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Day 5: A last-second field goal saved the Hokies' unbeaten season
Waiting to hold for the most important field-goal attempt in Virginia Tech history, Caleb Hurd understood his fate.
Anonymity or infamy.
At right guard, Keith Short ignored his throbbing right knee and stared intently at the ball, determined not to budge early.
In front of the Hokies' bench, defensive coordinator Bud Foster and defensive line coach Charley Wiles clutched hands and dropped to their knees.
Back in Blacksburg, non-traveling reserves Tim Selmon, Steve DeMasi and Jeff Hartzog huddled around the television in the latter's apartment.
It was Nov. 6, 1999, and as the sun set in Morgantown, W.Va., the temperature dipped into the 40s, and Virginia Tech's unbeaten regular season and national title hopes were in peril.
After squandering a 12-point fourth-quarter lead, the Hokies trailed 20-19, their first deficit of the year.
"Other than getting married and having children, I rode the emotional roller-coaster the most during the West Virginia game," Foster said. "Here we thought we had the thing won. Then all of a sudden, I'm almost in tears."
But thanks to a 26-yard, for-the-scrapbook scramble by freshman quarterback Michael Vick — "he was a blur," Tech coach Frank Beamer said — the Hokies were on the Mountaineers' 27-yard line.
Five seconds remained as Shayne Graham lined up his 44-yard attempt. The Hokies had no timeouts.
A week earlier at Pittsburgh, Graham had kicked a season-best 52-yarder. But he had never made a game-winner.
A year earlier at Miami, Graham had missed from 35 yards with eight seconds remaining. But that game was tied, and Tech won in overtime.
Graham hailed from Pulaski County High, a half-hour drive from Blacksburg. He had made 10-of-13 field goals in 1999, 3-of-5 from beyond 40 yards.
Offensive tackle Anthony Lambo, an assistant high school coach in his native New Jersey, recalls what he was thinking:
"He better freakin' make it. All he does in practice is kick."
The field-goal team hurried onto the field after Vick spiked the ball. But Hurd, Graham's holder since their junior year at Pulaski, told Graham to relax, that the Mountaineers would call timeout to ice him.
Sure enough, they did.
"That was the best thing that happened," Hurd said. "It allowed everyone to regroup."
Invited to join the team as a non-scholarship player because of his history with Graham, Hurd had not mishandled a snap since their freshman year at Tech.
Botch one here, he knew, and no one would ever forget. Perform the routine, and no one would ever notice.
"I remember trying to talk to (Shayne) about anything other than what we were about to do," Hurd said. "The last thing I told him was, 'Don't even look up. I'll tell you if we made it.' "
The Cincinnati Bengals' kicker since 2003, Graham has attempted 202 field goals in the NFL. His career accuracy of 85.6 percent ranks fourth in league history, and he's made three game-winners.
But none of his kicks, before or after, matches the stakes at West Virginia.
At Hartzog's apartment, "you could have heard a pin drop," said Selmon, an assistant prep coach in suburban Boston.
"We were all on our knees on the sideline," Foster said.
Beamer, who doubles as Tech's special-teams coach, had no time for such angst.
"I've always said it's easier to coach a game than it is to sit in the stands and watch a game," he said. "Up there you have time to think about a lot of stuff. When you're right there involved, you're making sure you get (things) right."
"I couldn't even look at Shayne," defensive end Corey Moore said, "but I had all the confidence in the world that he was going to make the field goal. While everybody else is praying, the only thing I'm thinking is win, lose or draw, I'm getting back to the locker room as fast as possible."
Indeed, Tech-West Virginia was a contentious rivalry, and Mountaineers faithful were known for showering the Hokies with drinks, trash and the occasional Eveready.
Hurd, a high school tight end, didn't care. If Graham made the kick, he planned to hoist his kicker skyward and revel on the field.
One problem: Hurd thought his hands were going numb. The temperature was well above freezing, but nerves and pressure are a combustible mix.
Gloves? No way. The mere sight of his holder wearing gloves unsettled Graham.
And Graham — he declined to be interviewed for this story — had every right to be temperamental. A four-year starter, he already was the school's career scoring leader and a three-time, first-team All-Big East selection.
On the West Virginia sideline, head coach Don Nehlen already was second-guessing his defensive strategy.
Behind reserve quarterback Brad Lewis — starter Marc Bulger sprained his right thumb during the fourth quarter — the Mountaineers had scored two touchdowns within two minutes to snare a 20-19 lead with 1:11 remaining. But as the clock ticked inside 40 seconds and Vick dropped back on third-and-1 from Tech's 38, West Virginia rushed inside and left the flanks exposed.
"We weren't very smart," said Nehlen, retired and living in Morgantown. "When I think back on that play, we should have been in another front and kept him in the pocket and not let him break containment. Our kid got sucked inside, and no one we had was going to catch Michael Vick."
With primary receiver Ricky Hall blanketed, Vick scrambled right and outraced two defenders to the corner. Seven yards downfield, all-conference linebacker Barrett Green, who had forced the Shyrone Stith fumble that set up the go-ahead touchdown, had a textbook angle to force Vick out of bounds.
But with Hall approaching from his right for a possible block, Green turned his head. That was all Vick needed.
Hitting a gear unique to him, Vick sprinted past Green with a move Nehlen said nearly broke Green's ankles. Vick then hurdled defensive back Perlo Bastien before stepping out-of-bounds at West Virginia's 36 to complete a 26-yard gain.
The play unfolded right in front of Tech athletic director Jim Weaver, a former Penn State linebacker and assistant coach.
"Man, it was spectacular," Weaver said.
"Mike's a special athlete, one of the best I've ever seen," Foster said. "But he hit a gear — I don't know that anybody has that gear. I saw a burst of speed that I don't know that I've ever seen except on TV in some (cartoon) or in a Superman movie."
Following a 9-yard Vick-to-Hall connection and the subsequent spike, it was Graham's time.
Long snapper Cliff Anders was Hurd's roommate and a three-year starter. How many hundreds of times had Anders, Hurd and Graham, seniors all, practiced their snap-hold-kick routine?
As Anders lifted the ball, Short submarined the defender opposite him, anything to prevent him from leaping, extending his arms and blocking the kick. Four weeks earlier at Rutgers, Short had partially torn the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee.
This was his first game since. The pain was tolerable, the risk considerable.
"I wanted to play the year out with my guys," said Short, a strength and conditioning coach at Tech. "Those were my best friends. I wasn't sure if I was going to be a professional football player, and I wasn't even thinking about that. I just wanted to go as far with this group of guys as I could.
"I don't think that I was talented enough to play in the NFL, even if I had been healthy. So, looking back, I think I made the right decision."
As Short blocked low, Hurd reached high for Anders' snap. It was not Anders' best effort, but Hurd fielded it cleanly.
"I didn't screw it up is the way I look at it," Hurd said.
Face-first in the turf, Short judged with his ears.
"I can remember listening to the crowd," he said, "and how quiet it was, and then I saw the Virginia Tech section erupt out of the left corner of my eye."
Graham's kick carried plenty far and could not have been more center-cut.
Virginia Tech 22, West Virginia 20.
The Hokies were 8-0.
"So I'm looking down at the ground with my eyes closed," said Moore, a graduate student at Michigan State. "I didn't even see Shayne kick the ball, and as soon as I heard our fans cheer and their fans started throwing stuff at me, I ran to the locker room and started crying. I didn't want anyone to see me cry."
Hurd was in no hurry to exit. But as he turned to bear-hug Graham …
"He was running around, and I couldn't catch him," Hurd said, "and then he was in the middle of a mosh pit."
"I screamed my head off," said offensive tackle Dave Kadela, who works for the Justice Department. "I feel honored to have been a part of that game, that team, that drive."
Outside Tech's locker room, Beamer's wife, Cheryl, wept. Assistant coach Billy Hite lit a cigarette and wondered aloud where he could get a drink.
Per his wish, Hurd went unnoticed. That remains his preference today.
Hurd is an engineer for Hendrick Motorsports, NASCAR's most successful team, and doubles as the gas man on Jeff Gordon's pit crew. So like a holder on field goals, the only time he attracts attention is when something goes wrong.
During Hurd's time at Hendrick, Jimmie Johnson has won three consecutive Sprint Cup championships, and Gordon has won a Daytona 500. But no moment tops the kick at Morgantown and the undefeated regular season it saved.
"I can't believe it's been 10 years," Hurd said. "I was just lucky to be a part of something that big."