Lying there, with anxious faces peering down at him and the plastic grass growing cold under his hands, Leeland McElroy felt a buzz pass through his body, across his arms, to the ends of his fingers. He didn't want to move. This was strange. This was new. Clouds tumbled across the late-afternoon Colorado sky; you could smell winter coming and something else going: McElroy's Heisman Trophy, Texas A&M's national championship, the Aggies' best chance to erase the humiliation of last year's probation—all of it floating up like wispy smoke. "Never had I been hit that hard," McElroy said.
The play had been Texas A&M's last shot. The Aggies had come into Folsom Field last Saturday ranked No. 3 and rolling, had come to play the No. 7 Buffaloes in the season's first marquee matchup with McElroy, the college game's best tailback, on a remarkable tear—averaging nearly 10 yards every time he touched the ball and drawing comparisons with Walter Payton and lording over his very own page on the World Wide Web, for god's sake. But now it was late, and nothing had gone right. Now it was Colorado 29-21 with 7:12 to play, and 'Lectric Leeland, unplugged and unimpressive with just 52 yards rushing, was pulling down a kickoff at the three-yard line. He had been waiting for his one big play all day, and suddenly he was running, cutting to the 10-...15-...25-yard line, maybe this is it, finally, gaining speed....
No. The sound of the hit carried far, a crack of sickening solidity, and suddenly a Colorado freshman named Hannibal Navies stood over McElroy with his fists punching the air. McElroy was on his back, barely moving his feet. "I don't even remember it," McElroy said after the game. "My whole body went numb, started tingling." He didn't get up for 10 seconds. Then McElroy wobbled to the sideline, his game essentially over.
"He's supposed to be one of the best running backs in the nation," Navies shrugged. "That does something for me."
It did more for Colorado, which, by taking all of McElroy's Heisman hype as gospel truth—and responding accordingly—emerged as college football's September surprise. Last winter, when the Buffaloes seemingly lost the heart of their team with the departures of Heisman Trophy-winning running back Rashaan Salaam, star quarterback Kordell Stewart, All-America receiver Michael Westbrook and national-champion coach Bill McCartney, the world had been quick to rank them as a second-tier power. But now, after disposing of Texas A&M to go 4-0, "we're on our way," said linebacker Matt Russell. "We feel like we've got a shot at the national title."
McElroy won't argue. Under rookie coach Rick Neuheisel, Colorado has quickly distinguished itself as united, aggressive and very smart. After switching the Buffaloes to the 4-3 defense this season, defensive coordinator A.J. Christoff secretly scrapped that look last week—playing 12 men in practice to throw off any would-be spies—for an ever-shifting hybrid featuring five down linemen intent on keeping McElroy in check. Meanwhile, Neuheisel ordered that WANTED posters of McElroy be plastered in the Colorado locker room.
"I made a point to our guys: The Heisman Trophy belongs to the University of Colorado until somebody takes it away," said the 34-year-old Neuheisel after the victory. "We certainly weren't going to let somebody else come in here and campaign for it. We put the posters up so everybody understood that Leeland was the show."
No-show is more like it. What began as a Heisman playoff between McElroy and Colorado redshirt junior quarterback Koy Detmer fizzled late in the first quarter when Detmer spun to avoid a tackler and, untouched, tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee after his foot snagged on the artificial turf. Team officials, citing the lack of any collateral damage, project that Detmer might be ready to play in 10 days. But he could well miss the rest of the season, a mean twist for a player who has waited his turn for three years. In his first three games as a starter, Detmer had shot to the top of the passing ratings with uncanny accuracy. Some believed he was better than his brother Ty, the 1990 Heisman winner. "I was like a bottle of champagne that got shaken up and just exploded," Detmer said a day before the game. "I was so happy to get a chance."
Detmer's leadership and raw exuberance were prime factors in turning a Colorado rebuilding year into a bid for a national crown; he made Neuheisel, his mentor, seem a genius. To have a possibly terrific season short-circuited by a trip on the turf is the ultimate in empty endings.
But for one day anyway, it didn't hurt Colorado because Detmer's backup didn't flinch. Even though redshirt sophomore John Hessler had only taken three career snaps, he lived one of those dreamy collegiate dramas on Saturday, beginning the day an unknown, passing for 177 yards and one touchdown, emerging as a savior while the bigger names fell. By halftime Hessler had commanded two touchdown drives—and had run in both himself.