Avon vs. Simsbury In Starring Role As David Slays Goliath (11/20/1993)

Last week ESPN released its list of the 150 greatest games in college football’s 150-year history. At #76 amidst legendary Bowl games and Championship clashes, stands a regular season showdown from 1993 between Boston College and Notre Dame. A dual decided by the feet of former soccer players from Avon and Simsbury.

The gleam in his eye is a dead giveaway; David Gordon played the hero. The former soccer star from Avon, turned kicker for the Boston College football team, on a clear and bitterly cold afternoon in South Bend was ready for his moment  as dusk fell in November of 1993. With Touchdown Jesus looking on and a national television audience tuning in, David took aim, slung his left leg and watched his forty-one yard field goal attempt clear the uprights as the clock struck  :00. The Holy War (named for the rivalry between the only two Catholic Schools with Division 1 football programs) was over.  Notre Dame, undefeated and the #1 ranked team in the country (needing only a victory over BC in its final regular season game to play for the National Championship) had been defeated. The giant, dethroned.

A convocation of Eagles swarmed Gordon, piling upon the Avon Old Farms’ grad (Class of 1990), while on the opposite sideline, the pride of Simsbury, Notre Dame senior kicker Kevin Pendergast sat stunned.  Moments earlier, Pendergast, the former Simsbury High (Class of 1989) soccer standout, had kicked an extra point to put Notre Dame ahead 39-38, with 1:09 left, capping a frenetic 4th quarter comeback. Down 38-17 with just over eleven minutes left, Notre Dame rallied with 22 straight points culminating with a touchdown on 4th and goal and taking the lead on Pendergast’s extra point – seemingly  preserving the Irish’ championship dreams.

The slight Pendergast took off running and leapt into the arms of a burly teammate. Gordon, trying to keep warm on the sideline as the sun went down remembers watching the scene and laughing to himself. “In his mind,” recalls Gordon, “[Kevin] had just won the game. But I knew what was coming.” Gordon, once and still a proponent of positive thinking and visualization knew he was going to get his shot; “I had visualized the night before, it was going to come down to my kick.”

Prophetically, BC, led by future NY Jets quarterback Glenn Foley,  scrambled down the field to the 24 yard line of Notre Dame with five seconds remaining. It would be a forty-one yard field goal, the longest of Gordon’s career. A timeout, stretched into a media timeout, gave Gordon, as he remembers, “a good five minutes to think about [the kick.]”  Ever the optimist, Gordon did not think about what would happen if he missed and cost his team the chance at a monumental win. He did not think about his blocked field goal attempt in the waning seconds against Northwestern earlier that season, a 22-21 loss. He did not think about Scott Norwood and the famous “wide right” (a failed 47 yard field goal attempt) that cost the Buffalo Bills Super Bowl XXIV just two years earlier, which coincidentally had given Tom Coughlin a super bowl ring as an assistant coach under Bill Parcells.

As if the pressure wasn’t enough, Coach Coughlin used this opportunity to directly speak to David for the very first time. It wasn’t a speech by the likes of Patton or Lombardi, just a simple instruction. “Just make good contact. You can do it, David,” Gordon thinks back.   He credits his old coach, “he wasn’t one to overanalyze things… It really helped calm me down.”

Coughlin recalls that very conversation, “I clearly remember telling David, ‘Just hit the ball square.”

Gordon did precisely that.  Watching the footage, it is hardly a thing of beauty.  The kick is a knuckler that starts low and starts spraying right before quickly veering left.  Gordon admits, “It wasn’t perfect, but it was how it should have been.”

The ball found its way through the uprights and the shocking upset of #1 was complete.

The Irish had welcomed Boston College to Notre Dame Stadium after surviving a legendary battle with Florida State the previous Saturday in South Bend (#46 on ESPN’s list). That tilt had been billed the “Game of the Century,” pitting #1 vs. #2.  Anticipation was at such a level that ESPN’s College Gameday made its very first road trip for an onsite broadcast. The slugfest ended to the delight of Irish eyes; a 31-24 win over the #1 ranked Seminoles sending campus into jubilant partying that lasted long into the night. Boston College represented the morning after.

While Notre Dame had only a week to prepare, BC had had this game circled on their calendar for over a year. The two teams met in South Bend in 1992 when Notre Dame thumped its little Catholic brother, 54-7. The Irish leading 37-0 in the second half, ran (and converted) a fake punt on 4th Down.  Joseph Tybor of the Chicago Tribune presciently pointed out in the next morning’s edition, “Holtz let himself open to a revenge match next year, with [the] controversial call.”

While Coughlin was nothing short of magnanimous in the afterglow of the shocking upset, Gordon recalls the win had been a dish best served cold.   “That [fake punt] was a really key moment in this whole saga.  That was the motivation; it really caused a lot of emotion for us, and [coach] never let us forget it.”

Now the bitter memories that remain are reserved for Irish fans. In Boston, there is Bucky “Bleeping” Dent, in South Bend it is David “Bleeping” Gordon.   But for David and the Boston College community it was a moment comparable to Flutie in ‘84. When the team arrived back home in Chestnut Hill at 2 a.m., the next morning, they were welcomed by a rowdy and fully turned out campus. “Yep, I was the man,” Gordon sheepishly grins.  The kudos and high fives would last a lot longer than one night; they continue to this day.   “Definitely a top 5 moment in my life,” smiles Gordon after counting off his wedding and birth of his children.

From the Farmington Valley to South Bend

The road leading to that brisk November afternoon on the gridiron was hardly straight for the soccer stars from the suburbs of Hartford.

Pendergast, was the blue chipper, the soccer phenom from Simsbury selected to the Parade High School All-America team, who shined as bright in the classroom as he did on the field.  His success followed him to South Bend where he led the Irish soccer team in scoring in 1989 and 1990. As the story goes, injuries forced Notre Dame to hold an emergency tryout to find a new kicker. Pendergast, according to Gordon, was urged by his roommate, quarterback Rick Mirer, to pursue the opportunity. Pendergast shone and the job was his, trading in his shin guards for a gold helmet.

Gordon, was the blue blood, son of Hartford Whalers owner, Richard.  For young David growing up on Avon Mountain, going with dad to work meant paling around with Joel Quenville, Ulf Samuelson and Kevin Dineen. A soccer star in his own right, he recalls a fierce rivalry between his Avon youth soccer teams and those of Simsbury featuring Pendergast;  “We met in the State Cup [tournament] three times.” Gordon, who would also be teammates with Kevin on an All-State team, excelled at Avon Old Farms  before joining the soccer program at the University of Vermont.

While soccer was his sport, he had always pinned to be a football kicker.  Eventually he would pursue his dream.  Gordon, who is family friends with Roger Staubach (Staubach also served on the Whalers’ Advisory Board under Richard Gordon) would spend his summer at Cowboys Training Camp in Valley Ranch and work with Cowboys special teams’ coach, Steve Hoffman.

Ultimately unfulfilled with soccer and with living in Burlington, VT, Gordon transferred to Boston College. A recommendation from Staubach to Coach Coughlin got David a tryout. The rest was all Gordon. Like Pendergast, he was a quick transformation into a highly-skilled kicker and became the Eagles starter despite there being two other scholarship kickers on the roster.

Kevin and David, who were “friendly” by Gordon’s accounts albeit without much interaction despite their shared  unique circumstances, would find themselves back together under the brightest of lights that late November afternoon in 1993.  “It’s pretty remarkable to think about,” Gordon reflects, “two kids from the same area, that didn’t even play football.”

This week marks the Anniversary of The Kick. “It’s hard to believe it’s been 26 years” recalls Coach Coughlin, “but my many memories of that day remain vivid. It had so much historical impact for [Boston College] and the community.”

The Holy War returns to South Bend tomorrow for the 20th meeting between the schools since the 1993 classic. Notre Dame, victors of the last six contests, holds a 14-9 advantage (with another win vacated from the 2012 season), but has suffered the greater slings of misfortune; BC returned to South Bend in 2002 and took down the undefeated #4 ranked Irish.

In a game featuring future NFL stars, Super Bowl Champions and legendary head coaches Lou Holtz and Coughlin (who would go on to provide a few more memorable upsets in his career  to the chagrin of New Englanders) , it was a pair of young soccer stars from the Farmington Valley who settled the final score.

Pendergast made headlines later in the 90’s for his involvement in a collegiate point-shaving scandal, but has moved on from that dark chapter. He is back living in Simsbury, married with children and working as a Registered Nurse.

Gordon, too, returned home. Living in Avon, the owner of a property development company and father of three now gets his kicks chauffeuring his kids to ice rinks across the state. Tyler, his oldest, a junior at Avon Old Farms is now looking at colleges. He is a talented hockey player, but has aspirations to kick just like his dad. Boston College is on his short list.  The future Notre Dame football schedule shows a home date with BC in 2022.  Seems like a perfect opportunity for a young man from Avon.