The Sheriff of St. Thomas (Part 5)
“The Immaculate Deflection”
Note: As in previous chapters of this story, the protagonist, Neil Dalton, played Division 1 college football and baseball at a school in the Southeastern Conference. For reasons of my own, I do not name this school, but instead give it the moniker “State University.” It is not meant to be Mississippi State University, nor any other actual school in the SEC. I use this mythical school and the town it is located in, “Oak Ridge,” to avoid the inevitable objections that would be lodged in my direction if a reader from a real SEC school took issue with how I portray their school, fans, or the town in which their school is located (SEC fans are a very sensitive bunch). But, for purposes of the plot and narrative, you can certainly imagine that State University could be any of the fourteen schools in the Southeastern Conference, except Alabama of course.
The Nats had lost a heartbreaker on Friday night to the Dodgers, when their closer — a 22 year-old flamethrower named Coby Lewis — gave up a mammoth home run to Yasiel Puig in the top of the 9th inning. In true, live-on-the-edge closer fashion, Lewis had walked the first hitter of the inning after the Nats had taken a one-run lead in the bottom of the 8th, then threw the first pitch to Puig right out over the middle of the plate. Puig crushed it into the seats in left-center, and the Nats went three up, three down in the bottom half of the ninth. By the time the game ended on the east coast, it was 11 p.m. on St. Thomas, and that was about Dalton’s bed time now, especially when he was alone while his wife was gone working. He was still getting used to this new arrangement.
Nine hours later, he sat at the corner stool at Magens Bay, the only patron this early on Saturday morning, enjoying something different than his usual breakfast for a change: a jerk-seasoned ham and cheese scramble with peppers, onions and tomatoes, dry white toast and some Caribbean fried potatoes. Spicy stuff, just the way he liked it. Indeed, in many ways, St. Thomas was the Texas of the Caribbean, especially in culinary circles; the food was unique and guaranteed to light you up if you weren’t careful.
Dalton’s young bartender friend Jay Miller had brought out a full press of strong island coffee, and Dalton was set for a while, the steam slowly wafting upward from his plate and coffee mug, as he perused the local news and kept an eye on the big screen hanging above the bar. For some reason, there was just a bit of chill in the air as the marine layer was still breaking up in the early morning sun. So Dalton was wearing a Patagonia fleece vest over his t-shirt to go with his usual Saturday uniform of khaki hiking shorts and Keen water sandals. He looked more like some grizzled expatriate than a federal prosecutor.
He leaned monetarily over the piping hot array of food and coffee to let the steam envelop his face, then methodically dug in. It was only Miller and him; no interloping tourists yet. He ate slowly in the sound of the relative silence; the park, as it were, wasn’t yet open, and he had the place to himself, the only sounds at this early hour the intermittent, small waves languidly lapping up onto the white sandy beach, an occasional call from a seagull overhead, the voices of the Gameday crew on the TV, and young Miller making an occasional comment as he moved back and forth getting the bar ready for another day of serving the onslaught of tourists who would arrive on buses and in rental cars from over the hill on the island’s main side around 10 am. Dalton savored mornings like this, because they were few and far in between. He had to strike when the opportunity presented itself. And he needed to be gone before the invaders spoiled the pristine setting. The two hours he spent here on early Saturday mornings was the closest he got to an escape from what he did the rest of the week.
It was Saturday, September 12, week two of the young college football season, and the Gameday boys were doing their thing from just outside the cavernous Bryant Denny Stadium on the campus of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The Crimson Tide were playing Ole Miss later that night, Miller’s alma mater and something the young bartender wasn’t too happy about. “Who in the hell scheduled this game for week two?” Miller grumbled. “Their gonna get their asses kicked.”
Dalton, having played D1 football himself at State University in the SEC, though not much of a football fan after his playing days (it was a strange affliction having been a player and then trying to be a fan), understood Miller’s frustration; Ole Miss was a middle-tier SEC team even in a good year, and having to play perennial national powerhouse Alabama so early in a new season was both unfair and impossible. Dalton tried to assuage Miller’s annoyance. “You know how it is. They have to schedule somebody early. But they’re pretty good about rotating the victims now. Better to get that game out of the way early in the season. You should’ve seen it when I played. We had to play them the second or third week every year back then. We only beat them once in four years.”
“Oh yeah,” Miller observed turning toward Dalton with a slight grin. “Wasn’t that the game … when you …” Miller’s eyes narrowed as he tried to place it. “That crazy ass ricochet play? Right?” “Yeah,” Dalton confirmed.
It had been Dalton’s senior year. State was in Tuscaloosa, once again, to play the Crimson Tide in week three. Alabama was ranked number 2 in all the polls, stacked again with several All Americans and a dozen players who would get drafted the following spring. State was again a mediocre, middle-lower tier SEC team, as the school had been for decades before and would continue to be long after he graduated. Neither he nor his teammates were looking forward to the game; in the previous three years Alabama had crushed State 45–7, 56–10, and 38–17, with Dalton — the placekicker and punter — contributing four extra points and two field goals over the three games.
In week 3, although they had started off 2–0, there was no reason to believe the fourth and final contest against Alabama of Dalton’s college career would be any different, except for two things: (1) they had a brand new freshman Quarterback who had a rocket arm and appropriate last name to go along with it, and who was too young and stupid to really be afraid of anyone yet, and (2) their defense was actually pretty damn good for a change, with all 11 starters from the previous season returning. Upon these thin strands of hope, Dalton and his fellow seniors ran out of the Bryant-Denny tunnel thinking maybe, just maybe, they could keep it close and avoid a rout.
What transpired on that early September day in Tuscaloosa would forever become known in college football lore as the “Immaculate Deflection,” a play of sorts on the name given to Franco Harris’s famous (or infamous if you were an Oakland Raiders fan) reception that gave the Pittsburgh Steelers a miraculous victory over the Raiders in the 1972 AFC playoffs. But it wasn’t just one single play that had firmly placed that game in the pantheon of historic college football upsets; a series of very strange events had taken place on the Bryant Denny turf that people in hindsight were convinced had been the product of either spectacular, random, coincidence or divine intervention. And Dalton had been center stage on the two plays that book-ended everything else that happened on that surreal day.
The first of these two plays was the opening kickoff. Alabama won the toss and wanted the ball. Dalton lined up his coverage team and with the cacophony of 90,000 Crimson Tide fans screaming in his ears, he drove the ball high and deep into the end zone, where the Alabama return man gathered it in, appeared to start to take a knee, hesitated, and then for some inexplicable reason, decided to bring it out. In doing so he fooled his own return team into thinking he was downing the ball and they let up for a few seconds. The result was that they all reacted too late.
Dalton was moving downfield in his normal assigned position, one of three players hanging back a bit to act as “safeties” should the ball carrier break through the other coverage into the open. He saw all the Alabama players sort of let up, as he did, when the return man looked like he was taking a knee. But he resumed at top speed when the guy came sprinting out of the end zone.
The guy cut one way, then another, and then turned straight up field toward Dalton. It looked like he had a straight line to Dalton, when out of nowhere he was blindsided by one of Dalton’s teammates. Dalton saw all of it happen right in front of him. The ball squirted straight up into the air and came right down into Dalton’s shocked hands. It was the first time in his four seasons he ever had possession of the ball other than to punt it. He covered it up tightly with both hands and was crushed by the Alabama tacklers, but he somehow held onto the ball. When he opened his eyes on the ground, all he remembered was the yelling and whooping of his teammates as they yanked him up off the turf and slapped his head. Bryant Denny Stadium fell into stunned silence. It was first down for State at the Alabama 15-yard line. And nobody had run an offensive play yet.
The State offensive coordinator was a disciple of the “kick ’em when they’re down” strategy. The situation when one team has given the ball up on a turnover, especially on their side of the field, is called “sudden change” in football parlance; and the best time to strike a defense is when their offense has just suffered such a deflating turnover. That is the best time to strike them for a big play. And that’s what happened.
On the first play from scrimmage, State’s new freshmen QB lofted a perfectly arched pass to the back left corner of the Alabama end zone, where the receiver out-jumped Alabama’s defender and caught the ball for a touchdown. 6–0. Shocked silence again fell across Bryant Denny as the State offense all sprinted into the end-zone to celebrate, their shouts reduced to the muffled sound of a cocktail party in the farthest reaches of the upper decks. Dalton jogged out and added the point after, and his team lead the number 2 team in the nation, 7–0. Nervous mutterings broke out among the 90,000 loyal crimson and white-clad home fans.
But the Tide was too seasoned and too good a program to allow one play to pop their balloon. They played like the champions they were. And buoyed by the opening touchdown, State held their own. Through the first quarter, State managed to contain the Crimson Tide offense, and the score stood at 7–7 going into the second quarter. Bama fans kept waiting for their team to break out, but it didn’t materialize. Then with only 2:36 left in the first half, the second strange play of the day occurred.
State’s freshman Quarterback, Richard Thomas Reifel, (forever after the game known as “Ricky Reifel”) lofted a high pass down the left sideline that was picked off on an amazing play by Crimson Tide All-American safety Willie Richards, who turned in one of the most ridiculous interception touchdown returns in recent history, going 85 yards the other way and reversing his field no less than five times, to give Alabama what appeared to be a 13–7 lead. But as he leapt into the end zone in exhaustion, the television cameras switched back to a motionless Ricky Reifel, splayed out on his back around the Alabama 40 yard line, with a couple of his offensive lineman and the State trainers surrounding him. A lone yellow flag lay on the turf next to him.
The officials conferred, pointed in a few directions, and the referee switched on his microphone and announced, “Personal foul. Roughing the passer, number 55 on the defense. That’s a fifteen-yard penalty and automatic first down.” Silence. Erase Richards’ beautiful interception return; it was first down State at the Alabama 25 yard line, with just above two minutes to go in the first half.
Every person on the State sideline knew what was coming next; “kick ’em when they’re down.” Reifel had to be helped off and had to sit out at least the next play. So backup quarterback Gary Walters — who had been the starter the previous two seasons but lost the job to the new freshmen in two a days — came in. On what would be his only snap of the season and his last-ever play in college football, Walters rolled out to his right behind a bevy of blockers and fired a bullet into the back right corner of the end zone where only his guy could catch it: 6 foot, 6 inch-tall Danny Mitchell, who caught the bullet in his huge, pillow-like hands and pulled it in before getting clobbered by three Crimson Tide defenders. He even got both feet down for good measure.
Pandemonium erupted on the State sideline and down in the back of the end zone with the 11 on offense, as silence again dropped like a shroud all over Bryant Denny. The only sounds audible in the bleachers came from the small group of State fans who had made the trip, like the joyous laughter of a bunch of little kids echoing across the expanse of a park playground. Dalton trotted out and tacked on the extra point. When he looked up at his target high up in the end zone stands before the snap, he noted that although the Bama fans were all standing, none of them were waving their arms or moving or saying anything; they all just stood there, stunned. This was something he had never witnessed in any stadium in his career, let alone in Bryant Denny. It would prove to be a portent of more things to come that afternoon. Just minutes before, the scoreboard had read “Alabama 14, State 7,” with 2:15 left. Now it read “State 14, Alabama 7,” with 2:05 left. Just that suddenly.
The mood in the State locker room at the half was strangely subdued. They led the 2nd-ranked team in the nation 14–7, but there was an uneasy feeling that this might just be the calm before the storm. Good teams made adjustments at the half, and there was no doubt Alabama would do so. About the only thing on the bright side was that State would get the ball back to start the second half. Maybe they could stave off the onslaught for one more series. That’s what Dalton believed anyway; he’d been in this league too damn long to really believe his team had a chance to upset Alabama. It just didn’t happen. He had learned long ago when his team had a lead to keep his expectations very low. That way, he could occasionally be pleasantly surprised.
But young Ricky Reifel had different ideas. The kid was moving all over the locker room slapping people on the back and rousing everyone to keep it up. “Come on guys! We got ’em on the ropes!” and similar comments. An unwritten rule dictated that freshmen were supposed to just keep their mouths shut and play, but Ricky was either unaware of this precept or didn’t care. Dalton wanted to be annoyed with the kid, but his enthusiasm was so damn pure, so charming, so damn … infectious, that the upperclassmen let it slide on that day. Dalton caught himself exchanging smiles with his other older teammates at the kid’s irrepressible positivism. It was no fluke that young Ricky would eventually go on to a Hall of Fame, 12-year NFL career.
State took the opening kickoff of the second half and promptly went nowhere. Three and out, and 4th and 13 when Dalton jogged out and launched his best punt of the day, a 63-yard effort that put the Crimson Tide deep in their own territory. Their offense went nowhere as the State defense gained more and more confidence. It played out that way for all 15 minutes, and the third quarter ended with the score still State 14, Alabama 7.
Dalton had seen this movie before, in his first three years against teams like Florida, Tennessee, LSU, and Auburn, and it usually didn’t end well for State. He hoped against hope this day would be different, although he was a realist. He figured Alabama would either score four touchdowns or the game would somehow come down to him. It was a strange, unshakable feeling that began to inch up his back as soon as the fourth quarter began.
As it happened, the final quarter saw neither offense able to do much as the defenses began to showcase their respective talents. Until there was 5:45 left. Alabama began to hit a few plays and had the ball at State’s 25. State committed a costly penalty that gave the Tide a first down and goal at the State 10. Three plays later, Alabama finally scored their second touchdown on a three-yard plunge. And then the third crazy play of the day transpired. On what should’ve been a routine extra point to tie the game, Alabama’s holder dropped the snap and took off running to his right. Alabama’s alert tight end ran right where he was supposed to in the event of a mangled snap: along the back line of the end zone and started running to the corner. The holder spotted him and lofted a weak, floating duck that wobbled as if it had been shot. It somehow passed over and through an ocean of State defender hands, but the tight end gathered it in somehow and scored the two-point conversion for the Crimson Tide’s first lead of the day. For the first time of the day, Bryant Denny Stadium erupted like a volcano exploding. Alabama 15, State 14. Five minutes to play.
The State sideline stood in shocked silence. “You gotta f —ing be kidding me,” Dalton thought in disgust. “All this, and now we’re gonna lose on that bullshit?” But as soon as the thought hit his mind, there was Ricky Reifel, suddenly up in his face. “F- that, dude! I’m taking these m — f — ers right down the field and we’re gonna get you in range! You’re gonna be the hero today! So f — ing get ready!” “Just shut up and go do it,” Dalton said in annoyance, as Ricky slapped him on the helmet with a maniacal grin and sprinted off back down the sideline.
Of course it would; of course this day would come down to him and whether he could control his emotions, heart-rate, breathing and thoughts of what it would mean to succeed or fail. Such was always the case with kickers like it was NOT with any other position on the team, whether people wanted to acknowledge it or not. Nobody ever remembered your successes very long. But they never forgot when you failed.
Dalton wasn’t a rah-rah guy; no kicker was. And he wanted to be left alone now. More than any other position on the field, a kicker wanted and needed to be alone in the last minutes of a game when he might have to attempt a kick that would decide the outcome. That’s just the way it was. He didn’t want people bothering him or coming up to encourage him. “You got it. Think positive. You’ll make it,” blah, blah, blah. “I know I do, just shut up and leave me alone,” he always thought. His teammates were well-intentioned, but none of this helped one bit. This sucked massively because you knew, one way or another, if it came down to you, there were only one of two possible outcomes: Make it and you were the hero, for a week anyway, or two, miss it and you were the goat, for a lot longer.
As Dalton walked back and forth to stay loose and get ready, young Reifel was true to his word, as he took the State offense methodically down the field as time ticked away. At times like this, he had long since learned to not look at the clock; all this did was stress him out as it ran down. He tried to focus on his job and his technique and not even watch the field. Keep it simple. Wait until they call for you, run out there with your holder, get your bearings, measure the distance, check the wind, pick your target way up high in the bleachers beyond the goal posts, align to your target, step off your three paces back and your two steps over, take one last look at the target, and nod at the holder when you were ready. When the ball was snapped, approach the placement point as you had over 100,000 times since you were 7 years old, and kick the football like you had 100,000 times at your target, follow through, and do not look up until the ball is gone. The rest was out of your hands. And be prepared to live with what happened next. Such is the life of a kicker.
Dalton figured with the slight wind at his back going this direction, they needed to get to at least the Alabama 35, meaning a 52-yard attempt. His career best was 55, hit last season in the cavernous Neyland Stadium at Tennessee. But that wasn’t a game deciding kick. He of course wanted to get as close as possible because anything could happen from beyond 50. His head coach must’ve read his mind because he called Dalton over to confer. “How far do we need to get for you to feel comfortable?” Coach Harkins asked. “Probably the 35 coach.” “Ok, but we’ll try to get you closer.” Harkins said and slapped Dalton on the shoulder pads. Everyone liked to do that; slapping the kicker on the helmet or shoulder pads. To encourage them.
Dalton walked back to his lonely spot at the end of the bench near the kicking net. Everyone was moving quietly away from him now, as if they feared that a hand grenade was going to be tossed close by and they did not want to get hit with the collateral damage. His teammates all knew what was happening. The fact that they were moving away from him and leaving him alone now was a sign of respect and courtesy. None of them wanted to be him.
He was not a fan of the kicking net; it was a worthless piece of gear that was good only to warm up a leg, but it didn’t tell you how well you were hitting the ball. Dalton hated it and rarely used it. It was like hitting golf balls into a blanket or something. He preferred just taking a practice swing through the air before the play.
It was clearly now going to come down to him, unless they went for the big play. State was moving the ball and eating up what remained on the clock. Two minutes now. Ricky Reifel looked like Tom Brady slicing and dicing up the vaunted Alabama defense for six yards here, eight yards there, and State’s tough little running back Michael Maxwell was getting four or five yards a carry and getting out of bounds when he needed to. Little paper cuts that were quickly bleeding Alabama to death. Alabama’s defense was winded, and they called timeout with 1:23 left and State at midfield.
Dalton watched from his spot as Riefel excitedly jabbered with the coaches and sprinted back out to the huddle. The Bama fans behind him in the stands had already started in, coming down to the railing behind the bench to harass him. And the cops didn’t stop them. “You a’int got it today Dalton! You suck son! You’re gonna miss! You’re gonna be the goat!” and such. This was the game they played with kickers. One either got used to it or couldn’t hack it at this level. It started during pregame warm-ups. A seasoned kicker learned to turn this to an advantage and use it as motivation. Some even talked shit back to the fans to pump themselves up. Not Dalton. Dalton tried to tune it all out, though you could never do that totally. It was actually better to be out on the field because all the hate and vitriol turned into one massive, cacophonous storm, devoid of any specifically discernible words. Just a loud, obnoxious drone that he had more often than not quieted with his right foot.
The next three plays got stuffed, with Reifel barely avoiding a disastrous sack at his own forty by throwing the ball away. It was fourth and ten with 45 seconds to go. “Shit,” Dalton thought. State called timeout to discuss the situation. Everybody in the stadium knew they had to pass. Against the best secondary in college football.
And then came the fourth surreal play of the afternoon. On fourth and ten, Dalton took the snap from the shotgun, dropped back as the wide receivers sprinted downfield as if on a hail Mary route taking most of the secondary with them, and delivered a strike directly over the middle to tight end Rodney Weaver, who had run a curl route right at the first down mark. But right as he gathered the ball in and turned to run, he was crushed by a bone-jarring hit from one of the Crimson Tide linebackers, causing the ball to pop out and tumble to the ground. It seemed to just sit there on the turf for a eternity before the ever-present little running back Michael Maxwell appeared out of nowhere to scoop it up and gain another three yards before being tackled. Maxwell was just hustling downfield to follow the play; it was the only reason he was there to make the play. “Hustle is always rewarded.”
First down State at the Alabama 38. 35 seconds to play.
They were almost there now. From here it would be a 55 yard attempt. Dalton took a few more practice swings with his right leg, stretched a bit, took a quick sip of water, shook everything out, and got ready to run out there. The tension started to take hold on his breathing and legs and he did the usual things a kicker did to hold them at bay: Keep moving, shake it out, stretch and control your breathing with deep breaths held in a for a few seconds and then slowly exhaled. Control your breathing now, control your heart rate. Just relax.
He watched now and figured they’d run maybe two more plays before he went out for the field goal attempt. But on first down the offensive coordinator went for the jugular as Reifel took the snap and sailed another high ball down the right sideline toward the gazelle-like Danny Mitchel, who was racing in one-on-one coverage with Alabama All-American cornerback Rashad Dawkins. Everyone else in the stadium, including Dalton, stopped and watched as the players leapt simultaneously for the jump ball at the Alabama 15. They both got their hands on the ball, but the much-taller Mitchell twisted and wrenched it away from the smaller player and came down at the Alabama 11. A collective gasp went up from the 90,000 Alabama faithful. The clock stopped to move the chains with 25 seconds to go. “Well within my range now,” Dalton thought. “Perfect. Makes my job much easier.” He did the math quickly. From here it would be just a 28 yard attempt.
State had one timeout left. Reifel rushed everyone down and the refs started the clock. Reifel took the snap and quickly killed the ball. 22 seconds remaining. Second down at the 11. Coach Harkins yelled at Dalton to come over. “Which hash do you want it on?” “In the middle coach.” “Put it in the middle of the field!” Harkins barked through his headset to the offensive coordinator upstairs, who called in the necessary play. Reifel got the offense set. He handed off over the left side to Maxwell who actually punched through a small opening and almost appeared to have a direct route to the endzone, but he was tackled at the last moment, directly in the middle of the field, at the Crimson Tide 5. Reifel ran over to the referee, watched the clock, and finally called the last timeout with 0:05 showing on the scoreboard.
Well, there were no excuses now; the middle of the field at the 5, a 22-yard attempt. You couldn’t draw it up any better than this. If Dalton could walk the ball out there and put it down anywhere he would have chosen right where the ball now sat. He ran through his routine again, got a sip of water, stretched, shook it out, took a few deep breaths and one last practice swing of the leg. Then ran out on the field with backup QB and holder Gary Walters.
This was it. Just like so many times before, in high school and college. It was what he had dreamed of doing as a little kid growing up in south Texas watching the immortal kickers of the 1970s in the old Southwest Conference, Steve Little, Russell Erxleben, and Tony Franklin, dueling with each other week in and week out to see who would beat another team as time expired, or to see who could kick the longest field goal in history, something that came to fruition in 1977 when two of them both hit from 67 yards, and as of the year 2017, forty years later, a feat that had never been duplicated.
His dream had been realized several times over now, and he had usually made all those kicks. The only time he had missed a win-or-lose kick was his freshman year in a meaningless, late-season game in ridiculous weather at Kentucky, with the wind whipping in all directions. Even then, the ball was heading right down the middle when a huge gust came out of nowhere and pushed the ball left into the upright, where it clanged and dropped straight down. That had been such a fluke it was now a distant memory. But even though he had been pretty successful in these situations, he couldn’t recall an attempt this short.
As a kicker you tried as hard as you could not to get ahead of yourself thinking about being the hero and all that. It screwed up your concentration. He knew if he made it State would win 17–15; if he missed or it was blocked they would lose 15–14. He tried to push these thoughts to the side as he lined up, stepping off the three paces back, getting his target high up in the end zone bleachers, and then stepping over the two paces to the left. Alabama had timeouts they could call to try to “ice” him, but he couldn’t afford to anticipate it; he had to stay focused. He took one last look at his target, looked back down at Walters who was awaiting his signal that he was ready, and nodded. Walters turned toward the center to receive the snap. Dalton could hear nothing now; he had entered the zone and heard only silence. The Alabama timeout never came.
The ball came shooting back and Dalton began his approach to the spot it would be placed down. Walters gathered in the perfect snap and made a perfect hold. And Dalton did what he had done 100,000 times going back to that first delightful day when he discovered the wonder of kicking a football when he was five. He hit the ball squarely and launched it on a perfect flight toward the target, and he knew as soon as he struck it he that he had made it.
And almost an instant after he struck it, before he could even get his head up to watch his handiwork, he heard another sickening sound; the sound of the ball hitting something else. Everything that happened after that went by in a blur and took a total of about six seconds. But it was six seconds that would forever live in Alabama football infamy and State football mythology.
Alabama had blown through the middle of the line and blocked the kick. Dalton turned to see the ball ricochet straight back at him, bouncing hard once on the turf and then literally hitting him in the chest between the numbers on his jersey. And then instinct took over. He took off running to the right, sprinting for his life as much as anything else. As soon as escaped the outstretched hand of one Alabama lineman, he could suddenly see nothing but open field between himself and the corner pylon of the end zone, and he ran for the pylon like a man possessed, as if he were a wildebeest being run down from behind by a pack of lions, which in hindsight was an apt description of what the replays would show.
He didn’t bother to even glance behind him and he had no idea if he had any blockers or whether any Alabama defenders were close by. But he could feel and hear them. He neared the goal line and dove for the end zone. And just as he left the turf he felt some indescribable, massive force impact with the left side of his body, knocking him sideways and sending him spinning clockwise like a top. Somehow he held on to the ball. He hit the ground somewhere near the goal line and the right boundary of the end zone, face down and knocked out for a few seconds. He had the distinct feeling he had scored, but he wasn’t sure. It was strangely silent all around him. He could feel the ball under him now, crushing up into his chest, where it had dislodged all his breath.
He came too when someone grabbed him from behind and pulled him to his feet; his teammates and coaches were mobbing him in a scrum down in the Alabama end zone, screaming and yelling, and of course, slapping him on the helmet and shoulder pads. Before he realized what had happened, there was Ricky Reifel, pushing his way through the crowd, grabbing him by the sides of the helmet and pulling his face up to his, screaming, “You did it!!! You fucking did it dude!!! You fucking scored!!!” Dalton looked up at the score board. It read “Alabama 15 State 20” No time left. The game was over. State had shocked the Crimson Tide and the football world, 20–15, on the final play of the game.
The packed stadium stood in rapt and shocked silence, save once again for the small group of State fans who had made the trip. The officials waved off the extra point as unnecessary and quickly ran off the field because things were rapidly coming unhinged in Bryant Denny. The State fans stormed the field, and a bunch of Alabama fans, taking offense to this trespass on their holy ground, stormed the field as well. Fights and brawls broke out as a group of State fans started trying to tear down the goal posts in the end zone where Dalton had scored, and the outnumbered security and police on hand couldn’t contain them. The thing erupted into a full-scale riot. The State coaching staff quickly ordered all the players off the field and into the locker room. The resulting meltdown only ended when the State fans who had succeeded in tearing down the goal posts were finally subdued attempting to run the destroyed uprights out of the Bryant Denny tunnel.
When the dust finally settled and order was restored, 61 people had been arrested, 12 had to be hospitalized, and State University had to buy the University of Alabama a new goal post.
It was State’s first win in Tuscaloosa in 24 years, and that surreal day in Bryant Denny Stadium was the opening chapter in the epic career of Ricky Reifel, who would go on to be an All-American and All Pro over 12 NFL seasons. But Dalton’s incredible feat of athleticism and freakish touchdown off a blocked field goal — coined forever after the following morning by an SEC sportswriter as the “Immaculate Deflection” — helped spawn the creation of that legend.
While Reifel would go on to have an epic football career, after which he and Dalton would remain forever very close friends, Dalton would kick his last football the following January 1st, on a cold, dreary day in the Dallas Cotton Bowl, where State would itself die by the same sword on a last-second field goal at the hands of Oklahoma’s freshman placekicker. Dalton had what might have been his finest performance ever in his final game, nailing four long field goals in the blustery north Texas wind and icy rain, but it wasn’t enough. As that final kick from the Oklahoma freshman sailed through the uprights to give them a 27–26 victory, Dalton stood and just watched as a scene similar to the one he had engineered a few months prior in Bryant Denny played out in front of him. And he smiled. “Good for that kid,” he thought.
As his teammates walked sullenly back to the locker room, Dalton made his way patiently across the field to the Oklahoma mob, and eventually found the kid. When the young kicker saw it was Dalton, the kid grabbed his hand. “Neil, you were incredible today. You’ve always been one of my heroes. I’ve tried to emulate everything you do.” Dumbstruck, Dalton shook his hand, told the kid he had done a great job, and wished him luck in his career. “And listen. Keep doing whatever you have been doing. It will take you far. Do not pay attention to the critics. Take this and just feed off of it. Have a great career.” The kid nodded as if he had just been given advice from Aristotle.
Dalton then moved away, let the kid soak in his moment, and slowly walked across a football field for the final time, and soaked in the moment himself. This was it really. He had no illusions about the NFL, where kickers were treated like so much chattel and the supply far outnumbered the roster spots. This last performance was a great way to go out, and he wanted to get on with his life.
In the back of the south end zone, he stopped, turned back and took one last look. The game had defined him since he was little. When he’d had enough, he turned and walked back up the Cotton Bowl ramp. State fans all along the railings shouted their love and compliments. “We’re going to miss you!” One lady said. He waved and smiled at her. And walked on into the State locker room. He would never again put on a football uniform.
There was a different plan for him from then on.