Oct. 24, 2009
by Matt Winkeljohn
OSR Managing Editor
ATLANTA – For all of his strengths, Pat Watson struggled terribly.
There have been some legendarily verbose offensive line coaches through the years who mastered the art of making players pay attention, whether that was the goal at the time or not, and some — like Watson — passed through Georgia Tech.
But he whiffed on Nov. 3, 1990.
The goal, unspoken but not to be mistaken, was to get Scott Sisson to NOT pay attention.
On the scoreboard: 0:12. The “Thrilla in Charlottesvilla,” as some in Charlottesville, Va., had been calling it, was in the balance: 38-38, first place in the ACC on the line, Yellow Jackets’ ball at the Cavaliers’ 20. A nearly phosphorescent halo lingered around the stadium lights in what remained of the gloaming on a gray autumn day.
A national television audience watched. Officials dithered on the field during a strangely prolonged stoppage in game time and, it seemed, real time. Cavs coach George Welsh was stone-faced on the opposite sideline, his team ranked No. 1 for the first time in history.
Oh, what Bobby Ross and his staff, and perhaps all of his players, wouldn’t have given to be able to distract their sophomore kicker from Marietta, to put him in a zone all his own. Hell, does anybody know hypnosis?
The Jackets had to settle for Watson’s shriveled stand-up.
“It was just mayhem on the field with all the timeouts [called] and everything,” Sisson said Friday in the middle of a chat loosely related to Tech’s attempt today to win at Virginia for the first time in 19 years. “Even when we talked to Coach Ross [a couple years ago], he said, `We didn’t know what to say. You don’t want to say too much, not say anything. You don’t know how this 19-year-old is going to perform.
“It’s funny to go back and look at film and see the coaches running around, and one coach was trying to tell a joke. While we were waiting during the timeout, it was coach Watson, I believe, and there comes this joke. He’s telling it, and… he can’t remember the punch line.”
Sisson would go on to set a Tech career scoring record a couple years later, but at the time, he was just a sophomore kicker, period. He’d missed field goals before.
“Coach Ross, he could be pretty intense, especially after I would miss a field goal,” Sisson said. “He was not very friendly on the sideline. I remember him playing it calm and cool then, and being very nice right before that kick, a non-coach if you will. Like, `Hey, good buddy.’ “
Sisson, who scored 299 points from `89-`92 with career records for field goals made (60), field goals in a season (19) and PATs in a season (39) among other marks, had issues that day.
There was pressure ahead of time. The Jackets were ranked 14 and 16 in the polls, and Charlottesville was a circus before the game.
“I will always remember getting off the bus, and we were still miles from the stadium, and I remember banners; you could see the support,” Sisson said. “I probably didn’t realize how big it was at the time, or I couldn’t have even moved out on the field to kick the field goal.”
Even if he didn’t have a perfect sense of proportion before the game, Tech’s kicker knew enough to develop a problem.
“I had been jacked up in the warm-ups. I think was probably kicking with a little more authority than normal,” Sisson said. “I was hooking [the ball left] more than normal, and I was trying to get my bearings. I could not calm myself, and I told myself I have to aim at the right post. I started aiming at the right post, and they started going down the middle.”
Once the time came to take the field for real, to try and win a game that had been amazing from start to finish as the Jackets overcame deficits of 13-0, 28-14 and 35-28, Sisson had a buddy.
“Scott Aldredge was my holder. He was a few years older than me, and he had a sense of veteran maturity about the situation that was calming,” said the Alpharetta businessman. “I remember going back out in the huddle, and Scott Aldredge was describing the [ACC] ring that we were going to get, asking everybody what they wanted on it. Everything was so positive.”
Still, the gears in Sisson’s head were spinning wildly.
Does he aim down the middle on the 37-yard try, as normal, or build in the pre-game adjustment to account for that nettlesome draw on the ball? Had the problem of over-kicking the ball been solved through three hours of tension-driven fatigue? Or was the glitch still there?
“I had to make a decision in the fourth quarter: do I still want to aim at the right post or down the middle? I ended up going more with my instinct based on warm-ups, and aim just inside right post,” Sisson said. “All I could think about was keeping my head down. I had to be aggressive, but keep my head down on follow through and not pull up.
“I go back and look at film, and it was kind of distorted. My head almost hit the Astroturf. As soon as I pulled my head up, I knew.”
Just left of center, and then a scoreboard adjustment: Tech 41, Virginia 38. (Nine-minute video)
The Cavs made nothing of the final 0:07 on the clock, and more mayhem erupted.
Back in Atlanta, fans stormed into Bobby Dodd Stadium and tore down goalposts.
Sisson, who worked in home lending until recently starting a new business (sissonmedia.com) that creates websites and more, did not by making that field goal hone his sense of relativity. He was surprised upon returning to the Tech campus to see fans waiting.
“I think that shocked everybody. You’re used to coming home late at night. It’s cold, dark, you’ve probably been asleep on the bus. I remember coming around the corner we couldn’t even turn,” he said. “It was phenomenal, a once in a lifetime thing. It was late, late at night. They had a fire. Unreal.
“I can remember the players on the bus just looking out the windows, and there was this awkward silence. Nobody had thought that far ahead; we didn’t expect all those people.”
Of course. There were no cell phones to warn them, and there was no knowing that the Jackets had not only upset the No. 1 team in the land, but kept alive what would be their own drive to a co-national championship.
“I’ve had people… like a client in L.A., and we were talking about doing business, and we had talked for about 10 minutes, and he said, `What is your last name again?’ ” Sisson said. “He put it together, and it was like night and day. He relaxed and said, `I was at Virginia in 1990… I can’t believe I’ve been talking to Scott Sisson all this time.’
“I said, `I hope that doesn’t kill the deal.’ “
Today, Sisson – who was All-America in ’92, and entered the Tech Hall of Fame in ’03 after brief stints in the NFL with the Vikings and Patriots — hopes the Jackets kill an eight-game losing streak in Charlottesville. There, the Cavs (3-3, 2-0 ACC) and the No. 11 Jackets (6-1, 4-1) are again chasing first place.
“I know people are talking about Virginia. You see things on the internet, and I don’t know how much the current players tune into that, but for me personally I’m looking forward to the end of the streak,” Sisson said. “It’s been fun with Coach Johnson.
“If I could tell you how many people who traditionally follow Georgia have said jokingly or not to me that they’ve been watching more Tech games. Maybe we’ll have some converts.”
No conversion will be bigger than Sisson’s.
Matt Winkeljohn is managing editor of Sting Extra OSR. He worked at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution at the time of Sisson’s kick, and went to campus that night to write a story about the raucous celebration. He’ll not soon forget the fire in the intersection of Bobby Dodd and Techwood, with flames licking the lone traffic light that hung over the center of the intersection. Were you there? firstname.lastname@example.org