CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — There were four seconds left, the score was tied and Michigan’s Andy Moeller, blood smeared across his uniform, was rocking back and forth on his feet, trying to time his leap.
A piece of the football. That’s all he wanted. He knew this field goal try by Illinois would be the last play of the game.
His muscles throbbed from two hours worth of impact, bruising tackles, helmets in the gut. Who had time to think about that? A piece. Just a piece.
The crowd of 76,397 sucked in its breath. The score was 3-3. Everything was riding on the kick. For Illinois. For Michigan. And for Andy Moeller and his father, Gary, who was standing on the Wolverines sideline, 30 feet away.
In football — as in any sport — there’s the big story, and the smaller stories inside it.
This is one of the smaller stories.
One from the heart. Ill feelings toward Illinois
It begins here, six years ago, when Gary Moeller was the head football coach at Illinois, and his son was a sophomore in high school. The father was in his third year, and the Illini were doing poorly. At the end of the season he was fired. It was ugly. The coach felt betrayed. He sued the university for the remainder of his contract. It was big news with the local papers and TV stations. And it was sticky business for the family.
Under the most normal circumstances, the loss of a father’s job is tough for a family to handle. In a fishbowl like Champaign — where Illini football on Saturdays is almost a religious rite — it was tougher. Much tougher.
“It was such a big deal here,” Andy would recall later. “It was blown way out of proportion. . . . It was tough to take. Let’s just say I don’t like Illinois, OK? I don’t like them.”
The family moved to Michigan and the senior Moeller severed all ties with Champaign. To this day, he does not speak with certain members of the Illinois staff. He’d found a new job under Bo Schembechler’s maize and blue.
And his son had come to play for the same team.
Not only that. He’d developed into a standout. This season, Andy — a 6-foot, 220-pound linebacker with broad shoulders and a shock of blond hair — leads the Michigan defense in tackles.
Both father and son have come a long way since 1979. But right or wrong, a firing is difficult to forget for the man fired and for his son — especially when the son had to hear it from friends and neighbors and read about it in newspapers.
How many chances come for a son to strike back — even in a small fashion?
Here was one. The big story was Michigan vs. Illinois. The small story, for lack of better words, was a case of a family’s honor. A victory for the father and son
And all game long, Andy Moeller played that way. He seemed to be in on every tackle. He made 15 by himself! If they came up the middle, he was there. Tackle. If they dumped a pass over the middle, he was there. Another tackle.
And his father’s defensive unit played just as brilliantly, holding an explosive Illini offense to just three points. And finally it was down to a 37-yard field goal attempt. One play. Last play.
The players dropped into their stances. The crowd rose to its feet. And, of course, by now, you know what happened. The ball was snapped. Moeller came charging in, leaped high, straining every fiber in his body to get the delicious feel of the ball against his fingers.
He didn’t get it. But someone else did.
Dieter Heren, a senior defensive back, tipped the ball, it floated softly towards the uprights, and then, almost unbelievably, hit the crossbar and plunked back towards the field.
No good. Game over. Tie.
The Michigan players broke into a celebration. Sure, a tie isn’t anything to celebrate. Unless you were expecting a loss.
Or you had something else riding on it.
“We may not have won,” said the elder Moeller in the locker room afterwards. “But I can’t tell you how proud I am of this group. They never gave up.” He looked across the hall. His son was talking to reporters.
In the days to come, the big story will be analyzed; Michigan’s performance, their chances for the Big Ten title and for the Rose Bowl.
The smaller story will fade quietly, except maybe in the confines of the Moeller household. Andy is a senior. Next year he goes on his way. The odds that he and his father will ever share such a moment again are slim.
Sometimes football tests your strength, sometimes it tests your stamina. And sometimes, it goes straight for the heart. The scoreboard may only say a tie. But Andy and Gary Moeller did a little better Saturday.