They wept, they hugged. Some of them collapsed to the turf and stayed there, either their knees too wobbly for them to rise or the weight of the moment too imposing to overcome.
This was their moment, possibly one for the ages in athletics at the University of Washington. The horns and whistles and confetti of a New Year's Eve were memories only hours old, yet that was nothing compared to this party. Right there, on the floor of the Rose Bowl, with more than 100,000 watching from the stands and cameras clicking and whirring, some of them sending this gala scene to millions of television viewers, the Huskies had the grandaddy of all celebrations.
In the immediate minutes after its 34-14 victory Wednesday over Michigan, reality was not an issue, nor even a consideration, to this Husky football team. The players had done all they could do. They had won the game they had to win, and had done so in the fashion needed, a rout, to put themselves in position for a national championship.
Later, they would think about Miami, which was beginning to play Nebraska in the Orange Bowl, with a victory there giving the Hurricanes the same 12-0 record Washington now had. Later, they would think about Miami being No. 1 in the most recent Associated Press poll before the bowls, while Washington and Miami had been tied for No. 1 in the other major poll, the USA Today/CNN poll.
And later, they would ponder that sportswriters vote in the AP poll, coaches in the USA Today/CNN poll, and that, quite frequently, never the twain shall meet. So a split of the prize was possible, even likely; that the votes that will be announced today will perhaps make this a national championship with an asterisk, rather than the national championship.
But for now, they deserved to celebrate the moment. They had had, as their coach, Don James, said, a "50-pound weight removed from their shoulders."
And so they rolled around and hugged and mugged. When James was summoned for the Rose Bowl trophy presentation, he suddenly was surrounded on the TV platform by purple and white jerseys: Dana Hall, Kris Rongen, Curtis Gaspard, Ed Cunningham, Shell Mays, Jay Barry. It was not solely into the hands of Don James that the trophy went, but into a dozen or more, which held it high. Together they had earned it, together they lifted it, toward the east bleachers and a sea of purple and white Washington fans.
They clung to the moment as long as they could. For once, swarms of interviewers and hordes of cameras and microphones were a welcome sight. The more questions being asked, the more reason to stay out there on the field, to savor the sights and sounds and smells of success. Even if it meant answering the same question, asked over and over again, in 50 different ways: Who's No. 1?
Said Mario Bailey, the wide receiver who had a Heisman Trophy day on the same field and same day that the Heisman Trophy winner, Michigan's Desmond Howard, didn't: "I feel there's no question we're No. 1."
And, two minutes later, to the same question posed a bit differently, Bailey said: "Go ask Michigan. I think they can tell you who they think No. 1 is."
Down the field, perhaps 20 yards from Bailey, Aaron Pierce, the other receiver who had combined with Bailey to make this the most impressive Seattle air show since Boeing unveiled the 747, was telling his cluster of reporters: "I don't think we needed to win by a lot, to prove things that way. We've played 12 games and won 12 games. We did what we could, what we had to do."
Two minutes later, to the same question posed a bit differently, Pierce said: "Are we No. 1? I think we gave ourselves the opportunity to be so tonight."
Bailey, who caught two touchdown passes in Washington's Rose Bowl victory over Iowa last year and set a career Rose Bowl record by catching his third here Wednesday, caught a total of six for 126 yards, seven fewer yards than Michigan's total passing offense. Howard caught one for 35 yards.
Pierce, the Huskies' tight end, added seven catches to the Washington total for 86 yards and a touchdown. Afterward, quarterback Billy Joe Hobert said that this was "probably the best game Aaron played in his life."
It was perhaps 30 minutes after the game ended that the last Husky stragglers made their way through the east tunnel and toward the locker room. Still, there was some celebrating left to do.
Among the official greeters were William Gerberding, the school president, and Barbara Hedges, the athletic director Gerberding hired from USC six months ago.
Gerberding shook hands, slapped backs and sincerely looked the part of a proud father. "I think this is a national championship," Gerberding said. "It certainly felt like one. How could anybody play better that that?"
And Hedges, currently the only woman in the country in charge of an athletic program with a Division I football team, beamed, patted backs and good naturedly fielded all the jokes about how she had come in and, in six months, taught Don James how to coach. James, of course, is in his 17th year at Washington. Things have gone so well at Washington in Hedges' first half year there that she has been labeled "Alice in Wonderland." Now, with the Huskies on the verge of at least a piece of the school's first official NCAA national title of any kind, a new nickname for Hedges is being tossed out: "Cinderella."
After an hour or so, the celebrating was pretty much over, but the talk of it continued. The subject got around to the game's most memorable celebration of a moment--after Bailey had caught Mark Brunell's 38-yard touchdown pass to put Washington ahead, 34-7, and Bailey had struck his own stiff-arm Heisman pose in the end zone, a la Desmond Howard.
Had he rehearsed that?
"Only in my dreams," Bailey said.
That also could be said for the entire Washington team and its postgame party, which was certainly of national championship caliber.