The best game of the college football season came Monday between two high-profile schools against the sunny backdrop of Pasadena, Calif., in one of the game’s historic monuments, the Rose Bowl.
However, the best story came the previous night from a little-known receiver in a bowl game between two mediocre mid-major teams playing in a bowl sponsored by a domain-name-hawking website on a cold, misty night in Mobile, Ala.
Had I known beforehand the back story of Arkansas State receiver Allen Muse, I might have burst into tears when he caught the game-winning touchdown pass for a 23-20 victory over Ball State in the GoDaddy Bowl at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
As it was, I still nearly cried when I found out about Muse’s personal story then watched the replay of his touchdown, a play that will forever have more symbolic value to life than it did in a football game.
For perspective, the last – and only – time a sporting event brought me to such emotion was 24 years ago, when Loyola Marymount basketball star Bo Kimble shot his first free throw left-handed in honor of his late teammate Hank Gathers (who also shot free throws left-handed), who had collapsed and died of a heart attack on the court just days earlier.
It’s worth noting that I had never heard of Allen Muse before the GoDaddy Bowl. For someone who is an unabashed college football junkie, it seems a bit unlikely his story, until now, would have escaped me. But it’s one I will never forget.
The GoDaddy Bowl was a snoozer between two average teams for more than 3 hours. One of my overriding impressions after watching the first half was that Ball State, a 7-point favorite, was the slightly more talented team, but Arkansas State clearly wanted the bowl game more. Turns out this dynamic might not have been mere coincidence.
This didn’t make the game easier to watch. For the most part, it was sloppily and poorly played, and I took a nap that bridged the end of the third quarter and most of the fourth. I woke up just in time to see a flurry of touchdowns in the final few minutes that more or less compensated for 3 hours of boredom.
I watched as Muse caught his touchdown pass, then as the Red Wolves sealed the game by blocking Ball State’s attempt at a game-tying field goal as time expired. I figured that sequence would close the story of the GoDaddy Bowl.
Little did I know it was just the beginning. About 10 minutes later, someone tweeted out a link to a heartwarming story that was written about 18 months ago on the hero of the GoDaddy Bowl, Allen Muse.
As a lifelong fan of good sports stories — I’ve made a decent part of my living by trying to tell some myself — and out of curiosity because I had just watched the GoDaddy Bowl, I clicked on the link. The story I read (link below) was one of great tragedy and triumph, and I was riveted from start to finish.
The piece chronicled Muse’s difficult upbringing, which included his family home’s devastation by Hurricane Katrina, to his father’s suicide a couple of years ago. Muse was extremely close to his father, and the loss sent him spiraling into depression, alcohol abuse and other troubles.
Football wasn’t much of a sanctuary for him, and it probably didn’t help that Arkansas State, a revolving door for coaches on their way up, had five separate coaches in Muse’s five years at the school.
Before last season, he met with then-coach Gus Malzahn (who would go on to coach Auburn to this year’s BCS title game), and they agreed it would be best if he sat out football and got his life in order.
Muse returned this year for his final season of eligibility under Bryan Harsin (who has since already bolted for Boise State) and was basically a third receiver, grabbing 29 catches for 370 yards and two TDs. First-team all-Sunbelt receiver J.D. McKissic led the Wolves with 82 catches, and Julian Jones had 52.
But Muse made sure the final catch of his collegiate career was one to be remembered. With Arkansas State trailing 20-16 after a Ball State touchdown, backup quarterback Fredi Knighten, playing for injured starter Adam Kennedy, led the Red Wolves down field with a series of successful pass plays, and they had a 1st-and-10 at the Ball State 13 with a minute left.
And suddenly, there it was, the best story of the college football season taking shape on a drizzly night in Mobile, with a player and team performing for an interim coach in a game that was little more than a pedestrian appetizer for the following night’s main course, the BCS title game.
The GoDaddy Bowl highlight video, linked below, captures the sequence well. At the 7:30 mark, the play begins. On 2nd-and-4 with 34 seconds left, Knighten fakes a short throw on an out route to McKissic, the team’s top receiver who quickly draws the attention of two defenders.
This allows Muse an opportunity to sneak into the corner of the end zone, and Knighten lofts a perfect pass -– into a stiff wind -– that Muse adroitly snatches with both hands.
Probably my favorite scene comes at the 8:10 mark, right after a replay of the touchdown. You can see the Arkansas State bench absolutely erupt in joy and celebration after Muse’s touchdown, players sprinting down the sidelines and uncontrollably rejoicing. This is one of the most spontaneously selfless and touching moments I’ve seen in athletics in ages.
His teammates knew what this meant. Of course, they would have been happy had any player scored a game-winning touchdown. But this is not a touchdown celebration – this was much more about Muse’s personal triumph than a football game, and these student-athletes were big enough to know it. Their reaction was authentic and moving, and they deserved to win.
The author of the piece chronicling Muse’s life is a regional AP sportswriter named Kurt Voigt. In the intro to the article, he explains he was drawn to the story of Muse, at least in part, because the journalist had a significant tragedy in common with the football player. Voigt also lost his father to suicide.
Voigt clearly formed something of a bond with Muse throughout the course of doing the story and, after the game, he sent out the following tweets:
I realized as I re-read Voigt’s piece and re-watched the highlight video that I, too, was drawn to Muse’s story because of some similarities it has to my own. I didn’t lose a parent to suicide, but I did similarly grow up in poverty, and a home life that was both unstable and darkened by an ever-present cloud of depression and other mental illness.
In some ways, I think everyone can relate to the story of Allen Muse at least a little and, if we follow his example of resilience, maybe our stories also can end with a game-winning touchdown pass.
After seeing the game and reading Voigt’s story, I scoured the Internet a little, looking for more information on Allen Muse. I came across his Twitter profile and noticed that his profile reads, “All Conference … All American.”
Unfortunately, neither of these designations is true (and, presumably, they were made part of his bio for motivational purposes). However, Muse doesn’t need to be an All American to be someone I root for.
He’s already something much more significant — an inspiration.