By V.J. Pacilio
OAKLAND 24…. CHICAGO 20, read the huge scoreboard at the west end of the field.
“First and goal” screamed the head official, his amplified voice almost totally drowned out by the deafening, unrelenting roar of the crowd. The football rested on the Raiders 5-yard line as the Bears broke their huddle and thundered toward the line of scrimmage. Crunch time, as the television commentators love to call it, had definitely arrived. A mere 15 ticks of the clock remained, with the black and silver-clad AFC champions clinging desperately to a slim lead, the last three points of which were the result of a 42 yard field goal with less than 2 minutes left in the game. The ball had actually hit the crossbar and taken an Oakland bounce into the end zone. At that moment in time, fate had seemed squarely on the side of the Raiders. Fate, however, wore no colors. The Bears, undaunted by adversity, had responded with a brilliantly directed 2-minute drill that now had them poised at the doorstep of football immortality…and I was going to be a part of it.
Anyone who doesn’t believe that their wildest dreams can somehow come true obviously has never heard of me, Anthony Daniel Alexander. Two months ago I was just another ex-jock, selling insurance in Chicago’s north shore suburbs. In another minute or so, I was, quite possibly, going to be celebrating victory in Super Bowl 55 with my Chicago Bears teammates. Even more remarkable was the fact that, should we win, I might very well be the leading candidate for Most Valuable Player honors, having caught touchdown passes of 47 and 33 yards. There still remained, however, the matter of negotiating what is generally accepted as being the longest 5 yards in football. As we broke the huddle and headed toward our impending destiny, a quiet determination linked each man into one.
As far back as I can remember, sports have always been my passion in life. An hour of schoolwork seemed like an eternity – an hour of playing ball was simply a warm-up. Although I was probably more talented in baseball and basketball, my true obsession was with football. I am the only person I know who, as a kid, could play an entire 4-quarter football game, often in the rain or snow, by myself. Try throwing a pass to yourself and defending against it at the same time! It gets a bit complicated, but my imagination always found a way to make it work. I wonder now what anyone passing by must have thought as they watched me loft the ball into the air, then run under it extending my left hand to catch it, while frantically flailing away with my right hand trying to bat it away. Fumble recoveries, also, must have been quite a bizarre sight. The games were always close and were invariably decided by a last-second touchdown or field goal by whichever team I wanted to win. (I never said they were fair). One time, however, my team did lose. I inadvertently “tackled” myself on my way to the winning touchdown with 10 seconds remaining. Actually, I tripped over my own feet while trying to avoid the imaginary tackler at about the 2-yard line. I tried to quickly get up and run another play before time expired, but the ‘defensive me’ wouldn’t let the ‘ball-carrier me’ up, and all I could do was lay there as the final seconds ticked off the clock. Figure that one out!
When I was old enough – at age nine – the local park district provided me my first opportunity to play on a real team, on a real chalk-lined field, with uniformed officials. Etched in my mind forever is the day my parents took me to buy my first set of football cleats, shoulder pads, helmet, and pants. It probably cost much more than they could afford at the time, but I’m guessing that the excitement in my face was well worth the price to them. I couldn’t wait to get home and put everything on at the same time. If I could have slept in them, I would have, but I succumbed to my parents’ outrageous demands and I removed the helmet, pads, and cleats before getting into bed that night. In my dreams, though, I was in full uniform. From that moment on, there was never an autumn when I was not fully immersed, body and soul, in the game of football.
Being relatively small for my age – a fact that gnawed away at my psyche throughout my youth – I was automatically relegated to the backfield during my park district years. After a career that blossomed into semi-stardom as a 13-year old 8th grader, I began my high school experience as a seldom-used, 5’3″ / 115 lb. running back/wide receiver. As the years passed, and I finally began to have growth spurts, I arrived at my senior year as a highly touted college prospect. Though still smallish at 5’10″ / 160 lbs., I managed to put up some impressive numbers, mostly as a wide receiver, that final year. Along the way, I picked up the nickname “TD” – although I was never quite sure whether it emanated from my actual initials (everyone called me Tony) or from my propensity to find the end zone. Selected to the All-Area 1st team, I spent the winter basking in celebrity, and awaiting the arrival of big-time scholarship offers. I’m still waiting!
To make a long story short, I accepted a scholarship to a Division II university in New York, and ended up scoring touchdowns against the likes of Monmouth, Stonehill, and Cortland State, rather than Michigan and Ohio State. The stands weren’t exactly brimming with Pro scouts, and upon graduation I was faced with the realization that my football-playing days were probably over. As a last gasp effort, I attended try-out camp for non-drafted players conducted by the Chicago Bears. I actually thought I did well and impressed a few people, but in the end I was given the old, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you” send off.
My life in shambles, I begrudgingly entered the real world, taking a sales position with a major insurance company. I lived, though, for the weekends, when I would attend, or watch on TV, as many high school, college, and Pro football games as was humanly possible. I was especially tuned into the Bears, who were having a turn-around season after years of mediocrity. However, leading their division with only 3 games to play, the unthinkable happened. During a single game, three receivers went down with major injuries. Although they won the game, the remainder of the season was now in serious jeopardy.
The following Wednesday evening, my life changed forever. Half-asleep on the couch, I was handed the phone by my new bride. “It’s some guy claiming to be the coach of the Bears,” she informed me. Unbelievably it actually was. My voice quivering, I somehow managed to accept his offer to “stop by tomorrow so we can have a talk.” The rest, as the saying goes, is history!
Our “talk” led to a tryout, and, by days-end, a contract. In a matter of hours, I had gone from insurance salesman to a member of the Chicago Bears. “You’re kidding!” was my Wife’s response when I arrived home with the news. The fact that I was screaming instead of talking assured her that I was not.
My first 10 days, or so, as a Bear were spent with my face glued to the team playbook. Although I suited up for that first Sunday game, I wasn’t yet familiar enough with the system to be of any use. On the second Sunday – the final game of the regular season – I got my first taste of NFL action during “garbage time” of a one-sided, home loss to the Green Bay Packers. That loss cost us a share of the Division Title. To the surprise of everyone but myself, I made 2 difficult catches over the middle, and then 2 long TD receptions, which made the final score a bit more respectable. Although we would now go into the playoffs as a wildcard team, my performance seemed to give the team a much-needed emotional lift. With little more than 3 minutes of NFL game experience, I had gone from “the new kid” back to being “TD” again.
As the wildcard team, the Bears didn’t have the luxury of having a week off before beginning the playoff run. On that first Sunday, however, we were clicking on all cylinders, demolishing the Philadelphia Eagles by a score of 31-13. Brimming with renewed confidence, we beat the St. Louis Rams, 24-21 the following week, setting up a NFC title game with the Central Division champion, and much-despised, Green Bay Packers. After 2 regular season losses to the Pack, the 35-10 thrashing the Bears delivered in that championship game was exceptionally sweet. My individual performance during the playoff run seems now like a blur, although I know I made quite a few catches and scored more than a few TDs. All eyes and thoughts, now, were concentrated on the newly-crowned AFC champions, the Oakland Raiders.
Super Bowl 55 would turn out to be a classic battle. Before the crowd had even settled into their seats, the Raiders jumped out to a 7-0 lead on a 97-yard kickoff return. Another 1st period touchdown put the Raiders ahead 14-0, but by halftime the Bears had battled back to within 4 points at 14-10. Midway through the third quarter, I made a one-handed grab and turned it into a 47 yard TD – my second of the game. A 32-yard field goal as time expired in the 3rd period made the score Bears 20, Raiders 14. The 4th quarter, however, belonged to Oakland. Two long Raider drives ended with a total of zero points, thanks to an interception in the end zone, and a fumble. The third try, though, ended with a 13-yard touchdown pass. With less than 5 minutes to play, the extra point put the Raiders ahead, 21-20. The Bears, needing at least a field goal to regain the lead, came up 3 yards short on 3rd down, and were forced to punt from their own 37. A short kick and a 19-yard runback put the ball just shy of midfield, as the Raiders looked to seal the deal with a time-consuming scoring drive. After running for two first downs, the Oakland attack bogged down at the Bears 24, with a 4th and 3. With just under 2 minutes showing on the clock, a field goal would give them a 4-point lead, forcing the Bears to score a touchdown to win. As the kick went up, both teams watched as the ball floated, end-over-end, toward the goalpost. As it came down, only the 2 officials standing in the end zone heard the THUNK, as the ball hit the crossbar and then bounced through. Oakland 24, Chicago 20, with 1 minute 47 seconds left to play.
Whoever devised what is known as “The Prevent Defense” was either a genius or an idiot, depending on which side of the ball your team is on. Designed to prevent the “big play,” this defensive scheme allows teams to complete shorter passes and gives up the middle of the field to running plays. Combined with time-outs, and a few sideline passes to stop the clock, a good NFL team can cover a lot of ground against this defense in less than 2 minutes. The Bears took full advantage of this fact, marching down to the Raider 5-yard line in slightly more than a minute and a half. With 15 seconds left on the clock, no time-outs remaining, and the crowd ready to explode with either joy or anguish, the stage was set.
Given the circumstances, everyone in the stadium knew that a running play, if stopped short of the goal line, would eat up too much time to be a likely option. With this in mind, our running back promptly ran off-tackle, and ran, practically untouched, into the end zone. As Bears players rushed to join the celebration in the end zone, and Bears fans went wild in the stands, only the Raiders players and bench seemed to notice the yellow flag lying on the ground at the 9-yard line. One by one, we also became aware of its presence and what had been a raucous victory party suddenly turned into a nightmare.
“Holding,……. Number 58 offense,” came the amplified call by the white-hatted referee, as he simultaneously grasped his left wrist with his right hand.
“10 yards,…… repeat 1st down,” he continued. With 11 seconds remaining, the ball now rested squarely on the 18-yard line – the infraction being taken from the SPOT of the foul, the holding apparently took place at the 8-yard line. The whole complexion of the game had quickly changed. 11 seconds was time enough for two pass plays, but a surprise running play was now out of the question. The good news was that the added 13 yards allowed our receivers more room to run pass routes. The bad news was that the Raiders secondary was teeming with defenders, all well aware of what was coming. A 3-man rush meant an 8-man secondary.
The play called in the huddle gave the quarterback 3 distinct targets. I, as one of the options, was to fake an inside post route, then break to the outside and head for the back right corner of the end zone. Heart pumping wildly, I lined up on the far right side, just off the line of scrimmage. On the snap count, I bolted across the line and was immediately bumped and shoved by the Raider defender directly in front of me. I worked my way free of him, and started in the direction of the goal post, some 25 yards away. At about the 10-yard line, I planted my left foot and pushed off toward the right corner of the end zone. With 2 defenders in pursuit, I looked back over my right shoulder and saw the ball already on its way. Running step-for-step with each other, the three of us were fast approaching the point at which the ball’s trajectory would bring it within our grasp. Somehow I managed to get a half step on the outside Raider defender just before leaping to meet the descending pigskin. At that very instant, I knew that I had timed my jump perfectly and that there was no power on earth that could keep me from my obvious destiny.
As the ball was about to meet my outstretched fingertips and settle into my hand for the game-winning score, the crowd was poised to erupt in sheer delirium. Pulling the ball in toward my chest and cradling it with both hands now, I fell into the end zone as the final gun sounded. Jumping to my feet, I raised both arms upward in victory as the crowd went wild.
Clap……..clap……..clap. The sound of a solitary spectator now rose above the din. Just outside the ‘end zone’ stood my Wife. Shaking her head, hands now resting on her hips, she looked at me with that smile usually seen only on the faces of mothers watching their small children at play.
“Are you ever going to outgrow this?” she asked.
“I hope not,” I replied.