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TIGER KICKOFF: 2010 Homecoming kick return a memory worth reliving

Thursday, October 13, 2011 | 6:18 p.m. CDT; updated 7:04 p.m. CDT, Thursday, October 13, 2011
Missouri's Gahn McGaffie runs past Oklahoma defender Sam Proctor on his way to 86-yard kickoff return Saturday in the Tiger's upset victory over the Sooners.

COLUMBIA — The night Gahn McGaffie nearly brought Memorial Stadium down might just have been the greatest Homecoming ever.

When McGaffie was lying triumphantly in the south end zone, Mike Kelly was trying to do the moment justice. David Yost was smiling, and Scott Glosemeyer was happy not to spill his beer. Chris Gervino was soaking it all in, and Ben Urkov was ignoring his throbbing foot. Kendial Lawrence was giving hugs and high fives on the sideline.

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A year later, the memories of Homecoming 2010 and McGaffie’s return of the opening kick, still live strong. Coaches remember an important win, and fans treasure a day that began before sunrise waiting eagerly for Lee Corso and ended long after sunset with hacksaws meeting goalposts outside Harpo’s, part of a massive celebration that brought euphoria to thousands at the intersection of Tenth and Hitt streets.

The centerpiece of that day was 19 seconds of football. Nineteen seconds that injected belief into the Tigers players. Nineteen seconds that sent Memorial Stadium into an unprecedented frenzy. Nineteen seconds of ecstasy that 71,004 lucky people can hold as their own experience, that they can relive through MU Athletics Department commercials and YouTube. Those people can cherish the memory of what it felt like to be in attendance the night Gahn McGaffie nearly brought the stadium down.

Anticipation

For many like MU student Scott Glosemeyer, it’s hard to say where the day of Homecoming 2010 began. When you’re up for the entire night, where is the distinction made between when one day ends and the next begins?

Glosemeyer, who graduated in May 2011 with an economics degree, wasn’t the only MU student who stayed out until last call at 1:30 a.m. then headed over to Francis Quadrangle to get a spot in line where ESPN’s College GameDay had erected its set.

The anticipation for the showdown with the Sooners began six days before, when Missouri throttled Texas A&M in College Station and GameDay host Chris Fowler tweeted the following: “I see you, Mizzou.. somebody wants Gameday on campus for the first time ever.. OU v MO next week in competition with LSU-AUB and NEB-OK ST”

Soon after that, ESPN made it official that the show was coming to Columbia, and the Homecoming hysteria began in earnest. People noticed.

“That game really gave me a confirmation in my mind of how the presence of GameDay really legitimizes that game for that particular week,” Missouri’s radio play-by-play announcer Mike Kelly said. “Once people found out that GameDay was going to be there, it just seemed to increase the intensity that everybody and the anticipation everybody had for the game.”

Glosemeyer and about 18,000 of his closest friends were part of what made that day special, taking an already festive atmosphere to another level.

Inside GameDay, students were packed closer than at Fieldhouse on a Wednesday night. Movement was restricted. It took 20 minutes and a lot of pushing and shoving just to reach a portable toilet.

“Being packed in there made it better,” Glosemeyer said. “Being with that many people was so exciting, you knew it was going to be something unimaginable”

Electricity

By the time ABC television announcer Brent Musburger was telling the viewing world that they were looking live at Faurot Field, just about every seat inside Memorial Stadium, including one occupied by Ben Urkov in the student section, was full. When the PA announcement came that ABC was about to go live, yellow pompoms exploded from the Tiger’s Lair cheering section.

“You could really just feel something different in the air,” Kelly said. “There was just a certain vibe that I think you got from all the fans surrounding the stadium.”

That vibe was hope, manifesting itself in an electricity that has the potential to take over a big-time sporting event.

“It was fun to be a part of it,” Urkov said. “There’s no game that has had that kind of atmosphere before.”

All Missouri fans needed was a spark.

Launch

The kickoff wasn’t the high, majestic one you would expect to start such an epic game. Instead, Patrick O’Hara’s kick was a low, line drive. It bounced at the 21-yard line. It looked harmless.

Hardly anyone in the stadium even knew who fielded the ball on the bounce at the 14. At least, neither of the people calling the game did.

“I was trying to identify exactly who had the ball,” Kelly said. “When he first picked it up, I couldn’t see his numeral.”

Musburger stuck with the generic: “Low kickoff fielded by a short man on the 14.”

That short man was wide receiver Gahn McGaffie.

Before each game, McGaffie looks out the window and runs through a visual playlist of how he is going to make plays that day. It’s an exercise practiced by many athletes, but rarely does what happens on the field actually reflect that visualization.

Don’t tell McGaffie that.

“I visualized it kind of happening the way it happened. When the ball was kicked, and I see it bounced my way, I knew it was going to happen.”

The bounce actually gives the receiving team an advantage, according to McGaffie’s teammate and former Missouri kick returner Kendial Lawrence, who was on the sideline during the play.

“When it bounces funny, they (the coverage team) really don’t know where to go,” Lawrence said. “Although they have their assigned gaps and lanes, depending on where the ball bounces you kind of have an advantage on them because you can go the opposite way of where they’re going.”

McGaffie took a step back to allow his blockers to set up, and off he went.

Excitement

Once McGaffie made his first cut and broke away from Oklahoma’s coverage team the crescendo began to build. Near the 30, McGaffie scooted away from a group of Sooners defenders and angled toward the middle of the field. There was a lot of green in front of him.

“My first thought was 'I don’t know if he can outrun all those guys.' They have some fast guys and everything, and Gahn has good speed, but he’s not the fastest guy on our football team,” said Yost, the Tigers' offensive coordinator. “I wanted him to get in the end zone, so I didn’t have to call any plays.”

Urkov said he knew McGaffie was gone once he broke free from the pack. Urkov began jumping up and down in excitement. McGaffie was going to score. This was the spark Missouri needed.

Then, Urkov’s foot slipped and caught on the metal bleacher. He didn’t think anything of it. He did what any other Missouri fan would do: He got back up and started jumping up and down again.

McGaffie, meanwhile, had one man to beat: the kicker. No one wants to get tackled by the kicker.

“I was saying, ‘Don’t let the kicker get you. You can't get caught by the kicker,’” Yost said.

As the crowd began to reach its peak volume, O’Hara dove at McGaffie’s legs at Oklahoma’s 40-yard line.

“The kicker can’t trip him up!” Musberger shouted excitedly on the TV broadcast. “Headed for the end zone!”

There were two defenders that might have had a chance at tackling McGaffie right at the goal line, but his roommate Robert Steeples saw to it that they would not stop McGaffie from etching himself into Missouri folklore.

“Both the guys had bad angles, and my roommate had the block,” McGaffie said. “Once they were a couple steps in front of me, I just stepped behind them and walked in.”

Pandemonium

What happened next was described best by Urkov.

“Chaos ensued,” he said.

The student section turned into what seemed like one giant hug. The person next to you, whether you knew them or not, became your new best friend. Voices went hoarse in an instant. There were words exchanged, but no one really remembers what they were. Memorial Stadium became a giant vat of pure noise.

Urkov’s section was high five after high five. He paid no attention to his foot.

Why would he? The Missouri Tiger powder keg had just been sparked.

It’s the kind of moment where the thrill from the seats was transmitted six stories above into the coaches' booth.

“It seemed like a tidal wave of everything. It was just super positive Mizzou right at that point,” Yost said. “You still get the chills when you think back to that play and the atmosphere.”

The noise was, if you believe Tiger radio veterans Kelly and Chris Gervino, unprecedented.

“It was the loudest I’ve ever heard it down on the sidelines,” Gervino said. “I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and it’s a highlight on a very short list.”

It was so loud that Kelly’s seemingly soundproof booth was no match for the unbridled enthusiasm of the 71,004 that went from abstractly believing to concretely seeing evidence that that night could finally be the night their Tigers got over the hump.

“Once it happened, we’re six stories above the playing field, you had a hard time hearing the inside of our booth during the commercial after he scored,” Kelly said. “Without a doubt, it was as loud as I ever heard it.”

The noise made it all the way to Quinton’s, where Glosemeyer was watching the game with some friends.

“It was an almost unanimous cheer. It was just one sound. It was so deafening and loud, and even the bartenders were going nuts,” Glosemeyer said. “Everyone at the bar was chanting MIZ-ZOU.”

He even managed not to spill his 22-ounce Bud Light, quite the accomplishment considering the exuberance of the moment.

“Good beer awareness,” he said.

Everyone heard the celebration except for McGaffie himself. His world had gone silent 14 seconds earlier when he started his return.

“I didn’t hear none of it,” McGaffie said. “Everyone was saying that the place was rocking and stuff, but I didn’t hear anything once I caught the ball.”

But before McGaffie could do much celebrating, teammate Jeff Gettys came flying in and knocked him to the ground.

“It was the biggest hit on the play, certainly,” Kelly quipped.

McGaffie didn’t even feel it.

“He hit me pretty hard and took me down. No pain, all excitement,” he said.

Stitches

McGaffie wasn’t the only one too excited to feel any pain. As the initial celebration died down, Ben Urkov finally took a look at his left foot.

“I looked down and …  blood,” he said. “I thought I would wait it out for a few minutes to see if the pain went away, if it stopped bleeding, but it didn’t.”

Once he saw the damage underneath his left big toe, Urkov sought out a police officer inside Memorial Stadium for help. After a frustrating and unhelpful moment with a paramedic, he walked back to the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity house, where an alumnus who was watching the game on television drove him to Providence Urgent Care.

He received six stitches under his big toe, while of course, the Urgent Care employees gave him updates on the game.

“I really wanted to go back to the game,” Urkov said. “I was always planning on it.”

So after he was stitched up and returned to the Pi Kappa Phi house, Urkov did just that, walking back into Memorial Stadium toward the tail end of halftime.

“I went right back to where I was sitting where everybody around me saw me walk out with my foot just bleeding profusely,” Urkov said. “They were really, really surprised that I came back to the game.”

Exhilaration

We all know how the story ends. Missouri went on to beat Oklahoma 36-27, the fans rushed the field, the goalposts got carried out of the stadium and off to Harpo’s, where per Missouri tradition, they were sawed into pieces and divvied up as souvenirs.

Urkov didn’t get to rush the field. Even though he was back to watch the rest of the game, he said he was “too much of a gimp” to make it down to the field.

Yost still had to call the rest of the game. He even used the same opening play he had drawn up for the series that never happened because of McGaffie: a run play with six offensive lineman that netted 20 yards for De’Vion Moore.

Kelly and Gervino rank it among the top highlights of their broadcasting careers, mentioned with the win over Kansas in 2007 that pushed Missouri to a No. 1 national ranking, among others.

For McGaffie, the luster has faded off that incredible moment in time. To him, it’s a play in the past. It does him no good to think about it now. When the commercial for Missouri football season tickets that features his return comes on TV, he said he changes the channel.

Whether McGaffie wants to acknowledge it today or not, that moment in time was the highlight of the season for many fans. Some might even call it the highlight of their college careers.

It showed what can be great about college football. The upsets, the momentum swings, the pageantry, the passion, all of the things that make this sport great were a part of that kick return and a part of that night.

A night that no one who was in Memorial Stadium will soon forget.


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Comments

Don Ingle October 15, 2011 | 7:09 p.m.

I'm a 73 j-school grad, and that Homecoming weekend was the best time I've had since I was in school. It was the kind of play that makes you believe in fairy tales. Well-written story, thanks.

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