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The Man Who Caught One Pass from Donovan McNabb

We sat, hookah hoses in hand, as the topic turned to high school and former football glory. I didn’t know TJ that well, but had become pretty good friends with both the Mikes. "We were a Super Bowl team that year," TJ began, before recounting numerous hilarious and unforgettable plays. Then, the topic turned to some of the guys they’d never forget. "Scotty ____, now he was the one guy you just could not stop. He was the best I ever played against.

Scotty ____? I work with that guy! He’s the one guy they remembered most?

Massachusetts football isn’t the same level as you get in places like Texas, Florida, California, or Ohio and Pennsylvania even. But these guys weren’t your average pushovers. TJ was gearing up for his third tour of duty in Iraq. He’s one of the most solid dudes you’d ever meet… and here he is talking about the same Scotty with whom I spend my every working hour grinding, drinking tarry black coffee, fighting for the next deal, doing whatever we can not to get the ax that has befallen so many others just like us. He’s just another regular guy’s guy with fascinating stories and bills to pay.

A Major Adjustment for a Minor Prospect

Although he played for a small school, Scotty’s records still stand twenty years later. Career receptions, career receiving yards, career receiving touchdowns, you name it. They were a perennial 8-2 team in a middle division of a small state. Many doubted he belonged at a school like Syracuse from the beginning. "I heard you’re getting recruited by some big schools," one of Northeastern University’s upperclassmen had told him. "I went to high school with a kid like you, got recruited by Michigan. At those schools, you’re just another guy on the team. You have to be 100% all the time, or you’re nothing." He was right.

Scotty entered his freshman year at SU, in 1993, at 5’11" and 165 pounds, with a fast (but not world burning) 4.5 second 40-yard dash time. Yeah, he was good. He was real good. But just how good? After the first few practices, running behind guys like Shelby Hill and the soon to explode Marvin Harrison, it was immediately evident that he needed some time to adjust to the college game, and college life. He redshirted.

"Man, it was just different," Scotty says to me as we sip on an 18 year single malt scotch after hours at work one night. "I had to spend the whole year just trying to learn the offense… trying to get a grasp on just how hard they throw the ball, the precision required to even be a factor in a play. Other than that, it was normal college stuff. Going to class, studying hard, chasing chicks. Just being an 18 year old."

The second year on campus greeted Scotty with no surprises. He knew the routine, he knew the game. But he still didn’t have enough knowledge of the playbook. Blocking schemes were particularly tough. "It was tough for all of us. But when you have a guy like Jim Turner who was 6’4" and 220 pounds, you put in him there to see what he can do. He was a beast. On the other hand, I would be thinking about the play as I was running it… and I couldn’t afford to do that, it just doesn’t work." The playbook was intense. "In high school, we had maybe 10 plays. At SU, we had something like 15 formations, 15 types of motion, and 15 audibles, not to mention 100 overall run plays, 100 overall pass plays, and every single play had a rule. You needed to recognize the D and coverage schemes, you needed to know the X, Y and Z assignments, and it was all installed at such a fast pace—all in 10 days." Some of the other guys came from more sophisticated high school programs and started with a higher baseline football IQ.

"I’m not going to say I was overwhelmed by the talent—but it’s different from seeing it on TV, to watching it from the stands, to feeling it from the sidelines, to living it on the field. Going from your last game in high school versus Marshfield to playing Oklahoma is a massive jump."

Going into his third, Redshirt Sophomore year, Scotty was extremely optimistic. "I felt like I had earned the opportunity to contribute to the team. I competed well enough in the preseason to get a role. But one play on the last day of preseason bumped me from fourth to fifth on the depth chart. It was a simple play that you learn from Day One in the program, and you just don’t commit this mistake this late into camp. It was just a simple brain fart—I went out and simply blocked the wrong dude, and immediately knew what I did." Immediately after the play, Coach Pasqualoni turned to him and said, "When you’re bitching about not playing this year, you’ll know why."

In the Company of Men

Coach P was a stickler for details. If you weren’t a 5-star performer, he had very little tolerance for your mistakes. "Dudes like me—you can never think that you got it. At that level, talent alone couldn’t carry me. I needed the mentality of perfectionism. I’ve carried that mindset with me the rest of my life. The minute you get comfortable and think you have something down, and let your focus slip even a little, you’re done," Scotty concedes.

He paints a picture of Coach P being like an ivory tower CEO or mafia boss. Scotty recalls a story of a walk-on kicker grumbling about his lack of playing time. This kicker saw Coach P walking down the hall to an all-coaches meeting and said he was going to confront the man about not seeing any action. Scotty and his buddies attempted to dissuade their peer, to no avail. Once the kicker got Coach P’s attention, the startled coach pulled the kid into the meeting room and made a proclamation to the entire group: "You show me the coach who came to your house and recruited you and I’ll fire him right now." It served as a harsh lesson to not break the chain of command. The kicker would soon leave the team. Olindo Mare would retain his starting spot.

The Beginning of an Era

Neither Scotty nor his buddies knew which quarterback would start the first game at North Carolina. On the one hand, there was Keith Downing. Keith was, as a sophomore, the most senior option on the team and presumed starter going into Spring ball. Like so many others, it was hard work and no glory for most of his time at Syracuse. Then, there was a fresh faced 18 year old out of Illinois, Donovan McNabb. They would learn just days before the game that the athletic Redshirt Freshman would get the nod.

As a Top 25 team, North Carolina presented a formidable road game for Syracuse. The key matchup was Marvin Harrison, who had accumulated 77 receptions for 1,574 yards and 12 touchdowns in the previous two campaigns, versus a top shutdown corner, Robert "Fuzzy" Lee. "Marvin just sh-t all over him that game," Scotty recalls.

The game was nationally televised on ESPN under the lights on a Saturday night. His role would be to get in a handful of plays, throw some blocks, run off some routes. It wasn’t a huge role, but it was a role on the team nonetheless. "Get Marvin open."

With Syracuse leading 7-0 in the 2nd quarter, with a 3rd & Medium situation around their own 35 yard line, Scotty would get his first career target. Marvin’s route went down the sideline, where he was covered by both Fuzzy and and a linebacker. Scotty’s call was a simple run-off route, where he would sprint in an attempt to take the top off the coverage. "I was the last read in the progression, it was one of those plays where normally you turn around to see who caught the ball… you don’t realistically look for it to come to you," Scotty says. It was a play he had practiced 40 or 50 times, never even thinking to look for the ball. McNabb had other, more aggressive thoughts.

"F—k it and huck it" is how Scotty describes the play. He burned his guy off the line and went into run off mode to get open. He turned to see a perfect spiral launching towards him. Seeing as it was so late in the read, Scotty had to come back to the ball a little bit. "It was a 50/50 jump ball," Scotty remembers. He leapt, fully extending his left hand. The ball tipped off his fingers and fluttered incomplete. "I probably could have gone up with two. If I had gone up with two, I would’ve had it." That would be his only target of the game.

Syracuse would go on to win the game 20-9. Afterward, he met with his dad and uncle, who made the trek down from Massachusetts, for some brief pleasantries and a proud hug. It was validation for Scotty, his family, and all those that told him he didn’t belong at Syracuse.

Coming Home

Syracuse would jump to 22nd in the national rankings for the home opener.

Syracuse, as a six point favorite, expected to beat East Carolina. It wouldn’t be a rollover victory, considering Syracuse won by a slim 21-18 score the previous year. They had much bigger margins of victory the two years before that. They had, however, lost to ECU in 1991. "You had to show up," according to Scotty.

Scotty’s dad again made the trek to see his son play. This time, he brought with him the Captain from Scotty’s high school team—another guy who wanted to believe, but quietly doubted, that Scotty belonged.

McNabb went to work early. Syracuse jumped out to an early 7-0 lead on an 86 yard drive featuring a 37-yard QB option and 25 yard touch pass. On Syracuse’s next possession, Syracuse strung together a couple more big plays, including a 27-yard pass to Jim Turner on 3rd and 6 to get deep into ECU territory.

Then came 3rd and 17 from the ECU 33.

The Broken Play

They would pressure. Syracuse was within a 50 yard field goal at the current spot—by no means a gimme, but also within reach of the eventual NFL All Pro kicker in a dome stadium. Offensive Coordinator George DeLeone drew up a play for Marvin Harrison, but that play would not take shape.

All those hours and repetitions, studying and rehearsing plays, had to finally pay off. Situations like this called for one’s training to take the wheel from the conscious mind, lest the opportunity never presented itself again. Scotty lined up outside, ready to run his 5-yard hitch route to draw the corner. Marvin was set to run a post/corner route, creating a smash play.

As the ball snapped, the protection broke down immediately. McNabb rolled out to his right. Scotty reacted; his years of programming sent him sprinting toward the sideline while gaining depth, shadowing his scrambling quarterback, eyes locked on the passing shoulder. The sideline was crashing towards him. Time was thin.

"It was there," Scotty says of the throw, "I had about five yards of field left in front of me, and it was there. It hit me right on my up field shoulder." He wouldn’t repeat the previous week’s mistake. This time, he cradled the tip of the ball into his palms, through the triangle between his forefingers and thumbs, quickly folding it into his elbow and breast while turning up field to squeeze as many yards as possible. He made his way down to the 11 yard line before being shoved out of bounds. "I simply ran out of room. I hadn’t caught a pass in a game in three years, and this was an incredibly different speed. I guess I could’ve tried to do something fancy, but at that point you just take what you get and don’t think about it.

"My heart was going nuts. You would’ve thought I scored a touchdown." The very next play, Tebucky Jones finished the drive with a powerful run and Syracuse held a 14-0 lead. Scotty returned to the sideline and was welcomed with the first acknowledgements from his coaches. "Good f—ing play, Scotty!"

Syracuse would extend the lead to 21-0 before ECU rallied to win 27-24. Scotty wouldn’t get another target the rest of the way.

Validation

"My first game validated that I deserved to be there. But after making this play, you officially could not take it away from me. After you make a play like that, suddenly people from the stands and the community know you. It’s like, ‘Hey, I know you! You’re number 11! You caught that ball on 3rd down!’ It’s really cool at first, but then you are no longer you. You are other people’s perception of you. And I’m just the dude who caught one pass."

Scotty played in every game therein. He didn’t see any targets, but he was invigorated to do his part. He ran his routes, blocked, and contributed to special teams. The Orangemen went on to finish the regular season 8-3 and earned a New Year’s date with Clemson in the Gator Bowl.

"I hurt my knee leading up to the Gator Bowl, but there was no way I wasn’t playing. I got into the game and the coaches were yelling at me to get off the field, because my knee just wasn’t right. It was awesome. We blew out Clemson, 41-0, and afterward it was cool to run around with the guys, see the coaches cutting loose at the hotel bar—it was the first time you really got to see a human side to them—and just have fun. You had Marvin Harrison ripping down three touchdowns on two broken thumbs, an 18 year old MVP of a major bowl game, dudes from Jacksonville getting to end their college careers in front of their family and friends. I don’t know how to put the experience." Scotty stops, takes a breath, then lets out a grin and a chuckle. He declares, "That week was ignorant!"

Orange Embers

Scotty and his teammates parted after the parties ended, doing normal college kid things. He spent a couple days at home, ran around town, went to class, got back in the gym. Then it was back to zero. He layered in countless hours on the track and watching film. Although he felt he earned the number two spot going into the next season, he was wise enough to take nothing for granted. "I was known for outworking the guy next to me. I pushed him, he pushed me. I wanted to be better than he was," he confirms. "But at the same time, no one partied harder, either. It was the same work hard, play hard mentality that carries us today."

Most of the way through the following spring practices, Scotty sensed the coaches did not trust him off the field. They began talking about how great their two new high school recruits were. He wasn’t mad. But he recognized that this insane life was pushing him down a self-destructive path. Football meant a lot to him, but he also had a lot of aches—aches from not seeing enough playing time, aches from the wear and tear on his body, aches from double-dipping in playbooks and school work, aches from staying out too late and having one too many—he needed a change of pace.

He faced his reality and decided to move closer to home. He transferred to Northeastern, the same place where his future was precisely prophesied in his recruiting visit several years prior. If he had to do it all over again, he concedes he may have chosen to go there from day one. "I really came into my own there," he remembers, "I got to play the game I love—and play a lot. The coaches built game plans around my abilities and I was actively involved in in-game adjustments. The team there was a team. It was a brotherhood that went beyond the football field. It was about building a program, about creating community, about having a bunch of men that went into battle for each other and not themselves. Outside of that, I got my degree, I met my wife, was able to partake in shenanigans when I wanted to… and I set myself up for the rest of my life."

The Northeastern program folded in 2009 due to impending expenses that attendance and public interest were simply not strong enough to overcome. Just as Scotty’s once hopeful Syracuse career will be long forgotten in public memory, so too will the program in which he finally flourished. It’s a harsh reality.

We grow up dreaming of a future atop a glorious peak, only to speed past the edge, clinging with every ounce of vicariousness our souls can endure. Some of us are reduced to far worse, more nightmarish outcomes. But for every Donovan McNabb and Luke Cain, there are hundreds like the anonymous Scotty, who have regressed to a far more ordinary and statistically probable life.

Another Kind of Greatness

It’s eight o’clock on an unseasonably mild December night. An unassuming Japanese sedan pulls into a crackled driveway as the side door to an old colonial house swings open. "Daddy’s home!" exclaims a pajama clad six year old boy. Scotty meets his son at the door and gives him a big hug. He grabs a quick dinner, puts his boys to bed, and bangs out a quick Crossfit workout in the makeshift gym in his garage. He settles for the night with a glass of wine and drapes a blanket over his wife’s feet on the couch. He smiles and tells her the purchase order he’s been grueling over for months finally came across his inbox. It will be a decent Christmas for the boys.

On Sundays, he’ll sit with his sons and watch the NFL. He’ll tell them stories of his own past glories, and sometimes the real past glories of the very players they’re watching.

It doesn’t matter that most of us never caught a pass from Donovan McNabb. Most of us are thankful to have such a fulfilling finish to another in a long line of nights that all seem to blend together. "On the one hand, you can be disappointed that things didn’t turn out differently if you choose to look at it that way," Scotty concludes. "But on the other hand, you can be proud of what you accomplished, of the unique experiences you earned for yourself. I was a Syracuse Orangeman. No one can take that away from me."

Stripes for Life

Later this month, we will watch as the Syracuse Orange take on former conference rival West Virginia in their second Pinstripe Bowl in three years. Before, throughout, and now after the season, we’ve had plenty to debate. Does it matter? Is it a step back? Where do Nassib and Lemon rank all-time at their respective positions for Syracuse? Lost in all this is the fact that these guys are in their late teens, early twenties. They are fallible and often worthy of our forgiveness, far more often than we can sing them praise. Lost is the fact that, for every Ryan Nassib, there’s a Dom Amene. Lost is the fact that there’s always a guy who may not have a place in Syracuse lore, but is worthy of praise for being able to make the team and earn a scholarship nonetheless. As the NCAA PR machine reminds us, most of these guys are going pro in something other than sports.

That’s why I’ll be standing with thousands of other like-minded fans at Yankee Stadium on December 29. Our fingers will numb from the cold, our bellies swollen full with an amalgamation of empty-calorie sausage and beer, voices shattered and scratchy from abuse. We’ll share in agony and elation with dozens of young men just like Scotty as they earn lifelong memories for themselves, as we attempt to purchase a little piece of those memories for ourselves. We’ll do it with money we work hard to earn alongside thousands of others that were once like them. We will watch as those men make their way off the field at the conclusion of whatever happens, wishing them the best in whatever happens next.

And one day down the line, one of us will pull up a stool at the bar around the corner from the office, listening to the new guy tell his story about the time he caught one pass from Ryan Nassib.


Names sort of redacted to maintain search engine innocence

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