A few posts ago, I mentioned a long-ago football play that tore my insides out and inspired me to write a goofy little college essay entitled, "A Sappy Ode to Spartandom."
These days, it seems that almost everything can be found on YouTube, and sure enough, I was able to find a clip of this heartbreaking play--one that I had not seen since it took place almost 26 years ago, and one that I have since simply referred to as The Play.
Let me set the scene: I was a young, rather innocent, completely excited, and somewhat naive freshman at MSU in the fall of 1986. I was an eighteen-year-old kid who had finally broken out of his humdrum, small town existence in Michigan's thumb region and was enjoying the big wide world of college life and was absolutely thrilled to possess Spartan season football tickets, which had been purchased during that summer of '86, while waiting in anticipation of officially becoming a college student.
I was extremely hopeful about the Spartans' football season, and felt that it was going to be a year culminating in a Big Ten title and Rose Bowl. Lorenzo White was coming off a tremendous 1985 campaign in which he rushed for a school record 2066 yards and finished fourth in the Heisman voting. Quarterback Dave Yarema was a senior and had two great receiving targets in Mark Ingram and Andre Rison. The Spartans had finished the '85 season with a 7-5 record and there was every reason to believe they would improve on it in 1986. I was convinced that my freshman year at Michigan State would be THE YEAR.
And then the season began...
After losing a close road game against Arizona State, the Spartans beat Notre Dame (on what was my first full day as a student on MSU's campus) and then pulverized Western Michigan. MSU entered its Big Ten opener against the #11 Iowa Hawkeyes looking to get the conference season off to a good start in front of a sellout crowd and national TV audience.
Much of that MSU/Iowa game I had forgotten in the last 26 years, other than the fact that the afternoon was a bit chilly and rainy. I consulted the Michigan State 1987 Football Annual for sportswriter Jack Ebling's description of the events that led to "the play." Ebling wrote, "Without question, MSU controlled play. But midway through the fourth quarter, Iowa and its third-string quarterback ruled the scoreboard. The Hawkeyes had taken advantage of two huge mistakes--a kickoff return fumble by fullback James Moore and a nightmarish nap by free safety Paul Bobbitt--to grab a 24-14 lead. Worst of all, the Spartans had lost guard Doug Rogers, their most valuable offensive lineman, for the year on a punt-return clip and tailback [Lorenzo] White for three games on a botched screen pass. Just when things seemed the bleakest, however, MSU battled back. It scored on a perfect pass from quarterback Dave Yarema to flanker Mark Ingram in the left corner of the north end zone, making it 24-21. And after the defense held, the Spartans were moving again. Yarema was never better, taking the team into scoring position. For an instant it looked as if Ingram would score, but a jersey-stretching stop made it first-and-goal inside the 4 with enough time and timeouts remaining."
I can't help but wonder what that season, and life in general, would have been like if Ingram had managed to break free of that "jersey-stretching" and score the touchdown. We will never know. Instead, Ingram was stopped inside the four, leading to the next play...or, The Play.
I remember that Spartan Stadium was in a frenzy, and I along with everyone else in that stadium was convinced without a shred of doubt that MSU was about to win the game in dramatic fashion. In our fantasies, the final score was Michigan State 28, Iowa 24 and we would all storm the field, rip down the goal posts, and party into the wee hours of Sunday morning. Unfortunately, the football gods had other ideas.
At the time, I thought that the perfect (and only) play was a simple running play, but looking back at it now with the benefit of hindsight, I don't fault head coach George Perles for the play selection. Lorenzo White was out of the game, and the ball was far enough from the end zone that a running play wouldn't have necessarily succeeded in getting the touchdown on that play. The play action roll out pass was a good call, but the execution was lacking.
What is particularly interesting about seeing The Play again is how I mis-remembered it. I saw it only once--in person, from about 70 yards away in the student section on the southeast corner of the stadium. I had forgotten that Yarema rolled to his right and threw across his body. According to Jack Ebling's account in the 1987 football annual, when Perles called a timeout immediately preceding the play, Yarema was told repeatedly by Perles and his assistants to just throw the ball away if the pass couldn't be completed. Apparently, Yarema forgot those instructions and threw the ball directly in the waiting arms of Ken Sims.
When Yarema threw that interception, the life went out of Spartan Stadium in a way I had never seen before or since. In an instant, the stadium went from a roaring passionate frenzy to a funeral parlor.
I can't help but feel terrible for Yarema all these years later. He was in such distress on the sideline in the immediate aftermath of Sims' interception. Yarema had a great career for MSU, and held a number of Spartan passing records for several years, but never even sniffed a Big Ten title or a Rose Bowl. His biggest problem was that despite all the big passing numbers he accumulated, he never seemed capable of making the big play in crunch time.
Andre Rison also was completely despondent on the sideline after the play, with his head hidden in his hands. He at least had the satisfaction of winning the Big Ten title the following year, capped off with a Rose Bowl victory.
I remember sadly filing out of Spartan Stadium amongst the walking dead, and trudging back to East Shaw Hall in a chilly drizzle, already feeling as if the entire season had been flushed down the drain. In a way, it had. MSU played Michigan the following week in Ann Arbor, but it was clear the Spartans had no energy as they were drubbed, 27-6. MSU managed to bounce back from the Michigan loss to record three straight wins and, for a little while, it looked as if the team might actually have a good season after all. Unfortunately, the Spartans suffered two stunning three-point losses in succession, to bottom-feeders Indiana and Northwestern, before closing out the season with a lackluster win over Wisconsin to at least salvage a winning season. MSU finished 6-5, but were shut out of a bowl game. 1986 was NOT the year, as it turned out--and the beginning of the end could arguably be traced back to the Iowa game and The Play.
I'm at least happy that finally, 26 years later, I can watch a replay of The Play and instead of feeling particularly sad or angry, I feel nostalgic. It's interesting to hear Brent Musburger doing the play-by-play with Ara Parseghian as the color commentator, since I had no idea who the broadcast team was for that game since I was, of course, AT the game and had no interest in revisiting the game until recently.
"A stunning moment for the Michigan State fans," Musburger says after the interception, and that about summed it up. A few seconds later he says that it has just started to rain (as if the football gods were commenting on MSU's demise). That's just as I remember it--so I suppose my memory isn't as faulty as I originally suspected.
I suppose, now that MSU finally has a coach (Mark Dantonio) leading the football program to success not seen since the '60s, it's easier to view this sad old video clip. Hell, even the natural grass field now looks a thousand times better than that old worn out synthetic turf of the 1980s.
That late October afternoon, grey and overcast with a mist of rain in the air, I slowly made my way back to Shaw Hall, maybe feeling slightly older and a little less naive. It had become even more clear to me that being a Michigan State fan would never be easy. I trudged back with my floormate Ron, both of us silent in our mourning. I don't remember anything about what happened when we returned to Shaw: probably shared a quiet dinner in the almost empty cafeteria, and I probably then retired to my room and wallowed in pity while listening to The Queen is Dead.
The 1986 season would go on to be a disappointment for the Spartan football team and its fans, but little did I know that good times were not too far away.
ADDENDUM: Here is a podcast, recorded in September 2008, that I recently found on the Spartan Sports Network. Dave Yarema, who served as an honorary captain for the September 6, 2008 MSU/EMU, discusses the 1986 Iowa game and the nastiness from "fans" that ensued. He sounds like a good man, and I'm happy that he has found peace and contentment after his college football career, and that tumultuous '86 season.