Sunday, December 31, 2006

Once in a Lifetime

The end of the year usually leads to some sort of review of the best of the previous 12 months. I'll limit that to the best performance of the year and I think that there are four performers who stood out above the rest. Tiger Woods had another great year with 8 wins and 2 majors, Roger Federer won three majors and dominated the tour and Dwayne Wade put the Miami Heat on his back and carried them to the NBA Championship. While those players were spectacular, in my opinion the best performance of 2006 took place within the first week of the new year. Vince Young put on a performance for the ages in the Rose Bowl and was transformed overnight from Texas hero into a college football legend.

Texas headed into the Rose Bowl undefeated and untied, but a solid underdog to the USC Trojans. ESPN had basically proclaimed the two time defending national champions the greatest college football team ever. USC had the last two Heisman trophy winners in their backfield and were riding a wining streak of over 30 games. They seemed all but unbeatable. They had very few close calls during their winning streak, although a shootout with San Jose State illustrated that they did indeed have some defensive weaknesses. USC entered the game confident that would be hoisting the championship trophy for the third consecutive year.

Vince Young finished second in the Heisman voting behind Reggie Bush and he may have entered the game with a slight chip on his shoulder although he would never admit to such. He had something to prove. There were many experts who thought that Young would finally be exposed by USC as less than the numbers showed. Young had transformed himself from a running QB who barely completed 50% of his passes to an extremely dangerous passer from the pocket. He didn't have the blinding speed of Michael Vick, but he was the most explosive runner from the QB position since Vick's days at Virginia Tech.

The game was tight throughout but USC had forged a 12 point with 6:42 remaining in the game. Young led Texas to a touchdown with 4:03 left, but USC had a chance to close out the game with 2 minutes remaining. They had a 4th down and two at their own 45 yard line. Texas was out of timeouts and a first down would have sealed the victory, but their defense came up with the biggest play of the game to that point and stopped USC just inches short of the first down. Vince Young took over from their and led the Longhorns to a score by running the ball in from the 8 yard line. He then converted the the two point conversion to give Texas a 3 point lead with 19 seconds to go. USC's last second attempt came up short and Texas was the national champion. They had done the impossible and sent USC to their first loss in 34 games.

Heisman trophy winner Reggie Bush had a 175 yards of total offense and scored a touchdown, Leinart threw from 365 yards and touchdown, but those performances paled in comparison to what Young pulled off that night in Pasadena. Young passed for 267 yards and ran for another 200 with 3 TD's and a two point conversion. It was the kind of transcendent performance that if it had taken place in the golden age of sports in the twenties would now be mythical. It was as dazzling as when Red Grange pulled of the performance that allowed him to make pro football a big time sport. Red Grange became the "Galloping Ghost" when he scored four times in the first quarter against Michigan on runs totaling over 250 yards. The sports writers spread his fame far and wide and when he turned pro, fans turned out to see the man that they had only read about. He became responsible for turning pro football from the poor cousin of the college game into a huge gate attraction. Red Grange's performance against Michigan is probably the only parallel to Vince Young's showing against USC in the Rose Bowl. As he scored the final two point conversion, I sent a text message to a friend that simply said, "Superman plays for Texas". Sports Illustrated would echo that point on the cover of the next issue when the shot of Vince Young was headlined by one word, "Superman".

ESPN classic now makes it possible to relive that moment over and over again, for which I'm very thankful. Red Grange's performance only lives in grainy black and white but Vince Young's performance can be seen in glorious color on any night of the week. I feel fortunate that I was watching that game and got to experience that performance as it happened. I don't know what Young's professional career has in store, but his legacy as a college football legend is secure. While there were other great performances in 2006, there was none better than when Superman put on his cape and led the Texas Longhorns, almost singlehandedly, to national championship.

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