I watched my first St. John’s football game in six years on Saturday, but I’m still not exactly sure what I witnessed.
My eyes told me – and newspapers confirmed – that on Homecoming Saturday, in front of an announced crowd of more than 12,000 people, the normally stingy St. John’s defense allowed more than 500 yards of offense to Augsburg, a school that owned one victory over the Johnnies in the last 30 years. The Johnnies then rallied for a go-ahead touchdown in the final 30 seconds, a score that had the students ready to storm the field to celebrate another classic victory that could be filed away as another example of “Johnnie Magic.”
Then this happened:
Augsburg quarterback Marcus Brumm, who looked like a combination of Tom Brady and Dan Marino for much of the day, connected on a 48-yard reception on Augsburg’s first play of its final possession. Two plays later, he hit Auggie tight end Tyler Swanson as time expired for the winning touchdown, which silenced the crowd while the entire Augsburg team swarmed into the end zone to celebrate the improbable victory.
I said two players later. After the first long reception, Augsburg tried a Hail Mary into the end zone, which fell incomplete. Most people thought the game ended on that play. But incredibly, .6 seconds remained on the large scoreboard at Clemens Stadium. Point six. A blink, a breath. Point six. Not even a second, basically an imperceptible amount of time. Where’s the hometown scorekeeper when you really need him on Homecoming? With that remaining time, Augsburg ran one more play and the game went into a history book, which SJU students will hopefully burn in a large bonfire at the next Homecoming.
I watched the game with my dad in the top row of the packed students’ section. As Augsburg celebrated and I realized the refs had somehow missed the four holding calls, three offensive pass interferences, an illegal motion, a trip and a hands-to-the-face penalty and that a flag was not going to save the day for the Johnnies, I slammed the fence behind me with my program. I swore. Shook my head. Muttered. Sighed. Checked again for a flag. Walked down to midfield to meet my old college roommates and their families.
Twenty minutes later, long after nearly every player had gone into the locker room, to shed tears of joy or agony, a few guys from St. John’s and Augsburg wandered onto the field. A man with the Augsburg team shuffled us off to the sideline. Brief hope: The refs threw a late flag! No one saw it earlier but now they corrected the mistake? But no. Instead, the officials called the teams – or at least 11 guys from each school – back to the field to complete the extra point. Augsburg’s TD put it up 32-31, but if SJU had blocked the PAT and returned it for a score, they would have won. Hey, stranger things have happened – like Augsburg’s winning TD. So the rules required the PAT.
As I stood on the sidelines with my dad and friends and their kids – on the same spot where John Gagliardi has watched many of his 480 career victories and a handful of ridiculous endings that led to losses like Saturday’s – Augsburg took the snap and took a knee, again ending the game. This time officially, this time in an empty stadium. The Augsburg players again celebrated. We moped.
Damndest thing I’ve ever seen on a football field.
Today many Johnnie fans are grinding their spoiled teeth, wondering if some new scary era has started in the MIAC, one that includes a world where St. Thomas and Bethel dominate and SJU holds down the third-place spot each season, when it’s not losing to Augsburg or St. Olaf or Carleton or, god forbid, Hamline. I suppose I own some of those same concerns on some level. It’s tough enough living in a world where the Tommies win every basketball and baseball title – who wants to watch them win in the fall as well?
But when you have a coach who’s been on the sidelines for 63 years – 59 of them in Collegeville – you can take a long view. And the fact is, even though it seems John Gagliardi and the Johnnies have controlled the league from the moment he stepped foot on the secluded campus, there are always ebbs and flows in the conference. Even though it sometimes seems like it, MIAC titles aren’t birthrights for Johnnies. Over the years Concordia, St. Thomas, Gustavus, St. Olaf and even Hamline have landed shots to the Johnnies. Yes, this could very well be the first year the Johnnies miss the playoffs in back-to-back seasons since Reagan was running things. And yes, SJU could easily be 2-4, since they next face St. Thomas and Bethel.
But history shows that eventually, maybe not this year, and maybe not next year, but eventually, the Johnnies will return to the top. And chances are, Gagliardi will still be on the sidelines – where we stood Saturday – when they’re back on top. You wanna bet against him?
There’s plenty of time for SJU fans to fret about the team’s fortunes. Message boards and bars were built for those things. Saturday’s miracle ending wasn’t really about the Johnnies, though. At least not completely. Everyone loves an underdog’s story, unless you’re a fan of the favorite. Everyone loves an upset, unless you’re the one with an upset stomach after it. But I could still appreciate Augsburg’s effort. Even though I cursed and slammed a program and questioned both the eyesight and the integrity of the refs following the game, a part of me felt happy for Augsburg, for the enemy. I realize I risk having my SJU degree rescinded by admitting that, but it’s true.
Augsburg’s last victory over SJU came in 1997. Since then, the games usually end with the Johnnies scoring 40 or more and the Auggies scoring zero or…zero. Two plays – the two long passes – wiped away most of those memories, if not the actual scores.
Part of me also felt happy for Augsburg’s longtime SID, Don Stoner, who’s indirectly responsible for my career path. Don worked as a writer at the Worthington Daily Globe until leaving the paper for Augsburg in 1997. I replaced Don at the Globe, my first real job after college graduation. Since then Don’s done standout work for the Auggies, who are kings of the wrestling mat but not much else. Don deserves to write a press release and web stories that talk about miracle endings in Augsburg’s favor. The team deserves to dream big, especially after the biggest of victories.
Augsburg improved to 3-0 with the victory. My faith in SJU means I believe there’s still a decent chance the Johnnies finish ahead of Augsburg in the conference. Even if that happens, it won’t change what happened on Saturday in Collegeville, on a picture-perfect day that had everything I could ever want, except for a Johnnies’ victory.
No, I’m still not quite sure what I saw this weekend. But I do know that endings like the ones I saw on Saturday are why we watch and love sports.
Impartial observers love games like Saturday’s because it’s exciting and a great story. Fans of the victors love games like Saturday’s because they provide unforgettable moments, sometimes in forgettable seasons.
And fans of the losing teams? Even those fans should love games like Saturday’s, because they know that eventually, maybe next week or perhaps not until next year, their team will be on the right side of a miracle.