October 23, 2011
Columns Article 6395

Retro program cover from the 1960s portrayed a prophetic message of Spartan dominance over a hapless Benny the Badger.

Catch One Pass Like Spartan Keith Nichol

October 23, 2011
By: Dave Rogers

Keith Nichol has only caught one touchdown pass in six games this season for the Michigan State University Spartans.

But it is one that will figuratively ring the bells of Beaumont Tower each time a Spartan fan recalls the 2011 football game against Wisconsin.

This Spartan sat in the stands only a few hundred feet from the "Hail Mary" game winner that electrified the crowd of green painted fanatics Saturday night.

"Throw the Hail Mary!" shouted former MSU fullback James Moore (1985-86 team) from the stands near where I sat.

Wisconsin's undefeated record and number 6 national ranking had appeared in jeopardy, but then red hope came back to life after Spartan listlessness on defense in the second half allowed the Badgers to tie.

With four seconds left in the game, MSU Quarterback Kirk Cousins responded as urged and lofted a desperate heave.

The spiraling toss at first seemed to have no chance of connecting.

But a chorus of Hail Marys and Our Fathers and prayers in every dialect and language streaming from the stands to the field brought down lightning from the sky.

A knot of jumping players in MSU green as well as Wisconsin red were at the goal line, jostling for position.

The pigskin orb fell to the earth, bounced off MSU receiver B.J. Cunningham's helmet and appeared destined to be a 44-yard incompletion.

Fans sat mesmerized, awaiting what appeared to be an inevitable overtime with the score tied at 31.

Hands of half a dozen competing players grabbed for the tumbling ball when one of the most amazing outcomes in the history of MSU football occurred.

Almost unaccountably, Nichol was facing the end zone on about the one yard line while the other players were all in the end zone facing the other way, toward the field of play, hoping to grab the ball.

Then a game that already had more than its share of drama, what with two blocked kicks, an interception of a Big Red pass by Bay City's Trenton Robinson, and a double-double reverse for a TD by Spartan wide receiver Keshawn Martin, the impossible happened.

The ball thumped against the chest of Nichol, a converted quarterback who had taken a journeyman role as a receiver.

Two Wisconsin defenders grabbed the alert Nichol and pushed him back as he apparently broke the plane, as they say in football parlance for a touchdown. Hanging on to the ball with two hands Nichol resisted the efforts of red clad ruffians to wrest it away.

To howls of dissent from disappointed Spartans, the ref placed the ball at the one foot line, declaring wordlessly that Nichol had not crossed the goal in possession of the pigskin.

Now comes the best part -- the most improbable occurrence. All we football fans know that plays as called on the field by the referees are almost never overturned by the so-called "incontestible video evidence."

But, wonder of wonders, to the universal amazement of a stadium full of rabid fans, "further review" overturned the call on the field.

"The runner crossed the line," intoned the referee almost regretfully. It was a touchdown! There would be no overtime. A huge upset was in the books by more or less judicial fiat, but rightfully so.

And, watching the game again at 3 a.m. on a rare replay of the entire contest, it came out the same. The Spartans had won with no time on the clock.

MSU Coach Mark Dantonio, interviewed after the game, said: "The rocket play: throw it up and see who comes up with it." The answer --Keith Nichol, by the grace of God and the luck of Sparty.

The celebration in the stadium began, continued as the crowds streamed into East Lansing and did not abate as cars of shouting enthusiasts headed into the cold fall night.

Gene Washington, receiver from the 1960s, had gone into the Spartan Hall of Fame for his record-breaking 25 yards per catch in a season and a NFL career of a dozen years with the Minnesota Vikings.

Keith Nichol entered the annals of Spartan fame with one improbable catch.

(Personal Note: Fifty-four years ago, as a reporter/photographer for the Michigan State News, I had left the group in the end zone at Camp Randall Field in Madison Wisconsin on a wild hunch. On a contrarian mission, I sauntered alone to the other end of the field. A Spartan running back somehow broke loose and ran the length of the field for a TD. I got the only picture of the only TD in a 6-0 Spartan victory, a photo that was featured on national wire services and sports pages across the country.) ###

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