COLUMBIA — Football seemed more like professional wrestling near the end of Missouri’s loss to Alabama on Saturday night at Memorial Stadium.
Down 42-10 with fewer than three minutes to play, Missouri freshman running back Russell Hansbrough took a handoff from quarterback Corbin Berkstresser and ran to his right, trying to scoot through a hole in Alabama’s defensive line.
Instead of hitting the open field, though, he found the open arms of Alabama’s LaMichael Fanning, who wasn’t about to let him go. Fanning threw both of his arms around Hansbrough from behind, holding him temporarily in place as the running back continued moving his feet, trying desperately to scramble away.
Leaning backward, Fanning flipped the helpless Hansbrough over his head, forcing the lighter weight running back to land awkwardly on his head and neck. Flags immediately flew in from several directions, and Fanning returned to his feet, pounding his chest in celebration.
Verne Lundquist, CBS’s veteran broadcaster who was covering the game, initially couldn’t find the words to describe the body slam, saying only, “Oh, wow. Oh my heavens!”
The move resembled the “German Suplex” that Chris Benoit – a professional wrestler – made famous in the late '90s. As both the referees, Alabama coach Nick Saban and Missouri coach Gary Pinkel would later affirm, it’s a kind of move that belongs inside a ring but never on a football field.
“Thankfully nobody was hurt," Pinkel said during the Southeastern Conference’s weekly teleconference on Wednesday. "It was a very dangerous act, but I don’t think there was malicious intent. I just think the player lost emotional control and made a mistake.”
On Sunday, Pinkel received a phone call from Saban, who personally apologized for Fanning’s body slam. Fanning also sent a letter of apology to Pinkel, which he requested be forwarded to Hansbrough.
Of course, Saban and Fanning could have taken the penalty, left Columbia and forgotten the play ever happened. Certainly more egregious plays have gone by with less punishment or remorse.
But they didn’t. When it comes down to it, making the phone call and writing the letter were simply the right things to do, Saban said.
“We all make mistakes," Saban said Wednesday. "I make ’em, and I think it’s just part of being human. But I do think when you make a mistake and you make a poor choice and decision, you have to A. understand the consequences and learn from them, and B. I also think there’s a right way to try and manage it and handle it.
"I thought that was the right thing for us to do this time around.”
Going forward, Saban didn’t make it clear if Fanning, a freshman, would be available to play this week against Tennessee. The decision on how to further discipline him rests with the coaching staff and the university, he said.
“We’re handling his poor judgment internally, in terms of what we’re doing," Saban said. "I think everybody’s very satisfied with what we’re doing. I don’t think this is anybody else’s concern. This is a family matter.”
Hansbrough, after being tossed over Fanning’s shoulder like a rag doll, was uninjured on the play. He and Missouri have a bye week following the Alabama loss, a time to heal any soreness and attempt to regroup and work toward an inaugural SEC win.
Alabama, on the other hand, plays Tennessee on Saturday in a heated rivalry game in Knoxville. As his undefeated team prepares for its next challenge, Saban hopes he has seen the last of the Alabama body slam.
“I’m not happy that it happened, but certainly we’re trying to do the best we can to have everybody learn from the experience,” he said.