He had the heart of a competitor. He had all of the qualities that would make for a great player, which he was. He knew how to perform. When he was on, it was something to see. – Former BYU sports information director Dave Schulthess
PROVO — It is regarded as the vintage moment of quarterback Jim McMahon’s BYU career.
In the 1980 Holiday Bowl — better known as the “Miracle Bowl” — McMahon rallied the Cougars from a 20-point deficit in the final four minutes, capped by a 41-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass to Clay Brown as time expired to beat SMU, 46-45.
But that may not have been McMahon’s most impressive play at BYU.
Ralph Zobell, who has worked in the BYU sports information office since 1977, recalls a memorable play that McMahon made with his leg — not his arm. It happened in 1980 at Hawaii, when McMahon was a junior. The Cougars had the ball in Warrior territory on fourth down, and the snap to McMahon sailed high.
So McMahon improvised.
“He reached up with his bad shoulder, snagged that high snap, avoided the Hawaii rush, and punted it with his left foot instead of his right foot and pinned (Hawaii) at the 1-yard line," Zobell said. "That may have been his greatest play, athletically. With all the record-breaking that he did, and pulling out key games, that’s the play that really stands out for me.”
BYU will honor McMahon, the former consensus All-American and NFL quarterback, by retiring his No. 9 jersey at halftime of Friday’s game (8:15 p.m. MDT, ESPN) between the Cougars and Utah State. McMahon will also be inducted into the BYU Athletic Hall of Fame Thursday.
As part of his job, Zobell has helped coordinate interviews between countless BYU players and the media for decades. McMahon, who was later known as "the punky QB" in the NFL, wasn't a typical BYU athlete.
“He could be cantankerous at times. His cockiness would come through in interviews even then,” Zobell remembered. “He was his own man. If he didn’t want to do an interview, he didn’t. He’d be late for interviews sometimes, but he'd do them.”
In some ways, Zobell, added, McMahon was misunderstood. “People see the cocky guy that wore sunglasses, but the sunglasses were there for a reason.”
When McMahon was 6, he was trying to untie a knot in a toy gun holster with a fork and he accidentally jabbed the fork in his eye, severing the retina. McMahon has worn his trademark sunglasses because the injury made him sensitive to light.
“People would say he had eyes in the back of his head,” Zobell said. “Though he couldn’t see well, he had a great feel for the game.”
Zobell orchestrated the famous black-and-white photo of McMahon’s Heisman pose, with McMahon wearing a leather helmet. That photo was published in newspapers around the country and it helped promote McMahon for the Heisman Trophy. He finished No. 3 in the balloting in 1981.
During that miraculous comeback against SMU, McMahon never believed the game was over, despite the three-touchdown deficit. On a fourth-down play, BYU coaches sent in the punting team, but McMahon refused to come off the field. A timeout was called, and an irate McMahon slammed his helmet to the ground on the sideline. He wasn’t conceding defeat. On the next play, he completed a first-down pass to Brown — and the rest is history.
“He had the heart of a competitor,” remembered former BYU sports information director Dave Schulthess, who served in that position from 1951-1989. “He had all of the qualities that would make for a great player, which he was. He knew how to perform. When he was on, it was something to see.”
McMahon became known as one of the best quarterbacks in the history of college football. He finished his Cougar career in 1981 having set 70 NCAA records. McMahon completed 653 passes for 9,536 yards and 84 touchdowns.
Is McMahon the best BYU quarterback ever?
“If you had to win a game, yes,” Zobell said. “When the chips were all on the line, he had some magic to him that he could pull it out.”
McMahon also established a reputation for getting in trouble with the school's Honor Code Office. The relationship between BYU and McMahon was strained, to say the least.
“Happiness,” McMahon wrote in his 1986 autobiography, “was Provo in the rearview mirror.”
Of course, Zobell was able to see McMahon in private moments. McMahon is the only athlete that has ever asked him for help with homework. Early one morning, Zobell left his office and found McMahon waiting outside.
“Ralph, I need your help,” McMahon said. “I have to write a paper for a (communications) class, so I need the statistics from the Long Beach State game so I can write it up.”
So Zobell photocopied the play-by-play and stats for him.
“I didn’t help him that much,” Zobell said. “You’d hear stories from time to time about Jim doing all-nighters. If he had done an all-nighter that night, he was sure with it.”
What had prevented McMahon from being enshrined in BYU’s Hall of Fame and having his jersey retired was that graduating is a prerequisite. In recent months, McMahon, who has dealt with serious health problems as a result of his football career, completed his academic work and earned his degree.
At halftime on Friday, a banner with McMahon’s name and number will be unveiled and permanently displayed on the press box at LaVell Edwards Stadium.
“I think people are happy and excited he’s come to this point,” Zobell said. “There’s a faction out there that believes, ‘You should have done this a long time ago with all he has done.’ But BYU didn’t invent the rule to keep Jim out. It was in place before he came around. It’s commendable that people like (athletic director) Tom Holmoe and (former BYU quarterback) Gifford Nielsen have worked with Jim to get this done. It’s almost like Jim’s thrown another touchdown strike and beaten somebody. He’s pulled it out.”
Friday’s jersey retirement should soothe any hard feelings that have lingered between BYU and McMahon.
“I’m happy for Jim,” Zobell said. “He helped set a baseline for others. It’s one of those foundation things. You’re on the shoulder of giants. And he is a giant. He’s had some unfortunate setbacks in his life along the way. I think this is a healing balm for both him and BYU.”
Utah State (2-2) at No. 18 BYU (4-0)
LaVell Edwards Stadium
Friday, 8:15 p.m. MDT
Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM