Saturday, August 29, 2009

Ghosts of the Orange Bowl: Marino and Kosar 1984

Miami was the quarterback capital of the world in 1984. The Orange Bowl was the home field for pro and college football's best passers Dan Marino and Bernie Kosar. It was aerial excellence the sport had never seen before. Going into the 1984 season, Sports Illustrated placed Marino and Kosar on the cover its pro and college football preview issue. Both were tall, curley-haired righties from blue collard towns along the Ohio/Pennsylvania border, coming off great debut seasons in 1983 with the Dolphins and Hurricanes. It's been said the Sports Illustrated cover can be a jinx. But both quarterbacks would more than live up to the hype.

If you were a fan of the passing game, the Orange Bowl was your one-stop destination every fall weekend. Both quarterbacks were coming off spectacular debut seasons in 1983. Marino was the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year and Kosar led the University of Miami to its first national championship as a redshirt freshman. But statistically the 1984 Miami quarterbacks set the standard of excellence at their respective levels. Marino completely re-wrote the NFL's passing records. He finished the season completing 362 or 564 passes for 5,084 yards and 48 touchdowns. The Dolphins won the AFC title and reached Super Bowl XIX.

Kosar's 1984 season was a year of extremes. He would shatter all the UM passing records completed 262 of 416 passes for 3,642 yards and 25 touchdowns. But despite Kosar's amazing numbers, the Canes could not overcome a young defense that struggled under first-year coach Jimmy Johnson that included devastating consecutive losses to Maryland (42-40), Boston College (47-45) and UCLA in the Fiesta Bowl (39-37) to finish the season. Kosar would finish 4th in the Heisman Trophy balloting and was named Academic All American in his final season as a Cane. He would graduate academically and leave school to enter the NFL supplemental draft.

Neither the Dolphins nor the Hurricanes won championships in the 1984 season. But it may have been the most entertaining year to watch football at the Orange Bowl. The two quarterbacks would become close friends and rivals when Kosar joined the Cleveland Browns. They later became neighbors in Weston and teammates when Kosar joined the Dolphins in 1994 and backed up Marino for his final three seasons. It's doubtful South Florida football fans will ever see a better pair of quarterbacks come along at the same time again.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Ghosts of the Orange Bowl: The City of Miami Welcomes You To the Orange Bowl

The great stadiums all have that special trademark feature that distinguishes it from any other facility. It doesn't have to be something flashy or extravagant. Boston's Fenway Park has the famed "Green Monster" left field wall. Chicago's Wrigley Field has the manual operated scoreboard and the ivy-covered brick walls. But when you walked into the Orange Bowl Stadium, you were greeted by the long, narrow sign made of thin sheet metal hanging from the north stands that read, "The City of Miami Welcomes You to the Orange Bowl." Along with the palm trees behind the east end zone, it made the Orange Bowl a unique place like nowhere else.

The famous stadium sign didn't always exist. When the Orange Bowl opened in 1937, it was originally known as Roddy Burdine Stadium, named after the famous local merchant. Burdine had died just months before it was built. The stadium capacity was just over 22,000 at the time and was single-decked. By 1948, the stadium was double-decked on both the north and south stands. Even though it was officially named Burdine Stadium, most fans and the media always referred to it as the Orange Bowl. By 1959, the stadium's name was officially changed to the Orange Bowl. But still the sign didn't exist.

By the early 1960s, the City of Miami continued to renovate and expand the stadium. A project was launched to double-deck the west end zone. In 1963 the west end zone became connected with the north and south stands. Several changes to the stadium were made, including a new scoreboard and a new entrance sign outside the west end of the stadium which read "Miami Orange Bowl" in large orange letters. But the most noticeable addition was the new sign that separated the upper and lower decks of the north stands, "The City of Miami Welcomes You to the Orange Bowl". It was painted orange with white letters. Over the years, the design and color scheme had changed. By 1983, the sign was remade was painted white with orange letters. In the late 1990s the sign was expanded to include names of former great University of Miami players as part of its Ring of Honor. Names like Vinny Testaverde, Bernie Kosar, Jim Dooley, Ted Henricks, George Mira and Ottis Anderson were among those listed.

I'm not sure where the sign is today. I would like to think someone has it saved and displayed in their backyard. Perhaps its in a museum. It's possible it was destroyed and recycled along with the rest of the rubble of concrete and steel during the spring of 2008. But whererever it is, the sign will go down as one of the great landmarks the City of Miami will ever have.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Ghosts of the Orange Bowl: Carlos Alvarez

Carlos Alvarez wasn't the first athlete, nicknamed "The Cuban Comet". That distinction belongs to former major league baseball player Minnie Minoso. But to University of Florida fans, he was truly an original. For a short time, he was college football's best and most dynamic receiver. He set records that would last for decades at UF and he did it in an era when few college teams threw the ball frequently. He was the pride of Miami's Cuban community and his homecoming in 1969 against the Hurricanes would turn into one of the great indivdual performances ever by a receiver in the Orange Bowl. The Cuban Comet was launched.

Alvarez arrived in Miami when he was ten-years-old and he barely knew a word of english. His family had just fled Cuba following the Castro Revolution. As a young boy new to the United States, he recalled sitting in classroom behind a student named Paul Armstrong. Alvarez copied everything from Armstrong's paper, including his name. Adjusting to life in Miami wasn't easy. But what made the transition smoother was his love for sports. Alvarez was always athletic and was blessed with good foot speed. He was an accomplished basketball player and track athlete. But the sport that he loved most was American football.

At North Miami High School, Alvarez became one of the best athletes in Miami-Dade County. He played running back and his blazing speed made him one of the best high school players in the state. During his senior year in 1967, he was named to the Miami Herald's All City Team and became the subject of an intense recruiting war between the Universities of Miami and Florida. He grew up watching the Hurricanes and was a fan of quarterback George Mira. But during the recruiting process, there was one incident that made him a Gator for life.

"My dislike for Miami started when they were recruiting me and at the office of their head coach at the time, Charlie Tate," Alvarez said. "There was a stuffed Gator hanging---right in the middle of his office. When it upset me right away, I knew immediately I was Gator bound." Alvarez said.

Another factor that helped steer Alvarez to Gainesville was the recruiting efforts of UF assistant coach Lindy Infante, who was a graduate of Miami High and of Cuban descent. "Lindy said to my mother that he was Cuban, then my mom really pushed to go there."

The awkward young boy who once struggled with english developed into a stellar student in the classroom. He scored a 491 out of a possible 495 on the state placement test, making him one of the state's brightest student athletes as well one of its best. When he arrived in Gainesville, freshmen were ineligible to play varsity football. Because he didn't have great size, UF coaches decided to move him from running back to receiver to better utilize his speed. In high school, Alvarez caught only one pass in his career. But just as he adapted to American society as a young immigrant, he made the smooth transition to wide receiver. He was a quick study.

In 1969, Alvarez exploded onto the college football scene. He was one of a talented group of sophomores who helped energize the University of Florida football program. This group included quarterback John Reaves and running back Tommy Durrance. Together they were known as "The Super Sophs". In his first college game, Alvarez and the Gators crushed the University of Houston 59-34. Alvarez caught a 70-yard touchdown pass from Reaves on the very first pass play of their college careers. Game after game the combination of Reeves to Alvarez was shattering SEC records. By the end of the 1969 season, Alvarez caught 88 passes for 1,329 yards and 12 touchdowns--all SEC records.

But the highlight of his great sophomore season came in the Orange Bowl against the Miami Hurricanes. As a high school player, Alvarez had never won a game at the Orange Bowl. His North Miami High teams lost twice there. His freshmen team at UF had also lost to the Hurricanes in the Orange Bowl. But on November 29, 1969, Alvarez turned the Orange Bowl into his house. A crowd of 70,934 packed the stadium and many of them were Cubans watching their first American football game waiving Cuban flags. Alvarez turned in amazing record performance. He caught 15 passes for 237 yards and 2 touchdowns. The Gators won 35-16 and finished the season with an 8-1-1 record.

"I knew in the beginning when we were warming up that something was going to happen in that game," Alvarez said. "Then the whole evening, we just couldnt miss. Having all your relatives there and a lot of Cubans up in the stands, it was pretty magical."

He was named to the Kodak All American Team and was the youngest player and only sophomore selected to the squad. Alvarez seemed to be on his way to breaking every receiving record in college football. But a knee injury he suffered in high school while playing basketball became worse. "There was no injury per se," Alvarez said. "My right knee just started to swell." It was deteremined by doctors that the end of Alvarez's bone was beginning to wear out. He was never quite the same player again. He was limited in practice and his play began to decline. He continued to be a productive receiver, but his numbers would never approach what he accomplished as a sophomore. During his junior year in 1970, he caught 44 passes for 717 yard and 5 touchdowns. He caught 40 passes for 517 yards and 2 touchdowns his senior year.

Off the football field, Alvarez was a brilliant student and was a campus activist. It was during the Vietnam War era and America's youth began questioning the social order. He formed a group called the Florida League of Athletes. Many thought it was type of union for players to make demands of coaches and administrators. But according to Alvarez it wasn't.

"That was probably the most misunderstood group that ever got together on a college campus," Alvarez said. "All it was ever meant to do was to apprise people that athletes were students too and that we could participate in campus activties whether they were controversial or not.

Due to his chronic injuries, Alvarez never made it to the NFL. But he followed in his father's footsteps and became an attorney. He graduated from Duke University Law School in 1975 and currently practices law in Tallahassee.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Ghosts of the Orange Bowl: Jerome Brown

There was nothing small about Jerome Brown. The former University of Miami defensive tackle was not only a physically large man, he lived large. He played big in big games. He spoke loudly and he loved to drive his cars fast. He was the leader of the swaggering Miami Hurricanes of the 1980s. He played and lived with swagger until the day he died.

Just about the only thing small about Jerome Brown was his hometown of Brooksville, Florida, located just north of Tampa in Hernando County. He was always the biggest kid in his class. His personality was just as large as his size. He was a class clown, loud and gregarious and always backed up his boastful claims. People were always drawn to him and he never lacked friends. By the time he graduated from Hernando High School, he was a hometown legend. He was a star in football, baseball and basketball. As a senior he was 6-foot-2, 250 pounds and had the speed of players much smaller. He led Hernando High School's baseball team to a state championship as a junior, while leading the team in home runs and stolen bases. He was the leading scorer and rebounder on the basketball team. But on the football field, he was truly a man among boys playing defensive tackle and tight end. He was recognized as one of the finest high school athletes in the nation and was named to the prestigious Parade All American Team in 1982. Colleges from all over the Southeast rushed to Hernando High School to recruit him. In the end, he chose to attend the University of Miami and its emerging football program.

It didn't take Brown long to make a strong impression on the Miami coaches. He was one of five true-freshmen to see action on the 1983 national championship team. He was a raw talent who got by on natural athletic ability. But his technique was poor and he was at times undisciplined. Brown's first two years at UM were spent primarily as a backup. But everything came together his junior year in 1985. He went from a raw prospect to quite possibly the most dominant defensive lineman to ever suit up for Hurricanes.

By 1985, Brown had grown to 275 pounds and finally became a polished player. He was now able to blend technique along with his natural athletic gifts. He introduced himself to the college football world on October 19, 1985. The Canes traveled to Norman, Oklahoma to take on the Sooners. Miami was a young team and unranked at the time, while Oklahoma was a top national championship contender. In a game that featured two future hall of famers (Michael Irvin and Troy Aikman) and dozens of future NFL players, Jerome Brown was the best athlete on the field. Late in the first quarter with the score tied 7-7, Oklahoma attempted a short field goal to take the lead. Brown charged up the middle, through the Oklahoma line, and blocked the kick. He then pumped his arms and screamed to the crowd it was going to be a long day for the Sooners. Brown almost single-handidly dominated the game. Late in the second quarter, he sacked Oklahoma quarterback Troy Aikman. Two plays later, he stormed by the OU offensive line and combined with UM teammate John McVeigh to sack Aikman again. The tackle was so violent, Aikman would fracture his leg. The injury ended Aikman's career at Oklahoma and lead to his transfer to UCLA where he would later emerge as a top pro prospect. Brown finished the afternoon with 14 tackles from his defensive tackle position, blocked a kick and a recovered a fumble. He did this despite being constantly double-teamed. The Canes won 27-14 and were back as a national championship contender. The Canes finished the year 10-2 and Brown was named All American.

When the 1986 season began, Miami emerged as the nation's most dominant team. The Canes also developed a bad boy reputation both on and off the field. UM players were known for talking trash and intimidating opponents. Brown was the team's unquestioned leader. He would sack quarterbacks and throw down ball carriers like sacks of garbage and then stand over them and talk trash. When Oklahoma visited the Orange Bowl play Hurricanes in 1986, Brown set the tone during the coin toss. He stared down the Oklahoma captains at midfield and then yelled "fresh meat!" The second-ranked Canes beat #1 Oklahoma again 28-16 behind 4 touchdown passes by Vinny Testaverde. The Canes cruised through the regular season undefeated and Jerome Brown was the most feared defensive lineman in college football. Despite missing three games due to injury, he was still named to every All American team that existed and was a finalist for the Outland and Lombardi Trophies. The Canes finished the season ranked #1 and were invited to the Fiesta Bowl to play #2 Penn State.

When the Canes arrived in Tempe, Arizona, Brown became the focus of attention. It was his idea to dress up the team in military fatigues during the Canes flight to Arizona. Brown was the first player to get off the plane and he made it clear he was ready for war. During a steak fry function hosted by the Fiesta Bowl, Brown was insulted by a racial skit performed by the Penn State players that also lampooned Miami coach Jimmy Johnson. He led a walkout of the Miami players from the restaurant and said, "Did the Japanese go sit down and have dinner with Pearl Harbor befor they bombed them?" But Penn State was ready and upset Miami 14-10. Brown and the Canes defense did their part to win the game. Miami dominated every statistic except the score. Penn State was held to just 162 yards of total offense. But Miami quarterback Vinny Testaverde threw five interceptions and Canes turned the ball over seven times. Brown had a sack and led a stout defense. But his efforts were left wasted in Tempe.

Jerome Brown finished his UM career with 183 career tackles, including 21 sacks, 19 tackles for loss, caused 5 fumbles and recovered 4. The Canes played in a New Years Day bowl in all four years he played, including the national championship in his freshman season at the 1984 Orange Bowl.

In 1987 he was selected in the first round by the Philadelphia Eagles. He quickly prospered playing for head coach Buddy Ryan and teammed up with Reggie White and Clyde Simmons to form one of the best defensive lines in the NFL at the time. He was named twice to the Pro Bowl.

Off the football field, he also stood out. He was easily recognized on campus for riding his red motor scooter to class. He once broke up a Ku Klux Klan rally by himself in his hometown.

"Jerome had a big 4-wheel drive truck with speakers and loud music," said former Eagle teammate Keith Byars. "And Jerome just came out there and drowned the whole Klan rally they had going. He wasn't going to back down to them and they just dispersed."

He once saved a trucker in an overturned cab. "I tried to interview him about the KKK rally,"said Ray Didinger of the Philadelphia Daily News. "I tried to interview him about saving the trucker on the highway. But he really didn't want to deal with it. In his mind, he did what anybody would have done under those circumstances."

But in the prime of his career, his life was cut short. On June 25, 1992, Brown and his 12-year-old nephew Gus were killed in an automobile accident in their hometown of Brooksville. Brown lost control of his Corvette at high speed and crashed into a power pole. He was 27-years-old.

"He's a person who impacted a team like nobody on any team I've ever played on," said former UM teammate and punter Jeff Feagles.

During an interview with NFL Films, former UM quarterback Vinny Testaverde said of Brown, "Whenever you talk about Jerome Brown to anybody, the first thing you do is smile. He really touched so many people in such a short time that he was with us. It really was incredible."

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Ghosts of the Orange Bowl: Ed Newman

Longtime sports broadcaster Keith Jackson used to refer to offensive linemen as "the big uglies". The stereotype has always been that offensive linemen were big on brawn but not necessarily big on brains. Former Dolphins guard Ed Newman fit only part of that stereotype. He was arguably the strongest player to ever wear the Miami Dolphins uniform and possibly the smartest. A four-time Pro Bowl selection, Newman set the Dolphins bench press record lifting 510 pounds. But even more impressive, was his transition from the football field to his current job as a Miami-Dade County circuit court judge.

Ed Newman arrived in Miami in 1973 as a 6th round draft pick out of Duke University. At the time, the Dolphins were the best team in football. Miami was coming off a perfect 17-0 season and boasted pro football's best offensive line that included All-Pro guards Larry Little and Bob Kuechenberg. From the moment he arrived, Newman was considered a longshot. At 6'2 and 245 pounds he wasn't particularly big--even for those times. But what Newman did possess was unbelievable strength, work ethic and intelligence. He made the team, but he was burried deep in the depth chart. He barely saw action in his first four seasons and was relegated to mostly special teams. He didn't become a fulltime starter until his seventh year. But by then, Newman had already planned his life after football.

Newman was football's renaissance man. From the moment he was drafted, he never planned on having a long career. He constantly challenged his body and mind. During the offseason he took classes at the University of Miami Law School. He also worked as a volunteer wrestling coach at Florida International University, back when the school had a wrestling program. He was a workout warrior in the weight room. When Bob Kuechenberg set the team record with a 485 pound bench press, Newman equaled Kuenchenberg's lift and then just kept adding weight. It was clear, Newman was not your ordinary offensive lineman.

By 1979 Newman was too good to keep on the bench. After six years of paying his dues as a backup, it was his turn to start. Aside from his strength, Newman was also known for his ability as a technician. He was a master at using leverage and beating bigger defensive lineman at the point of attack. By 1981, he was considered one of the NFL's best guards and was selected the first of his four Pro Bowls. In 1982, he helped the Dolphins return to the Super Bowl for the first time in nine years. The Dolphins lost to the Redskins in Super Bowl XVII. The 1983 season started a new era of Dolphin football--the Dan Marino years. Newman had spent his whole career protecting Bob Griese, David Woodley and Don Strock. He would now have to place more emphasis on his pass-blocking as the Dolphins became more throwing oriented. Newman played his final season in 1984, helping the Dolphins win the AFC title. His final game was the loss to the 49ers in Super Bowl XIX. It was the last time the Dolphins had reached the Super Bowl. Newman blew out his knee before the 1985 season and retired from football.

Ed Newman played all 12 seasons of his NFL career with the Dolphins, which consisted of 167 games. All of his home games were played at the Orange Bowl. As a 6th round pick, he never expected to play this long. When his football career ended, he was ready to embark on his next career in law. Throughout his football career he prepared himself for life after sports. During road trips he would often spend his time reading law books on the plane rather than his playbook. When he retired from football, he had already earned his law degree from the University of Miami. He worked for a private law firm, started his own firm and then was elected as a Dade County circuit court judge in 1995 where he remains today.

Recently Newman was interviewed by Dave Hyde of the Sun Sentinel about his transition from football player to judge. He replied, "The feeling I used to get running out in the Orange Bowl between the cheerleaders as the crowd cheered my introduction is the same feeling I get now when the bailiff say 'All rise,' and I walk in the courtroom."

Monday, August 24, 2009

Ghosts of the Orange Bowl: 1981 Clemson Tigers

(Top) Clemson quarterback Homer Jordan in action during the 1982 Orange Bowl. (Bottom) Receiver Perry Tuttle celebrates after catching a touchdown pass to give Clemson a 22-15 victory over Nebraska

The 1981 college football season was one of the craziest and most unpredictable in the history of the sport. It seemed nobody wanted to win the national championship. At several points in the season, six different teams were ranked #1 by the Associated Press. Most of them were beaten just as quickly as they earned the top spot. But when the season was over and the bowl games were finished, the Clemson Tigers stood alone undefeated following a 22-15 victory over Nebraska in the 1982 Orange Bowl and were crowned national champions.

When the 1981 season began, Clemson was nowhere on the national championship radar screen. The Tigers were coming off a mediocre 6-5 season in 1980 and were, at best, considered a contender for the Atlantic Coast Conference championship. Meanwhile, Michigan began the year as the nation's top ranked team. But the Woverines were quickly upset in week one by Wisconsin. Notre Dame was elevated to #1 and were then beaten by Michigan. Then USC lasted two weeks as #1 until falling to Arizona. Texas then became #1 and was swiflty thrashed by Arkansas. Then Penn State took over and was quickly upset by Miami in the Orange Bowl. Dan Marino and Pittsburgh were then elevated to the top spot and were beaten the next week by Penn State. But while one undefeated team after another kept losing every week, Clemson just kept winning.

The Tigers slow rise to #1 quickly gained momentum with an early season 13-3 upset victory over defending national champion Georgia. The Clemson defense contained Georgia's great tailback Herschel Walker and kept him out of the end zone. Week after week, Clemson was getting better. Offensively the team was led by junior quarterback Homer Jordan, who was a duel threat as a runner and passer. It was a run-oriented offense featuring a fine tandem of tailbacks in Cliff Austin and Chuck McSwain. When they needed a big play, Jordan often threw deep to receiver Perry Tuttle, who later became a first round draft choice of the Buffalo Bills. But the true strength of the Clemson team was its defense. The Tigers had three All Americans including safety Terry Kinard, linebacker Jeff Davis and defensive end Jeff Bryant. All three went on to solid pro careers. But the most famous member of the Clemson defense was a large freshman defensive tackle named William Perry. Perry would later gain fame for his nickname "The Refrigerator" and became a football folk hero with the Chicago Bears as a lovable overweight defensive lineman who sometimes scored touchdowns while lining up at fullback .

After finishing the regular season with a perfect 11-0 record, Clemson was invited to the Orange Bowl to play Big 8 champion Nebraska. The Huskers were also an interesting story in 1981. Nebraska had rebounded from an 0-2 start and turned its season around behind the play of sophomore quarterback Turner Gill and a great duo of tailbacks Roger Craig and Mike Rozier. But late in the season, Gill suffered a broken leg and was unable to play in the Orange Bowl. He was replaced by Mark Mauer who was the team's starting quarterback in the beginning of the season. Despite Clemson's perfect record, there were still some doubts about coach Danny Ford's team. The ACC was considered more of a basketball conference and some questioned if the Tigers had played a tough enough schedule. But on January 1, 1982 in the Orange Bowl, those doubts were completely erased.

Thousands of orange-clad Clemson fans made the trip from South Carolina to Miami for the game. They were joined in the Orange Bowl stadium by an equally fanatical group of Nebraska backers. To mark its first trip to the Orange Bowl in over 30 years, Clemson wore all orange uniforms for the first time. The Tigers took a quick 3-0 lead in the first quarter behind a Donald Igwebuike 41-yard field goal. But Nebraska came back with some trickery when I-back Mike Rozier threw a 25-yard option pass to Anthony Steels for a touchdown to take the lead 7-3. Leading 13-7 in the third quarter, Clemson took control for good when Homer Jordan threw a 13-yard touchdown pass to Perry Tuttle, giving the Tigers a commanding 19-7 lead. Clemson held on to win 22-15 bringing home the school's first and only national championship. At 34-years-old, Danny Ford became the youngest coach to lead his team to a national title.

But following the 1981 season, Clemson was penalized by the NCAA for recruiting violations and were placed on probation. Ford would coach eight more seasons at Clemson with solid success. But Clemson has yet contend for another national championship since. The 1981 Clemson Tigers were only the third team in Orange Bowl history to win the national championship with a perfect record. The Tigers may have not been the best team to play in the New Year's Orange Bowl game, but they certainly were the most unexpected champion.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Ghosts of the Orange Bowl: Poly Turf

(Top) The Orange Bowl field during Super Bowl X in 1976. (Middle) Orange Bowl field during Super Bowl V in 1971 and (Bottom)An overhead view of the Orange Bowl during the early 1970s

Former major league baseball player Dick Allen once said of his disgust with artificial turf, "If a horse won't eat it, I don't want to play on it." Hated by athletes, but used as a then cost-cutting maintainance measure, artificial turf became a staple at outdoor sports stadiums around the nation in the 1970s. The Orange Bowl was among the first in this trend. In 1970, the City of Miami decided to replace the natural grass field of the Orange Bowl with a form of artificial grass known as Poly-Turf. From the 1970 season through Super Bowl X in January of 1976, Poly Turf covered the Orange Bowl field.

Poly-Turf was manufactured by the company American Biltrite. It was one of three different types of artificial grass used in stadiums at the time, along with Tartan Turf and Astro Turf. When Poly-Turf was installed at the Orange Bowl, its impact on the game was huge. The playing surface became faster enabling running backs and receivers to make quicker cuts.

"When I first got on it, I felt superfast," said former Miami Dolphin running back Jim Kiick. "But then I started thinking, what do the fast guys feel like?"

The Miami Dolphins quickly used Poly Turf to its advantage. Players like receiver Paul Warfield and running back Mercury Morris thrived on the surface. Both players were quick on any surface. But on Poly Turf, they were almost impossible for defenses to contain. Another characteristic of Poly-Turf was its ability to absorb heat. At times playing conditions became unbearably hot.

"It was difficult. It was hard because the heat reflected off the artificial turf," Kiick said. "There were times when the temperatures were 130 degrees on the field."

While the Dolphins were used to playing and practicing in the hot climate of South Florida, visiting teams often wilted on the Poly-Turf. From 1971 through 1974, the Dolphins won 31 consecutive games at the Orange Bowl, including three consecutive AFC titles from 71-73 and back-to-back Super Bowl titles in 1972 and 1973. It may not be a coincidence that the glory years of the Dolphin franchise corresponded with the Poly-Turf years.

On January 17,1971, the Orange Bowl hosted Super Bowl V between the Dallas Cowboys and Baltimore Colts. It was the first Super Bowl played on artificial turf. Poly Turf continued to cover the Orange Bowl playing field until the beginning of 1976. Super Bowl X would be the last football game played on the fake grass.

As the years went by, it became apparent Poly-Turf was becoming a hinderance rather than an advantage. The hard surface led to an increased number of leg, ankle and knee injuries. The turf began to deteriorate over time and many players claimed they would trip over the seams of the field. The turf began to discolor from green to blue due to the harsh UV intensity of the Miami sun. It had run its course.

Natural grass returned the Orange Bowl for the 1976 season and remained there until the end of the stadium in 2008. But while the Dolphins enjoyed unrivaled success on the hard, plastic surface, the legacy of Poly-Turf remains mostly negative. It only proved that sometimes technology can never replace something created by Mother Nature.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Ghosts of the Orange Bowl: Pink Floyd

Over the years, I've had the opportunity to see many concerts at the Orange Bowl. As a classic rock nut, I've seen the Rolling Stones, the Eagles, Van Halen and Bruce Springsteen perform on numerous occasions at the OB. But perhaps the most memorable show was turned in by the British psychedelic art-rock ensemble Pink Floyd. On November 1, 1987, Pink Floyd performed its first and only concert at the Orange Bowl. It was an amazing visual spectacle of laser lights and sound that drew nearly 45,000 people.

To be honest, Pink Floyd is not close to being my favorite band. At times I've found their music to be slow, dull and even boring. Their sound was often described as dour, gloomy and melancholy. I always kind of perceived them to be a band you could only listen to while stoned. But while I didn't always appreciate Pink Floyd as a great band, there was no denying it had produced some of rock's greatest masterpiece albums like "Dark Side of the Moon" and "The Wall". I did like some of their songs. My personal favorite has always been "Wish You Were Here", which happens to be the first song I ever learned to play on guitar. The only reason I attended the concert was because my friend had an extra ticket. I was a 17-year-old high school senior at the time and it was an excuse to get out of the house, hang out with my friends and watch thousands of stoned-out people act crazy.

From the onset, this concert had a different feel than any show I've attended. Like all concerts at the Orange Bowl, the stage was setup in the east end of the stadium. The weather was perfect for Pink Floyd. The skies were gloomy and it rained the entire evening. But I was astounded by the performance itself. The band played almost letter-perfect on stage. You could tell these musicians were perfectionists. But the most impressive part was the visual presentation, complete with lasers and a huge circular video screen that hovered over the stage. The band's lineup consisted of guitarist and singer David Gilmour, drummer Nick Mason, keyboardist Richard Wright and an assembly of backup singers and musicians. Original band member and principal songwriter Roger Waters was no longer with the band. But if Waters' absence was felt, nobody seemed to notice. The atmosphere was electric. Unlike most outdoor and open air stadiums, the Orange Bowl has always had good acoustics for concerts. The sound completely filled the air and was clear. Pink Floyd performed all of its classic songs along with selections from its then supporting album "A Momentary Lapse of Reason".

The tour itself was a huge financial success. Pink Floyd was the second highest grossing band of 1987, bringing in $60 million from the U.S. tour. Prior to the 1987 tour, it had been seven long years since the band had peformed live. It was obvious there was still huge demand from its fans. Their following is loyal and fanatical. I never looked at Pink Floyd quite the same way since that show.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Ghosts of the Orange Bowl: Olympic Soccer

Brazilian forward Bebeto in action against Ghana during the 1996 Olympic soccer tournament in the Orange Bowl

American football has always been the main attraction at the Orange Bowl. But the sport the rest of the world calls football also has a long history at the stadium. While the City of Atlanta hosted the Olympic games in 1996, the Orange Bowl was one of five stadiums from around the country to host Olympic soccer matches.

The tournament included teams from 16 countries divided into four groups. Miami and Orlando hosted first round games for Groups B and D. Fans from Brazil, Japan, Hungary, Nigeria, France, Australia, Ghana and Saudi Arabia would fill the Orange Bowl with their colorful flags, serenading the players with chants and songs that echoed across Little Havana. But the team everyone wanted to see was Brazil.

In the legendary history of the Brazilian national team, they've won just about every major tournament in the world. Brazil has won 5 World Cup titles, more than any nation on the planet. But for all its success and dominance, the Brazilians have yet to capture an Olympic gold medal. It wasn't from a lack of trying. In 1996, Brazil sent a team to the Olympics filled with some of the most talented and famous players to ever play the sport. The roster was filled with names like Ronaldo, Bebeto, Rivaldo and Juninho. These players were so world-renowned, they only needed one name to be recognized.

But it didn't take long for the Olympic curse to rear its ugly head on Brazil. In its first match, Brazil faced heavy underdog Japan. A crowd of 46,713, mostly carrying Brazilian flags, gathered at the Orange Bowl. But in the 72nd minute of the match, Japan scored the game's only goal. It was a stunning defeat. Brazil would rebound and win its next two matches against Hungary and Nigeria. The match against Nigeria drew the largest crowd of the tournament--55,650.

But attendance at the Orange Bowl was mostly disappointing. If Brazil wasn't playing, the fans weren't coming. One match between France and Saudi Arabia drew just 4,615 fans. Another match between Australia and Saudi Arabia atracted only 5,997 spectators. Of the teams that competed in Miami, Brazil and Nigeria advanced to the medal round. Despite beating Nigeria in the tournament's first round, the Nigerians got revenge when it counted and beat Brazil 4-3 in Athens, Georgia. Nigeria won the gold medal, while Argentina took the silver and Brazil had to settle with a disappointing bronze.

Beyond the 1996 Olympics, soccer has a rich history in the Orange Bowl Stadium. During the 1970s, it was the home field for the Miami Toros of the North American Soccer League. Over the years, it's been the site several FIFA tournaments including the CONCAF Gold Cup which featured the best teams in the Western Hemisphere. National teams from Brazil, Argentina, Colombia and the United States have used the stadium for World Cup qualifying matches. The Haitian national team once used the Orange Bowl as its home field due to political unrest in its country. One of the most famous soccer matches played at the Orange Bowl took place May 29, 1994 when the Colombian National Team beat Italian club soccer power A.C. Milan 2-1 in front of 57,724 fans. It is still the largest crowd to watch a soccer match in Florida.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Ghosts of the Orange Bowl: Bernard Clark

Linebacker Bernard Clark and head coach Jimmy Johnson celebrate after Miami's 20-14 victory over Oklahoma in the 1988 Orange Bowl

Some football players have a knack for playing their best in big games. Former University of Miami linebacker Bernard Clark was one of those clutch athletes. He wasn't an All American. He played briefly in the NFL as a backup linebacker. You won't find his name on the list of great Hurricane linebackers like Ray Lewis, Dan Morgan or Micheal Barrow. But when national championships were at stake, no linebacker in UM history took his game to a higher level than Bernard Clark.

Born and raised in Tampa, Clark was given the nickname "Tiger" by his parents when he was a baby. He would always squirm, growl and fight like a tiger when his parents would try to lift him from his crib. Despite a fine career at Tampa's Leto High School, Clark wasn't considered a big name or a blue-chip recruit. His college choices were Miami and Oklahoma State. Clark came to Miami as part of Jimmy Johnson's first recruiting class in 1985. The Hurricanes were coming off a disappointing 8-5 season and Jimmy Johnson was already under fire. The Hurricanes finished the 1984 season with three consecutive excruciating losses to Maryland, Boston College and UCLA in the Fiesta Bowl.

Many questioned if Johnson was the right coach to lead UM after inheriting a program that had won a national championship under his predecesor Howard Schnellenberger. Three UM assistant coaches, Bill Trout, Christ Vagotis and Mike Archer, all quit or left the program by the end of the 1984 season. All three were leftovers from the Schnellenberger regime. The instability in the coaching staff began to affect local recruiting. Dade County's top high school players were no longer considering the Hurricanes and went elsewhere. They included Hialeah Miami Lakes receiver Michael Timpson (Penn State), South Miami linebackers Keith Carter (FSU) and Derrick Thomas (Alabama) and American High offensive lineman Chris Pettaway (LSU). But what fans and critics didn't know was Johnson was quietly assembling a great recruiting class without much fanfare.

Bernard Clark was part of a 1985 recruiting class that included quarterback Steve Walsh, defensive linemen Greg Mark and Jimmie Jones, defensive backs Bobby Harden and Kenny Berry and offensive linemen Bobby Garcia and Rod Holder. It was a small class of players that was not rated high by the recruiting gurus. But this group would go on to become the winningest recruiting class in Hurricane football history. From 1986 to 1989, the Canes went 45-3 and won two national championships. UM finished no lower than #2 in the nation in those years and never lost a home game at the Orange Bowl.

When he signed his letter of intent with Miami, there was nothing particularly special about Clark. He was just another name in a list of anonymous freshmen. He redshirted his freshman season in 1985 and didn't play a down, while developing his skills on the scout team. In 1986, he finally got on the field, but his role was limited to special teams and coming in on "garbage time" when the Hurricanes would blow out opponents and play in the fourth quarter. By 1987, it appeared Clark was no more than a career backup player. George Mira Jr. was the team's starting middle linebacker and UM's all time leading tackler. The Hurricanes went undefeated during the 1987 regular season and Mira was a tackling machine. But just before Miami's national championship showdown with #1 ranked Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl, Mira and offensive lineman John O'Neill were suspended by the NCAA for testing positive for steroids. Bernard Clark would finally step out of the shadows and get his chance to start at middle linebacker in the biggest college game of the year.

The Sooners featured a high-powered wishbone attack that averaged 420 yards rushing per game. Without Mira, many believed the Canes would not be able to stop Oklahoma's running game---everybody except Bernard Clark. He spent his first three years of college as an unknown and now it was his time to shine. He was determined to make the most of his opportunity. To stop Oklahoma, Miami's defense had to play disciplined assignment football. Clark's responsibility to was to stop Oklahoma's fullback Lydell Carr. Clark responded by making 14 solo tackles and Carr was relegated as a non-factor. The Hurricanes beat the Sooners 20-14 to capture UM's second national championship. Clark was named the game's defensive MVP.

Clark's stunning performance in the Orange Bowl brought big expectations. How could he top that performance? He finally became the team's full time starting middle linebacker in 1988. The Canes, once again, were college football's premiere team. While Clark played well, he didn't quite play up to expectations. His play was inconsistant. There were times when he wasn't a factor in some games. He wasn't even the most productive linebacker on the team, as fellow Tampa native Maurice Crum led the Canes in tackles with 110. Clark was not the prototype Miami linebacker. At 240 pounds, he was bigger and thicker than the typical Miami linebacker of that time. Miami preferred recruiting smaller and speedier players to play the linebacker position. The Canes finished the 1988 season 11-1, their only blemish was a controversial 31-30 loss to eventual national champion Notre Dame.

The 1989 UM football season was about redemption. Jimmy Johnson had left UM to become the head coach of the Dallas Cowboys. Dennis Erickson was brought in from Washington State to become the new Canes head coach. The young men who made up the 1985 recruiting class were now fifth year seniors. This group was determined to leave UM on top. But to do this, they would have to beat Notre Dame. For Bernard Clark, this game was personal. Notre Dame had beaten Miami thanks to a controversial fumble call on Canes fullback Cleveland Gary in the fourth quarter in 1988. Notre Dame won the national championship and 23 consecutive games. Miami players believed the championship was stolen from them. They would not let it happen again.

On November 25, 1989, the Orange Bowl was in a frenzy. A then-record crowd of 81,634 packed the stadium. Notre Dame head coach Lou Holtz would call it the loudest and most hostile atmosphere he had ever seen. But the Orange Bowl crowd was the least of Notre Dame's worries. Bernard Clark and the Hurricane defense would turn in one of its greatest performances. After Miami took a 10-0 lead, the Irish answered with ten points of their own. Late in the second quarter, Notre Dame linebacker Ned Bolcar intercepted a Craig Erickson pass and returned it for a touchdown to tie the score at 10-10. Notre Dame appeared to capture the momentum and had the Canes on their heels. Then, all of a sudden, Bernard Clark took over the game. With less than two minutes left in the half, Notre Dame quarterback Tony Rice threw a pass in the right flat in the direction of tight end Derek Brown. Clark cut in front of Brown, intercepted the pass and returned it all the way to the Notre Dame 5-yard line. Three plays later, UM fullback Stephen McGuire scored and the Canes took a 17-10 lead and never looked back. The Hurricanes won 27-10 and Clark made an astounding 17 tackles. He dominated from start to finish, making the first and last tackles of the game. It is still the best game I've ever seen played by a University of Miami linebacker. Down went Notre Dame's 23-game win streak and the Canes would capture their third national title.

Bernard Clark would go on to play two seasons in the NFL with the Bengals and Seahawks which consisted just 28 games. He never recaptured the glory in the NFL he experienced at Miami. When his playing career ended, he decided to go into coaching. He eventually returned to South Florida as the defensive coordinator at Florida International University in 2004 under then head coach Don Strock. In 2006 he left FIU to become the defensive line coach at the University of South Florida. He then returned to FIU in 2007 when former UM teammate Mario Cristobal was hired as head coach. He is currently the defensive coordinator at Hampton University in Virginia.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Ghosts of the Orange Bowl: Satchel Paige

It was hyped as "The Baseball Party to End All Baseball Parties." On August 7, 1956 the Orange Bowl playing field was transformed into a baseball diamond and America's national pastime made its debut in the giant football stadium. A crowd of 51,713 watched the Miami Marlins beat the Columbus Jets 6-2 in a charity game that featured the pitching and hitting heroics of Satchel Paige. The game drew the largest crowd to watch a minor league baseball game at the time. Long before the Florida Marlins existed, the Miami Marlins were South Florida's baseball team. The Marlins were a triple-A affiliate of the Philadelphia Phillies in the International League and played their home games at Miami Stadium. But on one magical night, the Orange Bowl was their home field.

Team owner Bill Veeck was a longtime baseball maverick. He was often referred to as the P.T. Barnum of baseball. Veeck would resort to anything to bring fans to the ballpark. When he owned the St. Louis Browns, he once signed a 3-foot-7 inch dwarf named Eddie Gaedel in 1951, who walked on four pitches in his only Major League at bat. Many years later when he owned the Chicago White Sox, he designed an exploding scoreboard at Comiskey Park, had his players wear strange uniforms that included shorts and was infamously remembered for organizing the 1979 "Disco Demolition Night" leading to the destruction of disco records and leaving the playing field in shambles. But Veeck's greatest legacy in South Florida was bringing the legendary pitcher Leroy "Satchel" Paige to the Marlins.

Satchel Paige is one of baseball's most iconic and colorful players. His peak years were pitching for the Kansas City Monarchs in the negro leagues from the late 1920s through the 1930s. Many baseball historians considered him to be one of the most dominant pitchers of his time. He often played against Major League players during offseason barnstorming tours and beat them repeatedly. Former Cardinals hall of fame pitcher Dizzy Dean once called Paige the best pitcher he ever saw. But by the time Jackie Robinson broke baseball's color barrier in 1947, Paige was 41-years-old and well past his prime. In 1948, then-Indians owner Bill Veeck signed Paige to his first major league contract. Paige and Indians teammate Larry Doby were the first African-Americans to play in the American League. Together they helped the Indians win the 1948 World Series. Paige pitched in the major leagues through 1953 at the age of 47.

By 1954, the St. Louis Browns released Paige. It appeared his profesional baseball career was over. He was 48 years old and still had the desire to keep playing. He bounced around in the minor leagues until his former boss Bill Veeck decided to sign him to a $15,000 contract and a percentage of the gate with the Miami Marlins in 1956. Many thought it was another one of Veeck's crazy gimmicks to bring in the 50-year-old Paige. But on the contrary. Despite his old age, Paige could still get minor league hitters out. In his first game as a Marlin, he pitched a complete-game 4-hit shutout.

But the highlight of Paige's tenure in Miami came in an exhibition game at the Orange Bowl. The stadium was clearly not meant to host baseball. Changing the field into a baseball park was like fitting a square peg through a round hole. The field dimensions were horribly skewed. Home plate was located in the southeast corner of the field and the right field wall less than 300 feet away. To compensate for the short right field, a giant fence was constructed. But none of that mattered to the fans who were hungry to see baseball. It was a festive night at the stadium. Proceeds went to charity and the pregame entertainment included a concert by jazz and blues legend Cab Calloway. Imagine 50,000 people singing "Heidi Heidi Heidi Ho!" in unison. But the real show was put on by Satchel Paige. Paige pitched into the eighth inning and also drove in 3-runs with a double to left-center field, giving the Marlins a 6-2 win. A week later, he pitched a one-hitter against Rochester and left to a standing ovation. During his three years with the Marlins, Paige was 31-22 with a 2.73 ERA, very good numbers for any pitcher regardless of age.

Satchel Paige eventually made one more appearance in the major leagues with the Kansas City Athletics on September 25, 1965, when he was signed by another maverick owner Charlie Finley. He was 59 years old. Paige's career major league record was just 28-31. He never got the opportunity to play in the major leagues as a young man. But he was never bitter. He was known for his sense of humor and was loved by teammates and fans. He was also known for his many colorful quotes. His most famous was "Don't look back, something might be gaining on you." That's exactly how Paige lived his baseball career. He was the first player from the negro leagues to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Ghosts of the Orange Bowl: Band of the Hour

The University of Miami marching band has traditionally been small in numbers. Its fight song isn't as catchy or nationally renowned like Notre Dame's or Michigan's. It's not known for its elaborate choreography like Florida A&M's Marching 100. But the Band of the Hour was an often overlooked Orange Bowl tradition. For over 70 years, they've provided much of the soundtrack and atmosphere at Hurricane games. From the playing of the Star Wars themed "Imperial March" to the spelling of MIAMI at halftime, the Band of the Hour had its own unique part in Orange Bowl history.

The band was originally organized in 1933 by Walter E. Schaefer, four years before the Orange Bowl Stadium was built. In 1948 it became known as "The Band of the Hour" while the band was performing the song "Man of the Hour" by composer Henry Fillmore. After the performance, the Orange Bowl stadium announcer at the time yelled over the PA system, "The Man of the Hour played by the Band of the Hour!" It's a name that has stuck ever since.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Ghosts of the Orange Bowl: Edwin Pope

No stadium has hosted more big football games than the Orange Bowl. And if there was a big game at the OB, chances are Edwin Pope was there. He has covered virtually every big sporting event that has happened in South Florida for the last half century. He is one of only a handful of sportswriters in history to have covered every Super Bowl. And if there's a hall of fame for sportswriting, you'll likely find his name on the honor roll.

Edwin Pope began working for the Miami Herald in 1956. His first beat was to cover the University of Florida football team and college football. Those were simple times. There were no profesional sports teams in South Florida. The University of Miami, high school sports and the New Year's Orange Bowl game were the big sporting events in town. There was no internet, sports-talk radio or cable television. Writers like Edwin Pope, Jimmy Burns and Luther Evans gave Miami sports fans all the information they needed.

Pope's history with the Orange Bowl began long before he started working for the the Miami Herald. He discovered the craft of sportswriting in his native Athens, Georgia. When he was just 11-years-old, Pope heard Ted Husing's radio broadcast of Georgia Tech's 21-7 victory over Missouri in the 1940 Orange Bowl. He took notes and kept a running account of the game. He ended up writing a story about the game which appeared the next day in the Athens Banner Herald.

"I asked if they wanted to use the running story of the Georgia Tech-Missouri game," Pope remembers. "They said no. But they asked me, 'Did you type this? Do you want a job?' They put me to work covering small sports. When I was 12 and 13, I covered high school sports. When I was 15, they made the sports editor of the paper and I was covering the University of Georgia. I was the youngest sports editor in the nation." He immediately appeared in breakfast cereal commercials in newspapers from coast to coast.

Pope graduated from the University of Georgia in 1948 while serving as the school's sports information director. He worked for United Press and the Atlanta Constitution before becoming the sports editor of the of the Atlanta Journal in 1954. That same year, Pope wrote the book "Football's Greatest Coaches". He made enough money from the book to leave Atlanta for South Florida and never looked back.

When Pope arrived in Miami, Jimmy Burns was the sports editor of the Miami Herald. Burns was the most respected local sportswriter at the time and his columns were usually the first thing every South Florida sports fan read when they picked up the morning paper. Many credit Burns for promoting the Orange Bowl game locally and helping it become a huge event. When Burns died in 1967, the torch was passed to Edwin Pope. Indeed Pope picked up where Burns left off. If you couldn't attend a football game at the Orange Bowl, Edwin Pope was your best friend. He painted pictures with his words describing the action and the personalities of the game. He relayed stories to his readers that few could experience. Many learned the game of football just by reading his articles.

Like many local writers, he could be a homer. He openly rooted for the Dolphins and the Hurricanes. But he could also be critical. Perhaps no local sports personality has been scrutinized by Pope more than former Dolphins coach Don Shula. Over the years, Pope had written hundreds of articles on Shula. The two had a love and hate relationship. But in the end there was also tremendous mutual respect. Pope's articles were not only read by sports fans--but also by many local athletes.

Over the years, Pope has been the eyewitness of the Orange Bowl's most memorable events. He was at the Miami Touchdown Club when Joe Namath guaranteed victory before Super Bowl III. He was there for all 17 of the Miami Dolphins victories in the 1972 perfect season. He was at the Orange Bowl when Doug Flutie fired football's most famous Hail Mary. He was there when University of Miami upset mighty Nebraska in the 1984 Orange Bowl. Virtually every great local athlete from George Mira to Bob Griese to Rick Barry to Dan Marino to Michael Irvin have been interviewed and written about by Pope.

Pope is now 80 years old and is semi-retired. He occasionally writes articles for the Miami Herald during football season. He's in several halls of fame including: The Florida Sports Hall of Fame, the Orange Bowl Hall of Fame and football writers wing of the Pro and College Football Halls of Fame. In today's age of the internet, newspapers are becoming less relevant. But some things never go out of style. If there's a big football game, you couldn't wait to read what Edwin Pope had to say.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Ghosts of the Orange Bowl: Jackie Smith

Jackie Smith is one of the greatest tight ends in football history. His 480 career catches were the most ever by an NFL tight end when he retired from the sport in 1979. He is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But Smith is most remembered for a catch he failed to make. Fair or unfair, his defining moment came in the final game of his career--Super Bowl XIII.

On January 21, 1979 the Dallas Cowboys met the Pittsburgh Steelers for supremecy of the 1970s on Super Sunday in the Orange Bowl. The Steelers and Cowboys were the most dominant teams of the decade. Going into the game, each franchise had won two Super Bowls during the decade and this game would ultimately determine who was the decade's best. Super Bowl XIII was arguably the greatest assembly of football talent the sport has ever seen. Fourteen hall of famers played in the game as well as both head coaches Tom Landry and Chuck Noll. Cowboys tight end Jackie Smith was among those 14 hall of famers.

Late in the third quarter, the Cowboys trailed 21-14 and were driving for a potential tying touchdown. Dallas marched to the Pittsburgh 10-yard line. On third down and 3 yards to go, Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach saw Jackie Smith wide open in the middle of the end zone. Staubach fired a low line drive in Smith's direction. But as Smith went to catch the ball, he tried to make a sliding catch and the ball slipped through his hands. Smith flopped in the end zone in agony and disgust. It was a catch he has made hundreds of times in practices and games. But in the biggest game of his life, his reliable hands failed him. Dallas radio comentator Verne Lundquist sympathized with the heartbroken Smith immediately after the play saying, "Bless his heart. He's got to be the sickest man in America."

Staubach defended Smith. "It really wasn't a very good pass. It was low and it surprised him and he wasn't ready for it, " Staubach said. But Smith made no excuses. "I don't think it was Roger's fault. The ball was well thrown."

Smith's drop forced Dallas to settle for a 27-yard field goal, cutting the score to 21-17. The Steelers would win the game 35-31. Super Bowl XIII was considered one of the best Super Bowls of all time. NFL Films produced a 90 minute documentary called "Battle of Champions" chronicaling nearly every play of the game and its legacy. It was a game filled with big plays by big stars. But ultimately much of the attention was given to Smith's third quarter drop. Many believe the game not only propelled the Steelers as the franchise of the 1970s but it also hurt the legacy of the 1970s Cowboys. Nine Steelers would go on to be inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, while only five Cowboys from Super Bowl XIII were enshrined in Canton.

Jackie Smith was the best tight end of his era. He caught more passes than fellow hall of fame tight ends and peers Mike Ditka and John Mackey. He was a 5-time Pro Bowl selection and was one of the fastest players to play his position in the 1960s and 70s. In 1967 he caught 56 passes for a career high 1,205 yards and 9 touchdowns, averaging a remarkable 21.5 yards per catch. But by 1977, his body had been battered from 15 seasons in the NFL. In 1978, he was released by the Cardinals and picked up by the Cowboys. He didn't catch a single pass for the Cowboys in 1978. Had he caught that pass in the Super Bowl, it would have been his first and only catch in a Dallas uniform. Smith had to wait more than ten years after he first became eligible to finally make it into Canton. Many believe Smith's Super Bowl drop delayed his entry into the hall of fame.

"It's amazing how people have latched on to that play," Staubach said. "It's just unfair. It wasn't the end of the game. We still had a full quarter to go. We were only four points behind and Jackie Smith has taken more heat than he deserves."

Many have compared Smith's drop to Bill Buckner's error in game six of the 1986 World Series. Both were outstanding players in their respective sports who were overshadowed by one mistake. But through it all, Smith has handled his legacy with class. He's never complained or shied away from answering questions about that faitful Sunday night in the Orange Bowl. If you visit the hall of fame and find his bust, you'll know that 480 catches is always greater than one drop.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Ghosts of the Orange Bowl: Dolfan Denny

You may not know the name Dennis Sym. But if you attended Miami Dolphins games from 1966 to 2000, you saw him at every home game. Dressed in his loud orange outfits complete with rhinestones, Sym was more famously known as Dolfan Denny, the team's unofficial mascot. For 34 years, he led the cheers at Dolphins games.

In the beginning, he was just another exuberant spectator in the Orange Bowl stands. But week after week he became instantly recognized for his strange and flashy outfits. Even Dolphins owner Joe Robbie began to notice. During the first ten years of the Dolphins franchise, Sym became more popular every year. He was impossible to ignore. Robbie was impressed with Sym's passion and spirt for the Dolphins. In the 1970s he allowed Sym to cheer on the field from the sidelines. He was paid $50 a game and was forever known as Dolfan Denny. His favorite year was the Dolphins 1972 perfect season.

"I think that was the most exciting year he ever had, " said his wife Ingrid. "The fans were all very active and all that changed after they moved into the new stadium. That was his very best year."

In March 2007, Dennis Sym passed away from heart failure after battling kidney disease and cancer. He was 72 years old. Over the years Syms wore 10 sets of outfits to Dolphins games. His wacky gear included a puffy cowboy hat and a matador cape. He studied electrical engineering at the University of Tennessee and was a longtime Broward resident. Chronic health problems began to effect him in his later years as Dofan Denny. But even illness couldn't stop from him from cheering for his Dolphins. At one point his knees were so bad, he could be seen cheering from a chair. He retired in Sarasota, but his love for the Dolphins never went away.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Ghosts of the Orange Bowl: Lee Corso

Most football fans know Lee Corso as the colorful wisecracking college football analyst for ESPN. But local football fans may not know he was once one of the best schoolboy athletes to ever come out of Miami. In the early 1950s, Corso was a 3-sport athlete at Miami's Jackson High School and was All-City in football, baseball and basketball. He was all-state on the gridiron and on the diamond and played both sports at Florida State University earning the nickname "The Sunshine Scooter". But long before he became famous as a TV comentator or coach, the Orange Bowl was his stage as a teenager.

Corso moved to Miami from Chicago when he was 12 years-old. His family settled in the Allapatah section of the city near Jackson High School. It was at Jackson, Corso became a local star. He played quarterback and defensive back in an era when football players played both offense and defense. While Corso has a goofball persona on television, he was anything but a clown as an athlete. He was tough and fiery. At just 5'9 and 155 pounds, he was smaller than most of his peers and wasn't the quickest of foot. But what he lacked in physical gifts, he made up for in hustle and competitive fire. He played without a facemask and he took and delivered the best shots opponents had to offer. He was pound for pound one of the toughest and most respected high school athletes of his era.

In Corso's day, high school football was huge in Miami. Jackson High, Edison High and Miami High all played their home games at the Orange Bowl and each of these schools were powerhouses. But none was more dominant at the time than the Miami High Stingarees. Going into the 1951 season, Miami High had never lost a game to a city rival. It was an amazing unbeaten streak that stretched for 26 years. But on November 10, 1951, Miami High's invincibility came to an end. Jackson head coach Roy French had finally assembled a team talented enough to dethrone Miami High. A crowd of 23,243 witnessed history as the Jackson Generals defeated the Stingarees 14-7. Corso was a junior reserve quarterback and defensive back in that game backing up senior Don Orr. Orr later went on to star at Vanderbilt and became a longtime official in the NFL. Although Corso didn't play a starring role in the game, it was his first defining moment in the Orange Bowl.

Jackson's victory was no fluke. In the early 1950s, the Generals roster included such Dade County greats such as fullback Joe Brodsky and halfback Jim Rountree who both were All State and went on to play at the University of Florida. Corso emerged as the team's starting quarterback as a senior in 1952. He established himself as the best signal caller in the city. The Miami Herald selected Corso to its All-City team and he was named All State. Jackson played in the Big 10 Conference, which consisted of many of the best teams throughout the state. Corso led the Generals to the conference championship. His most memorable game came in a 21-19 loss to Miami High in the Orange Bowl, when he accounted for all 3 of Jackson's touchdowns. Another highlight came when he outdueled Edison's prep All American halfback Jackie Simpson for the conference championship.

Despite a great high school career, Corso was not heavily recruited. Due to his lack of size, some considered him a better baseball player. The hometown school, the University of Miami, didn't show interest. Corso took his talents to Florida State University in Tallahassee, which had a new football program at the time. FSU gave Corso the opportunity to play both football and baseball. In 1953, an 18-year-old Corso played in his first college football game as a true freshman. It just happened to be against the University of Miami in the Orange Bowl. It would be a very painful and humbling homecoming for Corso. He was knocked out of the game before halftime and the Seminoles would lose 27-0.

But Corso would recover well for an outstanding college career. He played both offense and defense leading FSU in interceptions in 1954, rushing in 1955 and passing in 1956. His 14 career interceptions was an FSU record until it was tied by Deion Sanders in the late 1980s. He was named honorable mention All American by the Associated Press and was selected to the Blue Gray All Star Game. His roomate at Florida State was a fast-talking, muscular running back from West Palm Beach who went by the name of Buddy Reynolds. He later became more well known as the actor Burt Reynolds.

When his college playing career ended, Corso went immediately into coaching. He was a natural. Corso was always known as a fiery leader as a player and he loved the strategy of the game. His first job was as a graduate assistant at FSU, working under head coach Tom Nugent. One of his favorite memories was being a part of the first FSU coaching staff to beat the University of Miami in 1958 at the Orange Bowl. When Nugent became the head coach at the University of Maryland, Corso followed him. Corso landed his first head coaching job at the University of Louisville in 1969 and led the Cardinals to the school's second-ever bowl game in 1972. Among his players was linebacker Tom Jackson, now an NFL anaylst for ESPN. In 1973 he left Louisville and became head coach at another basketball power--Indiana University. Corso was 41-68-2 at IU. He had short stints of success including a Holiday Bowl victory over BYU in 1979. He finished his college coaching career at Northern Illinois in 1984.

Corso later tried his luck in professional football. He made his broadcasting debut as analyst for USFL games in 1983. The following year, he went back into coaching and became head coach of the Orlando Renegades of the USFL. When the league folded in 1985, Corso needed work. His broadcast experience would come in handy. He was hired by ESPN in 1987 as an analyst for College GameDay and hasn't looked back. Always a showman, Corso is known for his catch phrase "Not so fast my friend!". He is also known for wearing the mascot head of the team he predicts will win the game of the week.

In May 2009, Corso suffered a minor stroke. Always gifted with a great sense of humor, Corso called the scary incident a "not so fast my friend" moment. He is expected to recover in time for the college football season, which is great news for all those who love the game.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Ghosts of the Orange Bowl: David Overstreet

Sometimes having great potential in a demanding skill can be a curse. Former Miami Dolphins running back David Overstreet had plenty of it. In his brief life, Overstreet possessed everything scouts wanted in a runner. He had speed, slick moves, power and grace. He had been a legendary high school player in a state where high school football heroes are revered. He played at one of college football's great powerhouses. He was a first round draft choice in the National Football League. Overstreet had everything a 25-year-old man could want and then it was all taken away.

On the early morning of June 25, 1984, Overstreet was making the long journey from South Florida back to his hometown of Big Sandy, Texas. He was driving his Mercedes when he fell asleep at the wheel. The car spun out of control and crashed into a row of gas pumps at a service station near his hometown. The impact created a huge explosion and Overstreet was killed instantly. He left behind a wife and a 13-month old son--David Jr.

David Overstreet was legend on the football field before he ever went to college. He was not only a hero in his hometown of Big Sandy, he was a state hero. Deep in the Lone Star State, Overstreet was the centerpiece of one of the most powerful small high schools in Texas high school football history. He led Big Sandy High School to 3 consecutive Class B state championships. Big Sandy's teams were so dominant, they outscored the opposition 824-15 in his senior year. One of Overstreet's high school teammates was quarterback Lovie Smith, who is now the head coach of the Chicago Bears. Smith and Overstreet was part of a tiny graduation class that included just 34 students.

"Everytime David touched the ball, the odds were that he would score, " Smith said. "Not that he might score. You were surprised if he didn't". Indeed truer words couldn't have been spoken. Overstreet rushed for nearly 3,000 yards and scored an amazing 52 touchdowns in his senior year. His name is all over the Texas high school record books and his exploits became a thing of legend. College coaches from all over the nation soon decended upon the tiny Texas town to see this prodigy carry the football. After an intense rush of recruiting, Overstreet chose to play his college football for the University of Oklahoma and its head coach Barry Switzer.

When Overstreet arrived at OU in 1976, he quickly became burried in a deep pool of talented running backs that included future NFL players Elvis Peacock, Kenny King and Heisman winner Billy Sims. Playing in Oklahoma's wishbone offense, Overstreet had to share running duties with other great backs. His statistics in college would never approach what he did in high school. But he was still very dangerous carrying the football. He rushed for 1,702 yards, averaging 5.8 yards per carry and scored 16 touchdowns in his college career. In one game he gained 258 yards on 18 carries against Colorado. During the Overstreet years, Oklahoma played in four consecutive Orange Bowls on New Years Night. In his final college game, Overstreet scored a touchdown and helped the Sooners beat Florida State 18-17 in the 1981 Orange Bowl.

When his college career was over, pro scouts tabbed Overstreet was one of the best running back prospects in the country. The Miami Dolphins chose Overstreet in the first first round of the 1981 NFL Draft with the 13th overall pick. He was expected to be Miami's best breakaway speed back since the days of Mercury Morris. But negotiations stalled and the Dolphins were not able to come to a contract agreement with Overstreet. He decided to instead take his talents to the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League. He led the CFL with 962 yards as a rookie, but he also had trouble hanging on to the ball, fumbling 16 times. In 1982, injuries limited Overstreet to just 190 yards rushing for the season.

After two years of exile in Canada, Overstreet finally signed with the Dolphins in 1983. By then, Miami already had a rookie sensation named Dan Marino and the offense would revolve around Marino's right arm. Overstreet found himself struggling to make the adjustment to the NFL. He spent most of the season watching from the sidelines as Tony Nathan got the majority of the carries. He finally showed signs of potential when he gained 179 yards in the final two games of the season.

On December 31, 1983, David Overstreet played his final football game. The Dolphins lost to the Seattle Seahawks 27-20 in an AFC divisional playoff game at the Orange Bowl. Late in the game, Overstreet fumbled the ball, which was recovered by Seattle's John Harris. The fumble led to the eventual winning touchdown scored by Seattle's Curt Warner. Less than six months later, Overstreet died.

David Overstreet played only one season with the Miami Dolphins. He rushed for 392 yards and scored 3 touchdowns. His death not only stunned the Dolphin organization, it stunned the entire league. In 1984 Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton broke Jim Brown's then NFL career rushing record. After the game, Payton dedicated the record to the running backs who died young. "The motivating drive for me has been the athletes who have tried for the record and failed and for those who didn't have an opportunity such as the Overstreets (David), the Delaneys (Joe) and the Piccolos (Brian)." Overstreet is gone, but not forgotten.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Ghosts of the Orange Bowl: Miami vs. USF 2005

Miami linebacker Leon Williams delivers a crushing hit to South Florida quarterback Courtney Denson

Football is not a contact sport. It's a collision sport. No matter how many times the NFL and the NCAA implement new rules to protect the quarterback, it will always be a violent game. On October 1, 2005, the University of South Florida football team visited the Orange Bowl to play the Miami Hurricanes. The Canes won 27-7 in what was mostly a boring and forgetful game. Neither team was a national championship contender. No records were set. It was just another ordinary college football game played on a Saturday night.

But from that game produced one of my favorite photographs ever taken from a football game. During the third quarter, Miami's Leon Williams came blitzing from his middle linebacker position. The target of Williams' s furious charge was USF quarterback Courtney Denson. Denson dropped back in the pocket and as he scanned the field to find an open receiver, he suddenly saw a blur of orange and white coming at him. With barely any time to react, Denson instinctively released the football. As soon as the ball left his hand, Williams crashed violently into Denson. If Denson were a brick wall, Williams would have run right through him. The impact of the hit was so ferocious, it sent Denson's body flying backwards like a cartoon character. It was one of the hardest hits I'd ever seen.

Photographer Bill Frakes captured the hit with his camera. The physicality of the collision was stunning. You could see the see the persperation of both players splashing into the air as Williams delivered the blow. Denson, who was a graduate of Miami Central High School, was making his long awaited homecoming. But it's debatable if he remembers anything from that game.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Ghosts of the Orange Bowl: Bubba Franks

They say everything is bigger in Texas and former University of Miami tight end Daniel "Bubba" Franks was no exception to the rule. The 6-foot-6, 260 pound Franks was not only big on size, he was huge on talent. Franks was the first of four University of Miami tight ends to become NFL first round draft picks from 2000 to 2006. Not only was he an outstanding receiver, he blocked like an extra tackle on the offensive line.

Growing up Big Spring, TX, Franks was not heavily recruited. In fact University of Miami head coach Butch Davis found him by accident. During a trip to Texas, Davis was trying to recruit defensive lineman Damione Lewis of Sulphur Springs. One of the coaches told him about a raw prospect down the road who was an excellent high school basketball player and had potential to be a fine college football player. Intrigued by the coach's recomendation, Davis decided to take a trip down to the small West Texas town of Big Spring. He was amazed by what he discovered.

Davis couldn't believe Franks had no scholarship offers from major schools. His blend of size and athleticism was startling. The first thing that stood out about Franks was his handshake. He had hands the size of small dogs. Franks also had a quiet and humble demeanor. He never showed signs of having a prima donna attitude of many highly recruited high school prospects. After meeting Franks, Davis knew immediately he had found a hidden gem and offered him a scholarship.

Franks came to Miami at a very crucial time. The Hurricanes had been penalized by the NCAA with scholarship restrictions. UM had lost close to 40 football scholarships and were limited in how many recruits it could sign. Due to probation stemming from the Dennis Erickson years, Davis was forced to carefully choose the right players to rebuild Miami into a national power again. The 1996 recruiting class was Davis's first at UM and he knew he couldn't afford to miss or make a mistake with any of his new players. Franks was considered a bit of a gamble, only because he was relatively unknown by the recruiting gurus. The big names of the class were Edgerrin James and Damione Lewis, who were both prep All Americans.

When Franks arrived at the Coral Gables campus, he was in culture shock. Not only did he have to make the adjustment playing a higher level of football, he had to socially adjust to living in a city. Growing up in a small town that had maybe one or two traffic lights was much different than living in Miami. He sat out his first year and redshirted while playing on the scout team. Franks was big and athletic, but he was still considered too raw and wasn't ready to contribute.

In 1997, Franks finally saw his first action as a college player. The Hurricanes roster was small and was in the worst shape of its probation period. The undermanned Canes finished 5-6 including a 47-0 crushing loss to Florida State. Home games at the Orange Bowl no longer had any home field advantage. The crowds were smaller and those who did show up were more hostile to the home team. At one point, a crazy Miami fan paid a pilot to fly a banner over the Orange Bowl that read "From National Champs to National Chumps. Thanks Butch".

But in the middle of the turmoil, Franks was quietly establishing himself as one of the brighter stars on the team. During the 1997 and 1998 seasons, Franks caught 37 passes for 7 touchdowns. His run blocking was just as good, while plowing holes for running backs Edgerrin James and James Jackson. By late in the 1998 season, there finally appeared to be a light at the end of what was once a bleak tunnel. He was named All Big East both years. The Canes finally had a breakthrough victory beating undefeated UCLA 49-45 and snapping the Bruins 20 game win streak in front of ESPN cameras. Franks caught only one pass in that game. But it was his blocking that really made a difference. Edgerrin James set a UM record 298 yards rushing and many of those yards came while running behind Franks.

By 1999 Franks was no longer a secret. NFL scouts and draft experts were already pegging him as a sure first round prospect. He was only a junior and it was clear the 1999 season would be his last at Miami. He didn't disappoint. Franks caught 45 passes for 565 yards and 5 touchdowns. He finished second on the team in all three receiving categories behind only Santana Moss. He was named first team All Big East and All American. During a game against Syracuse, Franks made an acrobatic diving one-handed catch. To this day, it's the best catch I've ever seen by a UM tight end. The Hurricanes finished 9-4 and were finally on their way back to prosperity. As expected, Franks chose to forgoe his senior year and enter the NFL draft.

He was selected by the Green Bay Packers in the first round as the 14th overall pick. Franks played eight seasons with the Packers and was named to three consecutive Pro Bowls in 2001, 2002 and 2003. He has caught 232 passes for 2,347 yards and 32 touchdowns in his career. He signed with the New York Jets in 2008 and was then released after the season.

Franks left a great legacy at the University of Miami. Hurricane fans had seen good tight ends in the 1980s and early 1990s with players like Glenn Dennison, Willie Smith, Rob Chudzinski and Coleman Bell. But none of those players had the size and athletic talent of Bubba Franks. The success of Franks led to Miami becoming a popular destination for young aspiring tight ends. Jeremy Shockey, a junior college player from Ada, Oklahoma, picked Miami because of Franks's career. Later came Kellen Winslow and then Greg Olsen. Another player, Eric Winston, originally was recruited out of Midland, Texas as a tight end. Winston was highly recruited and chose the Canes because he was a fan of Bubba Franks. Winston ended up outgrowing the tight end position and became an offensive tackle. He too is now an NFL player with the Houston Texans.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Ghosts of the Orange Bowl: Melvin Bratton

(Top) Melvin Bratton in action against Oklahoma in the 1988 Orange Bowl Classic. (Bottom) Bratton leaps over a pile linemen against Florida State in 1987

It's been said you only get one chance to make a good first impression. On November 23, 1984, University of Miami freshman running back Melvin Bratton made a spectacular debut in his first college start. Playing in place of the injured Alonzo Highsmith, Bratton gained 134 yards and scored 4 touchdowns. Unfortunately nobody remembers what Bratton accomplished that rainy afternoon in the Orange Bowl. That's because in the very same game Boston College's Doug Flutie completed a hail mary pass that would become the most replayed moment in college football history. Boston College won the game 47-45 and Bratton's heroics would be just a small footnote.

Bratton's debut was just the beginning of what would become an outstanding college career. From 1984 through 1987 Bratton rushed for 1,371 yards, gained 1084 yards receiving and scored a then school record 32 touchdowns in his career with the Canes. He is the only running back in University of Miami history to gain over 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in his career. He played a major role in the emergence of one of college football's great dynasties. The Hurricanes were 41-8 and won the 1987 national championship in Bratton's UM playing career. In his final college game, he tied a then Orange Bowl Classic record with 9 catches against Oklahoma and was named offensive MVP of the game.

Growing up in Miami's tough Liberty City neighborhood, the Orange Bowl had always been a big part of Bratton's life and football development. He attended many Dolphin and Hurricane games as a kid. He also played in the Orange Bowl for Northwestern High School in its annual "Soul Bowl" game against rival Jackson High School. Greatness was always expected of Bratton from the time he graduated from Northwestern High in 1983. He was the most highly recruited running back in Florida, earning All American honors by Parade and Scholastic Coach magazines. The Miami Herald rated Bratton as the second best high school player in Florida behind his future teammate and fellow Miamian Alonzo Highsmith of Columbus High School. As good as he was on the football field, he was just as spectacular in track and field. Bratton was a two-time state champion in the long jump and one of the state's fastest sprinters.

Virtually every major college football program wanted his services. He once took a recruiting trip to Ann Arbor, Michigan, but forgot to bring any winter clothing. It snowed during the entire visit and the chilling temperatures were enough for Bratton to realize Michigan wasn't the place for him. During his senior year at Northwestern High, he became close friends with Highsmith. The two high school phenoms decided they would attend the same college together. In February 1983, Bratton, Highsmith and Northwestern High defensive back Tommy Streeter held a signing day ceremony at a McDonald's restaurant located across the street from Tropical Park. The three players chose the McDonald's because it was where they originally met as friends. Bratton and Highsmith signed their letters of intent to attend the University of Miami. Streeter was expected to join them. But instead, Streeter decided to sign with Colorado. (Streeter's son, Tommy Jr., is currently a freshman receiver at Miami) With Streeter choosing Colorado, Miami head coach Howard Schnellenberger had one leftover scholarship to give. He decided to give it to Bratton's Northwestern teammate Tolbert Bain.

Bratton and Highsmith were the jewels of the 1983 Hurricane recruiting class that would forever change the attitude of the program. This recruiting class included names like Jerome Brown, Winston Moss, Brian Blades, Daniel Stubbs, George Mira Jr, Darrell Fullington, Warren Williams and Gregg Rakoczy. Many of these players came from South Florida's inner city community and brought a new style of football to UM. It was called "swagger". They were not only athletic. But they played the game with and extreme blend of emotion, cockiness, brashness and loved to talk a lot of trash and dance in the end zone. Good, bad or indifferent, they changed the face of Hurricane football.

Due to an abundance of experienced running backs which included Albert Bentley and Keith Griffin, Bratton sat out the 1983 season and redshirted. The Hurricanes went on to win their first national championship with a shocking upset of top ranked Nebraska in the 1984 Orange Bowl. Bratton's buddy Alonzo Highsmith made the switch from linebacker to running back and scored a touchdown in the game. When Howard Schnellenberger left UM in 1984, Bratton had to prove himself again to new head coach Jimmy Johnson.

Jimmy Johnson was the right coach at the right time. He was a pyschology major at the University of Arkansas and he embraced the attitude of the new breed of Miami players. The Hurricanes became known for their bad boy image and Johnson embraced it. Johnson adopted an "us against the world" mentality and the players loved him, particularly the inner city players like Bratton.

His debut against Boston College established Bratton as one of Miami's most explosive players. On one play, he took a pitchout from quarterback Bernie Kosar and darted to his right, made two tacklers miss and then cut completely across the field, outrunning three Boston College defensive backs, who had an angle, all the way to the end zone. It was one of the most spectacular runs in UM history. The play was credited as a 52 yard run. But in actuality, Bratton ran close to 100 yards to get to the end zone. And when he wasn't running by BC defenders, he was jumping over them. Bratton scored two of his touchdowns in the Boston College game on goal line dives. He would launch his body high in the air, flying over a pile of linemen. It was a move he learned from watching Walter Payton and Herschel Walker. Bratton's leaps were almost unstoppable and made him nearly automatic on short yardage and goal line situations.

In 1985, he rotated with Highsmith and Warren Williams to form a formidable trio of running backs. The Hurricanes had a pro-style passing game. Perhaps Bratton's best skill was his ability to catch the football out of the backfield. Offensive coordinator Gary Stevens would design plays to utilize Bratton's receiving prowess. Stevens would often have Bratton run wheel routes out of the backfield or even split him out as a receiver and run take-off patterns. Bratton presented huge mismatch problems for defenses. Linebackers could not keep up with his speed and defensive backs were not strong enough to bring him down in the open field.

One example was the 1987 game against Florida State. Trailing 19-3 in Tallahassee, the Canes offense was struggling badly. Quarterback Steve Walsh was on the verge of getting benched and Jimmy Johnson was ready to ask true freshman Craig Erickson to warm up. Late in the third quarter, Walsh threw a short pass over the middle to Bratton, who then made a linebacker miss and then raced 40 yards past the entire FSU secondary to the end zone. This play changed the entire momentum of the game. Walsh quickly gained confidence and threw a pair of touchdown passes to Michael Irvin in the fourth quarter and the Canes came from behind to beat FSU 26-25.

But Bratton's shining moment was his final college game in the 1988 Orange Bowl Classic against Oklahoma. Both teams were undefeated and the national championship was on the line. During Miami's opening possession, Walsh fired a deep pass down the sidelines to a streaking Bratton, who made an over-the-shoulder catch in the end zone for the first score of the game. Oklahoma's defense was so concerned with trying to cover Michael Irvin and Brian Blades, they had no answer for Bratton out of the backfield. He caught 9 passes and the Hurricanes won the national championship 20-14.

Unfortunatley the 1988 Orange Bowl Classic was also Bratton's darkest moment. Early in the fourth quarter, Bratton caught a short pass near the Oklahoma sidelines. When he was tackled, his left knee buckled and was completed shreaded, tearing all the major ligaments. Prior to the injury, Bratton was considered a sure future NFL first round draft choice. But those dreams looked over.

The Miami Dolphins drafted Bratton in the sixth round of the 1988 NFL Draft. But Bratton and his agent wanted first round money. With a damaged knee that still needed rehabilitation, the Dolphins were not going to give Bratton the money he requested. Bratton sat out the entire 1988 season and re-entered the draft in 1989. This time he was taken by the Denver Broncos in the 7th round. With his knee finally repaired, Bratton signed with the Broncos and played two seasons in Denver. But he never regained the same quickness and explosion he possessed before the injury. He carried the ball only 57 times for 190 yards scoring 8 career touchdowns. He started for the Broncos as a fullback in Super Bowl XXIV. By 1991, he released by the Denver and then cut in training camp by the Falcons. His football career was over.

Since his playing days, Bratton has continued to stay in touch with the game. He and former high school and college teammate Tolbert Bain started a company together making throwback college football jerseys. He is currently pursuing a career as a sports agent.