One called him a “slow and average” running back.
“I don’t see anything great,” another said.
That was some of Rowan Profs’ defensive players 30 years ago describing Washington and Jefferson College All-American running back Chris Babirad.
On this Saturday, Dec. 5, 1992, that slow, average and nothing great Babirad was better than everyone else on the field at brutally cold and excessively windy Glassboro, N.J., where W&J met Rowan in an NCAA Division III semifinals game.
Babirad, as he did so many times in his illustrious W&J football career, led the Presidents to one of the program’s greatest victories against disruptive swirling winds, a talented band of Rowan College football players, if not talent evaluators, and all odds.
Outside of the W&J locker room, few thought they would win.
The Profs talked big, swaggering arrogantly after beating traditional power Ithaca in the quarterfinals – trash talking the Bombers’ legendary Coach Jim Butterfield along the way. They then turned their attention and talk to Babirad.
It was Babirad’s stunning 80-yard run for a touchdown that destroyed the Profs – a collection of Division I and II transfers.
With W&J down, 13-12, and just seconds after falling behind Rowan, Babirad jab stepped left, took a hand-off from quarterback Bob Strope, headed to the right, shed a block and cut left. Receiver A.J. Jackson made a final block.
Once in space, Babirad left the Profs and their championship dreams in the dust.
Karma is…. well, you know.
That run led the Presidents to the NCAA Division III national championship game – the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl – in Bradenton, Fla., a week later.
Babirad gained a school single-season record 2,471 rushing yards and scored 32 TDs in 1992. His 4,419 rushing yards during the regular season is among the highest in Division III history.
Babirad was a two-time, first-team All-Presidents Athletic Conference honoree. In 1992 was a Kodak and Champion All-American and USA Today’s Player of the Year.
That December day 30 years ago, he was Superman.
W&J, associate head coach and offensive strategist, Bill Dukett, was never hesitant to hand him the ball or ride his tremendous production, especially in his final two seasons and this playoff run, to victory.
“I loved it,” Babirad said of his heavy workload. “Honestly, the more touches I had, the better I became. It allowed me to get more in sync with the game and help me get into a groove. The more I ran it, the better I could see the line and what it was doing. I just felt like the whole offense ran much more smoothly.”
Head Coach John Luckhardt said Babirad’s greatness came from a strong work ethic and desire to succeed, along with a supporting cast – particularly an outstanding offensive line.
“It didn’t take rocket science to figure out what a great player he was and what he would bring to our program,” Luckhardt said. “It was not a secret as to what kind of player he was and how special he would be.”
For all his greatness and impact, it wasn’t until the 1992 playoffs and the NCAA semifinals that Babirad sealed his legacy.
He set an NCAA record for a four-game postseason series, gaining 882 rushing yards in the Presidents’ four playoff games.
He averaged 220.5 yards per game in the four post-season games. His rushing playoff yards counted for 35.7 percent of his season total of 2,471 yards.
His 218 rushing yards against undefeated Rowan in the NCAA semifinals, including a jaw-dropping, 80-yard jaunt for a TD with seven minutes left in the game, is legendary.
Babirad romped through the vaunted and rugged Rowan defense.
“(Rowan) had mocked him and his speed in the newspapers during the week,” Luckhardt said. “Chris embarrassed them, rushing for more than 200 yards and outrunning their entire defense on that touchdown.
“Chris was only a sprinter when he needed to be. If you look at all his runs, when he got in open space or in front of everyone, nobody ever caught him.”
The run against the Profs was sweet justice for Babirad. He heard and read the talk all week. That run was a punch to the gut of Rowan and it ruined the Profs’ season.
“I was never a sprinter,” Babirad laughed. “I was fast in a football uniform. I always seemed to be able to out-run the guys I had to out-run on the field. I might beat a fast guy by a step or beat a slower guy by a step in a race. But I was fast enough playing football.”
George Lammay, a Bentworth High School graduate, worked as a color analyst for WJPA radio covering W&J football during the entire 1992 post-season.
He said Babirad’s run against Rowan is as one of the greatest moments in W&J’s storied football tradition.
“In my opinion, he had great instincts and great eyesight,” said Lammay, a fellow Bentworth High School graduate and current W&J football public address announcer. “In his incredibly competitive way and with his great vision, he moved another way and he just ran away from Rowan’s defense.
“I stood up while the play was in progress and it was just one of those emotional moments you remember.”
Babirad said his and the team’s performance during that post-season was the culmination of so many variables.
“It was just a matter of me of being a senior and having a little more experience and focus,” Babirad said. “As a team, we were relaxed and confident. I think we enjoyed the season more as we went. We really enjoyed and earned the victory.”
On to the Ship
While Babirad’s run was the signature play of the game, it was just the best and most dramatic of countless big plays.
W&J, capable of reaching the national semifinals in 1990 and 1991, fell short both times. The Presidents found their way in 1992.
“We finally broke through the windows,” said offensive tackle Todd Pivnick. “We were trying to put a stamp on something we were working toward for four years. We were trying to win a (national) championship.
“We finally took the step. Kevin Pintar (W&J’s other starting tackle) and I went to see Rowan play William Patterson during our off week. We knew they were a beast. We knew we were running head long into them.
“We knew it could be a big year for us. We had a great back and great coaches. We knew what we were looking at. We knew we could get it done.”
W&J fell behind 7-0 when Profs quarterback Ed Hesson found Kirby Johnson on a pass.
Rowan, which was clearly certain of its victory, was on its way. Profs Coach John Bunting, a former NFL linebacker – led the abrasive charge.
W&J hung tough and was ready to pounce in the second half. The first huge play was defensive end Shawn McGee picking of a Hesson pass and returning it seven yards for a pick six.
While the extra point was missed, the Presidents had some momentum.
“We always felt the coaches did a good job preparing us for games,” McGee said. “We were exceptionally prepared for that game. We knew what it was going to take to win the game.
“We went in emotional with confidence. We stayed in position to win.”
The teams slugged it out through the end of the quarter setting the stage for fourth quarter dramatics.
Babirad, who Bunting said the Profs had stymied during the game despite him rushing for 87 yards through three quarters, gave the lead with a 21-yard touchdown run. The conversion failed. W&J led 12-7.
Rowan battled back and took the lead with 7:52 remaining when Andy Hyde scored on a short run. The Profs’ two-point conversion failed leaving the score 13-12.
“My interception changed the momentum of the game,” McGee said. “We all had one another’s back. The defense was playing great and our offense just kept hanging in there until Chris could make the difference.”
Said Shawn Prendergast, one of W&J’s defensive catalysts and a top defender in the country: “The put us in a crappy locker room, the wind is gusting 40 mph and it’s feels like zero. My arms and shins were cut and the blood was just frozen.
“We had the desire and the trust in on another to get this done. (Defensive coordinator) Mike Conway is one of the best defensive minds I have been around. He had us in the right places.”
Yet, the Presidents were still down.
“Prior to the game, people were speculating on how W&J could win this game,” said Bob Gregg, who called the game for WJPA Radio. “How could they win?”
Dukett had no doubt how.
“I felt pretty comfortable putting the ball in Chris’ hands and letting our offensive line do what it had done all season,” Dukett said.
The drive did not last long.
Babirad took a hand-off from quarterback Bob Strope, going right, on the counter play. He cut back left and found himself in open space. He got a block and had just the wind in his face and the player who dubbed him “slow and average” were in his wake. Babirad was never in jeopardy of being caught.
“I had no idea who was chasing me,” Babirad said. “It (the wind) felt like I was running into a wall.
“We knew it would take a great effort by everyone in uniform.”
Said Gregg, who has been broadcasting W&J football for 39 years: “It’s the biggest, single play I ever called.”
Despite Babirad’s run, the Presidents’ work wasn’t done. An interception by cornerback Ricky Williams, who was exceptional that day, and one last stop of the Profs sealed the victory and W&J’s spot in the Stagg Bowl.
“I just wanted to make sure I was not a weak link,” Williams said. “We knew they were an excellent team. We felt our team was stacked. It was a heck of a game. When Chris scored that last touchdown, everyone smiled.”
Pivnick said he could not watch the last drive.
“I just waited to hear which side was going to cheer,” he said. “I remember when I knew we won what I felt. Seeing everyone on the field hugging and celebrating is unforgettable.
“The exhilaration of winning that day is etched in my mind. To see and feel that excitement and knowing we had accomplished what we worked for that day.
“Obviously, we wanted to finish the job the next week against Wisconsin-LaCrosse, but we fell short. Nothing will tarnish that win at Rowan.”
Concluded Prendergast: “It’s an amazing story.”
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