Joy and pain: The Miracle at Michigan

The Miracle at Michigan (3:41)

Twenty years ago, Kordell Stewart launched one of the most iconic Hail Mary passes in college football history to cap a stunning comeback over Michigan. (3:41)

Twenty years ago today, on an unassuming Saturday afternoon, one of college football's greatest comebacks and greatest plays thrilled a national television audience. The final play, a 64-yard Hail Mary, was never supposed to work -- the comeback was never supposed to happen -- so Colorado fans dubbed it a miracle.

And, 20 years later, after Colorado's unlikely 27-26 win over Michigan, it's still known by the same name: the Miracle at Michigan.

The No. 7 Colorado Buffaloes marched into one of the nation's biggest venues, the Big House, to play in the nation's biggest Week 3 game against the No. 4 Michigan Wolverines. Future Heisman winner Rashaan Salaam said the prospect of playing this game was one of the reasons that drove him to commit to Colorado in the first place.

This game had the recipe for greatness. But that all seemed to be slipping away late in the game. With less than 2:30 left in regulation, Michigan led 26-14. The Buffs were down -- but they weren't out. And what happened next would forever be a part of college football legend.

Before the catch

Colorado trails 26-14. But the Buffaloes find life late in the fourth quarter with a touchdown at the 2:16 mark. Colorado still needs another touchdown to win, but momentum is now on the Buffaloes' side.

Michael Westbrook, Colorado wide receiver, 1991-94: We walked around with the most ridiculous amount of confidence you could ever imagine. We used to totally brainwash ourselves that we couldn't lose at anything, so that score didn't matter to us. Time was on the clock, so there was a chance we could win. Some people don't believe me saying that, but that is the God's honest truth.

Chuck Winters, Michigan defensive back, 1993-96: You could see that they were getting the momentum, and it started changing for them. With about five minutes to go, you could see the mood change on the sideline. It became real tense. That's when you knew in your head, as you look back, "Oh man, something's going down."

Blake Anderson, Colorado wide receiver, 1993-94: You know, there was never any defeat on our team. We still had our heads up and felt like we could make something happen, and that showed in everyone's eyes in the huddle. That was special to me -- everyone's eyes -- everyone's belief we could still do it and make something happen.

Jarrett Irons, Michigan linebacker, 1993-96: I never thought that we were going to lose. I felt like we were a better team.

Rashaan Salaam, Colorado running back, 1992-94: We all believed; nobody's head was down. If you saw the stat sheet, we were killing those guys in terms of yardage. So we knew, if we settled down, we could win.

Colorado WR Michael Westbrook: On the sideline there, it was like it was out of a movie. [Offensive coordinator] Rick Neuheisel was like, "Never give up. Always believe!" It's almost comical to look back with all those things being said. You couldn't write a script better.

The Catch

After forcing a three-and-out, Colorado calls for a fair catch on its own 15-yard line and then completes a 21-yard pass. One play left. With six seconds remaining, Colorado has the ball on its own 36 and trails 26-21. Buffaloes quarterback Kordell Stewart scrambles, waits, steps up and lets the pass rip.

Greg Mattison, Michigan assistant coach, 1992-96, 2011-current: I can remember that as if I was standing there 10 minutes ago. I'll never forget that as long as I live. The thing that people don't realize is that exact play happened at halftime.

Rick Neuheisel, Colorado assistant coach, 1994: At the end of the first half, we actually called a Hail Mary play ... and Ty Law intercepted the pass at the goal line. And never before in my life had I ever corrected a Hail Mary play, let alone drawn it up at halftime. But that's exactly what we did. We drew it up at halftime. We said, 'Listen, if this happens again. This is how we're going to do this.' It's spooky to me how that all played out.

Michigan DB Chuck Winters: The jams didn't occur. Nobody got a good jam; everybody was tired. That's what I noticed.

Michigan LB Jarrett Irons: When they threw that ball up, I just didn't think that dude had the arm to throw it like that. I just couldn't believe it. I've never been a part of anything like that. It was unbelievable to me.

Colorado RB Rashaan Salaam: My thing was to give Kordell enough time. There was a three-man rush, and I was told to block. I went to the left, and I stepped up and made the block. Everybody was on the same page. Kordell stepped up.

Colorado assistant coach Rick Neuheisel: The unsung hero was Rashaan Salaam. He does an amazing job of picking off a guy and giving Kordell absolute free access to throw that ball.

The ball spirals nearly 70 yards in the air -- Stewart was about 5 yards back in the pocket -- and the pigskin eventually deflects off Colorado wideout Blake Anderson and falls into the waiting arms of Michael Westbrook. The play was drawn up that way: Anderson tips, Westbrook catches.

Colorado WR Blake Anderson: I'm thinking, "This ball is coming right for me. You've got to make a play." And I just kind of timed it fortunately with all those Michigan Wolverines all over me. I was able to get my hands free and get the ball deflected right into Michael's arms. Everyone said, "Why didn't you catch it, Blake?" And I said "Because we would've lost." I was at the half-yard line, face-first into the turf. First thing I saw when I lifted my head up was the back judge raising his arms. Touchdown.

Michigan DB Chuck Winters: I'm trying to knock it down, and I can remember Ty [Law] was trying to come in and get an interception. As we went up in there, we collided in the air. We collided with the receiver. ... As I'm falling back, I can see the ball in the air, but I've got the one receiver in my arms. We're all falling. Out of the corner I can see Mike Westbrook coming from the side and just kind of extend and dive out.

Colorado WR Michael Westbrook: All you see are the stripes on the ball starting to slow. It felt like I was running forever, and I'm cramping up. ... I'm about to jump as hard as high as I can jump, but I can't because Ty Law wraps his arms around my legs, so I don't get as high. I'm about to probably overshoot the ball, but someone's underneath. So many things had to happen for that play to work.

Michigan LB Jarrett Irons: It was just one of the fluky situations. It bounced the wrong way.

Colorado assistant coach Rick Neuheisel: It looked to me like a perfect iron shot. When you're watching it in the air and you're triangulating as to where it's coming to come down, just as you do as a golfer. You say, "That has a chance."

The immediate aftermath

With no time remaining on the clock, the scoreboard shows "Colorado 27, Michigan 26." The Buffaloes have just won on a last-second, 64-yard Hail Mary touchdown. Colorado's sideline empties, and the Big House goes quiet. ABC's Keith Jackson ends the broadcast by saying, "All those who were involved will never forget it. Either for the joy of it or for the pain of it."

Colorado RB Rashaan Salaam: I couldn't see the touchdown. I just saw guys running downfield and was like, 'Wow -- we must've done it.' It was gratifying. Everybody was happy, hugging, pointing to Michigan fans, talking a little trash.

Colorado WR Michael Westbrook: I was suffocating at first because I was at the bottom of the pile. I was fine at first and then it got heavier and heavier and I was like, "Please, I'm dying!" Then everybody started getting off and screaming and hugging, and Kordell comes down. It was unbelievable. I was just in a confused state. It was the biggest state of confusion I ever was in.

Colorado WR Blake Anderson: We were on the bottom of the pile, and there were a lot of l-bs on top of us, so we ended up starting to throw punches. We were like, "Hey guys, we need to get some air." We were elbowing guys: "All right, enough!" But I definitely remember that feeling of awesomeness and, like, "Whoa." ... Whatever needed to happen happened. You can say, God willing, we came out with the W. It was incredible.

Colorado assistant coach Rick Neuheisel: It was absolutely quiet. I saw the catch, I saw the arcs go up signaling touchdown, I went to hug Kordell -- and I forgot Kordell was a 4.3-40 guy, and he's already there at the pile. ... So, all of a sudden, I lock eyes with death personified: [Michigan head coach] Gary Moeller. You talk about the agony of defeat. He's staring at me and I'm like, "Oh my goodness."

Michigan DB Chuck Winters: We went in the locker room and it's quiet. Maybe about five minutes later, the door kicks in. Pow -- it's Billy Harris, who's our DBs coach, and he goes off. He goes down the line and just pointing and blaming people: 'You lost this game for me, and you lost this game for me.' He stopped at me and went off. They had to grab him and take him away.

Michigan LB Jarrett Irons: It was tough, man. Guys were upset. We were in disarray. We were just in shock. It was one of those things you really couldn't believe.

Colorado WR Michael Westbrook: I can't imagine being on the other end of that. That had to be a very dramatic experience for them; it was a dramatic experience for me. ... It took years to sink in. Literally. Because I'm holding the ball and not even thinking this happened. I'm like, "Is this the Twilight Zone? Is this real?"

Looking back, 20 years later

The game has been in the books now for exactly two decades. But no one's forgotten. It's impossible to forget. Colorado went on to an 11-1 record, with its only loss against Nebraska. Michigan went on to finish 8-4 with a Holiday Bowl win. But most of these players -- at least on the winning side -- remember this play more than anything.

Colorado RB Rashaan Salaam: That was the biggest moment of my football career. It was even bigger than going over 2,000 yards. Bigger than winning the Heisman. Just being down and staying together and Kordell being a leader. ... I just knew when that happened -- in front of the Big House, in front of one of the biggest crowds in college football -- I knew it was going to be something special. On YouTube, I go back to that play every couple days. It was amazing, man. It was special. It's one of those plays I was part of.

ABC sports commentator Keith Jackson, 1966-2006: If you're a football player or any athlete and you have a play like that, you don't forget it. It's part of your soul for the rest of your life.

Michigan assistant coach Greg Mattison: That one will be something you remember for as long as you live. Every time I see it on one of those replays, I just go, "Oh my, that hurts." I'll always remember that play.

Colorado WR Michael Westbrook: The older I get, the more I think about it. I didn't think about it for years and years. For me, in my mind when I was younger, this is what I was born to do. I was kind of full of myself. So that was nothing. .... After I retired I'm like, "Oh man, I miss those days." I wish I would've stopped and realized all the great things around me.

Colorado assistant coach Rick Neuheisel: We used to have this little thing that we took with us when we left Colorado. It was this picture on a little stand, and you press this little button and it would bring the voice of [radio announcer] Larry Zimmer: "No flags anywhere! Touchdown Colorado!" It was the call as performed by the Colorado Buffaloes at the time, and we wore that thing out.

Colorado WR Blake Anderson: To my friends, my nickname's "Tipper." You know, obviously, I didn't ask for that. But I have a lot of friends and people in Colorado. It was an incredible play for the whole university. I'm just blessed to be a part of that.