By Mark Simon,
We've all seen the video and heard the play-by-play of the end of the Linfield/Central game. Now let's hear what some of the participants have to say:
You could have run this play a million times and on 999,999 of them, it never would have come out quite like this one, the 'Miracle in the Mud' that gave Central a 20-17 overtime win over Linfield last Saturday.
"I stopped trying to figure out all of the 'what if's," said Dutch kicker Tim O'Neil, who played an integral part in the win by kicking what goes into the books as a contradiction in terms -- the game-winning missed field goal.
"I set up just trying to kick it like any other field goal," O'Neil said of the 38-yard attempt. "It was a little slippery, but I wasn't too worried."
As center Reid Evans snapped the ball, O'Neil stepped forward. As he tried to bring his plant foot down, he stumbled. He wound up hitting the part of the ball that a kicker doesn't want to hit -- dead center -- before landing flat on his behind. Kicking coach Dr. David Roe, who also happens to be the president of the college, wouldn't have approved.
"As I picked myself off the ground, I figured it was all over," O'Neil said, not knowing that the kick had barely gotten off the ground and was blocked behind the line of scrimmage. "Then I saw the pile pushing forward. You always pray for a miracle with something like that, but you never think that it's going to happen."
Evans would eventually get his hands on the ball and hand it to teammate Joe Ritzert, whose 21-yard mad dash for the winning score sent shockwaves through Division III.
"I went from being heartbroken," O'Neil said, "to being amazed."
That O'Neil was even on the field was a million-to-one shot to begin with. Regular kicker Marc Kroloff suffered a hip injury on his first extra-point attempt of Central's first playoff game. O'Neil, the punter, was pressed into duty.
"I was ready to step in and do what I had to do for the team," O'Neil said. "I was going to go out and give it my best shot. Sometimes it comes down to the last play and you miss, but if you can't take the pressure, then don't be a kicker."
In a 31-7 win over Loras, Central center Reid Evans was lucky enough to score the first touchdown of his collegiate career when he fell on teammate and fullback Joe Ritzert's fumble in the end zone.
"We kept saying to each other that he gave me one," said Evans earlier this week following a practice to get ready for this weekend's quarterfinal matchup with St. John's, "and that now, I had to give him one."
Funny how payback comes at the unlikeliest of times, like say overtime of the second round of the NCAA playoffs, with his team trailing by three points to Linfield.
This wasn't exactly at the front of Evans' mind as he prepared to snap the ball for Tim O'Neill's game-tying 38-yard field goal. It didn't occur to him, even as he was hit by a linebacker coming over each of his shoulders, just a moment after he snapped the ball.
"Usually I can hear the ball kicked, but this time I didn't," Evans said, "I just heard a thud. Then I looked to my left and the ball was in front of me."
Evans made an immediate decision to grab the pigskin and try for the first down. But 285-pound linemen, even preseason All-Americans, don't run very fast. Not when they are pinballed off three members of the opposition at once.
"Enough of them hit me to hold me upright," Evans said. "I was almost turned completely around. I saw Joe on my left, we made eye contact and I shoved him the ball."
Evans never got to see Ritzert's 21-yard mad dash into the end zone for the winning score. He was knocked flat on his back. Payback never felt so good, even several days later.
"Everybody has asked me if I picked the ball up past the line of scrimmage, and I didn't," Evans said. "Then they ask me if I handed the ball forward, and I didn't. Then, they ask me why I didn't score it myself."