MACON, Ga. – Before leading Mercer University's football team onto the gridiron for its first season in 72 years, head coach Bobby Lamb considered the importance that one big play might have on a program that had been dormant for so long.
"Before the season started, we're sitting around as coaches talking, and I said, 'I'll tell you right now. We're going to run every trick play on offense and every trick play on special teams, and we're going to try to get on SportsCenter,'" Lamb recalled with a grin. "So we've scripted that, and we've tried that, and it didn't work."
But last Saturday, in a thrilling 31-17 win over defending Pioneer Football League champion Drake, it happened. The Bears ended up on ESPN's flagship program – just not the way the head coach had envisioned it would.
As Lamb describes the 35-yard interception return for a touchdown by sophomore cornerback Alex Avant in the second quarter of Saturday's contest, "We just let him do his thing, and that's how it ended up."
Avant can describe every detail of the play – and there are a lot of details. In fact, the total yardage he covered probably at least tripled the 35 yards that were recorded in the box score.
To summarize, Drake quarterback Andy Rice used a hard count to catch Avant showing a blitz from his right cornerback position. Avant knew that Rice had likely changed the play to a quick pass to avoid being sacked. After the snap, when Avant couldn't get to Rice before he released the football, the cornerback jumped to deflect the pass. The ball bounced off of his hands, off of teammate Michael Wagner's hands, and back into the hands of Avant, who had just turned around to see it and secure it. He tried to run left but was met by a host of Bulldogs, so he went right toward the visitor's sideline. About to go out of bounds, he noticed a lone Bulldog coming to hit him from the right, so he went back left. And the rest, as they say, "is history."
"I see a hole, and I run, and eventually end up on our sideline," Avant said.
With one offensive lineman to beat, Avant – with his legs giving out – snuck past his opponent and into the left corner of the end zone.
"Looking at it on film, it seemed a lot different than in the game," Avant said. "I didn't think I did all that."
"As I described it to a friend of mine on the phone, I said, 'He just ran around like a rabbit.' It was just a magnificent play and one of those plays you'll always remember as long as you coach," Lamb said.
A simple description doesn't do the play justice. Avant's athleticism is best on display in the 1:12 video clip that is likely approaching six figures (yes, that's correct, six figures) in views as it has been shared via a still growing number of different YouTube accounts.
That same clip was picked up by ESPN, where it ended up as No. 1 in its Top 10 Plays on Saturday and No. 3 in its Top Plays of the Weekend. It was also picked up by ESPNU's Great8 Plays, a show that features videos of plays in a bracket-style competition to determine which is the best of the previous weekend. Avant's interception return for a touchdown won for Week 5, and he was subsequently interviewed via Skype. That interview will air this Friday and the following Monday. In addition, Avant received a "Helmet Sticker" from ESPN's College Football Live Twitter account.
The clip was also featured on the Yahoo! Sports Minute, as it opened the web show even before mention of Denver Broncos' quarterback Peyton Manning's 327 yards and four touchdowns in a record-setting 52-21 win over the Philadelphia Eagles. It was also shared on popular websites like CBS Sports and SB Nation and recognized on the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision Twitter account.
"I honestly had no idea that play was going to make SportsCenter, let alone Yahoo! and all the other websites. Even after it happened I didn't think it was that amazing," Avant said. "I've gotten a lot of tweets, a lot of text messages, a lot more followers on Twitter. It's pretty cool."
Dr. Ania Rynarzewski, Dr. Steven McClung and Dr. Allen Lynch, professors in the Sports Business program in Mercer's Stetson School of Business and Economics, considered the impact that the clip has had on not only the football program, but the University as a whole.
"What has happened with Alex's video is what marketers call 'going viral.' Lots of people are viewing it by digital media. We've tracked places like ESPN, Yahoo! and YouTube, and there have been roughly 50,000 views of the play. That is fantastic exposure for Mercer," said Dr. McClung.
"But, there are a lot of media avenues that aren't and cannot be tracked where even more people have seen Alex's touchdown. For example, four of my friends from my home state of Florida have sent me the video by e-mail. There's no telling how many people have sent, and seen, that video by email, text and other digital avenues."
The play has created what marketers call "a buzz." People are talking about Mercer, and more importantly, talking about the University favorably, thanks to Avant's spectacular effort.
"The fact that Mercer is mentioned on such a large scale through national media outlets like ESPN, Yahoo!, CBS Sports due to its football success created positive buzz around the University and can only be beneficial to the University as a whole. In large part, that's one of the benefits of athletics at any university. For many people, athletics is the portal to the university brand. Let's face it, lots of people know the football team's record but can't tell you how many master's degrees are offered at the school," said Dr. McClung.
"When these things happen, and something goes viral, there can be an increase in traffic to a variety of social media and even official media associated with Mercer University and Bear Athletics. That helps the University to stay in the forefront of people's minds. And if there are more of these from time to time, it reinforces Mercer University as a place people want to be a part of, whether as a student or a fan."
Lamb has already noticed that happening in the football offices this week.
"First of all, you cannot put a value on something like that. We beat the defending champion in our first-ever Pioneer Football League game. We played a great football game. It was a huge upset. We were 30-point underdogs. Then all of a sudden, on top of that, you get the No. 1 play on SportsCenter, which everybody in America watches, and it's on every website," he said.
"I'm getting people calling me, texting me at all hours of the night when I'm trying to sleep. It gets our name out there. I can't tell you how many emails we've gotten from football recruits in the past 48 hours just because they saw Mercer on ESPN. It's huge for us."
Somewhat lost in the obsession with the play was not only the performance of the team but also the performance of Avant throughout the entirety of the game. He was named PFL Defensive Player of the Week with 11 tackles to go along with the interception and touchdown.
"He had one of the best games at corner that I've had in a long time," said Lamb.
The sophomore from Lithonia played one year at Tuskegee University in Alabama, before transferring to Mercer, where his brother, Aaron, had come and joined the football team. The brothers ended up competing for – and winning – both starting cornerback spots.
"It's pretty much a dream come true," Alex said of playing with Aaron. "In high school, we were on the same team, but we really never got to play together. Now, we're on the same side of the ball, playing the same position, basically right across from each other."
Alex is majoring in accounting at Mercer and hopes to one day become licensed as a CPA and join a local accounting firm.
The Bears will make the cross-country trip to the University of San Diego for their first road game of the season this Saturday. The PFL matchup will kick off at 4 p.m. EST, and all of the action can be followed live on New Country 96.5, the iHeartRadio app and @MercerFootball on Twitter.