Thirty years ago, Bobby Bowden stared at the young faces surrounding him on the Florida State sideline at Doak Campbell Stadium. FSU and Miami had slugged it out for three hours. It was early evening. The FSU head coach had just sent the kicking team out to tie the game at 26-26 with 42 seconds left.
"But the kids are standing there, looking disappointed," Bowden said. "I changed my mind. I decided to go for two points. Didn't bat an eye. That was the kind of game that was. A day you go for it."
Thirty years later, Melvin Bratton, a senior running back for Miami, still thinks it was the only thing to do. He would have thought so even if his own coach, Jimmy Johnson, was the one doing it.
"We'd played so hard and they'd played so hard," Bratton said. "This wasn't a game where you tied. This was a game to shine. You don't tie. It was demanded: Somebody needed to win that game."
Somebody did. On Oct. 1, 1987, third-ranked Miami beat fourth-ranked FSU, 26-25 after a failed FSU two-point try. Miami cornerback Bubba McDowell knocked down an underthrown Danny McManus pass for tight end Pat Carter.
So ended a classic, a remarkable afternoon, a nationally televised party for football in the state of Florida, a true launch point for the rivalry between Hurricanes and Seminoles. Miami went on to an undefeated season and a national championship. Florida State went 11-1 — one loss, by one point — and finished No. 2.
"I'd never seen that much talent on a football field," Bowden said.
"Probably never will be again," McDowell said.
Here's what you need to know: The game featured 63 players who eventually made NFL rosters.
Among them were two future NFL Hall of Famers, Miami receiver Michael Irvin and Florida State cornerback Deion Sanders. They were the headliners. There were 10 future first-round draft picks in that game. It's mind-boggling.
"You could feel it all around you," said Bennie Blades, an two-time All-American safety at Miami, who went third overall in the 1988 draft. "You knew it was special. Brent Musberger did the game. We wanted him to call our names. We were entertainers. That was Miami-FSU - performances. Think about a star-studded movie. You wanted a starring role. Nobody wanted to get left out that day."
"The atmosphere, from start to finish, was like nothing I'd ever been involved in," said Florida State co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach and former Buccaneer Lawrence Dawsey, who was a freshman receiver for the '87 Seminoles. "It was national TV, so people saw that all over the country. It put the state and Florida football on the map."
The game began at 2:44 in the afternoon. The NCAA official scoring summary from that day would note that the weather was "Sunny and absolutely gorgeous."
The official scoring summary!
Florida State ran away at first. And the Seminoles were the better team most of the afternoon. FSU's Sammie Smith punished Miami, running 30 times for 189 yards. Sanders had a couple of big punt returns and Seminoles corner Martin Mayhew blocked a punt for a touchdown to help the Seminole roll up a 19-3 lead in the third quarter. But there were troubling signs for FSU: a botched snap on a field goal, two missed field goals and a missed extra point.
"Kind of the start of that kicking thing against Miami, before those wide rights," Bowden said with a chuckle. "But we outplayed them bad. Sure thought we had them that day."
They didn't. Miami roared back. Miami roared a lot back then.
"We were cocky, brash, we were everything people said we shouldn't be," Bennie Blades said.
Hurricanes quarterback Steve Walsh, just three games into replacing Heisman winner Vinny Testaverde, called an audible and hit Bratton over the middle for a 49-yard touchdown. Miami went for two and made it. And it was 19-11 late in the third quarter. Then Irvin got free of Sanders, who had hounded him most of the day, and caught a touchdown pass. Miami went for two and made it. And it was 19-19 with 11:39 left in the game.
Then a FSU drive ended with a fumble at the Miami 17. Bennie Blades recovered. Four plays later, Walsh saw Sanders on the other side of the field, away from Irvin. Martin Mayhew was up at the line on Irvin. Audible. Irvin beat Mayhew and Walsh hit him in stride — 73 yards down the sideline. Miami led 26-19 with 2:22 left. The FSU crowd went silent.
"But we weren't done," McManus said.
The senior QB, playing his final game against Miami, led the Seminoles on a long touchdown drive, finding Ronald Lewis for an 18-yard touchdown with 42 seconds left. The stadium shook.
FSU trailed 26-25. Bowden thought extra point, tie, shake hands.
Then he saw those faces.
"Pat Carter was going to run a flat route, then he was going to wheel up into the corner of the end zone," McManus said. "Ronald Lewis was running a slant. A few weeks earlier, I'd thrown it to Ronald Lewis on the slant and got yelled at by the coaches ... the slant is never open ... wait for the wheel route!"
The sun had dipped below the grandstand. The shadows were in the end zone. It was close to 7 at night.
"The ball was supposed to go to the back pylon," Carter said. "That was the play. It was a little underthrown."
Bubba McDowell was only on the field because Donald Ellis, one of Miami's starting cornerbacks, had gone down with a knee injury during the game.
"I was supposed to cover the quick slant, Ronald Lewis, but I saw Pat come off," McDowell said. "I just dropped back toward Pat. I got my hands on it."
"Ronald was sitting in the back of the end zone, all by himself," McManus said with a laugh.
There was no overtime in college football in 1987. Florida State could never catch up to Miami that season. When the Seminoles began the 1988 season ranked No. 1, the defending national champion Hurricanes crushed them 31-0 in the opener at the Orange Bowl. In 1994, when Florida State came from 31-3 down against Florida, Bowden overruled his assistants and kicked the extra point for a 31-31 tie.
"That '87 game was different. Just felt we needed to go for that one," Bowden said.
Miami would win three of the next five Associated Press national titles. Beginning in 1987, Florida State began an astounding 14-year streak of top-four finishes in the polls that included two national titles. In 1990, Steve Spurrier returned to Florida and the Fun 'n' Gun was born. There was nothing else in college football like the Sunshine State.
So much of that traces back to 1987, to two teams that didn't give an inch.
"We would have beat anyone in the country that day," Bennie Blades said. "They would have beaten anyone else in the country that day. But it we came together on the same field."
Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029