Outlined against a blue-gray April sky, a punt changed Tim Brown's life. And it wasn't even headed toward him.
One of the conclusions new Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz reached during his first spring in South Bend in 1986 was that Brown, a junior flanker, had not gotten the ball enough during his first two seasons, under the previous coach, Gerry Faust.
Holtz decided the 6-foot, 195-pound Brown should not only catch passes but take pitches and return kickoffs and punts; he emphasized his conviction by demonstrating proper form for the latter himself one day at practice.
"My head coach is trying to catch punts," Brown recalled. "Wow, maybe I can really learn something."
Holtz, now an ESPN college football studio analyst, remembers the scenario well. "I hadn't tried to return a punt in years, and this was the first time I tried to do it wearing bifocals," he said.
The ball struck Holtz on the tip of a finger, breaking it in four places.
"He tried to be tough for about two minutes," Brown said. "Then he had to go in."
Holtz's pain was Notre Dame's gain, as Brown blossomed into a multipurpose threat. He sparked a stunning Notre Dame comeback at USC in the Irish's 1986 finale, then dazzled the country early in 1987 by returning consecutive punts for touchdowns against Michigan State.
Three months later, the kid whose Dallas high school team won only four games in his three varsity seasons became the 53rd Heisman Trophy recipient -- and the first in 38 years who wasn't a quarterback or running back. He finished sixth in major college football in all-purpose yards per game (167.9), with season totals of 846 yards receiving, 456 on kickoff returns, 401 on punt returns and 144 rushing.
"There are only a couple receivers that have won the Heisman, but they're guys that returned punts and kickoffs," Brown said. "Doesn't matter how great you are at receiving. You have to be able to affect the game at another level."
In the first game of the 1986 season, Brown led Notre Dame in rushing yardage. In the last game of that season, he was almost instantly tabbed as a potential star -- and first pondered a pro football career.
The Irish (4-6) were already assured consecutive losing seasons for the first time since the program's first two years -- 1887 and 1888 -- with four losses coming against teams ranked in the top 10.
Notre Dame erased a 17-point deficit at No. 17 USC in the fourth quarter to win 38-37. The Trojans led 37-27 with five minutes left when Brown's 49-yard catch from Steve Beuerlein set up a touchdown. After the Irish held USC, Brown returned a punt 56 yards to set up the winning field goal on the final play.
He finished with 97 yards on kickoff returns, 89 receiving, 56 on that one punt return and 10 rushing. In the visitors locker room afterward, renowned Los Angeles Times sports columnist Jim Murray told Brown he would be his Heisman front-runner in 1987.
"I was really blown away," Brown said. "I literally went to Notre Dame to get a great education, come back here to Dallas, marry my high school sweetheart and go on about my life.
"I told my brother Don what Jim said. That was the first time we thought, 'Somebody might want me to come play in the NFL.' We sort of said that and cracked up laughing."
Opening the 1987 season, No. 16 Notre Dame visited No. 9 Michigan and won 26-7. The Irish moved up in the rankings to ninth, then hosted No. 17 Michigan State.
With Notre Dame leading 5-0 early, Brown fielded a punt at his 29-yard line, headed right, juked a defender at Notre Dame's 45 and raced 71 yards for the score. After the Spartans' next possession ended about two minutes later, Brown took a punt at his 34, cut left, sprinted down the sideline, and scooted around the final defender at the Spartans' 20 and into the end zone. Building on that 19-0 lead, the Irish won 31-8.
"That game certainly won the Heisman Trophy for me," Brown said.
Notre Dame regained national respect by taking an 8-1 record and a No. 7 national ranking into late November. But the Irish lost at unranked Penn State and at No. 2 Miami, and were then invited to the Cotton Bowl Classic, played in Brown's hometown, to face No. 13 Texas A&M.
Not far from the Cotton Bowl stadium, Brown had played for Woodrow Wilson High School and lined up at just about every skill position on offense. But Woodrow won only four games in his three varsity seasons, and Brown wasn't even listed among the Dallas Morning News' top college prospects of 1984 from metropolitan Dallas ... or from the state of Texas.
But at least some college coaches recognized his potential. Brown made official visits to Nebraska, Oklahoma, Iowa, Notre Dame and his hometown school, SMU. Having narrowed the field to Notre Dame and SMU based on academics, he signed with the Irish with the blessing of his mother, Josephine.
"Coach Faust and [Notre Dame assistant] coach [Jay] Robertson convinced me if I let them have my son, he'd come back a man," she said. "Also, the other schools seemed more interested in him having a good time."
Brown said it was good for him to go far from home.
"I thought if I was ever going to grow up, [after] being here in Dallas my whole life, getting away was something I really needed to do," he said.
He also was concerned with SMU's propensity for NCAA probation. (Had he signed with the Mustangs, he would have been prohibited from bowl play as a sophomore and junior, would not have been able to play on live TV as a junior, and would have faced the decision of transferring to play as a senior after SMU received the death penalty.)
The decision to play in South Bend ultimately paid big dividends. In 1987, Brown received 324 first-place Heisman votes to 167 for runner-up Don McPherson, Syracuse's quarterback. One of the highlights of Brown's coronation in New York was a group photo of him and Notre Dame's six previous Heisman winners.
Seven Heismans won by one school was a record at that point.
The Irish haven't produced another winner since, while being matched in Heisman production by Ohio State (adding Eddie George in 1995 and Troy Smith in 2006) and Southern Cal (Carson Palmer in 2002, Matt Leinart in 2004 and Reggie Bush in 2005, although Bush's was later vacated to drop the Trojans back to six Heismans).
Notre Dame has had some close Heisman calls since. Senior quarterback Tony Rice finished fourth in voting in 1989 after helping the Irish win the 1988 national championship and finish No. 2 in 1989. A year later, junior flanker Raghib "Rocket" Ismail was runner-up to Brigham Young quarterback Ty Detmer. Quarterback Brady Quinn was third in 2006.
"Rocket should have won it, if not for Ty Detmer having the best year in the history of college quarterbacks," Brown said. "Back in those days, only certain people were being seen on TV. Everybody's being seen now on a weekly basis, so a lot more people are getting involved in the race."
In Brown's final college game, the No. 12 Irish lost 35-10 to Texas A&M to drop to 17th in the final poll. Prior to that season, Notre Dame hadn't finished in the top 25 throughout Faust's five years and Holtz's maiden season. But 1987 ushered in a turnaround for the program, marking the first of seven consecutive seasons the Irish would be ranked, of which five of those finishes were in the top six, including the 1988 national title.
Brown was the sixth pick in the 1988 NFL draft, by the Los Angeles Raiders. Brown played 17 pro seasons, made nine Pro Bowls, and ranks fourth in career catches and yards. In 2010, he was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame.
Brown lives just south of Dallas in DeSoto, Texas, with his wife, Sharice, and children Taylor, Timon, Timothy Jr. and Tamar. He is involved in multiple businesses, including game analyst work for ESPN. His father, Eugene, died in May, and his mother, Josephine, lives a couple of miles away in Duncanville, Texas.
Holtz looks back at his two years coaching Brown and says, "Not one time did I ever have to talk to him about his decision-making on or off the field."
Josephine kept her son's Heisman for many years, until Brown asked to borrow it a few years ago for a photo shoot and never returned it.
If she wants it back, Josephine has good leverage.
"I have his diploma," she said.