CHARLOTTE, N.C. (BP)–It was Jan. 1, 1991, as I stood on the Orange Bowl sidelines while Notre Dame’s Raghib “Rocket” Ismail raced past me, taking victory over Colorado into the end zone. My heart sank as I — an admittedly partial sports writer for The Palm Beach Post — much preferred to see the football “establishment” known as the Fighting Irish go down to the upstart Buffaloes of Bible-toting, swaggering Bill McCartney.
But wait a minute. A flag. Cautious, heart-stopping hope. Clip! Clip! No touchdown. Colorado holds on to win 10-9!! It was the national championship game of the 1990 season.
The night of Nov. 7, millions watched on TV when a switcheroo of far greater importance took place. For a little while, it looked like the establishment, Vice President Al Gore, had won in Florida.
But wait a minute. Someone was overanxious. Someone miscalculated as badly as that poor Notre Dame special teams player who threw the ill-fated block. Just like Colorado, presidential challenger and Washington outsider George W. Bush got a reprieve when establishment Gore’s win was called back. Gore mounted a hard charge late, but Bush held on. And the place of Bush’s political goal-line stand? Those several square miles around the Orange Bowl, the Cuban-American community that stayed with him.
In 18 years as a secular sports journalist, I saw many great comebacks in minor and major events, including other national championship football games and a good number of Dan Marino’s fourth-quarter heroics. But nothing compares to what I witnessed Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning. Why, I haven’t heard of anything like it since Frank Reich brought back the Bills.
Instead of 70,000 screaming fans around me, I had only two yawning dogs and sleeping wife, but that doesn’t change the remarkable results (does it?), the waves of emotion, the sense of desperation conservative evangelicals like myself felt when it appeared Gore might win, and the emotional Chinese-water-torture effect of having that feeling again. And again. And again.
I thought back to Rocket’s non-run when CNN credited Florida to Gore. I felt like Mark McKinnion, Bush campaign media strategist, who said, “It was devastating when Florida went south, I mean, the whole campaign went dark.”
The lights came back on a short time later. But with every state’s score, er, vote total, the mood rolled. Like McKinnion, “I wavered 100 times, are you kidding me … it was like five life or death experiences.”
It was a once-in-a-lifetime (I hope!), bigger than life, far bigger than football kind of night. It was a night when America put a first lady in the Senate, Missourians elected a dead man (maybe, even the dead can’t be sure in this election) and the whole country darned near killed two men just trying to get one elected.
I’ve never seen anything like it. I don’t think I ever will again. It was better than any football game I ever watched, and more draining. It’s 4:05 a.m. I’m going to bed. Wait a minute … maybe I’m hallucinating, but there goes the Rocket’s red glare again. Gore campaign chairman Bill Daly is standing at a podium, declaring, “Our campaign continues.” Oh, no, I feel the water again, too. I hear the voice of my late grandfather — an Al Gore Sr. campaign worker — saying something about Dewey. … Maybe I should go back to covering football.