For Alabama the week began with an ending and ended with a beginning. In between, the Crimson Tide played the college football season's official opener, though officials almost wouldn't let it finish. Few sports have had a rockier and more emotional lid-lifter, and the result was an untidy affair that passed for a football game. Ultimately, however, the Tide's roller-coaster ride proved to be a victory on a pair of fronts: Alabama triumphed over a deep loss and rallied to defeat a team that had outplayed it.
Setting his formidable jaw to the task of determining the Tide's fortunes was Mike Shula, a senior quarterback who learned his trade at the navels of guys who took the Miami Dolphins to consecutive Super Bowls. Last Wednesday, Shula ignored a busted blood vessel in his throwing hand, shrugged off a miserable three quarters of play and led eighth-ranked Alabama on two fourth-quarter scoring drives that gave the Tide a 16-10 win over No. 11 Ohio State in the Kickoff Classic at Giants Stadium. In the process Shula did his dad proud. "I told Mike I felt he would have to show more leadership than ever," says Don Shula. "Everything was cracking up around him, with the death and all the injuries."
The death had come at 3:55 p.m. on the Saturday before the game, when sophomore defensive tackle Willie Ryles was removed from a life-support machine. Ryles, who would have made his first start against the Buckeyes, had complained to his roommate of headaches for several days before he passed out during a half-speed, 9-on-7 drill on Aug. 18. "I turned to ask him about the call he made, and he was lying on the ground like he was paralyzed on his left side," says noseguard Curt Jarvis. "At first I thought it was a stinger—like a pinched nerve. But then the stretcher came."
A blood clot had formed on Ryles's brain. He lapsed into a coma and, despite surgery, never regained consciousness. His death came exactly 17 weeks after that of Tide halfback George Scruggs, who was killed in a car crash.
Before his players took the field against Ohio State, Alabama coach Ray Perkins said a prayer for Ryles. "I would never ask a team to win for someone else," he said. However, the Tide knew for whom they were playing. Next to the open casket at the Fourth Street Baptist Church in Columbus, Ga., on Thursday, All-America linebacker Cornelius Bennett presented Ryles's mother, Zella, with the game ball. It had been autographed by the team.
Not surprisingly, Alabama had played emotionally but not sharply. Through three quarters the Tide had mounted only two drives and had finished them with field goals of 38 and 44 yards by Van Tiffin. The Buckeyes threatened seven times during the game but scored just twice. Flanker Jamie Holland ran 26 yards on a reverse, and kicker Pat O'Morrow, who had missed two field goal attempts, booted a 37-yarder.
So with 14:49 to go, Alabama had the ball on its own 27 and a 10-6 deficit to overcome. "We were beating ourselves," Shula said later. "We were playing Ohio State, but we were beating ourselves." He had had no small part in the Tide's self-flagellation. The nation's fifth-most-efficient passer last season, Shula would finish with 11 completions in 19 attempts for just 83 yards. He also threw two interceptions, banging his left hand on a lineman's helmet on the follow-through of one in the second quarter. "I was lousy," Shula says.
By Shulian standards the drive that ensued was maybe fourth rate. It wasn't as dramatic as the 71-yard TD march he had engineered in the final 50 seconds of a 20-16 win over Georgia in last year's opener. ("That was the most exciting for me," he says.) It wasn't as rugged as the 12-play, 68-yard trudge to tie LSU 14-14 on Nov. 9. Shula had climaxed that drive by catching a 2-yard TD pass on a gadget play with 1:24 left. ("We had to scrap for everything we got.") And it wasn't as sweet as the 57-second wonder that gave the Tide a 25-23 triumph over archrival Auburn on Nov. 30, when Shula steered his team 45 yards to set up Tiffin's 52-yard field goal with no time left. ("I Knew I had done all that I could do.")
But considering how damaging a loss to the Buckeyes would be with Florida, Notre Dame, Tennessee, Penn State, LSU and Auburn still to come on the Tide's schedule, Shula's resourcefulness was never more needed. And, as usual, he came through. Shula keyed a 12-play march with a 14-yard run off a sucker bootleg. Then his three-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Al Bell on third-and-goal put Alabama ahead 13-10 with 9:33 to play. After the Buckeyes went nowhere on their next series, Shula ate up six minutes with a 50-yard drive. Again the pivotal play was a bootleg. This time Shula pulled up and threw to running back Kerry Goode for a 14-yard gain down to the Ohio State five. Tiffin then buried a 28-yarder.
Afterward, Buckeye linebacker Chris Spielman, who had 16 tackles and an interception and was named Player of the Game, said of Shula, "My father's a football coach and has given me a football sense and so has his. Mike Shula prides himself on reading defenses and doing the right things with the football, and that's what he did."