THE GAME WAS 20 years and 20,000 seats ago. There were seven first-rounders and 30 total NFL draft picks on the field that afternoon and early evening at Beaver Stadium. Penn State had Todd Blackledge, Curt Warner and Kenny Jackson. Nebraska had Mike Rozier, Irving Fryar, Roger Craig, Turner Gill and Dave Rimington.
The hero of what many will tell you was the best game in the history of Beaver Stadium grew up in Mechanicsburg, a 90-mile drive up the mountain to State College. His father, Wayne, was a scholarship player at Penn State in 1962-63, but marriage and a child prevented him from ever playing for the varsity. Father and son had spent many Saturday afternoons in the bleacher seats of the stadium's south end zone.
Before Sept. 25, 1982, Kirk Bowman had played linebacker, defensive end (both sides), defensive tackle, nose guard and offensive guard. That year, Bowman, then a junior, was told he would be a backup tight end.
Which is how he ended up cradling the football to his stomach while lying on his right side just a few feet from those bleachers where he had once sat. He was, in fact, in the end zone after scoring the clinching touchdown with just 4 seconds left in a game Penn State would win, 27-24.
A few hours later, Bowman was downtown watching the goal posts from that end zone being carried down College Avenue. They ended up in front of Old Main. Bowman ended up in Colleyville, Texas, a suburb of Fort Worth.
"I've watched the video once or twice, as you might imagine," Bowman said from his home.
After the catch, the CBS cameras panned the stands.
"It was like ants jumping up and down," Bowman said. "It was an incredible sight."
Saturday night, No. 8 Nebraska is back in State College for the first time since that unforgettable game. Bowman will be there, too, along with 50 of his teammates from what would become Penn State's first national-championship team. They will be sitting in the club seats, high above that same south end zone.
"My favorite spot to watch a game is from the end zone," Bowman said. "If I could have any ticket, it would be right behind the goal post in the first row of the upper deck."
The club seats and upper deck weren't there when Bowman made his catch. They were added before the 2001 season during the stadium's seventh expansion. The listed capacity is now 107,282. There will be more there Saturday night.
Bowman is the southeast regional manager for a medical products company. He's been in Texas for 8 years and had been in Florida for 8 years before that. So he doesn't get back home too often.
Bowman scored the game's first points and the last. The first touchdown was his first catch of the year. After his game-winner, the extra point was missed. Nobody cared.
"Those were my 15 minutes of fame that continue to live on," Bowman said.
Blackledge's throw had come in low, but Bowman scooped it before it hit the grass. There was little doubt about his catch, but he made certain to show the ball to the officials anyway.
"It's funny, but I made that catch 5,000 times in my backyard," Bowman said. "The emotions around that were incredible. I don't know if it was surreal, but it was kind of strange in that you don't realize at the time how important that was."
Bowman's memory of the play is "somewhat in slow motion, the linebacker diving out to try to knock it down and it literally just missing his fingertips."
A week before it came to Penn State, Nebraska had accumulated an absurd 883 yards in a 68-0 win over New Mexico State. But PSU had one of its greatest teams. In fact, the Nittany Lions dominated much of the game but missed three field goals. They had two touchdowns called back on the same drive.
When Gill scored with just 1:18 left, Penn State had to drive down the field. It converted a fourth down when Jackson's catch was just over the marker. And then on the play before Bowman's catch, Father Judge High's Mike McCloskey, the starting tight end, caught a 15-yard pass to get the ball to the 2-yard-line.
Everybody agrees McCloskey caught it. There is much disagreement over whether he was in or out of bounds at the time. McCloskey always has said it depends on how you look at the tape. Whatever, it was ruled a catch.
A few years ago, McCloskey was asked to attend a fund-raiser in Nebraska for Father Flanagan's Boys Town. Gill was also there. They showed the famous play and, as part of the show, the organizers asked McCloskey to take off his championship ring and give it to Gill as if he was admitting he never caught the ball. It was all in good fun, nothing more.
After the dinner, an Omaha reporter came up to McCloskey and asked him if he was admitting he was out of bounds.
"I told him, 'You look at the film, you make up your own mind,' " McCloskey said.
The next day, the headline in the Omaha paper read: "Penn State Tight End Comes Clean." Wire services picked up the story. There was just one problem. It was inaccurate.
McCloskey, who lives in Lower Gwynedd, is bemused by the whole controversy. He will be at the game Saturday night but will be spending much of his time entertaining about 100 clients of his firm, Chartwell Investment Partners, a Berwyn company that manages $5 billion in pension funds.
The details of the "catch" have become somewhat murky over the years.
"It's morphed into all this," McCloskey said. "I had one person come up to me and say, 'You're the guy that caught the pass against Nebraska in the back of the end zone to win the Sugar Bowl.' "
McCloskey agreed with him.
"Who knows if I caught it?" McCloskey said.
And who cares? As McCloskey pointed out, the referee said he caught it. They lined up for the next play.
Two weeks after the Nebraska game, the Lions were beaten, 42-21, at Alabama, apparently eliminating them from championship contention. But teams kept losing in front of them and PSU worked its way back to No. 2. When the Lions beat No. 1 Georgia and Herschel Walker in the Sugar Bowl, 27-23, they finally had the elusive first championship. McCloskey did not make the winning catch in the back of the end zone.
Penn State gained 505 yards of offense that day against Nebraska. The Cornhuskers had 472 yards. It was a wonderful game with an ending befitting the play on the field. There were no permanent lights in Beaver Stadium yet, so CBS set up portable lights for its telecast. They illuminated those final dramatic moments.
Nebraska crushed the defending champs in the 1983 Kickoff Classic, 44-6. The schools have not played since. They were both unbeaten in 1994, but PSU was obligated to play in the Rose Bowl against Oregon. Nebraska was voted No. 1. Penn State was No. 2. In Nebraska, they will tell you they were getting even for McCloskey's catch. Or non-catch. There was nothing they could do about Kirk Bowman.