It lasted 15 seconds, with no evidence that it was coming, and no follow-up. That was Robin Weber’s moment. Crack, it came out of nowhere, like the big bang theory.
We all want to have a shot at a moment of glory, at any level. From the big game in high school to the home run in the company softball league. What would you do with that chance?
Weber wasn’t exactly a nobody in sports. Ara Parseghian recruited him, and he had a college career playing football at Notre Dame. But he was a cog, and by all rights, should be forgotten by now. Instead, he made The Catch, and when the ball dropped into his hands, he dropped into the heart and fabric of college football history.
He made the catch, so he tied it together: Bear Bryant, Parseghian, Alabama, Notre Dame, national championship, national TV, Sugar Bowl, even Howard Cosell, who said, “At Notre Dame, football is a religion. At Alabama, it’s a way of life.”
Weber, who had been in the middle of nothing, unsuspectingly showed up in the middle of all those elements in history at the same time, over the course of 15 seconds, like Forrest Gump.
“I like being mentioned with Notre Dame’s legends,” Weber said, laughing, “even if I did get there through the back door.”
The BCS Championship Game is Monday night between Notre Dame and Alabama, the sport’s two biggest historical superpowers. This game is in the now but is also so steeped in history. So Weber is here, in body, memory and fabric. He arrived from Dallas on Friday.
The first time these teams played each other was 1973, in the Sugar Bowl for the national title. Notre Dame led by 1 with about 2 minutes left. The Irish had third-and-long on their 3. Alabama needed to make one play on defense to force a punt, and get great field position for a national championship-winning field goal.
Weber, a sophomore tight end who wasn’t used much, a self-described “scrub,” waited to be taken out before the huddle. Instead, the play was signaled in. He was in and was to run a deep route down the left sideline to draw the defense away from the pass, which was to go from quarterback Tom Clements to star tight end Dave Casper over the middle.
“You sit there and go, ‘This is just like sandlot football. I can go deep,’” Weber said. “I was there to clear out.”
When Casper was covered, though, Clements looked for an open receiver. He found one, Weber, and threw deep. The play went for 35 yards.
“I’d never even practiced that play, never caught a pass from Tom Clements, not in a game, not even in practice,” Weber said. “I’d never even been in the passing game. When they called that play late in the game, I was like ‘What?!?’
“From the time I figured it out (that he was staying in the game) to the time I caught it, that was maybe 15 seconds. I caught the ball about 10 feet from Bryant. They knocked me out of bounds. I landed on my back. Everybody was yelling at me, screaming, cussing. One of the players slapped me on the ass. Man, I tell you. What can I tell you?”
“OK. As I was coming out of the crowd there, I flipped the ball. Bryant is storming. Here he comes. He was stomping up the sideline, heading toward me, right at me. He was just pissed. Upset.
“I got out of there, started jumping around. I skipped back to the huddle.”
With a first down, Notre Dame was able to run out the clock, win 24-23 and take the national championship. Some people count it among the best games ever played.
Weber has an uncanny memory of the moment but also a self-deprecating, deadpanning realization about his greatness as a player:
“Big moments followed by moments of total boredom. Basically, that was the, uh, pinnacle of my career.”
Basically, it was his career. Weber became a starter the next year but suffered several injuries. Then, he was moved to tackle, where he had more injuries. Notre Dame had gotten Ken MacAfee, who would replace Casper as a star tight end.
But Weber, who now owns a commercial real estate brokerage in Dallas, had his moment. I don’t get the feeling he lives on that moment, either, like Al Bundy. But he has it, and he made the most of it.
What’s the lesson? There is none. It’s not about waiting for your moment or continuing to believe. It just happened. And a guy you can identify with just happened to drop into such a moment.
I’m surprised no one has made a movie about him, like Rudy. Hamming it up.
“We’re working on that,” Weber joked. “Thinking about calling it `Robby.’”
The Catch has provided Weber a lifetime of stories, and one-liners like that. In fact, Weber would later go on to be a teammate with Rudy.
What was that like? I always figured the movie was 50 percent fiction.
“Try 90 percent,” Weber said. “Good guy with true blue-gold blood. Several of us used to call him the leprechaun in pads because of his dwarf-like stature and enthusiasm in congratulating you on a great hit when you would nail him, which was every play.
“Surprised he never got hurt, but he was real good at hiding behind the defensive tackle’s (rear) in his position as a fourth-team cannon-fodder linebacker.”
Thirty-nine years later, Weber talks about The Catch in speeches for alumni groups. This weekend he plans to meet with Casper, and they will give each other a hard time about the play, as always. In fact, on the play before Weber’s, Notre Dame thought it had drawn Alabama offsides for a first down and a victory, but the flag was thrown instead on Casper.
“I owe it all to Dave Casper for jumping (offsides),” Weber said. “Don’t think I don’t remind him of that every time I see him. He told me everyone thinks he’s the one who made the catch. I told him, ‘Well, I tell everyone I’m Dave Casper.’”
That’s something that makes Weber’s moment so unusual. When you have a big moment that lives in history, a Hail Mary or something, the Other Guy in the play usually was already a solid player, a good player. It’s hard to believe that Clements would have thrown that ball to Weber at all, having never even done it in practice before.
The play just stands out so starkly for Weber.
“I didn’t play until about the fourth game of the year,” he said. “I was running as a kickoff return guy and an extra point guy. In the Southern Cal game, we’re undefeated and they’ve got the longest winning streak in the nation.
“We were getting ready to go out for the second half, and I swear Ara looks at me in the locker room and says, ‘Weber, I want you standing next to me in the second half.’ I said, ‘What’s this about?’ I didn’t even know the guy knew I existed.”
Weber went in during the third quarter to block on a play that turned into an 80-yard touchdown run. Did he make a key block?
“My guy just pinched down, so I didn’t do much,” he said. “But coaches were going, ‘It worked.’”
Weber started to move up, but not as a pass catcher. Earlier in the Sugar Bowl, he said, he was mistakenly left in the game as a split end. He had no idea where to stand. If you watch on YouTube, he said, you see Clements waving his arms over his head, yelling at Weber to move. He did and then found himself wide open in the end zone. Clements still didn’t throw to him.
Weber was still at Notre Dame in 1976, when his leg was rolled over, all but ending his career. The came in a game against …
It’s OK. That might have even been a fitting end, the kind so many faceless players endure. They don’t have a Moment.
“After the (BCS) game, I’ll go back into obscurity,” Weber said. “I go back to being a trivia question.”
Yeah: What legendary scrub took 15 seconds to drop into history forever?