Arizona had called its final timeout. There were 12 seconds left, the Wildcats down four points. Coach Dick Tomey’s message to his quarterback was clear.
“Don’t get sacked,” he told Ortege Jenkins that night in Seattle exactly 10 years ago Friday. “If you run, you better make it.”
Arizona was at the Washington 9-yard line. Dennis Northcutt and tight end Mike Lucky were split to the left. Malosi Leonard and Brandon Nash were to the right. Washington had 3-on-2 coverage on both sides.
Jenkins took the snap, looking left for Northcutt, his top receiver. Double-covered. He looked right into the end zone. Nothing. Jenkins continued to drift back.
Running back Trung Canidate swung out to the right, taking a defender with him. Also covered. Jenkins, still backpedaling, was in trouble, retreating all the way to the 20-yard line.
His only choice seemed to be an incompletion to stop the clock.
Well, there was one other option.
All the defensive pass coverage was deep or to the outside. The middle was invitingly clear. Jenkins could run. Do or die. Score or lose. Hero or goat.
With Tomey’s words still echoing – “If you run, you better make it” – Jenkins planted his right foot and charged into history.
• • •
You might never guess what Ortege Jenkins is doing these days. He’s living in his hometown of Long Beach, Calif. He’s engaged.
He’s a longshoreman.
“It will shock you,” he said. “It’s one of the few six-figure incomes you can have that’s manual labor.
“It’s a good job. We have great benefits. We have one of the strongest unions in the United States of America. You have beautiful flex-time hours. It’s a real good job. I have a good time doing it.”
The football thing never really worked out for Jenkins.
He struggled in his only NFL camp with the Baltimore Ravens as an undrafted free agent in 2001. He was cut during camp and, to pile on, his humbling dismissal was caught by cameras filming for the HBO’s inside-the-camp series “Hard Knocks.”
Jenkins spent a couple of seasons in the Canadian Football League.
He worked as the general manager of an L.A. Fitness from 2002 to 2006, and, on the advice of a friend who was a longshoreman, did occasional work on the docks just to have a backup career plan.
It’s his main plan now, but that didn’t stop him from finishing his UA degree last summer with a bachelor’s in business administration and family studies.
“He has done a great job of understanding when the football thing was over,” Tomey said this week. “Usually, it takes too long for guys at that point to get going into something else.
“I’m really proud of him.”
Jenkins has moved on, but he’ll always have the Leap by the Lake and all the memories associated with it.
He recalls trying to sneak in late to a computer science class the following Monday.
“It was a big lecture hall, and as soon as I walked in, they started cheering and all that kind of stuff,” Jenkins said. “You cherish moments like that.”
• • •
Jenkins started to run and the coaches in the press box jumped out of their chairs.
“It was like, ‘No . . . no . . . no!” remembered defensive coordinator Rich Ellerson, now the head coach at Cal Poly. “Actually, I was more like, ‘Don’t do that, you . . .’ ”
There’s sometimes a fine line between bravery and foolishness, but Jenkins, who never lacked for confidence, had made his decision, seeking out pay dirt in the purple end zone of Husky Stadium.
“He goes,” says Fox Sports Net announcer Steve Physioc.
As Jenkins reached the 10, Washington defenders Brendan Jones and Marques Hairston came up from the end zone. Linebacker Lester Towns moved in from Jenkins’ right.
Nash watched helplessly from the end zone; there was no one he could block.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh my god, he’s tackled,’ ” Nash said. “Just for a second, I was thinking, ‘What is he doing?’ ”
Jenkins knew he couldn’t make it if he tried to dive low. He knew he wasn’t going to run over a big guy like Towns. Only one way to go.
At about the 3-yard-line, Jenkins left his feet.
“He dives!” Physioc yells.
Jenkins could see the goalpost . . . and then suddenly he couldn’t. All three Washington defenders hit him low, flipping him heels over head.
“I remember seeing the black sky, the stars in the sky,” Jenkins said.
And then he saw the goalpost again.
“HE’S IN!” screams Physioc.
Jenkins landed on his feet in the end zone, tumbled to the ground and popped right back up, having somehow held on to the ball throughout the flip.
“Once I realized where I was, I knew the game was over,” Jenkins said.
Arizona made the extra point and then needed only to kick off to end the game, winning 31-28. The Leap at the Lake turned out to be the greatest play of Jenkins career.
UA star cornerback Chris McAlister also made the greatest play of his career that night.
And he wasn’t even at the game.
• • •
McAlister was a senior All-American, as good-looking an NFL prospect as Arizona has ever had. But the NCAA suspended McAlister for the Washington game, ruling that week he had taken out an excessive loan for an insurance policy.
The NCAA denied Arizona’s appeal on Friday afternoon, and UA decided at the last minute to let 6-foot-7 quarterback Peter Hansen fill the last spot on the travel roster. More on him later.
“It was like, ‘What are we going to do without Chris McAlister? We have no chance,’ ” Nash said.
While Jenkins’ leap became an enduring TV highlight, there were no cameras around when McAlister did something coaches and players still speak of in reverent tones.
When the Wildcats’ chartered flight arrived in Tucson at around 3 or 4 in the morning, McAlister was there to greet the team – by himself, in the rain, full of tears.
“He was crying when we left because he was so upset. And when we got back, they were happy tears,” Tomey said. “I remember holding him it seemed like forever.
“I told the NFL scouts when they would come by that it was the greatest play Chris ever made. He never made a play that was as important or will be as important to his team than what he did that night.
“That probably had as much to do with us being a 12-1 team, a great team. He showed real unselfishness. He didn’t feel sorry for himself. Outstanding.”
Tomey, to this day, uses that moment to teach players what it means to be a team.
• • •
Speaking of unselfish, Jenkins is quick to point out there wouldn’t have been a flip, if there hadn’t been “The Drive,” if there hadn’t been heroes, unlikely or otherwise, all over the field.
Peter Hansen, the last guy on the trip? He was a kick-blocking specialist, and he blocked an extra point late in the first half.
Linebacker Marcus Bell blocked a field goal in the third quarter. Nash caught a 2-point conversion.
Little-used defensive backs had to come in for McAlister and Leland Gayles, who was taken to the hospital after suffering a scary neck injury.
Two of the biggest plays came from defensive tackle Keoni Fraser, a true freshman who made two unassisted tackles on running back Willie Hurst near the goal line. A touchdown essentially would have put the game out of reach.
Instead, Jim Skurski missed a 23-yard field goal wide right. He never kicked for Washington again.
Arizona took over at its 20 with 2:52 left, needing a touchdown.
The Wildcats were short-handed at wideout. Brad Brennan didn’t make the trip because of an ankle injury, and Jeremy McDaniel left the game because of a groin injury.
“We started our 2-minute drill and had to go to three receivers, and we didn’t have enough bodies,” said then-offensive coordinator Dino Babers, now an assistant coach at Baylor. “The receivers were getting so tired.”
On first-and-10 from the UA 32, the coaches put in tag-team quarterback Keith Smith, giving the receivers a break by putting Jenkins out wide. Smith fielded a low shotgun snap and fired to Jenkins for a 22-yard catch.
“Imagine,” Babers said. “The guy who flipped into the end zone caught a pass on that drive as a receiver.”
Arizona converted three third-down plays on the drive, and nearly scored a couple of plays before the leap.
Jenkins completed a 23-yard pass to Nash over the middle to the 1-yard-line. Nash, a reserve playing extensively because of the injuries, left his feet to make the catch.
“I just wanted to catch the ball,” said Nash, a sports reporter for Tucson’s Fox affiliate, KMSB-TV.
“I caught it falling down, basically. And then I’m on the ground and look around and I’m like, ‘Dude, the end zone is right there. I should have stayed on my feet. What the heck?’ ”
A false start penalty moved the ball back to the 6. Jenkins was sacked for a loss of 3 yards before UA used its final timeout.
Then came the play that everyone remembers.
When FSN put together the “Best Damn Unbelievable College Football Moments Top-50 Countdown” in October 2007, Jenkins’ flip was No. 41.
Tomey said 10 years ago it was the most unbelievable play he had ever seen.
Does he still feel that way?
“Oh, sure,” Tomey said. “But it was also the whole improbable setup of the thing.”
“What it came down to,” Jenkins said, “was that a lot of people made plays.”
• • •
The victory moved Arizona to 5-0 and set up one of the biggest games in UA history the following week. Ninth-ranked UA played host to No. 3 UCLA, the first Pac-10 meeting of top-10 teams in seven years.
The Wildcats lost 52-28 to the Bruins but ended the regular season 11-1 and went to the Holiday Bowl, where they beat Nebraska and finished fourth in both major polls.
Ten years later, Arizona is trying to get back to a bowl, any bowl.
Does it seem like forever ago or just yesterday that Jenkins flipped into the end zone?
The play was nominated for an ESPY award that year. It stands as an iconic moment, perhaps the iconic moment, in Arizona football history.
“Yeah, I guess it’s changed my life,” said Jenkins, 30.
“Any time I meet anybody who knows anything related to football, it’s like, ‘Oh yeah, you’re the guy who did the flip in Washington.’ ”
Anthony Gimino’s e-mail: email@example.com
Washington (0-4, 0-2) at UA (3-1, 1-0)
When: 4:30 p.m. Saturday. > Where: Arizona Stadium.
TV: Versus > Radio: 1290 AM, 107.5 FM, 990 AM (Spanish).
Line: UA by 21.5.
Live game blog: www.tucsoncitizen.com
See a video of the play