Zach Wilson and I don’t have a lot in common, but we both have moments at Neyland Stadium that shaped our futures.

For Wilson, his dramatic pass to Micah Simon in 2019 put him in front of America and sparked a two-year run that earned him the second overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft.

My Tennessee moment came three years before Wilson was born and it was more traumatic than dramatic — but still, a moment that sparked a run that is still running.

The hedge

Aug. 31, 1996. The sky over Knoxville is overcast with the temperature near 80 degrees. Typical for this time of year, the record crowd of 106,212, is getting bear hugged by the humidity.

On the field, UNLV is running through warmup drills ahead of its season opener — a David vs. Goliath matchup against senior quarterback Peyton Manning and the No. 2 Volunteers.

Up in the broadcast booth, I am moments away from my long-awaited football play-by-play debut televised to Las Vegas, where I was working as a local sportscaster.

Next to our booth is CBS — where Jim Nantz is staging a practice broadcast with new analyst Terry Donahue ahead of their season debut the following week.

As I gazed into the sea of orange nestled in the giant facility along the banks of the Tennessee River, all was right in the world. I was living my boyhood dream — until midway through the third quarter, when a technical glitch cut off power to the booth.

Related
What one NFL draft expert says about new BYU QB Kedon Slovis
Kalani Sitake turns his attention to recruiting class of 2024 after plumbing transfer portal for 20 newcomers

Viewers at home could still see the game, but they couldn’t hear us, and all our video monitors were dark.

In the panic that comes from the unexpected, it was determined that the only working microphone was down on the field behind the UNLV bench.

My color analyst Steve Stallworth and I rushed from the top of the stadium to the sideline and found the mic and a small monitor in front of a hedge that separated the field from the stands — and that is where we called the rest of the game.

To make matters worse, in the rush, we left our game charts and notes up in the booth.

This was my Titanic, minus the loss of human life, and there was still another iceberg of humiliation up ahead.

As Stallworth and I continued with the broadcast, I noticed the fans in the area were fixated on us instead of the game. Then I realized why.

They couldn’t see our monitor and had no idea of the dilemma. What they saw was two guys in shirts and ties, on their knees, talking into a bush.

One man caught my attention, and I looked up at him.

Dave McCann interviews a UNLV coach. | Dave McCann

He said, “Hey, UNLV guys, the game is over there!” pointing behind us while everybody around him erupted in laughter. My dream had become a nightmare.

The flight home was among the longest of my life. I wanted to call every single Las Vegan the moment we landed to explain to them what happened, in hopes of not getting judged by the circumstances.

But, in this professional crisis, just like in life, controlling the narrative was impossible. All I could do was move on and try to do better the next time — hoping there would be a next time.

Fortunately for me, there have been hundreds of “next times,” but the very first time will remain for all time. Thankfully, things are rarely as bad as they seem at the moment. After returning home from Knoxville, I discovered UNLV fans were more distraught over the team’s 62-3 defeat than they were about the quality of the broadcast.

The big finish

Sept. 7, 2019. Leading 16-13 in the final seconds of the fourth quarter of the first-ever meeting against BYU, the Volunteers sent their SEC defense onto the field to seal the game.

A holding penalty on first down moved the Cougars back to their own 8-yard line. Wilson threw an incomplete pass before scrambling for 12 yards to the 20.

Facing third-and-6 with 17 seconds remaining, and amid the deafening roar, the sophomore quarterback fired a strike to Simon for 64 yards to the Tennessee 16. With no more timeouts, the Cougars hustled down the field, where Wilson spiked the ball to stop the clock with five seconds left.

The improbable was happening and Tennessee couldn’t stop it.

Freshman kicker Jake Oldroyd booted a 33-yard field goal to force overtime tied at 16.

Wilson threw a touchdown pass to senior receiver Talon Shumway to force a second overtime where grad transfer running back Ty’Son Williams scored the game winner to give BYU a stunning 29-26 victory.

The loss delivered such a sting that Tennessee paid a reported $2 million to buy out its return trip to Provo — a game that would have opened the upcoming season at LaVell Edwards Stadium.

The aftermath

Wilson and the Cougars followed up their win at Tennessee with another overtime victory against No. 24 USC. Wilson’s road forward had a few bumps, but the back-to-back showcases on national television put him on a path to receive a fully guaranteed $35.2 million contract with the Jets 19 months later.

Related
Show them the money: How an eighth grade Spanish teacher is putting thousands of dollars of NIL cash into BYU athletes’ hands

UNLV’s broadcast debacle in Tennessee in 1996 had nothing to do with BYU, with one exception. Following the game, UNLV replaced its production crew with an outfit out of Provo called SportsWest — a direct ancestor of BYUtv Sports.

When legendary coach John Robinson made his UNLV debut at North Texas on Sept. 2, 1999, it was a BYU-based crew with BYU alums (Blaine Fowler and me on the call) that produced the Rebels first televised game on a network affiliate in Las Vegas — KLAS-TV (CBS).

UNLV fans didn’t love the BYU connections to their broadcasts over the ensuing seasons, but they certainly enjoyed the upgrade from that dark night at Neyland Stadium.

Tennessee removed the hedge in 2007 but it will always be there for me — just as Wilson’s 64-yard pass to Simon will always stand as a moment that had so much to do with what was up ahead.

Dave McCann is a contributor to the Deseret News and is the studio host for “BYU Sports Nation Game Day,” “The Post Game Show,” “After Further Review,” and play-by-play announcer for BYUtv. He is also co-host of “Y’s Guys” at ysguys.com. 

BYU quarterback Zach Wilson celebrates as the team exits the stadium as BYU defeats Tennessee in Knoxville, Sept. 7, 2019.
Brigham Young Cougars quarterback Zach Wilson (1) celebrates as the team exits the stadium as BYU defeats Tennessee in Knoxville on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019. BYU won 29-26 in double overtime. | Scott G Winterton, Deseret News