"I have never seen anything like this," Murphy said later. "And I've been in this business 22 years."
If football is a team game, then the Flames, whose 1989 record is now 6-2, are the ultimate team. Soldiers of Christ. Jerry Falwell's team. Charging into the night.
Liberty University is located in Lynchburg, Va., on a 5,300-acre campus carved out of a mountainside where Falwell hunted squirrels and rabbits as a child. There, in the last 12 months, a stadium has risen from the ground. It has 12,000 aluminum seats; synthetic turf stretches across the red clay. Sam Rutigliano, former coach of the Cleveland Browns, has been hired as coach. His mission is to move Liberty into the big time of college football. Play Notre Dame someday. Play Brigham Young. Grab the best young fundamentalist bodies in the land and play for the Lord against the best.
At times it all seems like fantasy—Liberty? Liberty University?—but it has a momentum of its own. Today the 12,000-seat stadium. Tomorrow the 24,000-seat stadium. Or maybe the 36,000-seat stadium. Computer printouts suggest the possibilities. How many fundamentalists live in the U.S.? How many of those brick-walled Baptist churches are there, especially in the football South, with everyone praying? How many of the fathers and mothers in those pews would like to send their born-again 250-pound sons to a place where no one drinks or smokes or does drugs or goes to see A Nightmare on Elm Street or listens to Bon Jovi in concert on a Saturday night? How many of those sons can play football?
"We have lofty goals," Falwell says in his familiar cable-television voice. "I said when we started football here that I wanted to play Notre Dame. My athletic director soon told me I spoke too strongly, but I can dream. I may be on crutches, they may have to wheel me out on a stretcher by the time it happens, but that is a goal. I know Lou Holtz at Notre Dame. He is a fine evangelical Christian, you know. I have an idea he'd schedule us when we were ready."
When Falwell's school, then known as Lynchburg Baptist College, opened 18 years ago, classes were held in an abandoned high school. Falwell was a local minister, just starting to ride television's magic beam from his church on Thomas Road toward political controversy and national prominence. He would bring the term moral majority into cocktail conversation. He would lead the fight against abortion. He would outrage minorities by calling South Africa's Archbishop Desmond Tutu a "phony." He would try to put the confused house of Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker in order.
Liberty was part of Falwell's emergence, a building block of his Christian empire. A spiritual boot camp (his term).
Sports were always part of the vision. As a 170-pound fullback and safety, Falwell was captain of the football team at Lynchburg's Brookville High; he is still proud that he once played all 48 minutes of a game. As a baseball player, he tried out for the St. Louis Cardinals when they held a weeklong camp at Lynchburg City Stadium. He played basketball at Bible Baptist College in Springfield, Mo. He sees sports as a medium for reaching young people. What most attracts the attention of youth? Sports and music. There's no rock music at Liberty; rock is an ally of the devil. There are sports.
"I've always had an interest in sports," Falwell says. "I've always liked the New York Yankees, though I must say Brother Steinbrenner has been trying my patience of late. Jerry Jones seems to be falling into the same situation with the Dallas Cowboys, another one of my teams. The Celtics have been a special favorite—Larry Bird is just the best player ever to play the game—but they look like they're done, too."
The arrival, in 1974, of the school's first baseball coach, Al Worthington, gave an indication of how its athletics would develop. As a 29-year-old pitcher for the San Francisco Giants in 1958, Worthington attended a Billy Graham crusade at the Cow Palace. He was intrigued by the sight of people walking to the stage to witness for Christ. He went back a second night and found himself walking to the stage. The words that went through his head were, Lord, I am coming to live my life for You. He became, as far as he knew, the only born-again Christian in baseball.