What do Red Sox fans know, anyhow? Compared to the hex hanging over the U of M football Tigers, the Curse of the Bambino is child's play.
There was just over two minutes left on the clock at the Liberty Bowl last Saturday, on a magnificent autumn afternoon, and Tommy West's scrambling Tigers had just taken a 34-30 lead over the Cincinnati Wildcats. The old stadium was fairly pulsating with fan enthusiasm, as 26,395 screaming, long-suffering U of M football fans were already celebrating what appeared to be a historic victory, one that would cap the team's first winning season since 1994.
Not those of us, however, who have long been regulars in Section Eight on the stadium's north side. No, we knew better than to wax euphoric. As loyal fans of a team whose official theme song ought to be "Cry Me A River," we understood only too well that you don't count your chickens before they hatch. We stood rather quietly with the cheering multitudes, smiling, yes, but, well, suspicious. I pointed out to my companions that the afternoon sun was at that very moment perfectly framed on the opposite side of the stadium by one of the section entryways, creating from our perspective an eerie glow inside, much like the solar effects at Stonehenge at the exact moment of the winter solstice.
It's an omen," I said, and my friends nodded sagely, all but the 11-year-old son of one, who was screaming at the top of his lungs. "Calm down. Trust us," we told him wearily, in much the same way that grizzled battle veterans greet newcomers to the trenches, "it ain't over til it's over."
And it wasn't, of course. After taking over at the Wildcat 20 yard-line, Gino Guidugli marched his charges down the field, quickly and efficiently. Oh, he was blessed by a questionable pass-interference call, but mostly, he was the lucky beneficiary of a Qurse every bit as real as the one that Bostonians say was placed on their team when they traded Babe Ruth, the Bambino, to the Yankees in 1920, and kept them from winning a championship ever since. It's a Qurse whose impact is, simply, that whenever Memphis is in a close game near the end, the Tigers will always, invariably snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Just like they did last Saturday. Guidugli completed a Hail-Mary on fourth-and twenty-seven, and put the final nail in our coffin with just four ticks left on the clock, hitting John Olinger with a 13-yard pass in the north corner of the end zone.
Were we dejected? Of course, we were; practically suicidal, in fact. Were we surprised? Of course not. True blue U of M football fans always know that when the chips are on the line, ours will always turn into those of the bovine variety. "That was the same play that Louisville beat us with in 1999, right?" said one of our group dejectedly, as the crowd stood in place, in stunned silence. He was correct, of course. The Tigers had lost 32-31 in the Liberty Bowl that year when Chris Redman threw almost the exact same pass to Lavell Boyd. Oh, there were differences, to be sure. Redman's pass went 18 yards, not 13. And, hey, we were left with six seconds on the clock, not four. See what I mean?
Over the past three seasons, the Tigers have been perhaps the best losing team in Division One. Unquestionably, ours is the most snake-bitten football program in America. A few bounces here and there, and we would have gone bowling long ago. Hell, we lost eight games in 1999 and 2000, out of a total of thirteen, by the combined margin of -- are you ready for this? -- twenty points! Less than three touchdowns altogether; win those games, and we go 9-2 and 8-3 those two seasons, respectively. And by the way, these weren't losses to chumps; besides Louisville, the Qurse made us victims of Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and the Great Orange Evil One itself, Tennessee, not once, but twice.
True-blue Tiger fans remember every excrutiating detail of these games -- All- American Ryan White's first career missed field goal against Ole Miss (we lost 3-0, naturally), UT's Tee Martin's 53-yard desperation pass in the waning minutes at Neyland Stadium in 1999 (we lost 17-16), and poor Scott Scherer's "here, take this" intereception in overtime last year against these same Bearcats (we lost 13-10). I could go on, but nauseau prevents me.
So what about the Qurse, anyway? And why, Kenneth, are you spelling it with a "Q"?
Ah, that's because I've finally figured it all out. It came to me clearly, blindingly, in a flash, during that Stonehenge moment at the Liberty Bowl last Saturday:
It's all Qadry Anderson's fault. That's why we're laboring under this curse, this malediction, this hex. Call it the Qurse of Qadry.
Memphis football fans know exactly I mean, but let me explain for the rest of you.
Qadry Anderson was the starting quarterback for the Tigers for most of the 1996 season. A senior, this junior-college transfer from Oakland, California, had played sparingly the previous year, and even in his one full season at the helm, Anderson was hardly a world beater. He threw nearly twice as many interceptions (11) in 1996 as he threw touchdown passes (6).
Ah, but one of those six was, indisputably, the greatest touchdown pass ever thrown by a Memphis Tiger. It came with just 34 seconds left in the fourth quarter before 65,885 at the Liberty Bowl on November 9, 1996. The recipient in the end zone of Anderson's three-yard toss was tight end Chris Powers. And the opponent, of course, was the sixth-ranked Tennessee Volunteers, who fell 21-17, in an upset of such grand proportions that Sports Illustrated would later rank it as one of the top ten of the entire decade.
Qadry Anderson was no Peyton Manning, his illustrious opponent that fabled afternoon. Peyton threw for nearly 300 yards; Qadry had thrown for less than 30 before that last, heroic drive when time stood still, and our Paper Tigers became, at least for a moment, animals of the first order.
This, my friends, is what I think really happened. The offense, such as it was, took over at the UT 31 with just six minutes left in the ball game, trailing 17-14. They had gained just 84 total yards all afternoon, all the Tiger points having come off interceptions, fumbles, and kickoff returns. In the huddle, though, something strange happened. Quadry told his teammates to relax. "Let's just be calm, guys. We've got this game won." They stared at him in disbelief. "What, is Peyton coming in for our side?" said one exhausted lineman in jest.
Qadry smiled whimsically. "Very funny. No, let's just say I've made a deal."
"You've made a deal. With whom?"
"Sorry, can't tell you. But, hey, time's wasting. Let's go get 'em. Woods, right tackle, on five. Break!"
Well, we all know what happened next. The Tigers sliced and diced their way up field. Anderson himself, limping around on one leg, made a critical fourth-and one quarterback sneak that kept the drive alive, then followed that with a 41-yard bomb -- those of us watching couldn't believe Qadry could throw the ball that far -- to Chancy Carr. A couple of plays later, Anderson hit Powers, and the Tigers had an implausible four-point lead. In the last thirty seconds, Manning came back and threw a few desperation passes, but, frankly, he looked more like Qadry Anderson than Peyton Manning. A final interception, and the goalposts came tumbling down.
It was all too perfect, wasn't it? That's why I think something fishy happened in that huddle. I'm still not sure what the exact nature of the Faustian bargain Qadry cut with you-know-who on that memorable November afternoon five years ago, but, I swear, we've been paying the price ever since. Think this team isn't cursed? Hey, the facts speak for themselves. The Qurse cost Rip Scherer his job, and if it continues, it'll cost Tommy West, his coaching successor, his sanity.
That's why the football Tigers need to blow off spring practice next year and do something far more constructive. Coach West and his impressive quarterback prodigy Danny Wimprine need to spend two or three weeks in New Orleans, searching out Marie Laveau's successors. Nothing but black magic is gonna get rid of the Qurse of Qadry.
Anybody know where we can find a Philip Fulmer voodoo doll?