There are no worse ways to walk off a field. Name a negative emotion and the Maryland football team experienced it in the final 90 seconds against North Carolina yesterday: fear, frustration, anger. Overwhelming helplessness. Like life, games don't seem fair sometimes.
"Helluva way to make a living," said Assistant Coach Gib Romaine.
What took place in less time than it takes to read this column will be vivid in every Terrapin mind for years: one instant a near-certain tie against the ninth-rated team in the country, some salve for a sorry season; a few moments later near-certain defeat.
Then horror. An ambulance drives out of Byrd Stadium, lights flashing, with the Terrapin judged most valuable this game on a stretcher, as a seemingly obvious pass interference goes uncalled a yard from the end zone. An interception follows.
Carolina wins the Fear and Loathing Bowl.
"I told Mike there will be a lot tougher things happen to him in life," Coach Jerry Claiborne said. "I said if he learns to accept this he'll learn a lesson. No one feels worse than Mike Lewis."
No one acted classier.
With 1:26 left in the game, all Lewis had to do to virtually assure a tie was to catch a Carolina punt. All he had to do was wave for a fair catch and catch the football. The wave went well; the football went off his hands; the Tar Heels recovered and scored the winning touchdown on the next play.
If Lewis wanted to hide from public pillory, he did not.
A reporter offered several excuses for the critical muff; Lewis accepted none of them.
"Just misjudged it," he said. "No excuses at all. Just dropped it. A careless error on my part, a very careless error."
How close was he to recovering his own muff?
"Close enough to make the tackle."
An out-of-towner asked if this had happened before?
"I drop one once in a while," he said. "Just in critical situations."
He fumbled a punt that Syracuse converted into a touchdown during that 17-17 tie here four games ago; he fumbled an earlier punt against Carolina yesterday that the Maryland defense kept from being more than embarrassing.
In truth, the Maryland defense saved the offense time after time yesterday, playing about as well as anyone could hope against a fine team missing its regular quarterback and best runner.
Although it often seemed otherwise, the Terrapin offense did not work at helping Carolina. But every time Boomer Esiason would whip a lovely spiral 40 or 50 yards and a receiver would actually hang on, a blocker would be caught holding.
What went right usually was followed by something smelly.
"I usually don't cry," said reserve tailback John Nash, who played most of the game when Charlie Wysocki reinjured his left shoulder, "but I found myself breaking down in tears. Everybody really tried. It's the hardest game to lose."
Carolina was ripe to be upset. It came with only half the playbook, the part that diagrams runs. Everybody else passed the Terrapins silly this season. Tipsy customers could throw against Maryland; Carolina ran. And ran. And ran.
By running 51 times, Carolina kept Maryland in the game.
Lewis, the ultimate goat, helped put Maryland in the lead with a 41-yard catch and run to the Tar Heel four.
"I thought there should have been a penalty on the guy (who threw him out of bounds)," Lewis said.
Claiborne disagreed with several calls. Like most of his colleagues in this riskiest of sporting jobs, Claiborne reversed his verbal field during a postgame press conference.
"I won't comment on the officiating now," he said. "I don't comment on officiating in public."
Yes, he does. No sooner had those words passed his lips than the coach said: "I did not think that was a fumble." He was referring to the collision involving the back-to-pass Esiason that started with Maryland on the Tar Heel 14 and ended with the Tar Heels recovering a "fumble."
"His arm was coming forward," Claiborne said. "No question his arm was coming forward. But the guy who counts ruled a fumble. A judgment call." Earlier, he said: "I'm anxious to see that next to last (Maryland) play. (Alan) Sadler fell down. If he was hit" -- and it appeared he was -- "it's our ball on the one."
Neither very good nor very lucky, the Terrapins played well enough at times to win going away and horribly enough at times to lose by three touchdowns. Carolina nearly outthought itself, assuming it could win on the ground, score a knockout with one hand tied behind its back.
That nearly failed.
The hate Carolina Coach Dick Crum had emphasized never materialized. The teams were not quite lovey toward each other, but the game was clean. A Marylander even helped a Tar Heel off the ground once. The man who sent Esiason to the hospital with a neck injury was beside himself with fright.
"We don't hate around here," Lewis said. "We don't necessarily like everybody, but we're taught around here not to hate."
Classy kid, this Lewis.
"I hate to be rude," he said after about 15 minutes, "but I gotta go."
By that time, Claiborne might have been looking ahead. For all his feeling for Lewis, the coach surely will consider sending somebody else back there under punts. Speed and moves are a luxury right now. Can't anybody here make a simple catch?
Three hours or so later, everybody who watched in terror as Esiason suffered that neck injury and was delicately placed in an ambulance could breathe easier. He was treated at Washington Adventist Hospital and released, apparently able to dwell on his game instead of his life once more.