Alumnus Scott Smalstig attended Wabash’s football playoff game against North Central College with his son. Watching the Little Giants’ remarkable comeback to win on a gutsy two-point conversion call helped the father explain to the son the true meaning of “Wabash Always Fights!”
Scott Smalstig — “Yeah…you better get some body bags!”
While never actually uttered, this line is a tame, paraphrased version of some heckling that was going on near Wabash’s own end zone after Tyler Burke, Wabash’s back-up quarterback, took another bone jarring, high-low hit at the hands of two North Central College defenders. The hit helicoptered Burke’s body before gravity pulled it inevitably back down to the turf, as the spectator chest pounding occurred on the other side of the ropes just paces from Burke.
Wabash trailed 28-7 at the time and the scene was eerily similar to the final sequence from the movie “The Karate Kid” from which the lead line was taken. Though sanitized, the line reflected the sentiment of a vocal minority of NCC student supporters who smelled blood in the proverbial waters, perhaps sensing another 50+ point scoring barrage reminiscent of five other games during their season. Actually, this would be a relatively pedestrian expectation for a team that scored 51, 59, 61, 70 and 86 points in the aforementioned games, which resulted in an average margin of victory of 50 points in those games.
What made the scene even more irritating and antagonizing was the fact that this heckling was coming from some Cardinal cads clad in red-and-white stripped overalls, which, if you hadn’t have known better, could have been stolen right off the backs of our own Sphinx Clubbers.
As conspiracy theories circled in my mind, the Little Giants circled the wagons and began what my own eyes would recall as the most improbable comeback in football history. I didn’t say Wabash football history, or Division III history, NCAA history, or even NFL history. Rather, football history.
Sure, when you Google “The Comeback,” you get Wiki references to the Buffalo Bills 32-point comeback against the Houston Oilers in their 1993 playoff tilt. Interestingly, Wabash’s own Pete Metzelaars played in that game, and a back-up quarterback, Frank Reich, engineered the drives that brought delirium to Rich Stadium.
As Burke peeled himself off of the new turf at Hollett Little Giant Stadium, it looked as if he would be lucky to make it to the sidelines one more time, let alone help his team score 22 unanswered points in the fourth quarter against a team that registered three shutouts during the season and yielded an average of only 11 points a game.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Here’s why this comeback was better than the Bills or any other comeback for that matter. In the NFL, philosophies and policies help govern parity among teams that is paramount to all activity. Drafts, schedules, and salary caps all endeavor to ensure that all teams have an equal shot at winning.
In Division III football these days, parity is a pipedream. The same two teams have played for the football championship in each of the last six years. These same two teams have won nine of the last ten championships. One of these teams, Mount Union, has won 10 titles in the last 17 years. Rosters of these teams are replete with Division I athletes, many of whom earned football scholarships, who have come back home to Division III schools who do not give athletic scholarships.
Now, North Central is not one of these two teams. But they too are now stacking Division I players like pancakes at an all you can eat charity breakfast. NCC had nearly 20 such players, so many, in fact, that the online roster needs a separate column for “Previous School.” While Wabash’s spreadsheet for this information contains such information as Carroll, Park Tudor, and East Noble High Schools, NCC’s has schools listed like Northern Illinois (playing for the MidAmerican Conference championship), Illinois State, and OREGON, a team that played for the Division I national championship last year and is currently ranked in the top ten in the BCS standings.
So, before the game started, many figured it was over. Including me.
I had even wondered whether to come to this game because the previous weekend had been so dangerously close to perfect. Wabash rolled over Illinois College on a crisp but comfortable fall day under blue skies, and my dad, father-in-law (who played defensive line at Virginia Tech), and 10 year-old son were all impressed by everything from our excellent rushing attack to the Sphinx Club push-ups. Post game pizza and storytelling at the Phi Delt house topped the day off better than whipped cream on pumpkin pie.
Why cloud that memory with a potential drubbing from a school that has a 6-foot 7-inch 266-pound tight end and a team that averaged 7 yards per rush behind a line that averaged 280 pounds?
In a phrase, “Wabash Always Fights,” that’s why.
As I drove to the game with my son, I hoped it would at least be respectable. We made a visit to the bookstore before the game, thinking I could soften the impending hits with gifts, and bought my son a red Wabash shirt (he already has a black one) but for some reason, I gathered some other items as well. I bought a wall hanging that included the chorus to the fight song (“The longest in fight song in the nation” I explained to my son hoping to score some points before the game where we not be able to do the same). I also bought a large car magnet scoreboard where you can fill in the Wabash opponent and score. I reasoned that regardless of this game’s outcome I would put the last two Monon Bell scores on there: Wabash 92 DePauw 7. I was feeling better already.
And, oh yeah, I purchased another one of those large car magnets that read “Wabash Always Fights.” “That’s what we do…never give up,” I told my son, with a little bit of a sigh.
As the game started, Tyler Burke actually became the perfect excuse for me. I did not realize Chase Belton, our starting QB, was injured and would not play, so now I could at least blame the loss on the fact that we had our second string quarterback in the lineup. When two of his first three passes were intercepted, including a quacker more at home on the opening day of duck season, I was hoping d3football.com would bury our game summary well below the Mt. Union and UW-Whitewater white-washings.
After giving up 128 yards rushing in the first half and being on the wrong end of a 21-0 score, I felt myself again hoping for respectability.
Then, like the Energizer Bunny with a fresh set, our 6-foot, 172-pound (must have been in his pads) back-up quarterback gave the striped goons on the NCC sideline, and everyone else in attendance, including me, a public lesson in our unofficial mission statement. Sure, our TALL mission statement that mentions thinking critically, acting responsibly, leading effectively and living humanely may be on all of materials, but “Wabash Always Fights” has been our battle cry for decades. After just 79 yards of total offense in the first half, Burke accounted for over 350 himself in the second half.
Despite being hit on all 49 passes he threw during the day, including two that drew personal foul penalties, Burke got back to his feet each time, though most of the time it was with the help of teammates. An early third-quarter 24-yard dash for his life gave all in attendance a glimmer of hope that Peter Bulandr, NCCs Division III player of the year candidate, a 6-foot four-inch, 280-pound defensive tackle, might run out of gas chasing him.
Consider four more reasons this comeback was the greatest ever: Wabash converted on four fourth down plays in the second half alone. And these weren’t your fourth and a foot, push the QB forward-type of fourth down plays. Each was over four yards, three were eight yards or more, including a fourth-and-12 and a fourth-and-15. On one of those plays the receiver fell down during the route when the ball was in the air, got up and made the catch, and on another, Burke was again running for his life again from a set of all conference linebackers.
By now you’ve read accounts of the game online and perhaps have seen video highlights, but the reason this game will be remembered is because of the two-point conversion after we scored to get to within one point at 28-27. Many of us in the stands were clamoring for a kick, taking our chances in overtime. But you really needed only a tid bit of research to know we were going to go for two.
We’ve got bigger bells.
That’s not a typo. We do indeed have bigger bells. You need to look no further than the respective schools’ rivalry games for justification for of the assertion above. Our rivalry game’s prize is, of course, the Monon Bell, a gargantuan bell with a giant clapper, which weighs in at 350 pounds. North Central on the other hand, plays its rivalry game, against Wheaton since 1946, for the “Little Brass Bell.” While our Bell needs to be carried by four football linemen, their bell looks as if it could fit in one hand. Again, we’ve got bigger bells. (Note: We’ve won 37 Bell games, 56 total vs. DePauw but the Bell was introduced as the prize in 1932, and North Central has won 19 Little Brass Bells. Assuming their bell weighs five pounds, they have less than 100 pounds of bells, while we’ve got a total of six and a half tons of bells.
That’s why Raeburn went for it. Bigger bells. More bells.
And it was echoes from a previous Bell game that reverberated as the conversion was attempted. Not only was Jake Knott, the quarterback who made “The Catch” possible giving Wabash a 27-21 victory in the 2002 Bell game, in attendance for this playoff game, but the ball was caught by Brady Young, who not only wore the same number as Kurt Casper, the gent who caught “The Catch,” #83, but also snared the tipped ball in precisely the same spot in the end zone. Yet another reason why this was the greatest comeback ever — historic precedence and intrigue. Heck, the Houston Oilers don’t even exist anymore.
As Wabash made the defensive plays to stop North Central in the final minute including the game-sealing interception, the final reasons that this was the greatest comeback in football history were about to unfold. My son and I joined the celebration on the field where a team of crying young men, alums, administrators, parents, and girlfriends sang the entire first verse of the fight song.
“Longest in the nation,” I whispered at one point to my son as he attempted to join in the chorus as I thought about my bookstore purchases.
We then took the time to walk around the field and thank Wabash players for their fight. I introduced Gehrig to CJ Gum, Tyler Burke, Wes Chamblee. A couple of them actually said, “You’re welcome, sir.” I had mixed emotions about being perceived old enough to be called sir, but was thankful for their gentlemanly manner post battle.
We lingered on that field — hugging professors, fellow NAWMers, old friends. We then got in line with a number of folks grabbing scoreboard photographs. Everyone there knew this was indeed one to remember. Jack Buck’s World Series call of 1988 rang through my head, “I can’t believe what I just saw.”
Now, the North Central players had finished their post-game debrief and were making their way across the field to their bus. I saw this as another opportunity for some valuable life lessons for my son. I began shaking hands with North Central players, thanking them for their efforts and congratulating them on a great season.
One of North Central’s coaches said to me, “I’ve been a player and a coach for years and I’ve never seen a comeback like that.”
Then, #89, their six-foot, seven-inch, 266-pound tight end walked by and I reached up to say what a great team I thought they had.
“Your team has a lot of heart to come back like that,” he said.
“Wabash Always Fights,” said my son.