University of Miami

How Keanu Reeves inspired the Miami Hurricanes’ win against the Pittsburgh Panthers

UM linebacker Shaquille Quarterman on injured Cane Jaquan Johnson

Miami Hurricanes linebacker Shaquille Quarterman talks about the injury to teammate Jaquan Johnson in the game against Toledo Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018, in Toledo, Ohio.
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Miami Hurricanes linebacker Shaquille Quarterman talks about the injury to teammate Jaquan Johnson in the game against Toledo Saturday, Sept. 15, 2018, in Toledo, Ohio.

Jaquan Johnson agonized all afternoon about just how he would address his teammates the day before his last game at Hard Rock Stadium. Friday began with Mark Richt asking the defensive back if he could deliver a final motivational speech on the day before the regular-season finale and for hours Johnson wondered what he would say.

As he drove to the football facilities, Johnson thought he might use a rollercoaster as a metaphor because the Miami Hurricanes’ season had certainly been one. But that was too obvious, he decided. In the Hurricanes’ special teams meeting, it finally dawned on him. Keanu Reeves was the answer.

“I was steady thinking,” Johnson said after Miami took down the Pittsburgh Panthers for a 24-3 win on Saturday. “It just came to me.”

Johnson thought of “The Replacements,” the 2000 movie starring Reeves as the quarterbacks for the fictional Washington Sentinels. When players go on strike, scabs like Reeves’ Shane Falco are called upon to keep the league afloat. Hijinks ensue.

At a climactic moment, Falco gives a speech to his teammates. Their coach wonders what some of the players’ fears are and Falco tells him quicksand.

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“Aw, s**t, yeah. Quicksand’s a scary motha,” one of his teammates exclaims before Falco delves into the speech Johnson loves.

“You’re playing and you think everything is going fine, then one thing goes wrong and then another, and another,” Falco says with requisite dramatic pauses. “You try to fight back, but the harder you fight, the deeper you sink until you can’t move. You can’t breathe because you’re in over your head like quicksand.”

Johnson decided quicksand was ultimately the apt analogy for this disappointing season in Coral Gables. A four-game losing streak mired a once-promising campaign as mistakes piled up and so did losses.

“The first game was like when we got started to get in quicksand when we lost to LSU, but we pulled our way out of it because we were united. We didn’t fight one another. We helped one another get out of this quicksand,” Johnson said. “The more you are in quicksand and try to get out of it, you sink deeper, so I said those five games we won in a row, we were helping ourselves out of quicksand. When we lost four games in a row, that’s when fingers started to point. We lost focus. We started to try to do it alone again, but we had to refocus, get united again and pull ourselves out of the quicksand.

Johnson and the seniors helped matters by dominating on the field. The defensive back forced a fumble in the first quarter and finished with a team-high 10 tackles. Fellow senior defensive back Michael Jackson added two sacks and senior defensive lineman Gerald Willis chipped in another.

Jackson felt Johnson’s speech was the perfect summary of the Hurricanes’ rocky season and the secondary played inspired, holding the Panthers to 131 yards on 15-of-24 passing.

“It was just like how our season went,” Jackson said after the win in Miami Gardens. “As a secondary, we felt like we needed to stick together. Jaquan came out and said a perfect thing. All of us felt the same way, we needed someone to come out and say it. He took advantage of the opportunity Coach Richt gave him.”

Before Richt had Johnson speak, the coach addressed the Hurricanes (7-5, 4-4 Atlantic Coast Conference) by reading aloud some of the quotes the seniors had said about playing their last home game or deciding to play in the bowl game.

Johnson, he said, took the floor to a round of applause and drew another ovation when he was done. Richt decided it was an act he couldn’t follow. Johnson delivered all the inspiration Miami needed.

“He did a beautiful job,” Richt said after the game Saturday. “The only way to get out of quicksand is to fight together, fight smart and fight with other people helping you. He just talked about how he thought we did that last week.

“I just wanted the young guys to see these seniors, hear the words they’re saying and kind of look them in the eye, and say, ‘I’m going to play my tail off for you.’ I think they did. That was a good sign. Like you say, adversity usually does make you stronger. You learn a lot about yourself and our team when you go through it.”

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