"When we finish the game, we each witness," star tight end Eric Green said, noting another religious practice the NCAA could not control. "Win or lose. We each pick out a player, maybe the guy on the other team who plays the same position. We explain how we played for the Lord. We ask, 'If you died tomorrow, do you think you would go to Heaven?' Sometimes guys listen. Sometimes they don't. Sometimes they just say, 'Get out of my face.' "
The game followed an uneven course. Justino did fine in the first half, keeping the Flames within two points of Eastern Michigan, 21-19, but in the third quarter and early in the fourth, his nerves betrayed him. He threw three consecutive interceptions. Rutigliano said the kid's eyes looked "like grapefruits," they were so wide. Liberty's defense kept the score close by stopping two Eastern Michigan drives on fourth down.
With 5:01 left, the Flames, now trailing 24-19, had the ball on their own 34-yard line. There was time for only one drive. This would be it: They would score or they wouldn't; they would win or they would lose. Of course, they prayed. Not to win but to play for God's glory. To let You shine through me, Lord. Let me praise You, Lord, with my work. The players on the sidelines held hands.
"I thought about my dad," said Smith. "I thought about Mike's wife. I said, O.K., now my dad's going to explain to her how we win the game."
The explanation was simple enough. Liberty marched down the field in 10 plays and scored the winning TD with :11 left. Justino handled his nerves and the Eastern Michigan pass rush. Green, the tight end, seemed to be everywhere. Finally, he was in the end zone. Justino passed, a defensive back tipped the ball, and Green turned and caught it with reflexes he didn't know he had. Touchdown. The Flames won 25-24 and began celebrating.
First they leaped onto each other. Then they sang a hymn. Then they trooped across the field to shake hands and talk religion with the losers. "I was looking for the other tight end," Green said. "And I found him. He didn't want to talk."
Five smooth stones.
Rutigliano told his team that this win meant as much as any in his career. A sign with the words RED RIGHT 88 written in orange-and-brown letters had been hung at one end of the stadium. This was a knock on the coach, since Red Right 88 was the play that had ended the Super Bowl hopes of Rutigliano's Cleveland team when Brian Sipe threw an interception in the end zone of the Oakland Raiders in an AFC divisional playoff game in 1981. All that seemed long ago.
"I'm the most peaceful I've ever been," Rutigliano said. "I don't know how peaceful I'd be at 0-5, but...."
A week later the Flames opened their new stadium and whipped Towson State, 37-18. The Christian soldiers were still on the march. Amen.