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The joint held through the season, enabling the bookish Wilkowski to bookend his college career with national championships. Saturday's Stagg Bowl appearance was a surprise; the '91 edition of the Bombers was not thought to be one of Butterfield's better squads. "The '88 team won on talent," says offensive tackle and co-captain Chris White. "We won on character."
Ithaca's darkest moment came on Oct. 12, when it trailed Division II American International by 10 points late in the game. The Bombers had lost the week before to Springfield, also a Division II school, and another defeat would have scotched their playoff hopes. (The committee that selects the 16 playoff teams considers all games, regardless of an opponent's division.) In the final four minutes against American International, Wilkowski engineered two touchdown drives to give Ithaca a 23-20 win.
Hairy moment number two came last Saturday before 5,469 spectators at Manatee High's Hawkins Stadium. After taking a 17-6 lead in the second quarter, the Flyers smelled a rout. But three plays later, Ismailoff scored his first touchdown on a 42-yard pass from Wilkowski. Ithaca's next possession was all Wittman: He had four carries, broke five tackles and gained 34 yards. After he capped the series with a three-yard, one-broken-tackle touchdown run, the Bombers led 20-17. They never looked back.
"I cried," said Dayton's senior tailback, William Peterson, afterward. "Not because we lost, but because it's the last time I'll be together with this group of guys. The camaraderie we had transcends winning and losing." Division III football is refreshing that way—you find this kind of perspective in defeat. You also find guys who use words like transcend.
Reluctant to leave the field after the game, the Bombers milled for 20 minutes, embracing, crying, whooping it up. One group of linemen hoisted Butts on their shoulders until their strength ebbed, after an appropriate-to-Division III interval of 20 seconds. Later, White held the championship plaque over his head. "Brothers!" he bellowed, to raucous woofs and cheers, "the legend is complete!"
Would White care to explain this cryptic pronouncement? "Happy to," he said. "We call each other brothers because this is a brotherhood, a family. We'd die for each other."
While not every Bomber seemed as eager to go to such extremes, most did cite unity as one of the key ingredients in their success. "No cliques," said Butterfield.
Many players, following a hoary Ithaca custom, had their heads shaved in the preseason. Others submitted to Mohawks or other bizarre and hideous coiffures. This year, to demonstrate their willingness to sacrifice for the team, many players kept these celibacy-assuring 'dos throughout the season. "Your hat was your best friend," said Ismailoff.
Ithaca became an even more tightly knit unit by attending what White called "our Friday night motivational meetings." These confabs, which began at nine o'clock and occasionally ended with the splintering of furniture, "were kind of like New England town meetings, but more primitive," said White, a history major. He would regale his teammates with the feats of Bomber teams past and exhort them to "become legends ourselves."
With Saturday's win, they did.