March Madness is in full bloom.
Nearly 20 years ago, I was an accidental witness to one of the most memorable March Madness basketball games in NCAA tournament history. A game Sports Illustrated and USA Today regard as the greatest college basketball game EVER.
I spent the 1991 season in Green Bay and following a 4-12 season, Mike Holmgren was hired as the Packers' new head coach for the 1992 season.
Mike and I were friends from our BYU days. We met in January after he was hired and because my contract was expiring, Mike told me that I should do my due diligence and shop myself in free agency. If I got a good offer, he'd try to match it but he couldn't give me any guarantees.
Seemed fair enough.
NFL contracts officially expire on Feb. 1, so I spent every weekend that month flying somewhere to get a physical, work out, tour team facilities, and look at areas for my family to live.
In early March, I signed a two-year contract with the Philadelphia Eagles after visits to Miami, Cleveland and the L.A. Rams. As a punt returner, playing on a team with a Hall of Fame defensive end in Reggie White and the No. 1 defense in the NFL was a boon. I would get lots of opportunities.
The Eagles required their players to come into Philly in late March for physicals and an orientation of its offseason conditioning program.
The team preferred that its players stay in the Philly area in the offseason but understood that many of the veteran players had homes in other places and would work out on their own. The orientation was especially important for new free agents, like me and Herschel Walker, as well as players coming off injuries.
I had been in Philly for a week when on Friday, March 27, I got a note in my locker to stop by general manager Harry Gamble's office in Veterans Stadium after my workout. Mr. Gamble had been the head football coach at the University of Pennsylvania in the '70s, then worked as an assistant under Dick Vermeil with the Eagles before he moved upstairs to work in the front office. He was a tough negotiator but was fair, and in a business with huge egos, Harry Gamble was a gentleman.
His secretary informed me Mr. Gamble was waiting for me and to go on in.
As I entered his office, Mr. Gamble stood, waved me in and asked me how my workouts were going, and if I was getting a feel for Philadelphia. He asked if I had plans for my first weekend in Philly. I didn't. He opened his desk, reached in for an envelope, which he slid across his desk toward me.
"You might enjoy this," he said. "If you can't use them, let me know."
The envelope wasn't sealed, so I peeked in with great anticipation at what may be inside.
What I saw were a pair of tickets.
NCAA East Regional Finals. Duke vs. Kentucky. Saturday March 28.
The Spectrum. Philadelphia, PA.
He told me one of his friends was a Duke booster, who gave him the tickets, but a scheduling conflict arose for him that afternoon so he sent an assistant to the locker room to see who was there who could use the tickets.
Since I was the only one still there, I got first priority. I thanked Mr. Gamble profusely and skipped out of his office like a little boy trick-or-treating.
I invited my former BYU teammate Jim McMahon, who was also in town for our mandatory offseason conditioning program and orientation.
Our seats weren't great, in fact we were in the upper tier of the Spectrum, which probably gave us the best view of the last play as it unfolded.
What struck me as we arrived was the sea of blue throughout the entire arena, as both teams' colors were identical. We had Blue Devils and Wildcats fans seated all around us. No one knew me, but McMahon was still a national figure, even if he was the backup to Randall Cunningham, so as fans in our section started to recognize him in the first half, they started chanting, "Jim Mac-Mahon!" over and over.
Jim played along and waved. At one point in the second half, the beer vendor came down our aisle and McMahon bought his entire inventory and handed them out to everyone in our row. Of course, they happily chanted, "Jim Mac-Mahon!"
From the opening tip, the precision, mastery and strategy of the game was unbelievable, but it was really the last 10 minutes of play that ratcheted up the drama. Kentucky star Jamal Mashburn was phenomenal but Duke's Christian Laettner, who would be the hero, was simply unconscious from the field, and when he stepped on the chest of Kentucky forward Aminu Timberlake, who lay prone on the floor after the two collided, a wave of boos from the crowd erupted and it got louder when fans realized Laettner was only given a technical and not ejected. The Wildcats had chased Duke's lead of 12 down to 5 at that point and Laettner's lapse in judgment seemed to energize Kentucky as the Wildcats came storming back to tie it 93-all at the end of regulation to go to overtime.
The greatest throw I had ever seen was McMahon's pass to Clay Brown at the 1980 Holiday Bowl with three seconds to play. The second greatest throw was Grant Hill's 70-foot bomb to Christian Laettner with 2.1 seconds in OT.
Laettner caught it, dribbled once, turned and fired.
Then, I was doused with the round of beers that McMahon had just bought.
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