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Colorado's 1994 Hail Mary still stings Michigan

Angelique S. Chengelis
The Detroit News

Ann Arbor — This is the week when Michigan and Colorado fans go with the where were you when conversation starter.

It was 1994, and the Buffaloes rolled into Ann Arbor and stole a victory on an amazing Hail Mary.

It’s a moment burned in the memory of those who were there — and those who watched or listened.

And for years, Michigan fans would tell former linebacker Steve Morrison their story.

He heard from those who left early, confident Michigan’s 26-21 lead was solid.

He heard from those who stayed and watched as Colorado scored twice in the final 2 minutes 16 seconds, including the play.

He has a pretty standard response.

“My angle was a lot worse than yours, so don’t even try it,” said Morrison, a former college coach now living in Ann Arbor. “It’s never going to go away. It was absolute disbelief. Every time I see it, it’s almost out-of-body-like now. No, that can’t be me. But it is.

“I tell people who ask if I was there, ‘Yeah, I was there. Just watch the end of the game when they pan to the player with his hands on his helmet.’ ”

As soon as Michael Westbrook caught the throw from Kordell Stewart on a play that began with six seconds left, Morrison struck that pose.

“It was shock,” Morrison said.

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Time has not numbed what Michigan felt. As Morrison said, it’s never going away. Two years ago on the 20th anniversary of the play, a number of national outlets commemorated the shocking finale of seventh-ranked Colorado’s win at fourth-ranked Michigan.

Tyrone Wheatley, now Michigan’s running backs coach, was coming off an injury and was limited that game. He said Wednesday he didn’t want to revisit the game.

“I was there and I was on the sideline and thought we had the game won and to have a Detroit native (Westbrook) come in the freaking building and steal one from us and go back to Colorado wasn’t a great feeling,” Wheatley said. “Certain things you carry with you and it sticks with you.”

Wheatley couldn’t watch Stewart that final play, so he turned around.

“And then it was silent and then everybody was like, ‘Ohhhhh, man,’ ” he said. “I think at that point in time the stands were almost empty, and there was a brief moment of silence, and then it was, ‘I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it.’

“I looked up and (the Buffaloes) were running around and it was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me.’ That was a tough one.”

Looking back Rick Neuheisel, then the Colorado offensive coordinator and now a Sirius XM College sports host, said things began to fall into place before the team left Boulder.

The staff was to meet at 6:30 a.m. Thursday with coach Bill McCartney. It had not yet started when Neuheisel was told by a trainer that Westbrook missed treatment.

Westbrook lived 900 yards from the football building, and Neuheisel jumped in his car and raced to get him.

“He’s sleeping,” Neuheisel said. “He said he’s sorry, I told him to get in the car. He said, ‘Let me get my clothes on.’ No, get in the car. He just had shorts on. I drove 100 miles an hour up that hill. I got to the meeting and coach McCartney said, ‘Where have you been?’ I said, ‘Upset stomach.’ I looked at (the trainer) and nodded he’s there.

“If Michael Westbrook missed that, he wouldn’t make that trip. I had seen coach levy that penalty before.”

Before the end of the first half, Colorado ran a Hail Mary that was intercepted.

“I went in and fixed it,” Neuheisel said of the play, “Rocket Left.”

“How often do you fix a Hail Mary at halftime? ... We were down 26-14, and I was going up and down the sideline telling them this is going to be the greatest win in Colorado history. They looked at me like I had a third eye.”

Wheatley said the team endured a two-day “hangover” after the loss, and everyone started to replay the game in their heads and spin the what-ifs.

Morrison said the team felt as though something special was building after the victory over Notre Dame a week earlier — and then came the Hail Mary.

“I don’t know if there was any harder moment I ever had in my career,” Morrison said. “I don’t have any doubt if that game had gone different, our season is much different. We had a very average 8-4 season.”

Throughout his coaching career, Morrison had been on both sides of that type of play.

“It’s just that our heartbreak was in front of 100,000 people,” he said. “Let’s face it, it makes the game great in a way because there’s always an opportunity to make plays.”

The hurt, however, never has left — and he suspects it never will.

But another perspective has evolved.

“As much as I hated being part of it, now I can think there’s a beauty to that play,” Morrison said. “The way he threw that football …

“Time stood still.”

Colorado at Michigan

Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. Saturday, Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor

TV/radio: BTN/WWJ

Line: Michigan by 20

Records: Colorado 2-0, No. 4 Michigan 2-0

Series: Michigan leads 3-1 (Michigan 27-3, Sept. 13, 1997)