ANN ARBOR, Mich. — In 1994, Ty Law was immortalized on the cover of Sports Illustrated. However, it was for a dubious reason.
As time expired in the fourth quarter on September 24, 1994, Law leaped in the air to cover Colorado receiver Michael Westbrook … and unsuccessfully defended one of the most iconic passes in college football history.
“It was nothing spectacular,” Law told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. “It was a wish play … just a bunch of hope. He threw it a long ways … further than expected. … It went straight up and came straight down. It had a lot of velocity, it was very fast.”
Nearly 22 years later, many Michigan players don’t recall the play that gave Colorado the 27-26 win at Michigan Stadium. In fact, many of them weren’t even born when Colorado quarterback Kordell Stewart backpedaled to his own 25-yard line, then heaved a final pass that found Westbrook in the end zone.
The Wolverines have seen the pictures. They’ve watched some YouTube footage but they can’t grasp the full gravity of the impact that one play made on college football.
“Before my sophomore or junior year of high school, I never really watched Michigan football or knew much about it,” said Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight, who was born nearly three months after the Hail Mary game. “I’ve seen the play, I think, and (Colorado) completed it, but no, I’ve never really watched it.”
Then, the 21-year-old shrugged and smiled. “Hopefully, I won’t need a Hail Mary this weekend.”
Sefo: Hopefully it doesn't come to a Hail Mary, but if it does, I'll get the ball to the end zone.
— Colorado Football (@RunRalphieRun) September 13, 2016
When No. 4 Michigan (2-0) hosts Colorado (2-0) on Saturday, we won’t know if Stewart, Westbrook or the ghosts of Buffs past will return to the Big House. We won’t know if there will be another “Miracle at Michigan.”
The Buffaloes and the Wolverines have made it clear ahead of this weekend’s matchup, the fifth meeting between the two teams: One of these games doesn’t have any bearing on the other. Even if Colorado will wear throwback uniforms designed to replicate the 1994 uniforms Stewart, Westbrook, Rashaan Salaam and Christian Fauria wore on the day of one of college football’s most notable game-ending heaves.
— Colorado Buffaloes (@cubuffs) September 12, 2016
“It was a great play 22 years ago,” Colorado quarterback Sefo Liufau said this week. “But we’re mainly focused on ourselves and trying to turn our program around.”
Jim Brandstatter, Michigan’s longtime play-by-play announcer, believes Colorado’s 1994 Hail Mary touchdown is iconic in football and in sports.
“I don’t think there’s any question of that,” Brandstatter said. “The ability of Kordell Stewart to throw the ball that far in the air, I don’t think anyone thought he could throw it 60 or 70 yards. That was a Herculean feat. Then, to have it pop in the air and land in Westbrook’s hands? Then, to have Keith Jackson calling the game?
“All of the things make that work, to make that unforgettable. And it’s one of those moments where you ask, ‘Where were you when this happened?’ Everybody who watched it can say so.”
Shemy Schembechler, the son of legendary Michigan coach Bo Schembechler, was a graduate assistant on Gary Moeller’s staff who helped oversee recruiting, and was on the sidelines gathering a group of high schoolers when he saw Stewart’s throw bounce off the hands of Michigan safety Chuck Winters and into the hands of Westbrook.
“I remember looking at that play as I was collecting all of the recruits,” said Schembechler, who now runs a Columbus-based consulting firm for prospective college football players. “I saw it, I saw poor Chuck Winters misjudge the ball … and it killed me. After that, I lost all my energy that day.”
At first, Tyrone Wheatley didn’t want to talk about the Hail Mary. But when pressed, he opened up about the play, which he saw from the sidelines as a Wolverines running back.
“I turned around and thought, ‘I can’t watch it, I can’t watch it,’ ” Wheatley recalled.
Then, he remembered the silence as the ball sailed through the air.
Then, he saw the Buffaloes running on to the field, celebrating.
“To have a Detroit native come in the freaking building and steal one from us and go back to Colorado wasn’t a great feeling,” said Wheatley, who is now Michigan’s running backs coach. “Just certain things you carry with you. I didn’t play that much in that game, so you’re just like, ‘Man, if I was healthy, I could have helped a little bit.’ It’s still a bad feeling.
“That was a tough one. Stewart threw the heck out of that ball. But, oh well.”
About 275 miles away in Indianapolis, Jim Harbaugh watched his former college football program as he prepared for the Colts’ game the next day against the Cleveland Browns,. The final pass still stands out to Michigan’s second-year coach.
“I remember that the most,” Harbaugh said this week. “Kordell Stewart threw an amazing Hail Mary pass. That’s what I remember the most.”
Two years ago, as the 20th anniversary of the iconic play approached, Michigan defensive line coach Greg Mattison noted that Colorado closed the first half of that game with a Hail Mary attempt. Then, Mattison made a confession:
“That one will be something you remember as long as you live,” said Mattison, who was a defensive line coach on Gary Moeller’s staff in 1994. “Every time I see that on one of those replays, I just go, ‘Oh my, that hurts.’ I’ll always remember that play.”