On October 3, 2009, Florida State came to Boston College for a football game. Kickoff was scheduled for 3:30 PM, and what began as a washout settled into a light rain over Alumni Stadium. National television cameras would capture the game for ESPN on ABC.
It was already a special day, but it was something made more special by the return of the centerpiece of ESPN's college football coverage: College Gameday. First appearing in Chestnut Hill in 2005 for BC's first ACC game (also against Florida State), Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, and Lee Corso set up shop on the green lawns of The Heights to host a special edition of the show in support of Mark Herzlich's fight against Ewing's Sarcoma.
We knew it would be emotional, simply because of the subject matter. So much of Herzlich's cancer treatment was unknown to the average person, mostly because we didn't know what was going on. You can hear the stories, and you can read what's reported, but nobody ever can really know unless they're in the room watching the diagnosis. Cancer, after all, is a dastardly villain, known to be unpredictable at the most unpredictable times.
With Gameday in attendance, tributes poured in for Herzlich, who to his credit had remained a public figure for BC even through his cancer fight. Following a segment talking about his cancer treatments, with camera footage showing the chemotherapy, the ports, and the fight in the medical offices, we received one of the biggest moments in all of sports history, not just BC:
The cheering that took place at that moment was one of the most gripping moments I've ever been a part of as a Boston College fan. I was watching Gameday at home in my family's den, on a couch next to my mom and dad. My mom, someone who's survived cancer more times than anyone should ever have to go through it, had watched the video of Mark receiving treatment with tears in her eyes, knowing she'd been through the same hell three times over. At that moment, it didn't matter where you were, there was hugging, and there was cheering. It was a moment transcending the game, a moment where those who had been down that road and those that hadn't, the family of survivors and fighters and people who hadn't been touched by cancer at all in their lives—they all united, and they all cheered.
And we hadn't even gone to the stadium for the game.
The game itself was one of the most emotional games I've ever been a part of in the stands. Herzlich gave a rousing speech over the public address before the game before the Eagles ran out onto the field. At 3-1 entering the game, BC still had to pick up a win over a marquee team in order to assure themselves of bowl eligibility. Florida State, entering at .500 at 2-2, needed to win just to avoid having an uphill battle for a bowl game left.
It was an extremely physical game. Florida State was forced to punt from midfield on their first drive, pinning the Eagles on their own nine yard line. They moved the ball approximately two yards in three plays, forcing a punt that allowed the Seminoles to start on the BC side of the 50. There, they drove down to the 20 before they stalled inside the red zone. A field goal gave the Noles a 3-0 lead.
Starting at their own 21, Dave Shinskie led a drive that would carve up the Florida State defense. He completed three passes for a combined 57 yards, including a 20 yard pass to Justin Jarvis that set up first and goal at the FSU three yard line. That's where Montel Harris punished the defense, powering into the end zone for six, giving BC a 7-3 lead.
BC broke the game open in the second quarter after the defense made a huge stop inside their own five yard line. Ponder completed a 27-yard pass to Taiwan Easterling that gave the Noles 1st-and-goal on the three that turned into 1st-and-goal at the one when the Eagles immediately jumped offsides. But the defense stopped Lonnie Pryor on three straight runs from the one, and Alex Albright came up with a huge sack of Ponder on fourth down to prevent FSU from retaking the lead.
With just over three minutes gone in the quarter, BC went to work. They moved the ball one yard on their first two plays, but Shinskie aired it out for Colin Larmond, Jr. for 62 yards, moving from the BC 13 to the FSU 25. Seven rushes by Montel Harris later, BC still hadn't reached the end zone, which is when Shinskie completed a touchdown pass to Rich Gunnell, putting BC up 14-3.
Later in the quarter, Shinskie did it again, completing a 38-yard touchdown pass to Jeff Smith to give the Eagles a dominating 21-3 lead, one that would be 21-6 after FSU hit a 39-yard field goal at the end of the quarter.
As per the custom with a Frank Spaziani team, the second half turned into an adventure. FSU made adjustments, and the defense put the clamps on an offense that may have been trying to kill the clock to open things up. The quarter ended with Ponder completing three passes for 61 yards with 1:37 left in the quarter, scoring a touchdown as time expired to bring the Noles back within a score at 21-13.
After BC went three-and-out to start the fourth, FSU tied the game on another drive spearheaded by their future first round pick QB. Ponder went 4-for-4 for 68 yards, hitting Richard Goodman for 33 yards to move the ball inside the BC 10 yard line. Three plays later, Thomas ran it in from two yards out, and a two point conversion attempt tied everything up at 21-21 in the fourth. Jeff Smith fumbled the ensuing kickoff, giving the Noles the ball back at the BC 29. After all the positive emotion and charged up atmosphere, it looked like the choke was finally going to set in.
But a glimmer of hope opened at Alumni Stadium. Ponder failed to push the ball truly into the red zone, and Dustin Hopkins inexplicably shanked a 37-yard field goal. That gave the Eagles new life, and when they took over with 7:02 remaining, they returned to the field with new determination.
Shinskie would move the ball with Harris out to the BC 43. A pass interference call moved the ball over midfield to the FSU 42, where Harris broke off a huge run that hit paydirt. With the extra point, BC took a 28-21 lead with four minutes left.
In need of a touchdown, Ponder took the reigns of the offense. Starting at his own 41, he hit Bert Reed for 20 yards to move into BC territory, then completed a couple of more passes to get inside the 30. That's where it ended for FSU, with a complete pass for no gain and three straight incompletions for a turnover on downs. Montel Harris would break off another 39 yard run to ice the game, and the Eagles walked away the victors, 28-21.
It was one of the finest performances by both the quarterback and runningback. Shinskie threw for 211 yards and two touchdowns, outdueling Ponder, who tallied 341 yards but failed to find the end zone. Montel Harris carried 25 times, scoring twice while picking up 179 yards on the ground. He saved his best for last, icing the game on his long run of 42 yards. In fact, his game-icing run and his touchdown run combined for more yards than any of the FSU backs combined.
Though BC would be smoked the next week at Virginia Tech, they already had four wins with games left against bad teams on their schedule. They would go onto beat NC State, Central Michigan, Virginia, and Maryland to finish with eight wins, and though they would lose to USC in the Emerald Bowl, they finished a valiant season with displays of heart and fortitude that belied some of their issues caused by coaching.
Florida State, meanwhile, struggled. It was the last season under head coach Bobby Bowden, a man who helped define the Seminoles as champions but had arguably lost his touch in his final seasons. Despite beating #9-ranked BYU, the BC loss came during three in a row. FSU did turn it around enough to win four of their final six games, but they were nowhere near the national powerhouse they once were. A trip to the Gator Bowl allowed Bowden to finish his career in his home state, and West Virginia graciously accepted an invitation to allow him to end his career against the team he started with. FSU defeated #17 WVU, 33-21, to send him out a winner.
As for the main story of the day, the emotion of watching Mark Herzlich announce he was cancer-free only started the next step of the journey. He would return to the field against Weber State in 2010 and would find a home in the National Football League with the New York Giants. A member of the Super Bowl XLVI champions, #58 for big blue announced this offseason that he will once again don #94, bringing his career full circle back to where it all began with the maroon and gold.