7:28 PM PST, January 4, 2014
Just when this BCS national title game begins to sag under the grandiose weight of Heisman trophies and state attorneys and Southern football, Kid Miracle shows up.
His name is Ricardo Louis. He is sitting in a quiet corner of a crowded Newport Beach ballroom. It is media day, yet only a couple of reporters have shown up to interview him. His soft voice is filled with wonder. His eyes occasionally redden with emotion.
He is not the best player in this room. He is not even the best player at his table. But he is the only one who truly understands.
"You can call it what you want," he says. "I call it destiny."
Ricardo Louis is the miracle who made it possible for the Auburn Tigers to play for the national championship against Florida State on Monday at the Rose Bowl. He is the kind of miracle that makes it possible to still believe in the weekly wonder that is college football, with youthful unpredictability bouncing around on the occasional wisps of luck.
"I don't believe in luck," Florida State's Lamarcus Joyner says with a grin. "But let's just say, that receiver was in the right place at the right time."
That receiver was Louis. The right place was Auburn's Jordan-Hare Stadium. The right time was 36 seconds remaining in their Nov. 16 game against Georgia.
The Tigers trailed by a point. They were stuck on their own 27-yard line. They were facing fourth down and 18. The game, and their national championship hopes, were reasonably considered to be finished. Then quarterback Nick Marshall launched a deep desperation pass that bounced off two Georgia defenders and into the reach of Louis, who hauled in the twirling ball and carried it the final 10 yards into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown.
It was a finish so stunning, the CBS announcers were silent for 36 seconds after shouting Louis' name, the screen filled with a prolonged roar as Tigers danced and Bulldogs grieved.
"I passed out for about two seconds," says Auburn defensive end Dee Ford.
Find the play. Watch the play. Again and again. Faith in the splendid rawness of college football is restored by it. This BCS championship matchup could not have happened without it.
"I guess we're not sitting here unless I catch it," Louis says.
While Chris Davis' 100-yard touchdown return of a missed field goal to beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl two weeks later has been more celebrated, that run occurred on a perfectly executed play. Louis' catch was a greater play because, well, it wasn't a play, it was a glorious wreck in which one kid captured the flying ruins and carried them into history.
And, no, contrary to his previous comment, Louis didn't just "catch it."
He caught it after talking his way off the bench and onto the field just before the snap. The sophomore had caught only one touchdown pass the entire season. He is just another speedy uniform in Auburn's little-used receiving corps. Earlier in the game he had accidentally tackled his own running back, Tre Mason, in the Auburn backfield while running in motion. This was not supposed to be his moment.
Says co-offensive coordinator Dameyune Craig. "But he came up to me and told me he wanted the football . . . he asked for it. . . . I could see it in his eyes . . . he is so unselfish, that doesn't happen very much. . . . So I told the coach [Gus Malzahn] to put him in."
Says Louis: "I don't know why, but at that moment, I felt I could do something to win the game and I wanted a chance. . . . Like I said, maybe it was destiny?"
He didn't just catch it, he caught it after also badgering Marshall to throw it to him.
Says Marshall: "Yeah, coming back onto the field, he asked me to get him the ball, I saw it in his eyes, he was going to be ready for it."
Says Louis: "I asked him for the ball, and he didn't say anything to me, so I asked him again, just to make sure he heard me."
He didn't just catch it, he caught it even though Marshall never should have thrown it to him. The quarterback made the wrong read and threw it high above a wide-open Sammie Coates, Auburn's leading receiver.
Says Craig: "Yeah, he threw the ball to the wrong guy."
Says Louis: "All I know is, the ball was coming toward me."
Then it wasn't, as the two Georgia defenders converged to bat it down. Then it was again, as they batted it into the air instead.
"I heard the ball hit flesh, so I looked up, and there it was," Louis says. "It felt like it was slow motion, like an immaculate catch. And then everything was quiet."
Then he scored, and his ears are still ringing from cheers that will follow him for a lifetime. The applause is not just for his good fortune, but for his fortitude. Watch the video and you will see that even though the ball appears likely to be intercepted behind him, not once does Ricardo Louis stop running.
"I hear all this talk about luck, but look at how Ricardo did not give up on that play," Ford says. "Think about his mind-set. It was like, 'I don't care what happens, I'm going to keep going.'"
Louis was so stunned by his heroics, after he scored he simply dropped the historic football. He hasn't seen it since.
He was in such shock that, while walking off the field, he listened to the pleadings of a young fan and tossed him one of the historic blue gloves used to make the catch.
"At least I have one of my gloves," he says. "That's enough."
When he returned to his dorm room, the enormousness of his play finally sunk in when he called his parents back in Miami Beach, Fla. His mother was screaming and his father was crying. In the weeks since then, strangers often surround him with the same sort of reaction, everyone telling him where they were, and how they felt, when they saw him cradle that spinning piece of magic in his arms.
"It's all I've thought about since the catch," he says. "I realized I can actually affect and change people's lives. It's a great feeling."
College football can still do that, can't it? For all its pomposity, college football can still use a pleading, sprinting, lunging kid to affect and change people's lives.
In Auburn's two games since that catch, Ricardo Louis has caught a total of three passes for six yards. That could all change Monday night. Or maybe not. Or maybe it doesn't matter. Maybe the most important thing is that somewhere, somehow, maybe another Kid Miracle could show up again.
"In this game, you just never know, do you?" Louis says, and thank goodness we don't.
Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times