The Oklahoma Sooners have arguably the premier college football program. Four Heisman trophies and appearances in three out of the last six championship games. The 82,000 fans that pack Memorial Stadium couldn't be happier.
The Sooners unlikely opponent in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl did not seem to belong on the same field. Sure, the Boise State Broncos were undefeated this season, but with no high profile players, no records under their belts, a small fan base at their tiny stadium, and no previous competition at this high level, most assumed this game would be a blowout.
Yet with less than two minutes left in the game, Boise State was leading the mighty Sooners, 28-20.
And then Oklahoma did what you might expect from a perennial powerhouse. With 1:26 remaining in the game, they scored a touchdown and tied the game with a two-point conversion.
At this point, one would expect Boise State to conservatively move the ball down the field, careful not make any big mistakes, and satisfied to move into overtime. Yet Boise State's young quarterback cracked under pressure: He forced a pass which was intercepted and returned for a touchdown.
The Broncos were shocked and deflated.
It was an incredible turnaround. In less than 30 seconds, Boise State went from 8 points up to 7 points down. With just 1:02 left in the game, the Broncos were shocked and deflated.
Almost. They rallied together for one last drive. And then, with 20 seconds left in the game, the Broncos were faced with a fourth-down-and-18. They had to gain 18 yards on this play, or the game would be over.
Who would choose what play to run? Would it be the seasoned offensive coordinator who'd mastered all the nuances of the Oklahoma defense and could outsmart them? Would the head coach assert his authority and be the one to choose the big play? Perhaps one of the star players would know best from the flow of the game.
If you answered "none of the above," you're correct. The coach listened to none other than two backup quarterbacks, who thought up a novel idea for the most important play in the history of Boise State football.
Boise State ran a trick play called the "hook and ladder," a quick decoy maneuver. Sure enough, the play worked perfectly and the Broncos hit paydirt -- tying the score at 35, with just seven seconds remaining.
In college football, overtime means that each team is given the ball on the 25-yard line, and given the chance to score either a touchdown or a field goal. If one team scores more than the other, they win. If both teams score the same number of points, the scenario is repeated until one team outscores the other.
Oklahoma was given the ball first and ran for a touchdown on the very first play. Following the kicked extra point, Oklahoma led 42-35. Boise State would now need to score seven points to stay in the game.
Boise State, exhausted physically and emotionally, moved the ball slowly, and eventually managed a touchdown. The score was now Oklahoma 42 Boise State 41. The Broncos' strength was sapped. If the overtime went another round, it would be even harder to match Oklahoma.
If the play failed, they'd lose.
So the Boise State coach decided to be daring and try for the difficult two-point conversion instead of the simple one-point kick. It was an all-or-nothing proposition: If it succeeded, the Broncos would win by one point. If it failed, they'd lose.
They went with the old Statue of Liberty play -- a fake pass where the quarterback hides the ball and hands off to a running back going in the other direction. It totally fooled the Oklahoma defense. Boise State scored the two-point conversion and shocked the college football world. Final score: Boise State 43 Oklahoma 42.
Generally, football and Torah don't mix. But in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, Boise State demonstrated a number of traditional Jewish values:
(1) King Solomon teaches that "A tzaddik falls seven times and gets up" (Proverbs 24:16). The hallmark of great individuals is continuing to strive for success, fighting through the many challenges which come our way. In fact, according to many commentaries, King Solomon is teaching that some of our greatest accomplishments come only because we fall. This is captured by a well-known Jewish saying, "Yeridah l'tzorech aliyah" -- a person sometimes has to descend in order to grow even higher.
(2) Remember Boise State's daring fourth down "hook and ladder" play? This is where a pass is thrown to one receiver, and as the defense converges to tackle him, that receiver then pitches the ball back to a teammate who then takes over.
Give me a partner or give me death.
King Solomon teaches that "Two are better than one, for they get a greater return for their labor" (Ecclesiastes 4:9). Boise State used true teamwork and did not rely on just one person to push the game into overtime. As the Talmud says: "Give me a partner or give me death." We can only succeed with the help of others. That's Jewish lesson #2.
(3) When God created the first human, the Torah records, "And God said, 'Let us make man" (Genesis 1:26). The commentaries are troubled by the use of the word "us," since there is only one God. Who is the "us"?
Rashi explains that God "consulted" with His angels regarding the creation of man. Although this was clearly unnecessary, God wanted to demonstrate that we should always consult with others, even those "lower" than us. No one should be beneath us when it comes to seeking advice. We should always have the strength of character to overcome our egos, and take advice from everyone, irrespective of their "status."
Remember how the Boise State coach took the advice of his two backup quarterbacks for the game-winning score? As the Sages teach, "Who is a wise person? One who learns from all people" (Avot 4:1). That's Jewish value #3.
(4) Regarding the experience at Mount Sinai, our Sages teach that every Jew felt God speaking to him according to his individual level (P'sikta D'Rav Kahana 12). However, the Talmud teaches that when God spoke, it was too much to handle and the people's souls left their bodies because of the overwhelming experience.
Which experience was it?
Rabbi Zev Leff explains there is no contradiction. The level of a Jew is not defined by where he stands right now. Every person has remarkable potential and we barely scrape the surface of what we can actually achieve. When God spoke to each Jew "according to his level," it was actually based on the level which the person had the potential to achieve. And when the Jews saw the huge gap between who they actually were and who God expected them to be, it was too much to handle and their souls left their bodies.
Time and again, Boise State demonstrated the ideal of reaching deep inside, to go far beyond what anyone thought they had in potential. And that's Jewish value #4.
The Final Lesson
There is more to the Boise State story. Ian Johnson, the running back who scored the final two points, did not join his teammates for the celebration on the field. As he ran into the end-zone for the game-winning score, he threw the football not just to anyone, but to his father in the stands. Then he kept on running toward the crowd. There, he found his girlfriend, and in this moment of ecstatic glory, he proposed marriage. (She said "yes.")
The Torah records that when our forefather Jacob and his son Joseph were reunited after 22 years of separation, Joseph "fell on his [father's] neck and he cried" (Genesis 46:29). Why is there no mention of Jacob crying just like Joseph?
Rashi explains that at this moment, Jacob was reciting the Shema. He channeled his tremendous joy into an opportunity to connect with God on the highest level, through an intense recitation of the Shema.
Throughout our lives, God presents us with opportunities to feel a deep connection with Him. These may be moments of family joy, or witnessing a spectacular scene in nature, or great relief at the conclusion of a successful project. By reciting the Shema, Jacob taught us to exceed the normal limitations of these moments, and channel that energy into a truly transcendental experience.
In his moment of ecstasy, Ian Johnson reached beyond his normal self and changed the course of his life. And that is Jewish lesson #5.
Sometimes, even a football game can give us a glimpse into our own quest for a spiritual touchdown.