The thought was an obvious one. The one that ran through the mind of every William and Mary fan before kickoff: “Why are we playing this game?”
The Tribe didn’t need the win. With a 6-1 record coming into Saturday’s game versus North Carolina, the College did not need a win to lock up a postseason berth. In fact, if it were up to him, I bet Head Coach Jimmye Laycock would have gladly dropped the game, packed up the footballs and gone home. Every team could use a bye this time of year.
But the Tribe needed to play. North Carolina needed a win, and the College needed a paycheck. Money was a motivating factor — the reason why the game was played. But money does not make you pick up a key block on third down. Money does not pick you up after being knocked to the ground.
It was passion, not money, that led the College on the field Saturday. For sports, in its purest form, is passion and, in life, you don’t chase your passion for money.
You do it for moments.
Moments like the one junior quarterback Mike Paulus had Saturday.
When Paulus entered the game early in the first half, he knew — perhaps better than anyone else — he was out-manned. He had practiced against the Tar Heel defense every day for two years. He knew the Tribe’s wide receivers could not beat the North Carolina secondary for more than 10-15 yards a pop. He knew the College’s offensive line would not hold up versus the Tar Heel defensive line.
But he competed. Understaffed but unafraid, Paulus competed at a level Saturday that, quite frankly, he has not reached all season. He made a back shoulder throw to senior wide receiver Chase Hill well before Hill came out of his break. He completed a backside roll-out pass, in stride, to senior running back Coutland Marriner straight out of NFL films.
For one afternoon Paulus was the quarterback every fan in the stadium, at one point over the last four years, thought he would be.
But in the end, it was not enough. The Tribe could not hold the UNC rush back long enough to let Paulus take shots downfield, and, even if they could have, it was unlikely the College’s wide receivers could beat the Tar Heel secondary deep. Paulus was trapped, caught standing tall in the pocket to take the hits from the North Carolina frontline he knew was coming.
And he stood there, continuing to look for a play downfield. He stood there, determined not to turn the ball over. The quarterback that North Carolina fans thought was too weak to lead their team to a national title stood there, taking every hit until he could stand no more, going down for the count with three seconds remaining after a wicked hit from Donte Paige-Moss.
That’s when it happened.
As Paulus left the field, North Carolina’s preseason All-American cornerback Kendric Burney came over and gave the junior quarterback a fist bump. Barely able to stand, Paulus remained dazed on the bench as the game ended and the William and Mary medical staff attended to him.
But half the Carolina team, including T.J. Yates, Bruce Carter and Butch Davis, came over anyway to congratulate their former teammate, the best player on the field that afternoon. The Tar Heels delayed the singing of their alma mater until they were sure Paulus knew he had earned their respect.
Ultimately, it’s not for the win or for the money or even for the glory. It’s for the moment in which you prove yourself against the highest level of competition. It’s for the moment of standing in front of 51,000 people who only remember your greatest failures and responding with skill and courage.
For a brief moment Saturday, Paulus did exactly that. Having left North Carolina a failure almost 11 months earlier, he left Kenan Stadium Saturday with his head held high. For a brief moment in time he was brilliant, despite his defeat.
It’s those moments that make up a football season. Those are the reasons why you play the game.