NEW ORLEANS – At the Sugar Bowl on Sunday either Louisiana State or Oklahoma is going to win the national championship (or some share of it). At least one player is going to be the difference-maker, gaining hero status forever.
The way Billy Cannon still is canonized at LSU. Or a host of Sooners are celebrated in Norman.
That is natural and fine, but as Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops points out, that isn't all. To honor college athletes solely because of their exploits in games is to underestimate the character and accomplishments of so many of them.
Like two of his Sooners – star receiver Mark Clayton and steady defensive tackle Lynn McGruder – who don't need to do anything special Sunday to cement their hero status.
That was taken care of last June, when Clayton was driving his 1995 Mustang north on Interstate-35 from his home in Texas to Norman, Okla. for the start of summer conditioning. His friend McGruder was riding shotgun when, just a few miles from campus, a Ford Escort traveling Southbound on the highway crossed the median and slammed into a Chevy minivan.
The driver of the Escort was instantly killed. The van went flying, but not before a police car right behind it slammed into it.
Next in line was Clayton.
"I hit my brakes. There was a whole bunch of debris and I ended up just missing the police car," Clayton says. "We spun around and stopped. We were lucky. It was crazy."
The two Sooners could have panicked or froze. Instead they raced to the van where the driver, Makenna Smith, was trapped in her seat, pushed up against the steering wheel. Her mother was stuck in the passenger seat and three other family members were in the back. Then the engine caught fire.
"We saw that and everyone [began to] hurry," Clayton says.
McGruder, a 6-3, 290-pound lineman, ripped off the driver's side door but Makenna was still stuck. So he went to the rear of the van, smashed a window and started pulling people out.
Clayton, meanwhile, joined with another motorist who had a cooler full of drinks in his car to put out the engine fire, dousing it with ice water and bottles of Crystal Light. Then the 5-11, 187-pound receiver pried the sliding door open and ripped the front seats out, freeing the two remaining members of the Smith family.
By that point help arrived and police were calling them heroes.
Which is not a new term for college football stars. Clayton is the Sooners' best receiver, averaging 111.2 yards a game. McGruder is a steadying force in OU's tough defense. He recorded 25 tackles and two sacks this season.
So they get more than their share of adulation.
But what they did on that June afternoon on the side of an Oklahoma highway is an entirely differently level of heroics. Something both of them shrug off.
"All I was thinking was, 'We need to get the people,'" Clayton says. "We just reacted."
Just as notable was how they reacted when they got to campus. They told almost no one of the incident. Not many of their teammates. Not their coaches. It wasn't until a story about the accident came out in the student newspaper 10 days later that most knew what they had done. It still has received scant media attention. "They didn't say anything about it," teammate Vince Carter says. "It was tough to get a story out of [them]. They acted like nothing was out of the ordinary. But you know, that's the kind of character people they are."
Stoops takes it even further.
"It is indicative of the character of not just our players – and this isn't written about enough – but the character of so many athletes competing in college athletics. And not just football. And not just Oklahoma.
"These kids, all over, they have a lot of character."
The Sugar Bowl will mark the end of a contentious, scandal-filled 2003 for college sports. The headlines were about championship controversies, coaching misbehaviors and worse.
It was a difficult year to remember what makes this pursuit so great. But Stoops is correct – a couple of high character kids anonymously pulling people from a fiery wreck and seeking nothing from it is more indicative of college sports than Carleton Dotson or Mike Price.
"You always hear about the one or two that are in trouble or in the wrong situation," Stoops says. "There are just so many like these guys."
As the biggest game in college athletics' biggest sport is set to kick off, with commercialism and cries of controversy hitting new highs, it's worth remembering that the field will be full of heroes Sunday.
No matter who wins or who loses.