The following is excerpted from the book PLAY BY PLAY: Calling the Wildest Games in Sports – From SEC Football to College Basketball, The Masters, and More by Verne Lundquist. Copyright © 2018 by Verne Lundquist. To be published on October 16, 2018 by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.
On November 30, 2013 at Jordan–Hare Stadium in Auburn, Ala., Auburn rallied late in the fourth quarter to tie the game at 28-28 with 32 seconds remaining. After the kickoff, Alabama quickly picked up 24 yards and got the ball down to the Auburn 38 yard line as time seem to run out, sending the game into overtime. But as Verne Lundquist and Gary Danielson called the game on CBS, Danielson reminded viewers that the call was reviewable—Alabama head coach Nick Saban challenged the ruling and after a video review, one second was put back on the clock.
Our synced split view showed that there was indeed one second left. The replay official concurred. First down Alabama at the Auburn thirty-nine. One second remained.
While we waited for Alabama’s offense to come out, Gary stated that if any defense in the country should know to knock down a pass that late in the game, it was Auburn’s. They’d seen what happened a few weeks earlier to Georgia’s secondary.
Gary sounded incredulous when he learned that the kicking team was coming out.
I was glad that I’d done my homework and so had my spotter. I told viewers that Nick Saban had sent out Adrian Griffin instead of Cade Foster to do the kicking. I remembered that he was a red-shirt freshman out of Calhoun, Georgia. He was 1-for-2 in his career. This was to be his third-ever field goal attempt. (Astute readers will note that it was not Adrian Griffin, as I said on air, but Adam Griffith.)
Auburn called a timeout. My spotter, Butch Baird, reminded me of the fact that in 1985, Van Tiffen had kicked a 52-yarder to win the Iron Bowl, one of the legendary moments in that great sports tradition. Gary mentioned that a blocked kick could be returned. The ball was snapped, the kick went up, and only then did I mention the presence of Chris Davis. He caught the ball nine yards deep in the end zone just to the right of the left upright and took off. He got a couple of blocks, headed down the right sideline, and was off to Auburn glory.
“Touchdown Auburn! An answered prayer!” I shouted. “There are no flags,” I added.
My heart skipped a beat. Was that right? Had I fallen victim to the anticipation goblin?
A moment later I could resume normal operation. There were no flags.
For a minute and twenty-one seconds Gary and I let the pictures tell the story.
During that time, Steve Milton, who should have been given an Emmy for his work but was not, made twenty-one camera cuts in which he visually told an absolutely compelling story of victory and defeat. His brilliant sequence of camera cuts ranged from the elation of the Auburn fans to a young kid from Alabama sitting there with a dazed look on his face. The whole camera team captured the moments perfectly.
I have to give more credit where credit is due. Rob Bramblett of the Auburn IMG Sports Network nailed it. After the game was over, I heard his call. He told his listeners that Davis had gone back deep. He mentioned the possibility of the ball coming up short and being returned. He also let loose with an emotional recounting that was a classic. Do yourself a favor and listen to it sometime. I sent him a text that same night offering my congratulations on a great call.
After that minute and twenty-one lapsed, Craig said to me, “Let’s start the replay sequence.” The tape rolled and all I said was “You might want to see that again.” And then Gary took over. We only showed it twice. On the second replay, Gary made the observation again that Alabama had chosen to have its protection team on the field. And he said, “Look at the guys who are chasing Chris Davis. No wonder he scored. They’re not real athletes; they’re all big fat guys.” And it was perfect and it was right. You know, they didn’t put an all-speed team out there.
After the game, I didn’t follow Pat Haden’s advice. I didn’t do the brain dump immediately. None of us did. We all gathered at our trucks parked down at the bottom of a steep hill. We all, the tech crew, the on-camera, everybody, stood around high-fiving one another in amazement at what we’d seen, grateful that we’d been able to witness and bring to people such a great moment in sports.
Eventually, we had to break it up. The tech guys had hours of work ahead of them. The New York guys had to get to Atlanta to catch a flight home. Gary was headed to the airport, too. Nancy and I would be driving home. Normally, that would be it. We wouldn’t talk much about the game and have our focus on the next one. Not with this one. Nancy and I drove home; instead of going to our apartment, we had a bite to eat at the restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton across the street from our place. To give you some idea of the extravagance of that choice, Nancy and I frequent and love Cracker Barrel restaurants.
The next day, we all got on the phone and talked about that 2013 Iron Bowl again. It’s funny to me, but if a game is good, then people assume the broadcast was good. If the game is substandard, then we talk about all the things about the broadcast that weren’t up to par. That happens all the time—all the time. So none of us made mention of the fact that we didn’t identify Chris Davis being back there and deep. To show you how that principle of good game/good broadcast works, it wasn’t until I watched the game again that I noticed this omission. If you had asked me after the game, I would have sworn that we had.
I didn’t kick myself too much over that. I’m human. My only regret, and it’s a very small one, is that I could have had the time to talk a bit more about the kicker I’d misidentified. Not only would I get his name right the first time, but I would have let viewers know that he had a great story as well. He was orphaned in Poland, got adopted by a couple in Georgia when he was thirteen, and earned his way on to the Alabama football team. He was honest about not getting a good leg into that kick. He was the team’s main field goal kicker the following season and got off to a rough start and missed his first four attempts. He turned things around and contributed five field goals in 2014 against Auburn. He contributed greatly in the national championship game with an onside kick that Alabama recovered. Now that’s somebody you can root for.
And Cade Foster? He was part of two national championship teams. Since then he has gone on to the University of Alabama’s law school. He also had someone rooting for him. Former president George W. Bush sent him a letter of support.
Over the years, I’ve been asked about my favorite moments in sports. I’ve said that the 2013 Iron Bowl is my favorite SEC game. David Barron writes a media column for the Houston Chronicle and has become a good friend over the years. He called me immediately after the game. “Okay, where do you rank this?”
And I told him, “It’s tied for second.” “Tied for second with what?”
“Well, Christian Laettner’s winning shot and Tiger’s chip shot at Sixteen.”
Jack’s putt at 17 in the Masters was still number one.
A short while later, I read Mike Vaccaro’s column in the New York Post listing eight reasons why the Auburn-Alabama football game played on Saturday might have been the most exciting finish to any sporting event in the history of mankind. It wasn’t that strong, but it was really strong. He also made a great case for his point.
He made me think, and today I’ll tell you that the 2013 Iron Bowl ranks right up there to be tied with Jack in 1986. Six months later I ran into Mike and we spoke for the first time. He told me he had watched the game while on assignment somewhere. He was in a hotel lobby with strangers, and he said the reaction—and these weren’t die-hard Auburn or Alabama fans—was so striking that he sat down and wrote that column. The reach of that game, the surprising and rare circumstances of its finish, and what was at stake changed my mind. It’s a bit crowded atop that greatest-moment-I’ve-covered podium. I don’t think that Jack will mind sharing with the 2013 squads from Alabama and Auburn. Unless he thinks his 2013 Ohio State Buckeyes should have been in the BCS bowl.
I wouldn’t be surprised.