Former Hurricanes cornerback Nate “The Great” Brooks called it his “moment of truth,” the career-defining play on Oct. 26, 1996, that taught him to never stop believing.
Offensive lineman Richard Mercier said Mountaineer Field in Morgantown, West Virginia, went from “out of control to dead silence” in the seconds it takes to witness a miracle. “It felt like time had stopped.”
Coach Butch Davis still envisions his players in the visiting locker room “cheering, crying, screaming and releasing every emotion you could imagine.’’
And Tremain Mack, the gifted former Miami safety whose special-team brilliance created a chain reaction now known to Canes fans as “the Miracle in the Mountains,” refuses to take credit for a UM victory that 20 years later sparks hostility among fans of both programs.
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As the University of Miami (8-4) prepares to meet former Big East nemesis West Virginia (10-2) on Wednesday in the Russell Athletic Bowl, some old-time Hurricanes look back two decades.
The Miami Herald tracked down Mack, 42, now coaching high school football, basketball and baseball and teaching emotionally challenged students in a small suburb outside Seattle.
“I am a firm believer that nothing happens alone,” Mack said of his blocked punt that came on fourth-and-two at the Mountaineers’ 30-yard line with just under 30 seconds left and West Virginia leading 7-3. “Individuals may rise, but it ultimately comes back to the team.”
Hurricane Jack Hollmon recovered the ball, stayed up with the help of teammate Eugene Ridgley, then pitched to Brooks, who had his moment of truth straight into the end zone.
“Oh, man, that play was definitely like seeing a newborn baby for the first time or cashing your income tax check,” said Miamian Brooks, 41, a rapper and author with a degree in theater arts from UM and masters in business from Nova Southeastern. “Biggest play of my life.”
Said Mack that day as a 21-year-old: “My knees went weak, my mind went blank. I was so excited I couldn’t move. All I could do was praise the man upstairs.”
Charleston Gazette-Mail columnist Mitch Vingle wrote the following in his Dec. 5, 2016, article on the 1996 UM-WVU game: “Rumor has it some Mountaineer fans are still undergoing therapy.”
It’s no secret that the Hurricanes and West Virginia are two programs that, politely put, had great distaste for one another when they played as Big East competitors in a rivalry that ended with Miami’s sixth consecutive series win in 2003.
But in 1996, some of the 66,948 West Virginia fans were downright dangerous.
The Mountaineers came into the game ranked 12th and unbeaten. The Hurricanes came in ranked 25th at 4-2.
“They were throwing D-cell batteries, bottles and unopened Coke cans at us,” Mack said of that night. “I remember them throwing a filled metal trashcan off the top of the stadium into the walkway of the locker room and hitting [then-UM linebackers coach] Randy Shannon on the head. I was right there.
“But I’d be lying to you if I said it wasn’t fun to play in a hostile environment like that — especially when you get the chance to shut those fans up.”
Davis, the recently-hired FIU coach who brought UM back to prominence in the mid-to-late 1990s and left to coach the NFL’s Cleveland Browns after the 2000 season, said he remembers the stadium going “from euphoria to stunned silence” after the play.
“We were the most hated program in the country,” Davis told the Herald in recalling that victory. “Running back Danyell Ferguson separated his hip early in the game and fans rocked the ambulance. I remember the 55-gallon drum of garbage flying out of the stands and hitting Randy on the head and neck. He ended up having to wear a neck brace.
“It was an unbelievable environment and one of the most memorable, enthusiastic, passionate victories I’ve ever coached. To this day it seems like it happened Saturday.”
Mack, who was picked by the Cincinnati Bengals in the fourth round of the 1997 draft and played four seasons with the Bengals, credits UM special teams/defensive backs coach Chuck Pagano — now the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts — for instructing him to line up from the left instead of the right.
“Luckily they didn’t call me offside because I was so fast I dove and just about took the ball off the punter’s foot,” Mack said. “Chuck is a man I now emulate in coaching. I love the guy to death.”
Days before the West Virginia game, Mack publicly acknowledged that he was an alcoholic and had entered a rehab program. His years-long battle continued, though, and Mack, who runs a holistic type football program at Mount Rainier High in Des Moines, Washington, told the Herald he doesn’t want to rehash that part of his life.
“That stuff was then, and part of me making bad choices and decisions,’’ said Mack, who said he believes that “every decision in life is for a reason and how you respond is what makes the difference.
“I don’t make bad choices and decisions anymore.’’
Former UM safety Earl Little, who led UM with 14 tackles that day and is now the football coach at Miami Westminster Christian, said he had his “red laser Superman beam eyes on Tremain Mack before the block because his get-off was so quick — cat-quick — that I knew if we had any chance of winning that ball game it would come down to him.
“Once I saw his get-off I knew that was it. After being heckled all night — they were shouting very, very rude racial things to us — we just looked back at the crowd and soaked it all in.”
Brooks said his emotions bounced from one extreme to the other. “I went from being very happy to very afraid because fans were shaking our bus and burning garbage cans when we left,” he said.
The players said they’ll be watching the Russell Athletic Bowl on Wednesday and hoping the Canes do some on-field damage.
Said Mack: “Once a Cane, always a Cane.”