The stakes were about as high as Division III football stakes get when Trinity played Millsaps on Oct. 27, 2007. The year before, Millsaps had ended Trinity’s run of 13 consecutive Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference championships, so not only was Trinity out to get ’em back, a win meant Trinity was SCAC champion again and headed to the playoffs.
What happened during the first 59 minutes, 58 seconds that day in Jackson, Miss., had already made it one of the best games anybody involved could remember playing. What happened in the final two seconds turned a tiny liberal arts college in San Antonio known more for SAT scores than SCAC titles into the toast of the sporting world.
With two seconds left, Trinity executed 16 ball exchanges, spanning 62 seconds and 61 yards to beat Millsaps a full minute after the final gun.
The play joins the 1982 Stanford-Cal finish at the top of the list of unlikeliest finishes in football history.
They call it the Mississippi Miracle:
Here, in their words, is how that happened.
Josh Hooten, offensive line: My dad watched online. I called him after the game and I said, "Hey Dad, did you see what happened?" He’s like, "Yeah, son, I’m so sorry. Y’all fought hard, it was one of the best football games I’ve ever watched. I can’t believe y’all had to lose like that." I said, "Dad, you know we won, right?" He said, “No, I turned it off with two seconds left.”
Steve Mohr, head coach: We had had a great rivalry with Millsaps over the years. There was 10-15 years where Trinity or Millsaps had won the conference. That game there was basically for the conference championship and who was going to qualify for the national playoffs. It happened to be homecoming so there was a great crowd there.
Shawn Thompson, wide receiver: We won 13 or 14 straight conference championships. We go up there the year before and they beat us. They beat us pretty good. They returned two punts. It was ugly.
Blake Barmore, quarterback: My junior year I broke my leg, and two or three games after that in the de facto conference championship game, we lost to Millsaps. That game was circled on our schedule early that year. We wanted to win back the SCAC. We knew we had to go through Millsaps to do so.
Mohr: Looking back, it wasn’t my best team at Trinity. I thought, we had a very good quarterback in Blake Barmore. We had some pretty good receivers. Riley Curry goes down as one of my top 2-3 receivers here as far as hands goes. Wasn’t a real speedy guy.
Barmore: When I was in high school I enjoyed sports and I appreciated the opportunity to play at the next level. Early in my senior year I had some interest from some big schools, some Division I schools. The fifth game of the season I separated my throwing shoulder and most of the interest I received from the scholarship-type schools just went away. I had to sit out at least one game, it may have been two games. My shoulder strength didn’t come back until later in the season. My statistics fell off dramatically as a result. I had some smaller school offers but Trinity was the one that I felt had the best educational program of the hangers on.
Curry: My high school team wasn’t very good. It wasn’t like I was the superstar. I was one of our only decent players. I got a bunch of phone calls from coaches. As they narrowed down who they were interested in I was kind of dropped. I was waiting for a DII scholarship.
Brandon Maddux, H-back: I think my year the average SAT score was 1400 to get in. You would think, for athletes at that school, coming from a Division I mentality, well then let’s see what the football players average is. They’re gonna be 900 or something. The average football player was 1300. … I didn’t think I’d ever be Division I. I went to all the camps. I went to Baylor’s camp and performed well as far as testing, just didn’t have the size. You still have a ton of great athletes. A lot of times they just don’t have the size.
Hooten: The way I always explain Trinity football is we work just as hard as the D-I guys, but we’re deficient in something. We’re not tall enough, we’re not fast enough, we’re not strong enough or athletic enough. … In high school they were the ones that would get the spirit award, the Tiger Heart award or whatever.
Stephen Arnold, offensive line: We lost to Rhodes on the road, 28-14 or something like that. That was in September. That was pretty bad because we were better than them. I think we started off the game with three turnovers in our first three possessions. I remember the next morning we were out there without the coaches. On the road games we’d come back and do all our workouts and the guys were like, "This should mean more to you, you’re volunteering your time and effort. What you get out of it is just you. If it doesn’t mean much to you, I don’t know why you’re playing."
Mohr: I think our defense was pretty good and I think that’s what carried us into some real tough games. Keeping it close and giving our offensive players an opportunity to win at times.
Hooten: It was pretty much a slugfest.
Thompson: They were good. I thought they had incredible athletes. That was, until Millsaps started to pull away in the middle of the fourth quarter.
Curry: My brother had his last high school football game later in the day. My dad left. He left with two minutes left. We were down by eight.
Trinity closed within 26-24. But with eight seconds left, Millsaps had the ball.
Mohr: We were waiting for them to run the clock out. It was a fourth-and-3 or -4 and their quarterback was running around. Had he stood up for two more seconds, the game would have been over.
Thompson: He’s just gonna run around for eight seconds. He’s got all that field to run, but he didn’t.
So Trinity got the ball back with two seconds left and 61 yards to go.
Hooten: I looked at our quarterback, Blake, and I said, “Hey, dude, just make it happen.” He looked at me and he winked.
Barmore: It’s not like I knew what was going on. It was just to keep spirits up, I guess.
Maddux: There’s no way to practice for that against air. … It goes back to spring ball, when we would play trash-can football. People call it Navy ball. Just having fun in the spring. You can’t take more than three steps and you can’t throw it forward. That’s kind of the backyard mentality. That’s the only thing you can really do to prepare yourself. There were always some gimmick plays we would practice, but in that situation you don’t know how the defense is going to react.
Barmore: We had a play designed for a Hail Mary, which was called 99 Diamond. We were facing about a 20 mph headwind. So throwing it that far, in the air, into the wind probably wasn’t going to happen. So we modified that 99 Diamond to send Shawn Thompson across the middle of the field.
There is some discrepancy about the play call. Thompson remembers something called 299 Cruise Shoot.
Thompson: Cruise Shoot is me coming across the middle. Coach just said run the cruise at 15 and make something happen. I turned to Riley beside me and I said, “Dude, as soon as I catch the ball, don’t run your (fly pattern) as hard, I’m going to be looking to pitch you the ball."
Stephen Arnold, offensive line: I didn’t really know what the play was. They were talking on the sidelines. They’re gonna run it this play but run it deeper. I’m like, "OK, I’ll just block."
Maddux: We talked about this later. Everyone thought, "Don’t be the one to get tackled." There’s always the one guy like, "I can do it! I can be the one to score!"
Barmore: Something that wasn’t mentioned at all, other than between Riley and Shawn, was the term, ‘lateral.’ I think when they were on their way out to the line of scrimmage, Riley said, “Hey, I’m gonna get behind you.” That was the only communication we had expecting something like that. … For whatever reason, we had a calm, almost hopeful, feeling as we broke the huddle.
Thompson: Morales were up, oddly enough. It seems like you start to accept defeat.
Hooten: It’s kind of like you’re supposed to lose at that point. What is there to be nervous about?
Barmore: The defensive backs were 30, 40 yards from the line of scrimmage and after we snapped it they bailed from there. The only option was to Shawn on the dig route.
Thompson: I had 50 percent of my catches on the year on the play alone. It was my favorite play because I knew I was getting the ball.
Hooten: I’m not blocking anybody. I’m just ducking, trying not to hit my head on the ball. I’m down super low making sure I don’t hit the ball and Blake doesn’t hit me in the back of the head.
Thompson: When I made the catch, I could hear that they started playing “We are the Champions.” They had declared victory.
Arnold: The first lateral, you’re hearing fireworks.
Curry: On the snap, Blake threw it to Shawn Thompson and I came back underneath him and he pitched it to me.
That was the first of 15 laterals, the third and 14th of which went to Hooten.
Hooten: I’m 6-2, 260 and at my fastest maybe a five-flat, 5.1 and wasn’t about to be the fat guy to end our season, so I catch the ball and I throw it over my head backward.
Arnold: Josh threw it over his head and got lucky as hell.
Maddux: Know your role.
Arnold: It took a good long while before we started gaining yards. It came back toward the line of scrimmage. I wasn’t looking for the ball. I was trying to make blocks. I turned around and got rid of it as quickly as possible. I had the ball for two tenths of a second. You see all these lateral plays and it’s always the lineman that catches the ball and decides he’s going to run with it and he gets tackled.
Hooten: If anything I remember thinking during the play, "This is just stupid. I can’t believe we’re still alive, but this is so dumb, what are we doing?" The first 20 seconds of the play we stay on the right hashes and it doesn’t go anywhere.
Barmore: When I saw the first lateral I thought, "Oh man, I gotta get behind it." That opened up that window of hope. The first lateral kind of opened up that expectation that we might be able to pull that off.
Shawn Thompson’s brother, Justin, had broken his neck (he’s fine, now) early in the season and had moved up to do color commentary in the booth.
Justin Thompson: I didn’t think we had a shot in hell.
Shawn Thompson: Both of my calves started cramping up 20 seconds in. I started hopping a little bit.
Curry: Some guys on their team very clearly quit.
Hooten: We had more wind to us.
Maddux: There are some guys who busted it the whole time on that play. But there were also some guys that were like, "Oh, we’ll get ‘em.”
Curry: We were all so tired. The play lasted over a minute of sprinting.
Wide receiever Mike Tomlin’s catch at the 40-yard line is the moment most identify as the point at which the play looked like it had a chance.
Tomlin: I broke a tooth because I didn’t have a mouthpiece in. I didn’t have it in because I didn’t think the ball was gonna come to me. That first time I get the ball, I get hit hard.
Justin Thompson: About the time I start yelling like an idiot is when I thought we had a chance. I just start yelling, “Go!”
Arnold: Then you don’t hear him again the entire thing. If you look on there you can see him running across the field. He ran out of the booth to celebrate.
Finally, at about the 30, the ball found Curry and Curry found a seam.
Curry: I saw the field open up and I just took off. I couldn’t tell you what I was thinking. … I couldn’t hardly stand up. I scored and everybody dog-piled on top of me. I was like, I’m going to pass out. I couldn’t breathe.
Arnold: I was absolutely exhausted at the end of the play. I remember just kind of walking toward the end zone after we scored and dropping to my knees thinking, ‘This is awesome, but I just can’t.’ Everybody that was on the field at the time was just gone.
Hooten: I see Riley go score. I collapse. My brother comes from the sideline and jumps on me and screams, “You son of a b—-!" I’m like Jordan, I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. We had this awesome celebration on the field, but I’m on my back the whole time weezing.
Tomlin: We go inside and I saw a text from my brother. He had played at SMU. He’s kinda like a dad to me. He said, “You might have just been in the greatest play in football history.”
Mohr: First thing as a coach you look for is, "Are there any flags?"
Barmore: We were scanning the field for flags, figuring they had to have thrown something.
Arnold: I made my best effort to block somebody in the back, but I missed.
Maddux: After going back and watching it, nobody is going back and saying "That’s not a lateral." The most controversial thing is – I love going on YouTube and reading the comments – you’ve got people saying the ball hit the ground because I threw the bounce pass. That’s the most controversial thing about it, is it hitting the ground. But it went backward almost five yards. There was nothing that really looked forward and nobody came back saying they should have won after that, comparing it to The Play and stuff.
Mohr: When I see the officials heading for the locker room, I look at the scoreboard and see they already changed the score in our favor and I said, “You gotta be kidding me. That really happened.”
Shawn Thompson: Obviously we are on Cloud 9. We’re on the field for another 45 minutes. The parents are out there. People are picking each other up and hugging each other.
This being Division III football, broadcast only on a low-quality Internet feed, someone was going to have to alert the media if this was going to get any coverage.
Mohr: Two dads who travel with us that webcasted that play. They are the ones responsible for sending that out to SportsCenter that night.
Arnold: When I got back to the locker room and I checked my phone, I had a dozen texts and a couple missed calls. I started getting it from people I knew weren’t going to be watching the game.
Mohr: We had to stay overnight Saturday night there and we were staying right there on campus. The guys knew they had sent it into ESPN so we had a whole congregation down in the lobby watching SportsCenter. They had their top 10 plays of the day and they got down to No. 1 and we weren’t on it. Everybody was disappointed.
Hooten: The top 10 goes by and No. 1 was a bicycle kick of something and we were like, "Oh man that sucks." I really thought we’d be on there. And they were like, a bonus top 10 from D-III Trinity.
Thompson: We just go nuts. It’s 11:30 in the hotel and everybody’s screaming. We get off the plane in San Antonio and there’s news reporters waiting for you.
A while later came an invitation to the ESPY Awards. Trinity had been nominated for Play of the Year. All seven guys who touched the ball made the trip.
Hooten: Justin Timberlake hosted that year so we got to meet him. Erin Andrews, which was a highlight. The cool thing was, it was at the Standard in LA. When we got there, there was a rooftop party. I didn’t drink at the time, but everybody that was there, I guess athletes, you’re seeing them in this totally candid situation, taking shots, and it was surreal. You see these guys not as gods, but as these upper-level people that don’t live like we do. It was really weird. Some of them wouldn’t say anything. Tyler Hansbrough and Tim Tebow we got to meet. They were two of the most – I’m Tim, I’m Tyler. It was cool to see some people be humble and human to just us scrub DIII guys. Our celebrity was extended a few more months.
Shawn Thompson: That was probably the best weekend I’ve ever had. You’re hanging out with people you idolize. I ate breakfast with Aaron Rodgers and his brothers. Went to Eli’s party. Met Jerry Rice. They’re just as interested in our play as we were in them.
Maddux: We finished second to David Tyree’s catch on his head.
Tomlin: Aaron Rodgers, we ended up hanging out with him and his brother a lot. He didn’t want to be around a bunch of people because that’s when Brett (Favre) was deciding whether he was going to come back or not.
Back on campus, though, not much changed.
Curry: It’s a real small school and it’s so academic that not a whole lot of people care about what’s going on with the football team.
Justin Thompson: It’s a bunch of nerds, to be honest.
Arnold: I think it kind of changed for a week or two. It was popular. At Trinity, there’s a couple dorms that overlook the football field. I remember there being some people up there actually watching practice. The head coach was like, I’ve been here 15 years or 17 years and never had anybody actually watch practice before.
Barmore: I don’t know that I necessarily feel bad for Millsaps.
Shawn Thompson: There’s no other team in our conference I’d rather than happen to.
Tomlin: I think I ended up being the only guy from my class or the class before me that played college football at all. The only schools that looked at me were Ivy League schools, because I had a pretty good SAT. I ended up transferring to Texas Tech. I was sitting out a year and coach (Mike) Leach got fired. I had worked out and basically made the team, then (Tommy) Tuberville came in. I didn’t really want to play for him. I wanted to play for Leach.
Arnold: I don’t really think I’ve lived as if I’ve learned a lesson from it. It’s just something that was a lucky play. I guess you hear that people use it as a “never give up” thing. That’s cool and all but, to me, if I need to think about something I did when I was 21 to inspire me to work hard in life, I should be able to come up with motivation without looking back on that. I don’t really have a life lesson from it.
Barmore: I don’t know what to say as far as advice. I guess luck is a big part of it.
Shawn Thompson: Give yourself a chance. You can apply that to anything.
Hooten: Looking back, it’s just dumb. It’s the dumbest thing that could ever happen.