Quarterback Jake Laudenslayer was the driving force behind Cal Lutheran's… (Joe Bergman / d3photography.com )
The other morning I woke up to find a football in my bed. Down where the dog should have been, a football.
Guess I'd had a little too much grape juice the night before, at least that's what I'm telling the wife. I snuggled the football. Whispered sweet nothings. Made a lunch date. Spooned.
See, football is more than a one-night stand with me. It's a chronic, lifelong commitment. I've studied football back to the days of Cactus Face Duggan. Yes, he was an actual player (for the Giants).
Can you imagine a player with that nickname today? They all look sort of cactus-faced to me. As if the game isn't torturous enough, they have to punish themselves with a chin strap across scratchy three-day stubble.
Anyway, I followed my muse — football — out to Thousand Oaks the other night and found yet another thing to love about it: Division III games. The ticket price was right (free), in a brand spanking new stadium on the Cal Lutheran campus. I hate to use the word spanking around college kids, because it just gives them ideas. Believe it or not, I used to be one.
And oh, what a game. Best I've seen all year and maybe in my all-time top five. You have a top five? I'll get to mine in a moment.
First, a few words about Division III football. It's like "Hoosiers," except outdoors. Take away the money, the agents, the NFL aspirations and what you get is football for football's sake. Geez, there are 100 kids on each roster, and the fans are spilling out of the stands and lining the fences, like those pictures you see of high school games in Texas.
On this night, the University of Redlands (ranked 13th in the nation) is visiting archrival Cal Lutheran (ranked 20th). Think UCLA versus USC scaled down to where students sometimes dash out of the stands to talk to players along the sidelines before being herded back into the stands. None of the college kids thought to bring a jacket, naturally, so they all sit in the stands shivering and huddled together like puppies.
The caliber of play? Better than you might expect. Most played good high school ball. Maybe they were a step slow or 20 pounds too light. Maybe they came from a messed-up high school program, playing for a clueless coach. There are a million reasons some kids get a shot at the big time and others don't. Just ask any 24-year-old former running back stacking groceries.
What these non-scholarship players don't lack is intensity. In the unforgiving world of the Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, one loss can drop you out of playoff contention. Three hours, this game, and nobody takes a play off — not even a wide receiver.
The night gets off to a rousing start. The student section sings the national anthem so loudly that it nearly drowns out the band. Right away, you know you're in a different place.
Then Redlands comes out and stings Cal Lutheran early. The Kingsmen hadn't given up a first-quarter score all year, and suddenly they're down, 14-0, then 24-0 at halftime, largely on the scrambling of Redlands quarterback Chad Hurst.
It's a big lead, almost demoralizing. But something doesn't feel quite settled.
Sure enough, in a storybook second half, Cal Lutheran quarterback Jake Laudenslayer, a big kid out of Modesto, finds former Charter Oaks High receiver Eric Rogers in the end zone, on a rainbow pass that might have needed FAA clearance. Came down with a Delta flight attendant on board.
Two more long touchdown drives make the score, 24-21, Redlands still in front. And then a punt pins the Kingsmen back on their own two-yard line with three minutes to play, after a harrowing special teams switch in which Cal Lutheran might have had 40 kids on the field, but there were so many the referee crew just gave up counting.
The Kingsmen drive for the next three minutes and 98 yards, on the back of Laudenslayer throwing little slants and marching down the field like Patton into French Morocco.
With 16 seconds to go, and no timeouts, Cal Lutheran scores from the one and little William Rolland Stadium goes frappin' bananas. Cal Lutheran wins, 28-24.
"I've been watching these games for 45 years," says giddy alum Dave Starleaf, "and that's the best game I ever saw."
So finally, my top five finishes of all time:
1. Green Bay-Cowboys, Ice Bowl.
2. Boise State-Oklahoma, Fiesta Bowl.
3. Eli Manning drive, Super Bowl XLII.
4. Audrey Hepburn slays the psycho in "Wait Until Dark."
5. Cal Lutheran slays Redlands, Oct. 1, 2011.
Worth every penny, this game. Oh, that's right, it was free.