Andrew Luck and the Cardinal eventually celebrated a third consecutive win over USC at the Coliseum. Three overtime earlier, the worst instant of Luck's career nearly proved disastrous.
What will I remember most about Andrew Luck?
His superhuman passes? The two BCS bowls? The neck beard? The two sad Heisman ceremonies?
The one moment that I’ll remember the most was the worst instant of his career – the wobbly pick-six he threw to Nickell Robey when Stanford was tied 27-27 with USC in the Los Angeles Coliseum.
Not the NFL draft. Not the Fiesta Bowl. Not the Orange Bowl. Not the big hits on Sean Cattouse or Shareece Wright. Not the five touchdowns he threw in his first ever Cardinal-White Spring Game. Not the first time I ever heard of him, sitting in my kitchen watching a Fox Sports Net recruiting special three months before I ever set foot on Stanford’s campus as a freshman.
Nothing is as clear in my mind as the most miserable pass he ever threw.
* * *
As the football reporter for The Stanford Daily, I had the luxury of sitting in the Coliseum’s banged-up press box for one of the most anticipated games of the season.
It’s a pretty bare environment - a couple rows of seats, fading white walls and nicked-up countertops that give it all the charm of a Best Western.
But once you get up there, the backdrop strikes you in a way that few stadiums do. Look up, and there’s the Hollywood sign set against the purple-gray hills in the distance. Look down, and the red and yellow and green shine back at you with Kodachrome brightness.
If you’ve ever been to a big Civil War battlefield, you stand out in the sticky grass and always end up with a feeling like, "How in the hell did something important ever happen here?" At the Coliseum, you get completely the opposite feeling. It seemed preordained that something that stretched the limits of imagination was about to happen. Andrew Luck, the golden boy of college football, was going into the Coliseum to slay the USC Trojans once and for all.
* * *
Early on, the game didn’t have an epic feel. The first half was entirely forgettable. But something changed when the sun slipped behind the hills for good and the second half started.
USC’s Curtis McNeal ripped off a 61-yard touchdown run. The Trojans crushed Luck with a devastating blind-side sack on third down on the next possession. Then McNeal went into the end zone again, this time from 25 yards. USC led, 20-10.
During the long TV timeout, the cheer for McNeal’s touchdown grew and then sustained itself on its own energy. The crowd boomed, lustily approving of this new team – a team suddenly looking like the great ones that have crisscrossed the Coliseum for decades.
It seemed that an entire program lurched back to life the way a sleeping dragon does in any good fantasy movie. How could this be happening? I could feel the chili cheeseburger that I’d eaten hours before at the Alpha Phi house start to churn.
I started shaking.
* * *
Up until 56-48 (3OT), the best game I’d ever been to was when I was in the eighth grade. After I finished with school on Friday, my dad and I drove from my hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas down to Baton Rouge, Louisiana to watch No. 7 Georgia play No. 10 LSU.
After a Saturday morning spent checking out College GameDay (Herbstreit picked Georgia to a resounding chorus of boos, Corso picked LSU) and watching LSU fans dutifully yell "Tiger Bait!" at every stranger wearing red, we headed to our seats, about 12 rows behind the back of the yellow end zone in Tiger Stadium and among other Georgia fans.
I was the kind of kid who brought binoculars to football games, so after an uneventful first half, I was pleased when halftime finally arrived. As the LSU band marched in neat squares on the field, I trained my lenses on the Tiger Girls.
Miss Judy, a devoted Bulldog and longtime friend of my grandparents, sat to my right.
"So which one’s your favorite?" she said in her dry East Texas accent.
"Oh… I’m not looking at them," I lied.
I’m sure my face blended in perfectly with the Georgia faithful.
By the fourth quarter, the sun had set and the Tiger crowd had become impatient and cranky - it was the kind of SEC football game that non-believers deride every year. Two brutally tough defenses had played to 10-10 tie when LSU took possession in the fourth quarter with less than two minutes to go.
Georgia had just scored its first touchdown on a screen pass that set the Bulldog fans around me into jittery optimism for the first time all day. They knew just as well as anyone that it’s not easy to crawl into Baton Rouge and come out clean on the other side.
With 1:30 left in the game, I circled Tiger quarterback Matt Mauck in my binoculars as he settled into the shotgun on 3rd and 4. Through the glass, I watched him take the snap, roll left, hesitate and fling the ball as far as he possibly could right as a Georgia defender nearly split him in half. I dropped my binoculars as the football arced over the heads of two hapless Bulldog defenders, headed for a diving Skyler Green.
When he tapped his feet against the capital yellow "L," the largest crowd in the history of Tiger Stadium let forth a scream that was so loud and so primal that I can still feel the percussive force pressing against my eardrums whenever I think about it.
* * *
For two hours, I didn’t – I couldn’t – stop shaking. How could this be happening?
Even when Luck rallied Stanford to a 27-27 tie with a little more than three minutes left and the Cardinal had the football, I was still trembling like a small dachshund that had been put into a tub full of ice water.
But now Luck had the ball in his hands. Everybody – everybody -- knew that he was going to engineer one final flawless drive, win the game, wrap up the Heisman and leave the Coliseum silent.
Luck read off his armband: Green Left Slot Spider 3 Y Banana. Chris Owusu lined up on the near side of the field. Although I couldn’t hear it, I’m sure Luck reached his hands under center and barked, "Red 80… Reeeeedddd Eightttyyyy" the way he did before every single play. The snap went up.
Luck’s pass was dead the instant he threw it.
The noise of 93,600 throats, the pounding of twice as many feet jumping up and down on the concrete, the entire stadium roaring at the complete and utter failure of the future number one pick. The public address system implored the Trojan fans not to rush the field. I can only imagine what it sounded like to the impressionable 13-year old in the stands who’d bragged to his friends all week that he was going to the USC-Stanford game.
Sure, he went on to redeem himself with an efficient touchdown drive on the next series to tie the game. And he eventually pulled the Cardinal to victory in three overtimes. But I know that as long as I live, and as many games as I watch Stanford and USC play, I’ll never forget what it felt like – what it sounded like – when Luck’s white hot star shorted out for a minute and the Los Angeles Coliseum took me back eight years and 1,816 miles to the north end zone in Baton Rouge.
* * *
Visiting teams do their postgame press conferences in the bottom of the Coliseum’s tunnel. Walk up from the field, past the enormous list of Rose Bowls written in red on the wall, and you find a makeshift tent with a microphone on your right and the door to the locker room on your left.
Jonathan Martin walked out with a huge, relieved smile on his face. Reporters flocked to him. Why, yes, he had a minute. Three questions into his impromptu press conference, a smiling reporter in the crowd interjected:
"Is Andrew Luck really a human? Like, does he really sleep at night?"
The guy who had just made a mistake that only a freshman would make. The guy who, one hour ago, had nearly seen his entire mystique crumble with just one pass.
Martin smiled and laughed off the question with a clever turn of phrase.
But for the first time, the answer was obvious.