by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — There were four seconds left; the score was tied and Andy Moeller, blood smeared across his uniform, was rocking back and forth on his feet, just trying to time his leap.

A piece. That’s all he wanted. Just a piece of the football. He knew this field goal try by Illinois would be the last play of the game.

A piece. Just a piece.

The crowd of 76,000 sucked in its breath. Everything was riding on the kick. For Illinois. For Michigan. And for Andy Moeller and his father, Gary — the Wolverines’ defensive coordinator — who had ties to both.

Six years ago, the elder Moeller had been head coach at Illinois. He was fired. It was nasty. Under normal circumstances, the loss of a father’s job is tough for a family to handle. In a fishbowl like Champaign — where Illini football is akin to a religious rite on Saturdays — it was much more difficult.

“I was a sophomore in high school,” Andy would say later. “It was such a big deal here. I don’t agree with how much of a big deal they made (of his father’s firing). It was tough. It was real tough. . . . I don’t like Illinois. No, I don’t like Illinois at all.

“. . . But me and my father are Michigan people now.”

And they were both locked intently on that final snap, the last chance for the Wolverines defense to salvage a win from this football game. How fitting that it came down to the defense. How fitting that the ties that bind were being tested at the moment of truth. Time to get psyched

Michigan called a time-out. Make the kicker think about it. The defense regrouped around coach Moeller, who reviewed the best ways to get in for a block. His son listened. Just like any other player.

On the sidelines the Moellers don’t talk much, at least not any more than any other inside linebacker would talk to his defensive coach. But both knew what this game meant.

“Andy was jacked up for this game,” his father would say later. “There was something special about it, no question. We didn’t talk about it too much, but we knew.”

A father fights for his son dozens of times over a normal lifetime — defends him, supports him, helps him. How many chances come to do it in reverse?

Here was one.

The defensive unit trotted back on the field. Again the crowd was whooped into a frenzy. It was only a 37-yard field goal. If it was good, Illinois would win 6-3.

All game long, Michigan’s defense had been nothing short of spectacular. It simply did not let Illinois in close. The defense played as if the area inside the 20-yard line was mined. It’s nothing new. U-M’s played that way all season, having allowed but two touchdowns in its first seven games.

Now here it was against a team that was averaging nearly 27 points a game
— a team that boasted a spectacular quarterback named Jack Trudeau, who was breaking all sorts of passing records.

And all game long, Andy Moeller had been in on the tackles. He led the team
— more tackles than anyone. If they came up the middle, he was there. Tackle. If Trudeau dumped a pass over the middle, he was there. Another tackle. On Illinois’ last drive alone, Moeller made four stops.

Now, the last play of the game. Saving the day

The ball was snapped. Moeller came charging in, lept high, straining every fiber in his body to get even an extra quarter inch of height, anything that would deliver the delicious feel of ball against his fingers.

He didn’t get it.

But someone else did.

Dieter Heren, a senior defensive back, tipped the kick. It floated softly towards the uprights, and then, almost unbelievably, hit the crossbar and plunked back towards the field.

No good.

The Michigan players broke into a celebration. Sure, a tie isn’t anything to celebrate — unless you were expecting a loss.

“You take a vote and 99 percent of the people will say you’re gonna lose a game like that,” said Andy Moeller. “But we never give up. We just believe we’re going to win — we’re going to stop them.”

They did. And, if it gets recorded in the history books as merely a tie, in the Moeller family scrapbook it will go down as something more. Father and son remember leaving here in 1979. They remember the newspaper articles, the snide comments, the way Andy had to transfer high schools after his sophomore year.

“It was extra incentive,” Andy said. “You try not to make too much out of it. But you can’t help but think about it.”

And they’ll think about how the defense — designed by the father, executed by the son — helped pull a tie out of a defeat. It was bittersweet. But it felt OK.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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