Football Writers Association of America 2006 BEST WRITING CONTEST
COLUMN | ENTERPRISE | FEATURE | GAME | LOOSE DEADLINE

FIRST PLACE: LOOSE DEADLINE
Wayne Drehs, espn.com

ST. PAUL, Minn. The game is already over, the home team has won. Now it's time to decompress. At the end of one hallway, a pair of lineman sit slumped against a wall, nodding off in exhaustion. On a quiet stairwell not far away, a receiver buries his head in Scripture. In the trainer's room, players sprawl out on any open piece of carpet they can find. And upstairs in the coach's office, five men sit around a platter of sandwiches trying to figure out just how this is going to work.

On any other normal fall football Saturday, the day would be over for the Division III Northwestern College Eagles. Already having disposed of Trinity Bible College 59-0, they should be heading home. To their wives. To their girlfriends. To an afternoon of watching college football from the couch.

But this is unlike any other Saturday in college football history. The Eagles' work is only half finished. In a little less than four hours, 6 miles down the road, there's another game to be played, another physical, mental and emotional peak to be reached.

Wayne Drehs
espn.com
Age: 29
College: Iowa
Background: Wayne joined ESPN.com in 2000 as a general assignment/enterprise writer and has written about everything from streakers to Super Bowls to Steve Bartman. His work has been cited by the Best American Sportswriting and he was recently named one of the country's top sports columnists by The Wall Street Journal online. He lives in Connecticut with his wife Shana, who works as a book editor.

"This is strange," coach Kirk Talley says. "We should be celebrating. I should be getting ready to go out for a nice dinner. Yet I've got all these players still around. "It feels like a sleepover."

Normalcy is nowhere. Inside the equipment room, a student worker throws socks, T-shirts and underwear in a dryer, hoping they will be ready for the next game. Inside the locker room, where players are unwinding after the rigors of one game, coaches are passing out game plans for another.

What the Eagles are doing is believed to have never been attempted before in modern college football history. And for good reason. Football is a game that most teams get an entire week to recover from. The Eagles are barely going to get a three-hour respite.

"I have to be honest," sophomore lineman Clint Wolcyn said. "Now that it's actually here, this feels pretty weird knowing we have to play again. But we'll get some rest, get some food and then go out there and hopefully take care of business again."

Said receivers coach Scott Hvistendahl: "The way I look at it, it isn't every day that you get to see a bunch of pants dirty before a game."

The idea of a doubleheader was the brainchild of Northwestern athletics director Matt Hill. While Hill was struggling to find a 10th opponent for the Eagles' 2005 schedule, Macalester College called inquiring about a game on Oct. 8. After consulting with Talley, Northwestern's president, the team's captains and the athletic directors from Trinity and Macalester, Hill decided the Eagles would play two games in one day.

He had no idea it had never been done before. "Then I called the NCAA to ask them if it was any sort of a rules violation and they laughed at me," Hill said. "And they said it might be next year."

When the 2005 schedules were printed, everyone from alumni to parents called Hill to tell them there was a misprint.

"I'd tell them, 'There's no misprint,'" Hill said. "'We're playing two games in one day.'"

The support of Talley, who takes pleasure in being an out-of-the-box player's coach, was key. This is a man who led his team in Simon Says on Wednesday, a man who lost his starting running back the day before the conference championship two years ago after the player tore up his knee playing a football/kickball hybrid game before a Friday walk-through. It's a game that the team still plays today.

"Most guys, that probably would have been the end of that," Talley said. "But guys know I'm a little goofy. It's just a game. I take more pleasure in the journey."

No journey has been quite like this. Especially here. Northwestern, a quiet Christian college of 2,600 students in a wooded neighborhood on the north side of St. Paul, is a place where spiritual growth is just as important as intellectual growth. It's a place where students sign contracts pledging not to drink, smoke or dance.

When a player on either team is injured, Northwestern players fall to their knees, hold hands, bow their heads and pray. And it isn't uncommon to see an entire offensive or defensive unit holding hands on the sideline and praying between series.

Before Saturday's game against Trinity, assistant coach Beau Taylor handed each one of his linebackers a piece of chalk. One by one, in front of their teammates, they went up to a chalkboard and wrote the answer to Taylor's oversized question:

What Will You Give?

In a room overwhelmed with silence, one player wrote "love." Another, "respect." Yet another, "intensity." Then senior defensive back Dan Pazurek stepped to the board and wrote, "all the glory to Jesus Christ."

It's that passion, that ability to "play for an audience of One," as the coaches so frequently repeated through the week, that Talley believes made the turnaround from one game to another possible.

"We have a higher power that we call upon," Talley said. "That's what we have to do. I always tell our guys, 'believe the unbelievable.' I never thought when I said that, it would mean two games in one day."

The biggest challenge, from beginning to end, has been logistics. In an effort to simplify things for his players and his staff, Talley broke the team and coaching staff up into two groups Trinity and Macalester.

"To try and prepare everybody for everything, there's just no way," assistant head coach Bryan Johnson said. "So this is the way we decided to do it and we figured we'd deal with the surprises as we go."

The surprises, as it turned out, came away from the field. One of Talley's major concerns late Friday was whether or not the team's battery-operated headsets would last two games, so the coaches elected not to use headsets against Trinity. Then Talley worried about players not having enough clean socks for two games. So he went to Target on Friday night and purchased $100 worth of socks. Socks, as it turned out, that only came up to the calf. Most of his players would not wear them.

Because there were two games, everyone who was healthy on Saturday played. This includes junior running back Joe Steffenhagen, who was born without full use of his right arm. Steffenhagen had served as team manager the past three seasons before asking Talley if he could play this year. Sure, Talley said. And late in Saturday's win over Trinity, coaches put the starting offensive line back in the game as Steffenhagen followed their lead for an emotional 4-yard touchdown run.

"I guess I learned what it feels like when somebody hits a game-winning home run and all your teammates come up and hit you in the head," Steffenhagen said. "I have a bit of a headache now. But this is a dream come true for me. I can't believe it."

The doubleheader also was an opportunity for 40- year-old Harold Hicks, a physical education major who joined the team in hopes of learning how to someday become a coach. Hicks had three tackles against Trinity, "one for each Tylenol he takes before and after every game," a teammate quipped.

But not everyone was all smiles. One fan, standing outside the Northwestern locker room at Macalester, told the Eagles "they were an embarrassment to NCAA football." And Trinity Bible coach Jim Dotson, hired after his school approved the doubleheader, also didn't like the idea.

"I was kind of taken aback by it all," Dotson said. "You can sugarcoat it anyway you want to, but from our perspective, it was a putdown. 'We're not worried about you guys, so we're going to go ahead and play someone else the same day.'

"I think it's an insult."

So why did Northwestern do this? Hill insists it wasn't about publicity, money or embarrassing opponents. Hill just wanted to give his kids an opportunity to play a 10th game, like most every other team in Division III.

All anybody had to do was look into Talley's eyes as his team gathered around him following its 47-14 victory over Macalester in Game 2 to understand. There, his eyes welling up from the fall chill and the emotion of the moment, he revealed what this day had meant to him.

Some 10 minutes earlier, senior defensive lineman Nick Wolcyn had intercepted a pass on the Macalester 25-yard line. Stumbling toward the end zone, his team ahead 40-14 with 8 seconds left, Wolcyn seamlessly pitched the ball to fellow defensive lineman Justin Payette, who caught it in mid-stride and marched in for his first career touchdown.

The play touched Talley.

"It would have been easy to hold onto the ball, to take all the glory," he said in his postgame speech. "But Nick thought to himself, 'No. Justin, I'd rather have you score.' We've had a lot of epitomes today, but moments like that, that's what it's all about."

When the day was finally complete, when the clock crept past midnight, the players finished up their pizzas and started heading home, the low-key, even-keeled Talley tried to put into further context what had just taken place. In less than 12 hours, his team had gone from 3-2 to 5-2, and one more win next weekend would clinch the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference championship. The Eagles had outscored two opponents 106-14, racked up more than 1,000 yards of offense, but more importantly as he saw it, had grown as men. His body was sore, his back ached and his mind was absolutely shot.

"It was a great day," Talley said, "but I'm glad it's over. It sorta reminds me of vacation you love being away, you love something different, but it sure is great to get back into your own bed. I'm ready for my own bed."

As for whether or not the Eagles will ever try something like this again, the overwhelming consensus, from Hill to the coaching staff all the way down to the players, was a resounding "no." Fun once, a royal pain twice.

Only there's one problem Hill has yet to find an opponent for a 10th game next year.

Comment of the judge, Lee Feinswog: The Northwestern College Eagles have the unlikely task of playing twice in one day and the story about their remarkable undertaking is extremely well done. You get a good feel just how tough a day this is through excellent narrative and a strong array of quotes.

Second place: Ivan Maisel, ESPN.com
Third place: Tom Dienhart, The Sporting News
Honorable mention: Eric Hansen, South Bend Tribune; Dennis Dodd, CBS SportsLine.com; David Barron, Houston Chronicle