SALT LAKE CITY — When Trevor Reilly turned and hurled the football he’d just intercepted into the stands, he cemented his place forever in the hearts of Utah fans.
Taken out of context, it could be seen as silly, even careless. Moves like that are met with penalties from officials, punishments from coaches and criticism from fans.
“I shouldn’t have thrown it in the stands,” Reilly said after singing with the crowd and his teammates for the last time in his storied career at Utah on Saturday. “I was just overcome with emotion. It was kind of weak. I will have to answer to (Utah coach Kyle Whittingham) for that one.”
It wasn't weak. It was wonderful. The question is: Why does a seemingly small moment feel so magical?
The easy answer is that it had to feel good for Reilly to make the catch that ensured his team would finish a rough season with a desperately needed win.
When asked what he thought of Reilly’s throw, quarterback Adam Schulz lowered his head and laughed.
“Maybe it was about time he did something like that,” he said.
The truth is a bit more intangible.
The reality is that sports move us like few experiences do. And while there is no doubt that competing as an athlete is far different than cheering for the accomplishments of others, there is also no doubt that something special exists between a team, its players and fans. Our allegiances can inspire and strengthen us.
Consider the case of 12-year-old Grant Reed, the oldest son of an Ohio couple who met while playing in the Ohio State University band. He named the tumor doctors found in his brain “Michigan” and talked about beating Michigan throughout his life-altering fight with the insidious disease.
Saturday morning Reed attended the annual rivalry game between OSU and Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., courtesy of Michigan head coach Brady Hoke and the Michigan Rotary Club. They not only gave him four tickets to the sold-out game, but they arranged for the family’s hotel stay, as well. Hoke even met with the family for handshakes and pictures beforehand.
Hoke kept the game in perspective while using the magic of sports to bring some joy to a little boy and his family.
Not everyone understands the complexity of being a sports fan. Some people never suffer because someone else loses. Some people never feel the collective joy that comes from seeing a team like Auburn upset its rival (and top-ranked) Alabama on the game's final play.
Some people don’t educate themselves about the history and lore of a football team or a basketball program. But those who choose to do so understand that what a team struggles through, accomplishes or fails to achieve can enrich their own existence.
Maybe Auburn and its fans found magic in Saturday's game-winning moment just because they needed it. Or maybe they saw something special in the fact that the winning play came from a guy who’s given his all to a program they all love while keeping the game in crystal-clear perspective.
Utah's win on Saturday over Colorado was 25-year-old California native Reilly's final game in a Utah uniform. No one worked harder, played tougher, or was more dedicated to the Utah football program than No. 9.
And no one helped keep the game in its proper place better. Reilly’s daughter, Shayn, was diagnosed with cancer last winter, and she finishes her treatments this month. Shayn rode on her dad’s shoulders as he ran onto the field at Rice-Eccles Stadium one final time Saturday afternoon.
It was the physical manifestation of the balancing act the Utah lineman/linebacker has managed in a season that illustrated just how important and, at the same time, irrelevant the games we love can be.
Members of the 2013 Utah football team know, maybe more clearly than a lot of college athletes, that none of us is guaranteed another day on the turf.
The Utes lost a teammate, Gaius “Keio" Vaenuku, before the season began, and they’ve helped each other through the tragic and untimely deaths of family members.
They lost the on-the-field services of starting quarterback Travis Wilson after an MRI for a concussion revealed a pre-existing condition that may end his football career. And remember that in September of last year, these same players lost teammate and starting quarterback Jordan Wynn to career-ending shoulder injury.
On the field this season was tumultuous.
The Utes beat their rival for the fourth straight season, and they earned one of the most significant wins in the program’s history when they beat Stanford, which was ranked No. 5 at the time.
But they lost dramatically in overtime, and they suffered a couple of humiliating blowouts. And then, playing a game against Colorado that many of their fans didn’t even bother to show up to watch, Reilly had an interception that mercifully ended a five-game losing streak.
So he threw the ball into the stands above the south end zone — the same stands where fans crowd along the rail, begging for gloves, wristbands, or any token of remembrance as players they admire make their way to the locker room after games.
Athletic competition can bring out the worst in a person. It can also bring out the best. Sometimes the struggle makes us look like heroes. Sometimes our behavior makes those of us who deeply love sports appear small-minded and cold-hearted.
But the beauty of sports, of rivalries, of competition is that because of our affection and our dedication, small moments can hold great magic.
And seeing someone who’s suffered and sacrificed and worked so hard for so long win the day, even a rather ordinary day, is one of those magnificent moments where throwing a football into the stands becomes a statement for a player, a team and their fans.