SportsPulse: They are always talked about but really have nothing to show for it. For Michigan and Notre Dame, winning this weekend will go a long way for them to be taken seriously.
USA TODAYIn the 25 years since the Miracle at Michigan, former Colorado receiver Blake Anderson always believed it was he who tipped the ball backward to teammate Michael Westbrook in one the greatest plays in college football history.TV replays from back then seemed to show exactly that: Anderson reached for ball in the air before it deflected over to Westbrook for a Hail Mary touchdown catch to beat Michigan as time expired 27-26.Anderson says he thought he felt it. And he certainly felt something, if only because Michigan safety Chuck Winters bumped into him from behind. But with better replay reviews and new perspectives, a new narrative has emerged about what exactly caused the ball to bounce Westbrook’s way on that famous 64-yard pass from Colorado quarterback Kordell Stewart.Did Anderson really bat it back by design, as he believed – and has been widely reported in the news media for the past 25 years?Or should the historical narrative be corrected to reflect that Winters and Michigan teammate Ty Law combined to deflect it to Westbrook unintentionally, causing an “own goal” of sorts near the 2-yard line?USA TODAY Sports revisited the play with Anderson, Westbrook and Winters on the eve of the play’s 25th anniversary Sept. 24.“It literally bounced off of me and Ty’s shoulder pads,” said Winters, who was right behind Anderson on the play trying to bat the ball down for Michigan. Winters told USA TODAY Sports Sept. 5 that “Blake didn’t touch it. That was something I was adamant about. I’ve watched the play.”Winters didn’t always believe this. Right after the game in 1994, he said “their guy (Anderson) tipped it up,” according to the Associated Press. He told USA TODAY Sports a better review of the replays over time led him to change his mind.Likewise, USA TODAY Sports initiated this inquiry after breaking down still frames and slow-motion views from a YouTube clip that uses footage from the ABC television broadcast of ‘94. They seemed to show Stewart’s pass coming down past Anderson’s outstretched right hand and then taking a hard bounce on something behind him.When USA TODAY Sports related this to Westbrook, the former NFL receiver did not disagree.“It could have hit Chuck,” he said. Then he chuckled.“Chuck says the ball hit him?” Westbrook asked. “That’s hilarious. I’m sorry.”Westbrook sounded out that new narrative and laughed again: “Michigan tipped it to us.”Westbrook, now 47 and retired in Arizona, knows Winters from playing Little League baseball with him growing up in Detroit. He now believes Winters’ assertion could explain that critical bounce according to the video evidence.Anderson also was open to the possibility that the ball hit something else.“Obviously it happened so fast,” Anderson said. “I knew I was right in the middle of it. I thought I felt the ball bounce off my hand and get a piece of it and keep it alive.”Other people told him he did, too. That was his job, after all – to deflect the ball up for a teammate on a last-ditch prayer of a pass. It was a fast, colliding convergence of bodies in which Winters reached near Anderson’s right shoulder pad from behind as the ball came down – and as Law banged into Winters on his other side. Westbrook then sailed in from behind and caught the ball in the end zone, stunning the crowd of 106,000 at Michigan Stadium.The ABC television broadcast back then only showed two slow-motion replays right afterward, both of which seemed to support the notion that Anderson had gotten a piece of it.“It came out that Blake tipped it postgame (in interviews) so no one has ever doubted it,” said Dave Plati, Colorado’s longtime sports information director.Back then, the only way for many to watch it again after that was if they recorded the game on a VHS cassette. But unlike 25 years ago, digital technology now allows the play to be watched by anyone on a computer or phone in different ways – zoomed in, in slow motion, forward or backward. The most popular clip of it currently on YouTube wasn’t published until 2009 and since has been viewed more than 680,000 times.“Who knows what?” Anderson said. “I obviously thought the same thing. The thing bounced perfectly, right? Back towards Michael. Off my hand, and then who knows? Yeah, so it probably did hit something else.”The close-up video is still inconclusive. It’s possible the ball made contact with Anderson’s hand to some degree or part of his body on its descent from Stewart’s pass. The feel of the bouncing ball also conceivably was hard to discern as Winters bumped into Anderson and as Law bumped into him. “I felt our shoulder pads colliding into each other,” Winters said of Law. “That jolt in itself, when we collided, your eyes bobble a little bit.”So what does it matter? Even if Michigan tipped it to Westbrook accidentally, it wouldn’t have affected the outcome or lessened the importance of Anderson to the play’s success. Anderson still obstructed Winters from a possible interception and indirectly caused its deflection, even if he didn’t touch the ball at all. It just changes the storyline of who did what during one of the most dramatic endings in college football history.At the same time, the new narrative prompts the question of why the old one stuck for 25 years if there were any doubts. One answer is Winters hasn’t been questioned by reporters on this subject very often, if at all, in the YouTube era. Another answer is an optical illusion of sorts in the replay. Winters is obscured behind Anderson on the footage. Then as Anderson raises his hand, the ball jerks up and back.Yet in slow motion, the ball appears to take a hard bounce that is seemingly not consistent with a mere tip or slap from a hand.Law didn’t return messages seeking comment.“No matter what angle you look at, the ball goes in, and there are three or four people back there,” Westbrook said. “And it bounced up. It goes in, and it bounces up. You don’t know who it hit. It looked like it hit Blake, but it could have hit Chuck, because you don’t actually see the ball hitting somebody.”Twenty-five years later, Anderson also chuckled at the possibility of a Michigan deflection.“Tell Chuck thank you,” said Anderson, who now works at trucking company in Colorado.Westbrook couldn’t resist a playful jab at Winters. “If the ball tipped (off) him, that means he could have caught the ball,” Westbrook said.Winters, now 45, felt terrible about the play back then and still blames himself for it, saying “I had the opportunity to make the play and I didn’t.” But he’s over it and said it later became a source of motivation. After playing in the Canadian Football League, he lives near Toronto and named his fitness training business after it: Last Play Training.“That play for me at the time, it was intense,” Winters says now. “But as I got older, I realized it was one play out of 1,000 plays, 10,000 plays, however much plays I’ve played since I was 7. I told myself that. How can I let one play determine how I feel about myself, or determine how somebody else feels about you, or determine what kind of football player you are?”Michigan finished that season ranked 12th nationally with a record of 8-4. Colorado finished ranked third nationally at 11-1.Follow reporter Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. E-mail: [email protected] ThumbnailsShow CaptionsLast SlideNext Slide