NEWARK, Del. -- This column was supposed to be about race.
Well, not exactly race. Race and class and money and two schools playing each other on Friday for the first time in history. It was supposed to be about the University of Delaware versus Delaware State University. White. Black. Upstate. Downstate. Dynasty. Upstart. How, having repeatedly refused to face the Hornets for 80-some years, Delaware finally met its in-state "rival" in a first-round playoff game.
And yet, as I sit here in the press box above the University of Delaware's stadium, what this column is about -- what it needs to be about -- is football.
Specifically, about two absolutely astonishing football players.
In demolishing Delaware State before 19,765 fans in a game televised live on ESPN, the Blue Hens introduced to much of the nation what may well be the top tandem in college football.
Not Colonial Athletic Association college football.
Not Football Championship Subdivision (I-AA).
No, college football -- period.
During my time at Sports Illustrated and ESPN, I've had my chance to see a whole lot of the game's best. I remember Ohio State's Eddie George, bowling over Michigan; USC's Keyshawn Johnson tearing up UCLA; Peyton Manning lighting up Vanderbilt. Yet nothing -- truly nothing -- compared to the pasting Joe Flacco and Omar Cuff placed upon Delaware State.
Blue Hens 44.
A former backup at the University of Pittsburgh who transferred to Delaware following the 2004 season, the 6-foot-6, 230-pound Flacco picked apart the Hornets, passing for 189 yards and a touchdown. Though his statistics read as ordinary, to watch Flacco in action is -- to make an ambitious comparison -- Culpepper-esque. (We're talking the Viking years here) Flacco throws from the pocket. He throws on the run. He throws leaning left and he throws leaning right. On one play, two Hornet defenders hung from his legs as he easily slung a completion to receiver Aaron Love, who seemed to expect his quarterback to somehow make magic happen. Delaware has produced a handful of NFL signal callers, including Rich Gannon, Scott Brunner and Jeff Komlo, yet none have possessed the ungodly arm strength of Flacco, who doesn't loft a football so much as he uzis it.
Flacco is a likely second- or third-round selection in the upcoming NFL draft, and the Hornets learned why. "If you give him any amount of time, he'll pick you apart," said Delaware State linebacker Russell Reeves. "We thought we had pressure on him, but it didn't impact him. He's unlike the other quarterbacks we've seen this year."
As for Cuff, the greatest running back in Blue Hen history must be placed alongside the Ray Rices and Darren McFaddens as one of the nation's elite ballcarriers. The 5-foot-10, 195-pound senior out of Landover, Md., entered the game with 1,369 rushing yards, 487 receiving yards and a world-leading 33 touchdowns. Then, against the Hornets, he set a school-mark with 288 rushing yards and four more scores. What NFL scouts say about Cuff -- too small, too slow, questionable collegiate competition -- is the same stuff they once uttered about a I-AA running back named Walter Payton.
"He's phenomenal," said Al Lavan, Delaware State's head coach and a former NFL player and assistant. "How do you stop someone that good? You don't."
Fortunately for the First State, another thing that, at long last, won't be stopped is a blossoming rivalry. Those moronic few who have supported Delaware's refusal to face Delaware State in football over the years are a dwindling bunch, confined to angry-old-man chat rooms and assorted nursing homes. In their place are enlightened men like Lavan and Delaware coach K.C. Keeler, a former Blue Hens linebacker who insisted his players soak in the atmosphere before getting to work. "I wanted them to take 30 seconds and appreciate it," Keeler said. "Al Lavan and I spent some time together yesterday and both of us agree that this is a game we should continue to play. They'll be talking about this in barbershops and supermarkets leading up to the game every year. It's a great thing."
Indeed, even as Flacco and Cuff exposed Delaware State as (let's be honest) sub-mediocre, the Hornets' red-and-black clad fans seized the day. For many, this was a dream come true; hell, beyond a dream. The idea of ever actually playing the University of Delaware -- of being granted a place on the stage -- seemed as unrealistic as a Keanu Reeves monologue. Yet here they were, roaming the parking lots of Newark, roasting franks and shaking pom-poms and finally believing a dream can turn reality. "I never, never, never, ever thought Delaware would play Delaware State," said Donald Conway, 64, a Delaware State alum and the Hornets' scorekeeper in 1964. "People ask what it means to us. It means everything. Back when I was in school the teams were largely segregated. Playing them wasn't even a thought.
"Now it's 2007, and everything has changed. We may win, we may lose. But we're here. Gosh darnit, we're here."
Jeff Pearlman is a former Sports Illustrated senior writer and the author of "Love Me, Hate Me: Barry Bonds and the Making of an Antihero," now available in paperback. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.