- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 12, 2006

For the University of Miami’s grieving Hurricanes, football and real life clashed painfully yesterday at Byrd Stadium.

And, as it always does, real life won.

In any other week, Maryland’s rather inexplicable 14-13 victory might have devastated a Miami team struggling along with a mediocre 5-5 record after decades of frequently swaggering domination.

This time it hardly mattered. Compared with the murder of senior defensive end Bryan Pata outside his apartment Tuesday, victory or defeat in a mere game was about as insignificant as you can get.

After a Maryland fumble recovery ended Miami’s last hope with 1:13 remaining, the Hurricanes’ mascot left the sideline with his huge, beaked head hanging. But to the players’ great credit, they never hung their heads — not when two long touchdown passes gave the Terrapins a 14-0 lead early in the second quarter, not even when images of Bryan Pata invaded their thoughts, misted their eyes and disrupted their game plan.

By all accounts, Pata was among the best-liked and most respected Miami players. We don’t know why he was shot; perhaps we never will. When this sort of tragedy occurs, it reminds us just how fragile life is and how vulnerable we all are. As Hurricanes coach Larry Coker put it in a somber postgame press conference, “Young people think they’re going to live forever.”

For most of the day, Miami controlled the ball against the Terrapins, who did nothing offensively after those bombs of 65 and 96 yards from Sam Hollenbach to Darrius Heyward-Bey. In the closing minutes, as the Hurricanes drove downfield, most of the 50,721 spectators could envision — whether in dismay or delight — the Hurricanes kicking a game-winning field goal and kicking away Maryland’s chances for an ACC title and a invitation to a top-tier bowl game.

And, said sophomore quarterback Kirby Freeman, the Hurricanes had a 12th man on the field. OK, that sounds corny — but so what?

Freeman explained it this way: “Before the interception [by linebacker Trey Covington at the Maryland 32], several players said in our huddle, ‘Let’s win this for Bryan.’ But that ball popped up in the air, and came back down. They were lucky, and we couldn’t catch a break.”

Rationalization? Well, Freeman was entitled — especially since he played a marvelous game (51 yards rushing in nine attempts, 140 more on 10-for-17 passing) as a sub for injured starter Kyle Wright. Then again, his numbers didn’t really matter on this sad afternoon.

There was speculation after Pata’s death that the game might be canceled, though no such request issued forth from Coral Gables, according to Maryland athletic director Debbie Yow. Freeman reiterated that all his teammates were eager to play because “that’s what Bryan would have wanted.”

Undoubtedly this assumption made the Hurricanes feel a little better. Coker described the subsequent practices and game as “therapy for our players,” but that didn’t make the week any easier for him or his troops.

What now? The Hurricanes have two games left — Saturday at Virginia, Nov. 23 against Boston College at home — and this might be the first Miami team in 10 years not to go bowling. The Hurricanes have lost five games this season against ranked opponents, suggesting to some that their nickname should be amended to Gentle Breezes.

Needless to say, that doesn’t really matter either. Not today or tomorrow.

Maryland graciously asked its fans to observe a pregame moment of silence in memory of Pata, while the Terps generously voted to donate their meal money ($10 a day per player) to his family. And for everybody in Terptown, including all the ecstatic fans who mobbed the field after the game, there should have been new awareness that football — like all sports — doesn’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

“It was hardest after the game because Bryan wasn’t there and all of us were so close,” Freeman said. “But we played for all the right reasons. … What we need now is love from each other and love from the city of Miami.”

Folks in these parts don’t necessarily have to love the Hurricanes, but we should respect that they have learned a valuable and terrifying lesson about life — at a terrible cost.

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