To this day the most satisfying Penn State victory ever is the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, a game where the underdog of all underdogs fought and won an impossible victory against a swaggering juggernaut. The most satisfying article on the subject is the following piece by Michael Weinreb written for ESPN the magazine. The link is here, but as links tend to break, here’s the article in its entirety. Enjoy.
The Night College Football Went to Hell
Two decades later, and the real world has been kind to the quarterback, even if no one can remember his name. He lives in what can only be described as a sprawling manifestation of the American dream, an enormous stucco house on a tree-lined cul-de-sac in a tony New Jersey suburb. He has a wife, and he has four children, and he has a den with a wet bar and a pool table, and until recently, when corporate restructuring rendered him a temporary stay-at-home father, he had spent 18 years as a star at Merrill Lynch.
Hardly a household name, John Shaffer won a national title and lost only one game as the starting QB at Penn State.
John Shaffer. The name, like the way he played quarterback, is bland and forgettable, which is why few people outside of the state of Pennsylvania even recall it anymore. When he graduated from Penn State as an academic All-American in the spring of 1987, he had a national championship ring and a reputation as a solid citizen who had no legitimate shot of making it in the National Football League. He went to training camp with the Dallas Cowboys as an undrafted free agent. By the end of August, he did something that many football players could never muster the courage to do: He asked to be cut. He had a degree in finance, with an internship waiting on Wall Street. He had another life to start. Maybe, he says now, he could have hung around for a couple of years, could have made a roster as someone's second or third option, could have spent that time aspiring to be something he'd probably never be. Maybe, if he had lost that one game, on a January evening in the Arizona desert, he would have felt he had to aspire to something more. Maybe, if he had lost that game, his entire life might have unfolded differently. But that was the thing about John Shaffer: He was one of those quarterbacks who specialized in not losing, one of those quarterbacks you hardly see anymore in major college football, one of those quarterbacks who not only shows up for class but actually cares about his classes, one of those quarterbacks whose job is not to alter the course of the game but simply not to screw the damn thing up. Shaffer was not fleet of foot, and he did not have a prodigious arm, and while he was broad-shouldered and generically handsome, he was not an imposing physical presence. Yet, in all of his games as a starter dating back to the seventh grade, Shaffer won 66 times and lost only once, on New Year's Day 1986, to Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. This is not the story of that game. This is the story of a game that took place exactly one year and one day later, the last game, the best game, and the most important game Shaffer ever played. And it's a funny thing. Because if you go by the statistics of that night, if you measure a performance purely by the numbers, John Shaffer could not have been worse.
- WINSTON MOSS, LINEBACKER, UNIVERSITY OF MIAMI: "Their quarterback? I don't remember their quarterback."
DON MEYERS, FIESTA BOWL SELECTION COMMITTEE CHAIRMAN: "Joe (Paterno) had this quarterback -- I think his name was Shaffer. Joe told me, 'He'll never get a call from an NFL team.' I do think Shaffer would have a hard time playing big-time college football today."
BEANO COOK, COLLEGE FOOTBALL HISTORIAN: "Penn State had less firepower than Sweden did in World War II."
DANIEL STUBBS, DEFENSIVE END, MIAMI: "They couldn't throw the ball! All night, we're screaming at them, saying, 'Throw the ball!' They couldn't do it!"
This was Jan. 2, 1987, and for the first time, the college football season had been extended beyond New Year's Day. Because of a quirk in the system, because Miami was ranked No. 1 and Penn State was ranked No. 2, and both schools were independents at the time, with no ties to any conferences, meaning no affiliations with any specific bowls, the Fiesta Bowl landed the dream matchup. Before this, the Fiesta had been second-tier, unable to stand up to the cabal of Rose, Cotton, Sugar and Orange, but now the Fiesta Bowl was in the right place at the right time, and so was NBC, which took the radical step of shifting the game to a Friday night and preempting its most popular television show to make room for, of all things, a college football game.
Two decades later, the men who played that game have become stock traders and broadcasters and salesmen and coaches and ministers. Some have fallen ill, and some have died, and some have spent time in police custody and some have spent time in the Canadian Football League and two of them, a punter and a quarterback from Miami, have defied the laws of genetics and are still playing in the NFL. But wherever they may be, wherever they may end up, they will remain united by this moment, a game between two teams with such contrasting styles that it felt like maybe something much larger was at stake, that maybe this was a referendum on where American sports were headed, for better or for worse.
- BRUCE SKINNER, FORMER EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE FIESTA BOWL: "We had just signed a contract with Sunkist. It was the first title sponsorship of a bowl game. So, yes, I'll take the blame for that. There was a certain feeling that a title sponsorship should not be involved in a college football bowl game. But the Sunkist sponsorship allowed us to be competitive. Those other four bowls, they wanted to keep it as the big four, and I don't blame them for that."
MEYERS: "I started going down to Miami and talking to Sam Jankovich, their athletic director, and the coach, Jimmy Johnson. They said there was no way they were not going to the Orange Bowl, it was right in their backyard. But I kept going down there. We had to come up with a way to match the Orange Bowl's payoff, so we went to NBC and said if we could move this game off New Year's Day and move it into prime time, we could sell ads for a lot more money. They said, 'You're not moving it into prime time, because you're talking about preempting the most popular prime-time show on television. You're talking about "Miami Vice." ' But we sensed that this could change the entire bowl picture in college football. It was a true No. 1 versus a true No. 2, both undefeated, playing on a neutral field. And from NBC's perspective, it could change college football, too."
- TREY BAUER, LINEBACKER, PENN STATE: "As a group, they didn't seem very smart to me. No way that (expletive) would have happened at Penn State. But they were clearly at the front end of all that (expletive) you see now."
STUBBS: "They were just ... bland. And we were doing things that teams are still doing today. You know how everybody puts up four fingers when the fourth quarter comes around? That was us. We were the first ones to cut our jerseys, and the NCAA made sure that isn't around no more. When we played Oklahoma, we didn't shake their hands, and now there's a rule you have to do it. People didn't respect us? We didn't care."
ALONZO HIGHSMITH, RUNNING BACK, MIAMI: "Yeah, Jerome Brown had a gun on campus, and that put the program in a bad light. But they didn't mention how many of us graduated, how we weren't allowed to take those easy courses like other programs get away with. We were brash, and we did a lot of talking on the field, but if you asked the majority of college players, they wished their coaches would let them play like us."
BAUER: "They made us out to be a bunch of choirboys, but that wasn't the case, either. It wasn't like we were locked in the library 24/7."
COOK: "The general feeling was that Miami was just a bunch of rogues. They made Penn State good because everyone wanted to say Miami is evil, and so it became good versus evil."
- JANKOVICH: "I was decimated. We didn't know anything about it, and if we were on the plane, they probably wouldn't have done it. From that point on, it was really downhill."
STUBBS: "People need to understand, we didn't have a dress code. It's different now, with all the teams wearing shirts and ties. While we were out there, we visited some Army base in the mountains and we bought me some medals. I was a 17-star general, because I had 17 sacks that season. That was something we did. It ain't gonna be repeated again."
HIGHSMITH: "If we win the game, no one cares about it. It might be a fashion statement or something."
BAUER: " We thought it was absurd. Like, what are these guys doing?"
He had other things on his mind. Meyers had never seen a coach so ... uptight. Johnson complained about the carpeting in the locker room, so at the last minute Meyers had carpenters flown in from Los Angeles to replace it with something in Miami's green. The day before the game, each team was scheduled to do a walk-through on the field at Sun Devil Stadium. Meyers called Paterno and asked him what time he wanted. "Four o'clock," Paterno told him. He called Johnson. "What time does Joe want to go?" Johnson asked. Meyers told him 4 o'clock. "Then we want to go at 4," Johnson said. Meyers called Paterno back. "We're going out at 4," Paterno said. Jankovich called Meyers sometime around midnight that night. He was upset, claiming favoritism toward Penn State. According to Meyers, Jankovich might even have cried, though Jankovich says he can't recall any of this. All he knows is that the Hurricanes were promised certain things. They wanted the bigger locker room; they got the smaller one. They wanted to be the home team, but Penn State wore its home blue jerseys. When 4 p.m. came, Miami showed up for the walk-through. Penn State never did. By then, the Hurricanes were primed to implode in a bizarre display of rebelliousness that still lingers, two decades later. Both teams attended a steak fry, where they were supposed to deliver a brief skit. Penn State's players wore suits and ties. Miami's players wore their black sweat suits, only because, Highsmith insists, the Fiesta Bowl officials told them to. The Penn State punter, John Bruno, made a couple of jokes, dragged out a garbage can labeled with masking tape as Jimmy Johnson's Hair Spray, and made a crack about how much racial harmony there was at Penn State: "We're one big family," he said. "We even let the black guys eat with us at the training table once a week." So now it was Miami's turn. Jerome Brown stood up and unzipped his sweat suit to reveal his fatigues. "Did the Japanese sit down and eat with Pearl Harbor before they bombed them?" he said. "No. We're outta here."
Out toward their buses went the men in the fatigues, cementing a reputation that Miami still cannot shake, 14 years after Brown's death in a car accident. Bauer started to laugh. Bruno stood up, made some crack about Miami having to leave so the players could begin filming "Rambo III," and then delivered a quote that Penn State football fans still evoke, 14 years after Bruno's death from melanoma: Miami/Collegiate ImagesAlonzo Highsmith carried Miami's vaunted ground game.
"Excuse me," he said. "But didn't the Japanese lose the war?"
- TIM JOHNSON, DEFENSIVE LINEMAN, PENN STATE: "When they walked out, that was the moment where the heat turned up 100 percent. I was ready to go find our locker room, suit up, and play right now. It's on. It is on."
STUBBS: "We weren't there to have fun. We had some mariachi band come on our bus, and they were passing out oranges, and we were like, 'We're here to win a game.' Then we went to this steak fry and they made us put on a show, and we said we're not here to do a show. But then the Penn State players get up there and they're ripping us, and they're ripping Coach Johnson. So when it's our turn, we just said, 'Dude, we're out of here.'"
BOB WHITE, DEFENSIVE TACKLE, PENN STATE: "If you're told a lie for long enough, you start to believe it. They were talented, but they bullied people by running their mouths." JEROME BROWN (from a pregame news conference): "I think they're nothing. Shaffer thought he had a bad bowl game last year. That was nothing. After this game, he'll wish he'd graduated. The dude's about to star in a nightmare."
JERRY SANDUSKY, DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR, PENN STATE: "That game took on everything that went on around it until it became more than a game."
PATERNO (From "Paterno: By the Book," by Joe Paterno with Bernard Asbell): "I don't know whether Jimmy helped his kids plan their disgraceful walkout. ... But I know he was there. Nor did he raise a finger of caution when we were climbing out of our bus for the locker room as his team ... just about blocked our path, waving and taunting and yelling, 'We'll get you, you mothers.' (I'm only using half their word)."
MEYERS: "By game time, it felt like the place was going to explode."
And all of this was fine with Paterno, and it was fine with Sandusky, because they had built this team on a philosophy that, two decades later, has begun to seem more and more quaint: You win with defense first, and you win with special teams second. And all your offense has to do -- and all your quarterback has to do -- is avoid screwing the whole thing up.
- SHAFFER: "We really trusted authority. We felt like if we listened to the coaches, we'd be successful. And our offense was very comfortable taking a secondary role. I think for a young head coach today, with all these wide-open offenses, it would be very hard to win that way."
BAUER: "When I watched the film, I remember thinking, 'Are these guys that good or are the teams they're playing that bad?' It looked like a flag football game. But we had a veteran defense, and we had six weeks to prepare. We had 150 different looks on defense just for that game."
SANDUSKY: "They weren't very concerned in warm-ups. I remember Vinny and Jimmy coming over to check out our defensive backs and I'm thinking, 'Man, I wish we looked more impressive.'"
STUBBS: "I'm a Jersey guy, and the one thing I knew about Penn State was that their defensive backs could hit. They crushed Michael on one play, and he came to the sidelines and I said, 'I told you so.' "
BAUER: "Irvin got totally jacked up early in the game by one of our guys. I mean, he got hit. And I don't think he did much of anything the rest of the game. I think in the press conference afterward, he said the ball was slippery or something."
On the first play of the fourth quarter, linebacker Pete Giftopoulos made an interception. Then the Lions missed a field goal. Penn State was rushing three men and dropping eight, and instead of running the ball with Highsmith, Testaverde kept throwing. He threw into coverage. He threw to the wrong man. His receivers dropped passes. Even so, Miami went up 10-7 on a field goal with 11:49 remaining because Penn State simply could not move the ball either. On Penn State's next possession, Jerome Brown sacked Shaffer, leapt up, and saluted the crowd. The swagger had returned. But after another Bruno punt, Testaverde, looking as perplexed by Penn State's shifting schemes and coverages as he had all night long, threw another pass directly into the arms of Conlan, who returned it to the Miami 5-yard line. Dozier scored, dropped to a knee and said a prayer. Penn State led, 14-10. Rob Tringali for ESPN.com. Shaffer left Tempe with memories and mementos that no one will ever take away from him.
Both defenses stood up once more. Miami tight end Alfredo Roberts fumbled the ball away, but Penn State could not manage a single first down and Bruno punted the ball back with 3:18 left. A minute later, after Bauer dropped a potential interception, Miami was facing fourth-and-6 on its own 26-yard line.And then, as if perhaps they had both finally awakened from an evening's slumber, Testaverde found Brian Blades for a 32-yard gain. Soon the Canes had moved to the Penn State 26, and then Testaverde hit Irvin at the Penn State 10 with a minute left. Conlan went down on his bad knee, stopping the clock. Testaverde hit Irvin again, and it was second-and-goal at the Penn State 5 with 45 seconds left.
- SANDUSKY: "After Conlan got hurt, Bauer came over to the sideline. He looked at me and I said, 'I can't help you. Good luck.' Then I asked Trey if he knew what to call if they went without a huddle and he said he did. And then he got lockjaw."
BAUER: "That's (expletive)! The coaches were confused! They never sent in the play!"
STUBBS: "On the sidelines, we're all saying we should run the ball. Run a delayed draw to Alonzo, and he'll carry somebody in to the end zone. But Vinny wanted to throw."
HIGHSMITH: "To this day, I have no clue what happened. All I know was they weren't gonna stop me that day. I always figured I'd get one or two carries on the goal line."
- SANDUSKY: "I've always prided myself on being able to handle pressure, but on that fourth down, I couldn't even speak to make the defensive call. When it was over, I just walked over to the bench and sat down by myself and started to cry."
SHAFFER: "Joe was going crazy to get people off the field, because there was still time on the clock. We had to snap the ball once more, and I told our center, Keith Radecic, just hold the ball up and don't move your hand."
BAUER: "I lost 12 pounds that night. Afterward I couldn't go out, I couldn't celebrate, I couldn't do anything."
COOK: "I had picked Penn State to win. But I was one of the only ones. A few years ago, I saw Joe at a dinner and he told me, 'To this day, I still don't know how we beat Miami.' There's always a game that every Hall of Fame coach loses and wakes up years later at 2 a.m. in a cold sweat thinking about it. For Jimmy Johnson, this was that game."
MOSS: "We thought we were the superior team. And I still feel that way. But we've won, what, four titles since then? And we won the next year, in '87."
STUBBS: "The next year they made us sign some paper, saying we'd be good. I don't even know what it said. I just signed the (expletive)."
COOK: "That game did cement Miami's reputation, though. And they still pay for it. A lot of it is unjustified, but it's true -- that was the college football equivalent of the scarlet A."
SKINNER: "Not only did it mean a lot for both programs, but I think it really implemented the idea that we need to have a national championship game. It was a big domino, at least for the BCS."
Two decades later, the game has changed, both because of and despite what happened that night. But one thing has not changed: The anonymous quarterback, one of the last of a breed nearing extinction, still has trouble proving his worth. Not long ago, Shaffer watched the most important football game of his life with his son, and while they were watching, his son turned to him and said, "Did you actually talk to Joe Paterno?