When Michigan kicker Novo Bojovic's tying 43-yard field goal sailed through the wind, the rain and the goal posts as the final numeral disappeared from the clock, the Washington Federals looked as though they were headed for their fourth loss in as many games and yet another week of frail promises.
Coach Ray Jauch walked to the center of the field as if in a daze. His team had given up a nine-point lead and failed to take advantage of nine Michigan fumbles. Above him, the score for four periods of regulation time read Michigan Panthers 16, Washington 16.
But minutes later, after Kim McQuilken led the Federals on a 72-yard overtime drive culminating in a 22-yard touchdown pass to Joey Walters, Jauch was riding off the field on his players' shoulders, savoring a 22-16 victory, the first for the U.S. Football League franchise.
With the weather and an afternoon of televised basketball with which to contend, owner Berl Bernhard shared his first victory with only 11,423 freezing, drenched fans at RFK Stadium; there were 10,396 no-shows. The crowd was one-third the size of the one that turned out for the Federals' opener against George Allen's Chicago Blitz March 7.
But of economics, Bernhard seemed temporarily oblivious.
He beamed at McQuilken and Walters and Jauch, and everyone else in sight. His handshakes could have cracked walnuts and his smile lit up a bleak afternoon.
"When I saw Michigan march down on us in the last two minutes and then hit that field goal, I was nervous as hell," said Bernhard.
"Thank God we won the coin toss," said safety Donnie Harris. "Michigan called tails and it came up heads. I mean, how do you spell relief!"
The Federals received the kickoff to open the 15-minute overtime period, and never gave the Panthers (1-3) a chance. Regaining the precision he displayed in the first half, McQuilken fought off a hard-rushing linebacker, John Corker (five sacks), and strong winds to find victory after nearly a month of frustration.
Starting from his 28, McQuilken completed a 22-yard pass to former Giants running back Billy Taylor and a 31-yarder to Walters. He threw the next pass, intended for Buddy Hardeman, into the hands of John Arnaud, but the Michigan safety dropped the ball.
On second down from the Panthers' 19, Eric Robinson was dropped for a three-yard loss on a draw.
"After that run, I didn't know what to call," said McQuilken. "The play came in from the sidelines and I thought there was no way it could work. I thought I'd probably end up throwing it away and then see if we could get a field goal."
Jauch was going to substitute newly acquired punter Dana Moore for a field-goal attempt if need be. Obed Ariri had missed two of three field-goal attempts and an extra point.
With 12:17 remaining in the sudden-death period, McQuilken sent Walters, Mike Holmes and Vince Kinney on "go" patterns from the 22 to the end zone.
"I had a defensive back on me but I juked him a little at the line and went over the middle," said Walters. And that is where McQuilken found him--over the middle, with no defenders within five yards. On the giant mud puddle of a field, McQuilken watched Walters cross the goal line. He raised his fist in triumph.
As the scoreboard clicked to 22-16, the rain kept coming down, but the Washington players went wild.
"When you're just starting out, you struggle for that first win," said Jauch. "We've had some tough luck and, let's face it, we haven't played that well. But I'm not looking at this as a won-lost thing. I'm looking to build a football team."
While the Federals continued to play without injured running back Craig James, quarterback Mike Hohensee and wide receiver Reggie Smith, certain roster changes seemed to strengthen the team--especially the addition of guard Mike Wilson, Moore and Taylor.
Ariri's 32-yard field goal opened the scoring with 3:06 left in the first period.
Washington extended its lead to 10-0 when McQuilken threw a 40-yard scoring pass to Holmes, who beat cornerback Ron Osborne on a sprint pattern along the right sideline with 7:57 left in the half.
The Panthers fought back on the next drive. From the Federals' 33, quarterback Bobby Hebert saw Michigan's highly prized rookie receiver, Anthony Carter, open at the 18. Cornerback Jeff Brown hit Carter as he caught the ball, but the former Michigan all-America broke the tackle and ran for the left side of the end zone.
The touchdown made it 10-7 with 4:25 left in the half.
After David Greenwood's punt, the Federals began a drive from their 25 with 2:15 left in the half.
All week in practice McQuilken, Holmes and Walters worked on quick slant passes, as Michigan game film apparently revealed a weakness on medium-range patterns in the middle of the field.
On such passes, McQuilken found Holmes for 25 yards and Walters for 13. With seven seconds remaining in the half, Walters found a seam the size of the Delaware Water Gap in the Michigan secondary and caught an eight-yard touchdown pass. Ariri's kick failed, and the half ended with the score 16-7.
As field conditions worsened in the second half, so did the quality of play. Michigan fumbled repeatedly and Washington's inability to control Corker's pass rush led to 45 yards in losses.
"I guess I must owe (Corker) money or something," said McQuilken.
The scoring pass that put the Panthers within three points of the Federals, should have either been a sack or a modest gain.
Instead, with 2:08 left in the third quarter, Hebert evaded a heavy rush, stepped up into the pocket and passed to Derek Holloway. Holloway broke away from Harris and outraced the Washington secondary for a 69-yard score. Bojovich's extra-point attempt was wide left.
The fourth quarter seemed an endless series of exchanges. That is, until Hebert led Michigan downfield with passes to Frank McClain and Ken Lacey, and Bojovic, Yugoslavian-born kicker, took the game into overtime.