BY J. BRADY MCCOLLOUGH
Daily Sports Writer
Published September 2, 2002
Michigan offensive tackle Courtney Morgan couldn't even bear to watch kicker Philip Brabbs line up for the biggest kick of his life - and everybody else's.
"Nothing against Brabbs, but I just didn't want to watch it," Morgan said.
Safety Charles Drake put his hopes in divine intervention.
"I was just praying," Drake said. "I was trying to talk to him subliminally. Like, 'Hey Phil, get it through there.' But Cato June was the one who really told me (he made it)."
Quarterback John Navarre, who needed a victory celebration more than anybody after last season's finish, thought the game had shaped up to be one more tragic Michigan collapse after Troy Nienberg's miss from 27 yards with 1:30 left in regulation.
"We missed the field goal, and you think, 'Here we go again,' " Navarre said.
This was the weight on Brabbs' foot when he lined up for a 44-yard field goal that would either affirm or retract the statement made in front of a national audience that his team had recovered from last season's 8-4 record. His teammates were practically drawing straws to decide which had to watch his third field goal attempt of the day.
But the walk-on, who missed his first two collegiate attempts in the first half, one from 36 yards and the other from 42, sent the Big House into pandemonium with what he feels was a little help from fate.
"I feel like God had a script written out, and He was there all the way," said Brabbs, whose first career field goal provided 31-29 revenge for Michigan's loss to Washington last season. "I kind of forgot about (the misses) and felt there was a script to all of it."
He has a good point. Miracles happened to set up his game-winning boot, and they happened in bundles for a minute and 25 seconds.
The supposedly accurate Nienberg missed a chip-shot field goal. A risky play call from Washington coach Rick Neuheisel to pass the ball backfired as quarterback Cody Pickett was sacked by Dan Rumishek, costing the Huskies the chance for a first down. On fourth and two, Michigan receiver Tyrece Butler recovered a careless fumble by fellow wideout Braylon Edwards for a first down. And in a mind-boggling mistake, Washington was hit with a 15-yard penalty after a timeout for too many men on the field, setting up the kick that finally made the Big House rock.
"Before the season, I was thinking that I wanted to kick a game-winner against Notre Dame like Remy Hamilton (in 1994)," said Brabbs, whose longest field goal is still a 47-yarder during his junior year of high school.
Said Michigan coach Lloyd Carr: "It was one of the greatest clutch kicks I've ever seen. He did something today that will never be forgotten."
Was there any doubt that Brabbs would be the man to kick the field goal after both kickers had blown their earlier chances?
"At that point, with the distance and where it was, and Phil having the leg that he does have, there was no doubt he would be the guy to kick it (over Nienberg)," special teams coach Jim Boccher said. "Why he missed the other ones we have to look on film."
"That was a mountaintop experience."
But it was an experience that didn't come without some lessons. Brabbs felt the emotional extremes of a place kicker in just his first game - from the goat to the prince in a matter of hours.
"I guess he had to go all the way to the bottom to make it to the top," said Brabbs' father, Gregg, beaming with pride while waiting for his son outside the Michigan lockerroom.
The journey to the top began when former kicker Hayden Epstein graduated last spring. Carr said that there was not a day this summer when he was in his office that Brabbs wasn't on the practice field kicking field goals.
"Dreams do come true," Carr said.
Boccher said that the main thing he hopes Brabbs learned Saturday was to trust his ability. But Brabbs will take a simpler approach from now on.
"I've learned the less thought for a kicker, the better," Brabbs said.