SALEM, Va. – When kicker Rodney Chenos sealed Mount
Union's 10-7 win over St. John's on Saturday, he probably knew he'd
always remember the moment.
Much like Magic Johnson's game-winning hook shot versus the Celtics or Joe Montana to Dwight Clark against the Cowboys, Chenos' kick was as classic as they come in Division III football.
Plenty of athletes dream of making the game-winning play and few actually get the chance. Chenos hoped he'd have the ball in his hands in crunch time. Or rather, on his foot.
Chenos told the Alliance Review in the week leading up to the championship that he was pulling for a close game.
"Of course, as a kicker, you like close games because it makes you feel like your role is a little more important," he said.
With 0:04 remaining Saturday, Chenos got his shot and nailed it, propelling Mount Union to its fourth national title in the past five years.
On the night before the game, the junior kicker, who also punts for the Purple Raiders, told his senior teammates that if it came down to him, they could count on him.
How Chenos had the foresight to know an extra-point length field goal could clinch the Purple Raiders' fifth national title since 1993 we'll never know. Everyone else in Salem not donning a St. John's helmet and uniform thought Mount Union would overrun the Johnnies like they had every other opponent this season. After all, the Purple Raiders' average margin of victory in their first 13 wins was more than 33 points and they'd never scored fewer than 32 themselves.
But the Johnnies turned in an epic performance for John Gagliardi, their legendary coach. A 52-year college coaching veteran who led St. John's to three national championships prior to 1976, some considered Saturday's loss to the heavily favored Raiders to be his greatest victory.
One wonders how 52 years of coaching don't blend together, but this group of overachievers, blessed with 17 seniors starting on offense and defense, must stand out. The Johnnies were the West's seventh seed and were among the last of the 28 teams to be selected for the postseason.
Rainy conditions in Salem aided two excellent defensive performances Saturday, and with the score tied 7-7 when the Purple Raiders began their final 11-play, 65-yard drive with 4:03 remaining, head coach Larry Kehres played for the kick.
"We were trying to run the clock down and keep the ball in the middle of the field," said the 51-year-old coach. "If one of those runs had reached the end zone, I would have taken it. But yes, we wanted to run as much time off of the clock as possible."
After his perfect kick, it was Chenos doing the running, this time around the field with the championship trophy held high in one hand.
The entire weekend was almost as flawless — and memorable — as the final kick.
From the moment both teams arrived (hours apart due to icy conditions that diverted St. John's plane to Raleigh, N.C., and placed them at their hotel at 6:45 a.m.), many found the weekend to be a lesson in how the game should be played.
Without knocking previous Stagg Bowl participants, and at the risk of sounding contrived, corny and clichéd — and certainly repetitive — I happen to agree.
Adam Marino, the Purple Raiders star wideout and three-time national champion, a guy who lost one game in his college career, said something that stood out among the postgame comments.
"It"s not about the ring, it's about the memories," Marino told reporters assembled for the customary news conference.
As a former player, I look back on my own career not so much for the wins and losses, but for the times I spent on the field, in the locker room and on the road with guys I am honored to call my teammates. And the feeling is the same across the board.
Van Everette, a Hampden-Sydney lineman who last year had just completed an 0-10 senior season and a 4-26 run in three seasons as a starter, said he wouldn't trade his experience for the world.
"Looking back, I see a lot of great, great relationships," Everette said. "I see great bonds formed. This was one of the tightest teams I've ever been a part of."
Chad Johnson, who quarterbacked Pacific Lutheran to the 1999 Stagg Bowl championship, said winning wasn't nearly as special as the journey the Lutes went on.
"We really just focused on being together," said Johnson, who called the entire playoff experience "a blessing."
One can only imagine that the Purple Raiders and Johnnies felt the same way.
This weekend"s memorable journey extended beyond the players. Few attendees at Friday's Spotlight on Champions luncheon could forget the engaging personality of the 74-year-old Gagliardi, whose humorous outlook clued us all in to how he"s made it so far.
He joked about how Saturday's starters were called to stand up in front of the table of honored guests. Mount Union"s biggest players, its offensive line, he said, were conveniently placed in front of him.
Johnnies quarterback Tom Linnemann joked about being a fifth-year senior and later chatted with ESPN's Don McPherson about the 4-inch plate in his leg that set off a metal detector at the airport. Linnemann broke the leg in the third game of last season and had the plate and 8 screws put in to help it heal.
The memories extended to fans, trainers, media, friends and family who made the trip to Salem and braved the cold and rain to see the game. Every experience must have been memorable, whether it involved a marriage proposal planned for after the Purple Raiders' second touchdown (which was never scored, by the way) or blue tights, red and white pom-poms for hair and a skirt, and a Johnnies T-shirt.
Players in close games never forget the little things they could have done to turn the tide. No matter how often St. John"s players are told their effort was valiant, they most likely will never be able to shake the tackle they didn"t make, the pass they didn"t complete or the block they missed. They"ll get over it, but they"ll always wonder if it would have changed the outcome.
The best belonged Saturday to Chenos, who by simply playing kicker, placed himself in danger of being the goat and being though of as not a "real" football player.
But Chenos wanted the pressure on him Saturday. He got it, and delivered, like a true champion.
But even a national championship couldn"t soothe the ultimate pain for Mount Union"s seniors. For them, like the vast majority of Division III athletes, their athletic careers ended Saturday.
Ryan Belaney walked from the Purple Raider locker room and stood on the field after the fans had gone and the field had been cleared. Belaney stared at Salem Stadium.
He stood for a few seconds, turned and walked away.
From the press box, I felt his pain. The day, the journey, the career… is now a memory.
Football is a special game. To Mount Union and St. John"s, thanks for sharing your memories with us.