They Call it a Miracle

At the end of just about every NFL game, with about five minutes remaining, the sweaty, mustard-stained denizens of the press box are escorted down to the playing field. This is not, much as it might seem to some, a perk for the hard-working men and women of the fourth estate. It’s not an attempt to show them, close-up, the sport that they strive (and often fail) to understand.

It is, instead, a simple ruse to get them out of the way. To clear the stadium elevators for the luxury-box crowd once the game is finished. To maneuver the khaki-clad reporters and coiffed-up TV bobbleheads into the tripe-like innards of the stadium, where they will queue up outside locker rooms for the privilege of talking to a hairy 300-pound lineman who looks at them like they’re the stinky ones.

Before the locker room, though, as those last minutes fall so slowly away, reporters often are ushered onto the field. In some stadiums, that means getting no farther than the area behind a goal post. But in others, a little more freedom is allowed, and reporters can jockey for a view of the field from the sidelines, usually behind one of the teams or, maybe, a little closer to the field toward an end zone.

And so it so happened that, on a chilly January day 20 years ago, I stood on the sidelines of an NFL playoff game in Nashville, dapperly turned out in a Brooks Brothers camel hair sportcoat and … yes, some comfortably humongous Gap khakis.

Who could have figured what was to come?

***

We watch sports for a lot of reasons. To connect with others, pulling for the home team and rooting against the other guys. To win a little dough, maybe. To pass time on a snowy weekend or a late night. To scarf down plates and plates of nachos, guilt-free.

The main reason that we watch sports, though, is the most obvious. We go to stadiums or sit in front of our TVs for the absurdly off-chance that we will see something wild, something magical, something miraculous, and we can say that we were somehow part of it. We watch so that we can be witness to something so remarkable and so compelling that it will be discussed by sports-geeks for generations to come. That’s why we watch.

The problem with that, of course, is that by definition, those moments simply don’t happen very often. In my sports-scribing career, I’ve attended well over 100 NFL games. I probably closed the press box, or was one of the last ones out, at 10 Super Bowls.

I’ve watched great players — Joe Montana, Brett Favre, Tom Brady, Bruce Smith, Jerry Rice, Steve Young, Deion Sanders, Reggie White, Ben Roethlisberger — have decidedly so-so games. I’ve seen super-hyped matchups turn into absolute duds. I’ve seen a lot of bad, bad games — early ’90s Bengals, anyone? — and bad, bad performances.

To be sure, like many others in our sports-obsessed society, I’ve seen many good games, too, and even some great ones. Overtime thrillers. Last-second comebacks. Heartbreaking losses. Unspeakable collapses. Watch enough, you’ll see plenty of those.

But those generational games, those skull-grabbing, laugh-out-loud, “I can’t believe that just happened” moments? You have to watch a lifetime of sports just to get a few of them.

And the best come out of nowhere.

***

In 2000, I was a general assignment columnist for the fledgling Sports Illustrated website, which meant I wrote on a lot of important sporting events because, at the time, few big-time Sports Illustrated writers wanted much to do with the web. Many didn’t even know what it was.

My editor and I had decided, earlier in the 1999 season, to keep an eye on the newly christened Tennessee Titans, who had moved from Houston in ’97 (they used to be the Oilers) and had the look of a contender. The Titans had a tough running back (Eddie George), a fearless quarterback (Steve “Air” McNair), and a heralded rookie defensive lineman from the University of Florida (Jevon “The Freak” Kearse). I spent a few days in Nashville in the winter of ’99 profiling the team.

The Titans, under head coach Jeff Fisher, went 13-3 that season, setting up a playoff-opening game in early January against the 11-5 Buffalo Bills in Nashville’s Adelphia Coliseum. It could have been just another forgettable game. And, in a lot of ways, it was. Because no one remembers much about that game at all. Except the ending.

Down 16-15 with 16 seconds left — out of timeouts, the Bills had just moved into the lead by kicking a field goal on first down — Tennessee lined up to receive the last-gasp kickoff.

On the sidelines, in my sweet sportcoat and my mall-bought everyman pants — it was the year 2000, so I’m sure they were pleated — I was bummed that the team I had been following for most of the season wasn’t going any further and wondering what the story of this relatively nondescript playoff game was going to be.

And then this erupted:

***

After the play blew up the stadium — when Frank Wycheck threw across the field to Kevin Dyson, who streaked in front of me and into NFL Top 10 lists forevermore — all I could do was laugh. I laughed at the incredulity of it, of the chutzpah of the play-call, of the players grabbing their skulls and the fans literally rocking the stadium in an instant frenzy. I laughed, too, at a great story falling into my lap. (I had fallen, as my friend Jack says, into a pile of crap and come out wearing a new suit.)

I turned to the stands and laughed some more. What was there? An unloosed joy? For sure. A collective disbelief? Undoubtedly. A realization that the hometown team had pulled an impossible victory from ignominious defeat? Of course.

But more than that — certainly after the referees huddled and confirmed the call on the field — it was this: Everyone there, including one sartorially struggling scribe, knew immediately that we had just witnessed what we came for. A sports miracle.

It’s why we watch.

***

The Music City Miracle — it was dubbed that almost immediately — is among the best moments I’ve had the luck of seeing in my sports-covering career. But I hadn’t given it much thought until I began to see some anniversary reminiscences of it over the past two weeks. Which led me into a YouTube dive, and then to an exam of the images online.

And in one of those photos, sonofagun, there I am, peering out from the sidelines as Dyson motors past. It’s not the greatest shot in the world. You can’t even see the ball, which is tucked on the sideline-side of Dyson’s body. No one in the photo, certainly not me, has quite grasped the enormity unfolding before us.

I had to call Mary Jo in to confirm that it’s me in the photo. The darkish hair, sadly, is hard to remember. But the blank mug, the press pass dangling from my belt … and those khakis? Yep. That’s proof.

The photo brought back some wonderful memories of that day in Nashville and some  other sports moments that I’ve been so lucky to witness over the years. More, though, it convinced me of this: Those khakis have got to go. Right now.

Miracle-in-Music-City
January 8, 2000. The Music City Miracle.

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