Hours before his name became a household word in Alabama and beyond, forever bathed in controversy, Preston Gothard was privately seething.
“I was pretty mad,” Gothard recalled more than a quarter-century later.
All week long, the 6-foot-4, 210-pound junior tight end from Montgomery had been working with the first-team Alabama offense, eagerly anticipating his first career start in place of the injured Thornton Chandler. “So jacked up, so excited…”
But when the team doctor cleared the veteran Chandler to play against Penn State in a nationally televised game at Beaver Stadium on October 8, 1983, Alabama head coach Ray Perkins decided to go with his more experienced tight end. The news hit Gothard hard, but he kept his disappointment to himself, bottling up the bile, especially after his position coach, Steve Hale, assured him that he would eventually get into the big game against Joe Paterno’s Nittany Lions.
In the haze of personal frustration, Gothard could not imagine the more complex aggravation looming in his immediate future.
By the time he spelled Chandler for the first time, Penn State was firmly in control of the game against third-ranked Alabama, building a 17-7 halftime lead into a commanding 34-7 margin at the end of three quarters. All across America, remotes began to click.
Then Alabama quarterback Walter Lewis—who had tossed three first-half interceptions and also lost a costly fumble—flipped his own switch, leading a memorable fourth quarter comeback.
After whittling the Penn State lead to 34-28 in the closing minutes, the Crimson Tide drove to the Nittany Lions’ four yardline, where Paterno’s defense stiffened. Needing a touchdown and an extra point to win, Perkins put the game in Lewis’ hot hand as the seconds ticked away.
An instant before the snap, Gothard, back in at tight end, watched his man walk up to the line, altering the defensive coverage and the offense’s blocking scheme. “If their hero [approached] the line, I was supposed to block him,” Gothard recalled. “If not I could go out [for a pass]. Well, he walked up to the line real late, at the last second. I was supposed to block him but for some reason I decided to go out anyway.”
This snap decision to defy his assignment rippled across the fast-developing play, allowing Gothard to slip into the endzone wide open but also leaving Lewis vulnerable to an unblocked, blitzing defender who was able to grab him by the leg as he furiously scanned the field for an open receiver.
“Walter did a great job of eluding the rush and getting the pass off,” Gothard said. “That guy came in untouched ‘cause I didn’t block him.”
Spotting Gothard all alone near the back of the endzone, Lewis made his decision in a flash, releasing the ball just before being slammed to the ground. “I was falling backwards when I put it up,” Lewis said. “Put it up with a hope and a prayer.”
The pass was high, forcing Gothard to go vertical. Snagging the ball out of the air, pulling it to his chest, holding on tightly, he tumbled to the ground as Alabama fans everywhere began to celebrate, believing the Crimson Tide had just tied the game, placing dramatic victory within reach of Van Tiffin’s steady toe. But in an instant, the apparent victory slipped away. By the time Gothard started pulling himself off the ground, field judge Jack O’Rourke was waving his arms, signaling an incomplete pass, as the capacity crowd erupted in a jubilant roar.
Collaring split end Joey Jones, Gothard, trying to be heard above the crowd, yelled, “Was I in?”
Jones, who had been running a route across the back of the endzone, saw the catch clearly and was stunned by the call, which defied the live television pictures and the replays soon to blanket newscasts in Alabama and beyond.
“Preston,” Jones yelled back, “it wasn’t even close!”
As Penn State held on for the 34-28 upset, Ray Perkins’ first season as the Alabama head coach veered off the tracks. Instead of contending for the national championship, the Crimson Tide tumbled out of the top ten and lost three more games to finish a disappointing 8-4. Looking back on the confidence they gained in storming back against Penn State, tempered by the lingering feeling that they were robbed of a victory they earned, many Alabama players could not help wondering what might have been, if Gothard’s catch had been ruled a touchdown.
The climactic play grew more controversial when reporters discovered that one of the officials working the game was related to a former Penn State player, but even as Perkins insisted that he refrain from discussing it with the media…even as Alabama fans far and wide cried foul…even as Sports Illustrated prepared an article and illustration that mocked the large chunk of real estate effectively de-annexed from the endzone…Gothard and his teammates watched the film the next day with a combination of anger and helplessness, a generation before college football adopted the use of instant replay to overrule errant officiating.
“In the heat of the moment, just concentrating on making the catch, I could not say for sure whether I was in or not,” Gothard said. “But watching the film, there was no doubt. I was inbounds and I had control of the ball.”
In time, Gothard won a place in the starting lineup, matured into a capable and dependable receiver, and scored several touchdowns, carefully watching the men in stripes raise their arms to the sky, never tiring of the validating sight. But the rest of his Alabama career took shape in the shadow of what happened in Happy Valley, when one catch transformed him into an easily understood symbol of officiating fallibility.
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This article is part of a 10-week series from the archives of best-selling sports author Keith Dunnavant, who started covering the SEC as a teenager and has been writing about the game’s major players and coaches for more than 30 years. You may be familiar with Dunnavant’s Bear Bryant biography Coach or The Missing Ring, his book about the undefeated, untied, uncrowned 1966 Crimson Tide. His fifth book, America’s Quarterback: Bart Starr and the Rise of the National Football League, will be published Sept. 13.
Dunnavant, who was the national college football writer for Frank Deford’s revolutionary sports newspaper The National and the founder of the magazine Dunnavant’s Paydirt Illustrated, now edits College Football Replay and Crimson Replay. Check out these great sites for more award-winning articles, video and audio on national college football history and Alabama football history, respectively.