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Brad Rock: Former player provides wide-angle look at BYU's best bowl moment

If you were in the stands at Jack Murphy Stadium on Dec. 19, 1980, your pulse might finally be normalizing.

But another spike could be on the way.

Just in time for the gift-giving season comes a book on the most legendary play in BYU sports history: Jim McMahon’s rainmaker to tight end Clay Brown at the end of Holiday Bowl III, assuring the Cougars their first bowl victory. Many believe the 46-45 win over Southern Methodist forever altered Cougar history. BYU had been to the same bowl twice and lost; a third would have been downright mortifying.

Ever since McMahon appeared at LaVell Edwards Stadium last month to be inducted into the school hall of fame, the memories have been as thick as Brown’s neck. Now Utah attorney Ryan Tibbitts, a player on that historic team, is telling it from an up-close-and-personal perspective in his Dec. 9 release. “Hail Mary: The Inside Story of BYU’s 1980 Miracle Bowl Comeback” reveals previously untold anecdotes, as well as nine “game lessons” that illustrate how overcoming a 20-point deficit in four minutes can apply to life. For instance, he says to never give up, trust yourself and ignore the word “impossible.”

All good advice, particularly when it comes to joining a power conference in 2014.

Anyway, where “Hail Mary” succeeds isn’t just the recounting of the events, but that Tibbitts was within earshot of most of them, with an unobstructed view. He does confirm that when LaVell Edwards ordered a punt on fourth down late in the game, McMahon had an outside-the-honor-code response.

Tibbitts also confirms that offensive coordinator Doug Scovil was so rattled by a missed field goal the previous year when BYU lost to Indiana, he wanted to try a two-point conversion after Brown’s catch.

A quarterback in high school before moving on to Ricks College, Tibbitts came to BYU at the right/wrong time for signal-callers. The roster in 1980 included McMahon, Royce Bybee, Eric Krzmarzick and Steve Young. The admission line for quarterbacks was like traffic on game nights.

By the time the third Holiday Bowl rolled around, Tibbitts had transitioned to wide receiver. All the better to watch from a wide-angle view. He was present when then-BYU President Jeffrey R. Holland got misty in the postgame locker room, saying Abraham Lincoln, Joseph Smith and Winston Churchill were his heroes — and now, so were the Comeback Cougars.

Tibbitts also details standing on the sideline as the deficit mounted that foggy night and half-jokingly telling Bybee, “We’ll probably get to play now.”

Little did he know the game wasn’t close to being done.

An oft-overlooked component is the game-winning extra point kick, but Tibbitts gives it the full treatment. Placekicker Kurt Gunther wasn’t even on the travel team until being summoned from class a day before the first game of the season. BYU had lost the previous bowl game on a missed 27-yard field goal, so when it came to attempting a PAT, with the clock expired, there was talk of a conversion attempt. The snap was late, throwing off Gunther’s timing and causing him to stutter-step. Holder Bill Schoepflin, according to Tibbitts, “barely got the ball on the tee and most of the tip of the ball was hanging off the edge of the tee.”

In addition, the stitches were facing toward Gunther, slightly raising the chances of the ball veering. Yet it sailed through the uprights and into history.

Tibbitt points out that a BYUtv program in 2013 ranked McMahon’s pass to Brown No. 2 among the school’s all-time top 50 football plays. No. 1 was a 2006 game-winner from John Beck to Jonny Harline, according to viewers. But a Deseret News online poll in 2013 (244 voters) had McMahon-to-Brown No. 1, with 49.2 percent of the vote, while Beck-to-Harline received 29.5 percent.

All I know is that with four minutes remaining, the SMU band had left its bleacher seats and was lining up to march, while almost all the BYU fans had left. I would have, too, if I hadn’t had a story to file. But if you were among the early evacuees, don’t worry. “Hail Mary” will fill you in — and even take you places a game ticket would never allow.

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