a run through autumn in pursuit of a national championship. Schembechler had called each of them on Saturday morning, and as if McCartney, a Michigan native returning home to an audience that included his 84-year-old mother, Ruth, didn't already understand the importance of the game, Schembechler told him, "I wish I was going to be on the other side."
And on a metal bench reserved for Colorado's defensive players, 6'3", 270-pound junior defensive tackle Shannon Clavelle stood as tall as he could and raised his arms to the heavens, signaling touchdown, even as Stewart's throw was only beginning its plunge toward the ground, with, by now, all zeroes frozen on the scoreboard clock. How could he have known? "Faith," Clavelle said. "Faith in my team."
The final play began after Stewart, having intentionally grounded the ball at the Colorado 34 because the Buffaloes had no timeouts left, faced his huddle and made the only call possible in such a situation: "Jets, Rocket, Victory." That's Colorado footballese for wide receivers (Jets) go long (Rocket), I throw it as far as I can, we hope somebody gets lucky (Victory). The huddle broke, and Westbrook, Anderson and sophomore Rae Carruth lined up wide left, with sophomore James Kidd off to the right.
It is a play the Buffaloes practice as part of a two-minute drill in their workout each Thursday. "The last play of the day," McCartney said. "And even then you're careful, because you don't want guys going up, colliding, getting hurt." Stewart throws the ball long, Westbrook and Anderson stop at the goal line and try to tip the ball to Carruth or Kidd, outside them. It doesn't often work.