BOSTON — The question for former Boston College receiver Gerard Phelan was simple: Had he ever heard of the original miracle pass?

Not the famous "Immaculate Reception" he executed with Doug Flutie in the Eagles' win over Miami in 1984. Rather, BYU's 1980 Holiday Bowl pass that beat Southern Methodist.

Did he know that before Flutie-to-Phelan there was Jim McMahon-to-Clay-Brown?

"I can't say that I did," he said Friday.

That should be no surprise. One pass is routinely mentioned among the greatest plays in sports history. ESPN rates Flutie's touchdown pass No. 9 on its list of memorable sports plays of the last 25 years. McMahon's pass is far less famous, thanks to the obscurity of the broadcast. That's because the BC game was played on ABC; BYU's was on the little known Mizlou Network.

One was seen by tens of millions, the other by only a fraction of that amount — and only in the West.

So which was the greatest miracle pass, Flutie's "Hail Mary" to Phelan or McMahon's throw to Brown? Let's put it this way: It's hard to make comparisons if you don't know the competition. Phelan's ignorance of McMahon's defining moment wasn't his fault. He, along with the rest of the country, missed out on that long-ago Holiday Bowl.

The occasion for phoning Phelan was today's BYU-Boston College football game at Alumni Stadium. There is no visiting Boston College without reminders of what Flutie accomplished. But for BYU fans, that is bound to raise the inevitable comparisons. Both quarterbacks were clutch players who happened to attend private religious colleges. Both passed for roughly 10,000 yards their careers. Both teams went down to the final play as time expired. Both quarterbacks sent receivers into the end zone en masse.

Boston College called its play the "Flood Tip," while BYU's players simply called their desperation play the "Save the Game Pass." Both called for a primary receiver to go up and grab the ball; if that wasn't possible, he was to try to tip it to another receiver. And in both cases, the primary receiver simply hauled the pass in himself.

Both teams were positioned forty-something yards from the end zone. Both quarterbacks were undersized, at least by NFL standards. Both teams would later say the play that saved the day had never worked in practice.

BC's game was a nationally televised event between ranked teams, each with a Heisman candidate at quarterback (Flutie and Miami's Bernie Kosar). BYU's was a bowl game against a nationally ranked opponent.

The biggest difference was that Boston College came from a four-point deficit with 28 seconds remaining to win. BYU came from 20 points down with four minutes to go.

"The most amazing part is that we were down by 20," said BYU assistant head coach Lance Reynolds, who was a graduate assistant at BYU in 1980. Besides the aforementioned pass, BYU also had to complete a fourth-down pass, an onside kick, block a punt and make the game-ending PAT in the closing minutes to come away with a win.

"What makes it the greatest ever is that it was not just one pass," said Reynolds. "It was a series of events. There's never been anything like it, that I know of."

Which raises the obvious question: Which quarterback they would take in a do-or-die situation? It also raises the obvious answers.

Both Reynolds and Phelan chose their own man.

"You probably know the answer to that question before asking," said Phelan. "I'll take Doug (Flutie) for being a better college quarterback and a better pro quarterback and for a better person."

Reynolds, naturally, disagreed. "I'll take McMahon. He was as good as any player we've had. Instincts, poise, composure — I never saw him shaken."

The best answer, said Phelan, isn't which was the greater moment or even the greatest quarterback.

"It's that in college football, these moments happen from time to time," he said. "In college football, there's something there for everybody."

Everyone has his favorite miracle.


E-mail: rock@desnews.com