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The play has followed Barry Krauss for 30 years now, shadowing him everywhere he goes, reminding him of the defining hour of his youth. At least once a week in a restaurant or grocery store or movie theater, a stranger will approach Krauss and ask him about that New Year's night in 1979 when he made the biggest tackle of the Bear Bryant era at Alabama. "People always tell me where they were when we made the goal line stand," says Krauss, 52. "My favorite is the guy whose mother was in labor with him during those four plays. He told me he's felt a special connection to me ever since, that he was always Barry Krauss when he played in backyard football games."
It's a steamy late-afternoon spring in Tuscaloosa, and Krauss, a linebacker at Alabama from 1976 to '78, is walking around an empty Bryant-Denny Stadium with three former teammates: Murray Legg, Marty Lyons, and Rich Wingo. As the four stroll across the freshly cut stadium grass, Krauss recalls his tackle of Penn State tailback Mike Guman six inches from the goal line on fourth down, with less than seven minutes left in the '79 Sugar Bowl—a stop that preserved Alabama's 14--7 win and propelled the Crimson Tide to the national championship. Suddenly, he's back in the New Orleans Superdome for the matchup between top-ranked Penn State and No. 2 Alabama, and the memories unspool.
Penn State has a first-and-goal at the eight-yard line, trailing 14--7. First down: Guman gains two yards. Second down: Chuck Fusina completes a pass to tight end Scott Fitzkee, who goes out-of-bounds at the one. Before third down, Krauss, the defense's captain, calls the play: Double-X Pinch. This will send every defender crashing into the middle to stop a run up the gut. The risky call pays off: From his linebacker spot, Wingo stops fullback Matt Suhey just short of the goal line.
Penn State timeout. On the 'Bama sideline, defensive coordinator Ken Donahue again calls Pinch. Across the field, Penn State coach Joe Paterno wants Fusina to fake a run and pass to his tight end. But his assistants persuade him to send Guman up the middle again. As Fusina walks to the line, defensive tackle Lyons shouts at him above the din of the crowd: "You better pass!" The ball is snapped, and Fusina hands to Guman. Lyons penetrates into the backfield, collapsing the line, and Wingo smashes into Suhey, the lead blocker. When Guman attempts to leap over the pile, Krauss meets him face mask to face mask, driving him backward with a hit so violent it leaves Krauss momentarily paralyzed. Legg, streaking in from his safety spot, then pushes Guman backward and onto the ground. The Tide holds.
At the precise moment that Krauss and Guman collided, SI photographer Walter Iooss Jr. snapped an iconic shot that would make the cover of that week's issue, a picture whose spirit and upward thrust of angles faintly echo the famous photo of the flag-raising at Iwo Jima. So powerful was the image that Daniel Moore, then a 25-year-old graphic designer in Birmingham, made a painting of the scene. It's no stretch to say that Goal Line Stand is the most popular piece of artwork in Alabama; it hangs in countless dens, offices, restaurants and bars throughout the state. "That painting hit home, because that single image symbolized Bear Bryant's philosophy," says Moore. "It was gut-check time for the players, and they made a stand."
The play, which lasted less than three seconds from snap to whistle, has had a lasting influence on the lives of the key participants. For Krauss, who played 11 years in the NFL and is now a broadcaster for the Colts and the Crimson Tide, it earned him a reputation for performing in the clutch. "That play got my life going in the right direction," he says. "I've got that Daniel Moore painting in my den, and when I look at it I'm reminded that when our moment arrived, we made the most of it."
For Wingo and Legg, both of whom are in real estate in Birmingham, the play has morphed into parable. "I ask my kids, 'Will you be ready when your opportunity comes?'" says Legg, 52. "Every time I see that painting, that's what I'm reminded of." Says Wingo, 52, who spent five seasons in the NFL with the Packers, "I use that play as a teaching tool all the time."
For Lyons, who played 11 seasons with the Jets and is now a vice president for a Long Island stadium design firm, the play represents trust and friendship. "Football is a team game," says Lyons, who also runs a foundation that fulfills wishes for sick children. "Penn State would have scored if every guy on our defense didn't do his job. And 30 years later I'm still in frequent touch with guys from that team. That play made us as close as brothers."
And what about Guman, the running back who came up inches short? After spending nine years in the NFL with the Rams, he settled in Allentown, Pa., where he and his wife of 28 years, Karen, have raised five children. He still receives copies of SI with that fourth-down photo on the cover. "It's mostly Alabama fans who want me to sign it and send it back," says Guman, 51, a vice president at Oppenheimer Funds. "I'm happy to do it, because that play helped mold me into who I am today. You've got to get up when you get down. I've learned that you can overcome defeat."
Guman has evidence to back up that assertion. His five children won a combined 10 high school state championships in basketball and volleyball, each title making their father's memory of the stand a little less painful. Guman believes it's cosmic justice. "I came up short," Guman says, "but my kids haven't. And you know what? It's worked out just fine."