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December 22, 2012TUSCALOOSA | It is the greatest play that never happened.
The situation was this on the night of Jan. 1, 1993, in the Superdome in New Orleans: No. 2 Alabama led top-ranked Miami 27-6 in the third quarter with Miami facing second-and-10 on its own 11.
Miami quarterback Gino Torretta, the Heisman Trophy winner, took a shotgun snap. The Crimson Tide defense came with a blitz, and Toretta threw off his back foot to record-setting receiver Lamar Thomas, who was streaking down the left sideline.
Willie Gaston, in coverage for Alabama, was beaten on the play. Thomas caught the ball at the Miami 35 and sprinted toward the end zone. Alabama safety George Teague, spotting Thomas a 5-yard lead, gave chase.
Teague, who minutes earlier returned an interception 31 yards for a touchdown, closed and caught up with Thomas 55 yards later, but he did more than that: He reached around Thomas and took the ball from him at the 5-yard line. He even returned the takeaway back to the 12.
As history recorded the play, it never happened. Alabama's defense was flagged for being offside. Miami took the penalty, wiping the play from the record.
But not from the memories of those who were there.
"I remember doing all I could," Teague said, looking back 20 years later. "After he caught it, the race was on. It's history after that."
Teague, now a high school coach in Texas after a career with the Dallas Cowboys, Green Bay Packers and Miami Dolphins, remembers more. He remembers being completely gassed from the effort.
"I was spent," he said. "Just the energy, we had played the whole first half going into the third quarter when it happened. It might have been the first time I ever put on the oxygen mask on the sideline."
Years later, someone broke down the video and determined that Teague was running at a rate equivalent to a 4.4-second 40-yard dash: except he ran longer than 40 yards, and did it in full pads.
UA secondary coach Bill Oliver saw the play unfold.
"When he went by Willie Gaston, I said, 'We're history,'" Oliver recalled. "The guy, Lamar Thomas, I think he wrote his own thing in the press guide about how fast he was. It's the most phenomenal thing I've ever seen."
From the stands, it was just as spectacular.
"That's still the most incredible play I've ever witnessed," said Tuscaloosa attorney Bert Guy, who watched from a top-row seat in the end zone. "Everybody says the play didn't count, but it did count because if he hadn't made the play, they would have declined the penalty and had the ball."
Reach Tommy Deas at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 205-722-0224.