Bill Little commentary: The Promised Land
Jan. 9, 2010
Bill Little, Texas Media Relations
PASADENA, Calif. -- Almost since the beginning of time, there has been a great debate over “why bad things happen to good people.” There have been books written about it, sermons preached about it, philosophical discussions about it. The great preacher Gerald Mann once said that if he made it to a place called heaven, he wanted to sit on the front row and ask God a lot of questions.
One of them would be about the 2009 BCS National Championship game played Thursday in the Rose Bowl.
Throughout the marketing leading up to the game, the Rose Bowl Parade folks who do such a great job of hosting a big game had used four words to banner the game: Passion. Tradition. Strength. Honor. From the moment the teams rolled into the stadium, Texas seemed to hold the edge in all of those.
First, its passion was unsurpassed. The Longhorns and their quarterback Colt McCoy were prepared for this game as perhaps never before. With two coaches who had worked closely with Alabama’s coach Nick Saban, they had a good idea of what to expect from Alabama. McCoy has spent hours watching video, getting ready for the game he had dreamed of playing in his whole life.
Tradition began arriving just about the time the Longhorns’ team buses made their way through an orange throng of thousands at the Rose Bowl games a little more than two hours before the game. The “big guns” had come in support of their little brothers. Around 20 former players, all now stars in the NFL, made their way down the ramp to the field. Ricky Williams, who won the Heisman Trophy was there, along with Jamaal Charles and David Thomas. Jonathan Scott towered his way down, wishing he could suit up and block along with Kasey Studdard one more time. There were Derrick Johnson, Michael Huff, Brian Orakpo, Michael Griffin, Aaron Ross, Ahmard Hall – the list went on.
And every quarterback who had ever had a significant number of starts for Mack Brown at Texas was on that field. Not only was Colt McCoy taking his warm-up throws, but Chris Simms had come coast to coast for the game, and perhaps the greatest player in Rose Bowl history, Vince Young was there. So, too, of course, was Longhorn assistant coach Major Applewhite.
“I would have settled,” Major would say the morning after the game, “for just one.”
And that is where our story begins.
Colt McCoy had been the feel good story in college football over the last couple of years. He had told the Texas coaches, as a 170-pound-wringing-wet skinny kid, that he wanted to lead them to a National Championship. Now, he was about to play that game. He had said he was playing it for the little kids he worked with in Peru, and for his late cousin, a Marine who gave his life after fighting for his country. It was for all the Texas fans as well, but it was more than that. Colt McCoy had stood for everything that was right about being a student-athlete. He had touched people in ways too many to describe. And he was totally prepared with an excellent game plan to face the Crimson Tide.
So when he took the field after the Longhorns special teams had picked off an Alabama pass in Tide territory, he was ready. And from the first snap, he could see the future. Everything that he had expected and anticipated was right there in front of him.
And then four plays into the game, everything changed. McCoy ran a simple option play and was tackled. He felt no pain. He wasn’t in a pile. But when he stood up, he knew that he was hurt. He took himself out of the game, and headed to the sidelines with an injured shoulder. He went to the locker room and took off his pads and thought the numbness would go away, like when you hit your funny bone or something. He watched the television sets in frustration at what he saw.
Garrett Gilbert had worked every day with the first-team offense, and he, too, was prepared – although nothing, absolutely nothing, could prepare a true freshman backup quarterback with limited playing time for assuming the responsibility of trying to lead his team in a National Championship game. Suddenly, a coaching staff that had crafted a game plan for the winningest starting quarterback in the history of college football were having to adjust one for a young man whose last start came at Lake Travis High School a year before.
Strength, the most ironic of the Bowl words, became a wicked wild card in the Longhorns search for a national title. With McCoy’s strength sapped, the Texas defense played heroically. Kickers Justin Tucker and John Gold did their work valiantly to keep the Crimson Tide at bay. And the Longhorns offense slowly began to find a new direction behind their unexpected new leader.
Fate joined the fray, but not on the Longhorns side. Just before half, a shovel pass that traveled no more than four feet bounced off the hands of D.J. Monroe. Beyond his was an open field that the speedster might have created something very special in. Instead, the ball popped up twice, and an Alabama player grabbed it and ran it in for a touchdown.
On the first two possessions, without McCoy, Texas had scored two field goals. Now, at intermission, it was 24-6.
It was then that the final word of the 2009 BCS National Championship game emerged – honor. More than anything, this team had earned that. They had won 17 straight games, and hadn’t lost in two years. They had marched with class through college football in a decade unmatched in Texas history. Now, down by 18 points to the nation’s number one team, they came back on to the field for one final 30 minutes of football in the 2009 season. Gilbert began finding Jordan Shipley and Marquise Goodwin. Tre’ Newton and Monroe turned in key runs. And the defense, led by Lamarr Houston, Sergio Kindle and Roddrick Muckelroy just kept making stops. An onsides kick by Tucker worked.
Twice Gilbert found the courageous Shipley for touchdowns, and then for a two-point conversion. With a little over six minutes left in the game, it was 24-21. Gilbert had found a rhythm, and Shipley, with 10 catches for 122 yards, had every reason to be chosen the offensive player of the game.
On the sidelines, Lt. Col. Greg Gadson, the soldier who had been an inspiration to the country and the Longhorns, watched. It was Gadson who had said, “you can’t control your circumstances, you only get to choose how you deal with them.”
The doctors and trainers had told McCoy that he had played his last down as a college player. They wanted him to take off his pads, and his uniform. But warriors don’t go down that easily. “No,” he said. “I will go back to the sideline with my pads on and wear a headset and try to help Garrett and be a cheerleader.”
Still, it wasn’t over. Will Muschamp’s defense stopped the Tide twice outside the goal, and it wasn’t until a TV replay confirmed that running back Mark Ingram had gotten the ball across the goal line plane, that the dream ended. Another interception sealed the final score of 37-21. For the first time in three trips, Texas had lost on the Rose Bowl field.
Passion. Tradition. Strength. Honor.
What we are left with is the burning question at the beginning. When you lose, you lose. It can be because you weren’t prepared, or because somebody is simply better. There are often a myriad of reasons. But in this one, everything was in place for a victory until McCoy inexplicably was injured on the fourth offensive play of the game for Texas.
The game was viewed by a crowd in the Rose Bowl of almost 95,000 and a television audience approaching 31 million viewers. The final rankings showed respect for the Longhorns as both polls ranked them second in the country. But whatever team loses in a National Championship game or a Super Bowl, it hurts a lot. When you are so close to the prize, you want it desperately. So sure, it hurts to lose. But in this one, you hurt more for the guy who never got to play the game he had so dreamed of. He had earned the right to stand there on that field, a winner, with confetti and all the aura of a champion all around. Most of all, he had earned the right to ride off into the sunset, just like the heroes in the old western movies.
Colt’s great faith has sustained him to this place, and it will, in time, comfort him again. It is hard to understand why bad things happen to good people.
In the book of Deuteronomy, in the Bible, you read the story of Moses, who was one of the greatest of God’s servants. As the people he had led from the wilderness approached the Promised Land, God takes Moses to a place where he can see the Promised Land – he can see it, but he never gets to go there.
Hard to understand why Moses, one of the greatest figures in the Old Testament, didn’t get to finish like he wanted. There is really not a good answer. What we know is, a guy named Joshua took over and did it. Let’s not go overboard here with analogies of similar stories. But if you want to work on that bad-things-to-good people, maybe that’s the plan for Gilbert, or one of those who will follow.
But Moses is remembered as a great and righteous man, a man of God who was the best at what he did. Kind of like a skinny little kid from the Callahan Divide country of West Texas. A guy named Colt McCoy.
When the game was over, and the celebration for Alabama had ended, the lights on the historic stadium glistened against the press box with the huge banner of the marketing words that had been all over Los Angeles. But for the Texas Longhorns of 2009, those were not the only things that would make a fan base love them and a nation come to respect them.
In the end, it would certainly be about “passion, tradition, strength and honor.” But most of all, it would be about their heart.