Alabama/Auburn — "The Return" is an Indelible Sports Moment



Where Were You When ... ?

The greatest sports moments are a collision of the unlikely (performance) and the enormous (stage). Kirk Gibson’s one-legged home run isn’t immortal if it doesn’t win Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. Christian Laettner’s catch/dribble/shoot to beat Kentucky in the 1992 NCAA tournament isn’t legendary if it doesn’t advance Duke to the Final Four with a chance to defend a national title.

People not yet born in the great state of Alabama will be talking 100 years from now about Auburn’s Chris Davis and his 109-yard return of a missed field goal(!) to beat Alabama. The conversation will inspire Tiger fans and enrage Tide fans as long as Bo Jackson and Bear Bryant matter in the Yellowhammer State. It was epic. It was dramatic. It was explosive. It changed the way one of college football’s greatest rivalries will forever be remembered.

Unlikely? Name the last return of a missed field goal you remember. (I had to read of Devin Hester’s return for the Chicago Bears a few years back to remember it.) The play doesn’t take place without an official review to add a fraction of a second to the game clock, among the most subjective decisions in a sport loaded with subjective judgments. The play doesn’t take place without the hubris of Alabama coach Nick Saban. Even casual fans recognize the Tide kicker — his name doesn’t matter, one year to the next — as the team’s lone Achilles heel. When you’re reeling off three national championships in four years, how often is a kicker needed for a significant field goal? And 57 yards? C’mon, Nick. Put the ball in quarterback A.J. McCarron’s hands at the 25 (as overtime would have), and see if Auburn can answer.

And the stage? The Iron Bowl is more important to Alabamans than any postseason bowl game not played for a national championship. Marriages divide for a day (at least) when these schools meet on the gridiron. And for the first time since the SEC began holding a championship game in 1992, the Iron Bowl decided the western division’s representative.

Davis’s jaunt erased Alabama’s chances at an undefeated season and a third straight national championship. It vaulted an Auburn team given up for dead last fall into the conversation for this year’s BCS title game. (They’ll first have to handle Missouri for the SEC championship next Saturday.) It was a play that locked memories into “where-were-you-when” mode for generations to come.

The closest Memphis football fans have come to this kind of euphoria is Kevin Cobb’s “elbow-down” kickoff return for 95 yards against Tennessee in 1996. But that Play of the Year (according to ESPN) merely set up a later game-winning touchdown.

Sunday night in Orlando, the Memphis basketball team experienced one of the required elements (unlikelihood) in its upset of 5th-ranked Oklahoma State, a team that looked unbeatable less than two weeks earlier. But a basketball game at Disney World, in early December? Not the stage for legendary reflection.

I was at Huey’s in east Memphis when Chris Davis carved his name into college football history. Sharing a post-Thanksgiving meal with family and friends, I experienced the Iron Bowl’s climactic play without sound, the din of other families, other friends prevailing over any commentary from Vern Lundquist and Gary Danielson. (This proved disorienting when that precious second was added to the game clock and I saw a kick being returned in what I initially thought was overtime.) But then there were the cheers. And gasps. A few screams as Davis entered the end zone. The shocked looks at my table mirrored that of Saban as he began the long stroll to shake Auburn coach Gus Malzahn’s hand. It was a Sports Moment. Everyone in that restaurant felt like we were there, on the Plains. And we’ll remember the Moment as though we were.

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