Part III: 17
I met Philip once.
True story: I was working part-time at Addam’s Bookstore during the spring 2001 buyback period when one afternoon he came in to sell back his Spanish textbook, Arriba! But the publishing company had issued a new volume, rendering his obsolete, so I had to break the bad news to him that I couldn’t buy it back.
“Aw, shucks,” he cursed with that Alabama drawl. “You serious?” he asked with a look the same as a kid looks at a trusted adult that has let them down.
As he left Addam’s, I’m convinced he carried with him a valuable lesson about life: it’s tough, and sometimes you’ll be stuck with a Spanish textbook that no one wants.
If I had to sum up Philip’s college career in a single sentence, it would be this: He deserved better.
I’ve never heard an even remotely convincing argument as to why Philip Rivers finished seventh in the 2003 Heisman Trophy voting, or how three quarterbacks – Jason White, Eli Manning, and Matt Leinart – finished ahead of him. He wasn’t even invited to New York City for the pomp – more like pompous – and circumstance of the official ceremony.
Yet, in 13 games his senior season of 2003, Philip had the NCAA’s best passer rating (170.5) and completed 72% of his passes for 4,491 yards, 34 touchdowns, with a paltry seven interceptions. His near-perfect performances in two losses that season – at Ohio State and at Florida State – underscores just how difficult a task it was, even for him, to win games with a defense that offered no help.
On September 13, 2003, State went to Columbus to face the reigning national champions at the Horseshoe. Philip completed 36-of-52 passes for 315 yards with four touchdowns and two interceptions (one of which, replays clearly showed, was actually trapped against the turf rather than being an interception). Early gaffes on defense — Michael Jenkins slipped loose for a 44-yard touchdown reception on the opening drive — and special teams — on the ensuing kickoff, Richard Washington stumbled into Tramain Hall, who misplayed the ball off his helmet; Ohio State recovered and scored three plays later — put State in a 14-0 hole before the offense even took the field. With just under eight minutes remaining in the game, State trailed 24-7 — the lone touchdown had been on the final drive of the first half, where Philip was six-for-six after connecting on an 11-yard touchdown pass to Jerricho Cotchery.
With the game locked up, Philip took over and coolly guided the most improbable of his many comebacks that had by then long since become his signature. He connected with Cotchery on a nine-yard touchdown, and then after an A.J. Davis interception and an Adam Kiker field goal, he hit T.J. Williams on a five-yard strike to tie the game at 24 with 0:21 left in regulation. In the first overtime, Philip connected on a 17-yard score to Tramain Hall; but after trading touchdowns in the second overtime, Ohio State scored first in the third overtime, and then A.J. Hawk and Will Allen brought down T.A. just short of the goal line on fourth down to preserve the Buckeyes victory.
Although State returned to Raleigh on the short end of a 44-38 three-overtime loss, Philip left no naysayers regarding his dominance.
Later that season, on November 15, State went to Tallahassee tied for first with an outside shot at the ACC championship and subsequent BCS berth. Philip completed 28-of-38 passes for 422 yards, with four touchdowns and no interceptions, and rushed for another touchdown in a heart-wrenching 50-44 double-overtime loss to the Seminoles. It will always be remembered as a game State quite literally fumbled away — two after the catch, by Brian Clark and T.J. Williams, and one, as always, by T.A. McLendon inside our own 10 right before the half; each led to Florida State scores. In that loss, Philip completed 74% of his passes for a mesmerizing average of 15.1 yards per completion, without a single miscue.
But Philip’s greatest performance stat-wise was his last in red and white. In the 2003 Tangerine Bowl, he completed 37-of-45 passes for a career-high 475 yards, with five touchdowns and, again, no interceptions, in a 56-26 thrashing of Kansas. Arguably, his stats that night were inflated because of the gross mismatch, but the sheer magnitude of his performance that night was an impervious slap in the face to all the writers, pundits and Heisman voters who disqualified him because, unfortunately, he had neither White’s #1 ranking nor Manning’s pedigree.
The latter is actually the best explanation I can offer for Philip’s exclusion from the Heisman conversation (beyond the five losses): he wasn’t the media darling he needed to be to ever have a realistic shot. An example: In 2006 I worked quite often in western Tennessee and a co-worker there was an Ole Miss alum and he was as proud of Eli as we are of Philip, so we developed an ongoing debate as to why our guy was better. I went with him to Oxford in 2006 to see the game against Georgia — every college football fan should tailgate in The Grove at least once — and on the drive down, he began to rant about how Eli should have won the Heisman, which opened up the perfect opportunity for me to needle him into a numbers game about the topic. While he wouldn’t quite concede, it was no small victory to hear him utter the words, “Wow, I had no idea Rivers put up those kind of numbers — that’s amazing.”
Apparently not amazing enough, as Oklahoma’s White won the 2003 Heisman Trophy, and Manning and Leinart finished ahead of Philip in the voting despite each being statistically inferior overall to him. Among the group, Philip was the highest rated passer, had the most completions, yards, yards per attempt, completions per game, fewest interceptions, and the best touchdown-to-interception ratio. But, college football’s most prestigious award is given each year to the “Most Outstanding College Football Player” that plays for one of the nation’s premier teams, not the guy that has to put up monsterous numbers each week to even have any shot at winning. Of the Heisman finalists, White’s Oklahoma lost to BCS National Champion LSU in the Sugar Bowl; Manning led Ole Miss to a 10-3 record and an eventual victory over Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl; Chris Perry’s Michigan lost to AP National Champion Southern Cal in the Rose Bowl; meanwhile, Pittsburgh lost four regular-season games, but Larry Fitzgerald was by far the nation’s most prolific receiver, and arguably the most outstanding player among the group.
But I digress.
Statistically, Philip’s status as the ACC’s greatest quarterback is indisputable. He ranks first in total starts (51), passing yards (13,484), total offense (13,582), touchdown passes (95), completions (1,087), touchdowns in a season (34), 300-yard passing games (18), 400-yard passing games (7), total touchdowns (112), and total plays (1,963). He was the ACC’s 2000 Rookie of the Year and then 2003 Player of the Year, and was a four-time bowl MVP (2000 MicronPC, 2003 Gator, 2003 Tangerine, 2004 Senior Bowl; and offensive MVP of the 2001 Tangerine Bowl in a loss to Pittsburgh).
In 2000, Philip had replaced the venerable Jamie Barnette. As time expired in his first game against Arkansas State, he calmly converted two different fourth downs to tie the game, and then manufactured two touchdown drives in overtime to secure the 38-31 victory. The following week, in his first road game, he engineered an even more unlikely comeback at Indiana; he threw touchdown passes of 26 and 47 yards in the final 4:29 to steal a 41-38 victory. Then a few weeks later, on the Thursday night ESPN game against Georgia Tech, State was all but dead in the water at halftime, down 13-0 and utterly listless on offense. But there was Philip, once again, in the second half and then overtime, in his element: he audibled at the line and then hit Koren Robinson on a 23-yard fade for the game-winning touchdown. Nothing was coming easy for the freshman, at least until mid-October in Chapel Hill, where his legacy began in earnest after he led State — for the first time since 1992 — to a 38-20 victory over Carolina (he even opened up the scoring with the game’s first touchdown reception from Bryan Peterson).
After that, there was no stopping him. As a freshman in 2000, he led a young team that had no business playing in the postseason to the MicronPC Bowl where, after a 24-0 halftime deficit, he once again led State to an improbable come-from-behind 38-30 victory over Minnesota to end the season 8-4. In 2001, he became the first ACC quarterback to win in Tallahassee. In 2002, he guided State to its only 11-win season, highlighted by a 28-6 shellacking of Notre Dame in the 2003 Gator Bowl, where he was 23-of-37 for 228 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
In four seasons, Philip compiled a 34-17 record, surpassed nearly every significant ACC statistical passing category, and he ranks near the top of many NCAA passing categories. Most notably, he left State as the NCAA’s second all-time passer, behind Ty Detmer — although Philip currently ranks fourth after Timmy Chang (in 2004) and then Colt Brennan (in 2007) passed him.
It begs us to wonder: What if Norm Chow – who, as a BYU assistant, had coached Robbie Bosco (1984 National Champion), Steve Young (1983 Davey O’Brien recipient, Super Bowl Champion, NFL Hall of Famer), and Ty Detmer (1990 & 1991 Davey O’Brien winner) – had stayed at State for Philip’s entire career? Would Philip have won two Heisman Trophies and then left for the NFL after the ACC Championship and possible National Championship in 2002?
Or what if Philip hadn’t enrolled early and impressed Amato during the spring, but instead Amato had gone with Toki McCray and redshirted Philip as a freshman in 2000, so that he wouldn’t have been the victim of hapless timing. Instead of that abysmal 2003 defense, as a senior in 2004 he would have had Mario, Manny and McCargo, and all the havoc they wreaked upon opposing quarterbacks’ attempts to get into the end zone, paving the way for his runaway Heisman campaign and ACC Championship (unfortunately we would have settled for beating Auburn in the Sugar Bowl but left out of the National Championship picture).
The ultimate What If: As a senior at Athens High School, Philip threw for 2,025 yards with 15 touchdowns and was named the 1999 Alabama Player of the Year. Nevertheless, neither Alabama nor Auburn was encouraged by his awkward throwing motion, but each was apparently willing to give him some reps at tight end. The sheer, miscreant audacity of the greatest college quarterback of my generation being the most dominant tight end to ever play in the Iron Bowl, had my beloved alma mater not had the foresight to bring him to Raleigh.
But destiny brought Philip to State, where he became the moral epicenter for a fan base — especially my generation — that desperately yearned to be apart of the embodiment of legendary, mythical greatness. Don’t believe me? Try to get a seat at the Ale House during a Chargers game.
My former boss from several years back was a 1974 State grad; sometimes he’d lean back in his chair with his hands clasped behind his head as a coy grin swept across his face, as if he was about to share with me a secret about Norm Sloan and David Thompson that only he knew. The stories were great, but I resented him a little bit for having been apart of something mythical. But after witnessing greatness 51 games over a four year span, now I understand. And I’m sure someday, when I’m watching Philip towards the end of his career, I’ll wax poetic with my buddies about the time that he passed to himself for the game-winning touchdown against Carolina — hey, if David Thompson can make change atop the backboard, Philip can pass to himself.
My baby sister’s best friend since college is somehow kinfolk of Amato. For my sister’s birthday her freshman year in 2003, her friend asked Amato to have Philip autograph a picture of himself – back turned, in the huddle (you can’t even see him, just the 17) – with a personal message to my sister, “From Philip.”
She shrieked, and she cried – a lot, in fact. It was the greatest gift ever, you just don’t understand.
For about a year after that, she took that framed picture with her wherever she went. When she went home for Thanksgiving or Christmas, when she went to the beach, she took it with her. Now that might seem weird to a lot of people.
But not to a State fan.