When will you have your epiphany? Todd McDevitt's came in the fourth quarter of a game against Pacific Lutheran in November 1996. McDevitt was a wide receiver for Western Washington. When he saw the light, it was reflecting off the gold helmets of the opposing Lutes.
"It was almost spiritual," he recalls. "Our uniforms were dark; theirs were white. We were swearing and yelling, 'Kill the Lutes!' They were helping each other off the ground, helping us off the ground. They're on the other side, sun shining down on them. They're holding hands in the huddle, praying. I thought, That's what I want. Inside, I started pulling for those guys."
Two days later McDevitt walked into his coach's office and quit the team. He transferred to Pacific Lutheran and thereby took his place on the roster of the nicest team in America. The guys with the acronym EMAL (Every Man A Lute) emblazoned on their jerseys are unafraid to express their love for one another. They gladly extend a hand to help their opponents off the ground and pray for them when they get hurt. "Some teams can't handle it," says senior quarterback Chad Johnson. "They make fun of us for doing that stuff and for holding hands. But that's O.K. They don't know what they don't know."
The Pacific Lutheran campus is just south of Tacoma, Wash., in the shadow of Mount Rainier, at which the Lute coaches encourage their players to gaze during the Popsicle breaks that are a staple of practices. Of all the mementos from Pacific Lutheran's magical 1999 national championship season, perhaps the most telling was a letter from Jamie Stevenson, a TWA flight attendant who wrote to say how much she enjoyed working with the team on one trip. It's easy to see how these guys would have been a flight attendant's dream: The traveling Lutes serenaded the crew, dutifully read their passenger safety cards, looked around for the nearest exit and, over time, learned to click their 50-plus seat belts in unison.
They had ample time to work on their synchronization. In addition to being the NCAA's most courteous team, the Lutes were college football's most frequently airborne squad late in the season. Despite having an 8-1 record, Pacific Lutheran had no Division III postseason games on its home field.
Just as they unabashedly embrace one another in their hour-long postgame "sharing time" (they call it Afterglow), the Lutes embraced their role as playoff itinerants, embarking on the most remarkable run in recent college history. Two seasons removed from NAIA status, they upset five straight teams in the postseason on the road, logging 15,000 miles and committing to memory every syllable of the preflight safety instructions.
The team is led by 72-year-old coach Frosty Westering, a shambling former Marine drill instructor with kind eyes and artificial hips. After taking the helm at Pacific Lutheran in 1972, Westering led the Lutes to six NAIA championship games, winning three. In Make The Big Time Where You Are, Westering's book on his coaching philosophy, he dwells on the importance of "put-ups"—the opposite of put-downs—and inveighs against the mind-set he describes as "Number 1 or No One." By that he means the attitude that if you don't finish first, you may as well not have competed.
Westering also wrote, "The goal is not the end of the road. The goal is the road." So a certain poetic justice was served when he found himself logging enough playoff miles to circumnavigate the globe.
If you had 30 seconds to pitch a movie about Pacific Lutheran's 1999 season to a Hollywood exec, you might describe it as The Road Warrior meets All in the Family. The offensive coordinator is Scott Westering, who played tight end for his father from '78 through '80 and had a promising NFL career cut short by a knee injury. Scott is also a pyrotechnician, and his game plans are fireworks displays of multiple shifts, exotic formations, misdirection and legerdemain.
Lighting the fuse on the field is Johnson, a wiry, wily southpaw who happens to be Scott's nephew and Frosty's grandson. "I'm gonna look through the rule book," said St. John's of Minnesota coach John Gagliardi on the eve of his team's playoff loss to the Lutes last December. "There's gotta be something in there against that."