You could not write a script like this, ESPN’s Ian Darke exclaimed, his voice rising in disbelief the entire time. He was talking, in 2010, about American Landon Donovan’s last-second goal against Algeria that sent the U.S. Men’s National Team through to the next stage of the World Cup, but he could have been talking about any of the history-defining dramatic sports moments, from Laettner’s shot to the Music City Miracle to, two weeks ago, the Prayer at Jordan-Hare.
And he may as well have been talking about the 109-yard Chris Davis touchdown off a last-second missed field goal that led Auburn to victory over Alabama in what may go down as the biggest Iron Bowl ever played. He’d have been right, because for all the story lines coming into the game — Auburn’s improbable turn from dead last in the Southeastern Conference to title contender, Alabama’s chase for a third straight national championship — no one could have seen anything like this coming.
It started with a solitary second left on the clock, the game tied at 28. Alabama coach Nick Saban had (correctly) lobbied officials for that one last tick, giving his team a chance to kick a 57-yard field goal for the win. It was a questionable, if probably correct, decision given the kick’s length, and it became even more so when kicker Adam Griffith left the ball a few yards short of the crossbar. That’s where Davis caught it and headed back upfield, where only the left sideline and a few flailing Bama linemen threatened to derail his run into history:
It was an ending so incredible it left seemingly invincible Alabama stunned. Cameras caught Crimson Tide fans with mouths agape and hands on head, wondering what had just happened right in front of them. They weren’t alone: amid the Jordan-Hare Stadium hysteria, even one Auburn player stood still, mouthing only “Oh, my God.”
Had this been scripted, part of a movie, we’d never believe it. A team that was 0-and-8 in the nation’s top conference a year ago turns it around behind an innovative coach and a game-breaking quarterback and, thanks to a Hail Mary pass in the season’s penultimate game, faces its biggest rival with a trip to the conference title game on the line. That rival, it turns out, happens to be the two-time defending national champion, the team everyone wanted but no one withstood, a consensus pick to win yet another title this year. The underdog takes the lead early, falls down late, comes back, and then…this. If it sounds like a movie, it sounds like a movie anyone with any sense would turn off, riddled as it would be with predictable cliches.
Except in sports, the one entertainment experience that isn’t — and can’t possibly be — scripted, it isn’t cliche at all. It’s what happens, whether it’s Marshall-to-Louis or Kick, Bama, Kick. It’s what happens when it’s a team coming back from a three-games-to-none deficit to beat their biggest rival on their way to their first World Series in a century, when it’s Lorenzo Charles catching an airball and laying it in to clinch the national title with no time on the clock, when it’s a group of upstarts at a largely ridiculed school running a hook-and-lateral then the Statue of Liberty to beat one of college football’s biggest stalwarts in the Fiesta Bowl. It’s what sports does, and it’s brilliant.
We’ve tried, of course. We come up with story lines to add drama to games that don’t need any help creating their own. We have sports movies and TV shows full of incredible comebacks and impossible endings. The undersized quarterback takes over for the Division 1 prospect and leads his team to a state title. The hobbled catcher drops down a squeeze bunt with two outs in the bottom of the ninth and beats the throw to clinch the pennant. The aging pitcher tosses a perfect game in his final start while contemplating every moment of his life. They’re in the script because they happen in real life, but the script doesn’t capture the suspense, the joy, the anguish, and the thrill these moments provide. The script doesn’t give us the beauty that is not having any idea this was coming and not knowing exactly what to do when it does. It doesn’t lead to the spontaneous outbursts, tears, and disbelief that results, or the iconic calls that define the moments for years, from “Do you believe in miracles?” to “Auburn’s gonna win this football game!”
As impossible as they seem every time, these moments keep coming. They always will. There will be another moment like this soon, one where we’ll set aside what we think is possible and rub our eyes and wonder aloud, maybe to no one in particular, if what we just saw really happened. We can’t write scripts like this, and it sure wouldn’t be much fun if we could.