McMINNVILLE, Ore. — Utah quarterback Brett Elliott stood in the huddle and barked out the play, but he could not hear the words as they left his mouth.
The din from the closed end of Texas A&M's Kyle Field enveloped him as he rolled right out of the pocket and tried to convert the game-tying 2-point conversion with eight seconds remaining.
Elliott made a beeline for the corner of the end zone and dived, with the ball outstretched, toward the pylon. He never got there. A crushing hit from Texas A&M cornerback Jonte Buhl sent Elliott's body and world spinning. That September day in 2003, he broke his wrist, lost the game and, unbeknownst to him, took his last Division I snap.
Elliott sat that night in the airport and told his backup quarterback to keep Utah's momentum going. Alex Smith promised to do his best.
Smith started five days later against California, engineering an upset and launching a prolific career. "He really kept the momentum going," Elliott said with a laugh in a recent interview at a Portland restaurant.
Smith, of course, kept on going to become a Heisman Trophy finalist and the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft this year. Elliott transferred after the 2003 season to Division III Linfield College, the only program that was interested.
So the question lingers: Could it have been Elliott, not Smith, leading Utah to an undefeated season in 2004? And could it be Elliott, not Smith, signing a six-year contract potentially worth more than $50 million?
"I'm not a big fate guy," Elliott said. "I think that what you do with situations like that makes you who you are. It's not all planned out. I think that's what defines a person — how they respond to good situations, which Alex did."
So did Elliott, who found a perfect fit and no regrets amid the towering pines at Linfield in this small town about 40 miles southwest of Portland.
Elliott's wavy hair, tongue ring and penchant for calling coaches "Dude" did not always mesh in coach Urban Meyer's no-nonsense program at Utah.
When Smith, a year behind Elliott in college, arrived on campus with 64 advanced-placement credits, Elliott tagged him "Doogie" after the nerdy kid doctor on the television show "Doogie Howser, M.D."
When Elliott would arrive at the Utah football facility on Sunday and see that Smith had already been there for hours watching film, he would say, "Doogie, you better stop kissing up to everyone and be a regular college guy like the rest of us."
Elliott acknowledges that Smith probably would have beaten him out for the starting job in 2003, but back spasms limited Smith's effectiveness during the preseason. Once Smith locked up the job, it took away Elliott's greatest joy. He never complained, but Utah's coaches knew what he wanted.
"He's the Brett Favre," Meyer said. "He loved to play the game."
And that is all Elliott wanted out of Linfield — a place to get back on the field. But he ended up finding much more.
Linfield provided a chance for Elliott to revive his competitive juices by partaking in his two favorite activities — winning and throwing. The Wildcats hold the NCAA all-division record for consecutive winning football seasons with 49, so Elliott knew there was talent and tradition at Linfield.
He also liked the offense, which his roommate installed on a video game that spring for Elliott to learn. Soon enough, the video game became reality.
Elliott threw five touchdown passes in his debut last season, then galvanized the team in his second game when he threw three fourth-quarter touchdown passes in a comeback victory at nationally ranked Wisconsin Stevens-Point.
From there, Elliott kept throwing, and Linfield kept winning. He finished with 61 touchdown passes and 4,595 yards. The touchdown passes broke the NCAA all-division record of 56, set by Willie Totten of Mississippi Valley State in 1984. Not an easy mark to beat, considering Totten had Jerry Rice as his primary receiver.
Elliott set the record on a shovel pass in a 52-0 victory over Rowan in the semifinals of the Division III tournament, then led the Wildcats to a 28-21 victory over Mary Hardin-Baylor in the title game the next week. That completed a 13-0 season, a mark not as celebrated as Smith's undefeated year at Utah but perhaps as sweet.
Dan Mullen, the former Utah quarterbacks coach, said, "I'm happy for him because he's getting to do what makes him happiest."
Which is playing football — celebrating with the verve of Favre, yukking it up in the locker room after the game, telling war stories and savoring the adrenaline.
"Don't ever let anyone tell you that it's the same if you're playing or not, especially after a game," Elliott said, his voice stern with conviction. "You're happy for your team when you win. But there's not that utter joy like when you contribute."
Elliott says he also relishes life off the field at Linfield. He got rid of the tongue ring by the time he hit campus and trimmed his hair. He lived with four female students last year, sleeping in a loft above the shed in their back yard.
Unlike the huge lecture halls at Utah, where, he said, he went to class 60 percent of the time, the eight-student classes at Linfield made attendance mandatory.
Elliott had a 3.3 grade-point average at Utah; it has dipped to 3.0 at Linfield, but he says he now likes his classes. For a film class, he made a documentary about his receivers; he said he would never have done that at Utah. He also found time to write for the college newspaper and mentor a local fifth-grader. "At Linfield, I'm actually learning," he said.
Elliott, 23, has one more season at Linfield before graduating. Then he wants to play professionally. Ed Langsdorf, a scout for the San Diego Chargers, said the combination of Elliott's 6-foot-3 frame, his performance last season and the fact that he beat out Smith two years ago would probably compel NFL teams at least to stop by Linfield.
That will give Elliott all he has ever wanted, a shot to play. Until then, though, there is one more season to savor.
"Last year was the perfect year," he said. "Now I want to do it all over again."