SALT LAKE CITY — Unbelievable moments happen all the time in sports: last second buzzer-beaters, walk-off home runs, and championship-winning penalty kicks get fans screaming with every ounce of their being.
For most athletes, they are lucky to be involved in one memorable game-changing moment. But for a select few, lightning strikes multiple times in their career.
So let’s flash back to 1994.
It was a year etched into University of Utah football fans' minds as one of the many great years in program history. The Utes earned their first bowl win in 20 years and their highest-ever ranking up to that point. Kevin Dyson, a freshman “hometown hero” who would break multiple records as a Ute, went on to catch the game-winning touchdown pass from Mike McCoy in the Freedom Bowl.
"We were playing one of the best defenses in football at that point, and maybe ever,” Dyson told KSL.com. “I wasn’t the primary target on that play. When I was with Mike in Carolina, he said that he meant to throw it to me. But every time I watch that play I think he’s throwing it to Curtis (Marsh), who was wide open in the back of the end zone. I just stuck my big ole right hand out there and made the catch. Just a 19-year-old freshman making a play.”
Dyson would become a Utah legend during his time on the hill, and in 1998 he was drafted No. 16 overall to the recently relocated Tennessee Oilers. His game-winning play at Utah was just the beginning of big moments in postseason play. In 2000, Dyson’s name would be partnered with one of the most emotional, roller-coaster-like postseasons in NFL history.
On January 8, 2000, Dyson cemented his name in Tennessee Titans (the team changed its name from the Oilers to the Titans in 1999) lore with one of the most improbable plays ever seen in the NFL. With 16 seconds left in the fourth quarter of a wild card game against Buffalo, Bills placekicker Steve Christie put the football through the uprights to give his team a 1-point lead over the Titans.
On the ensuing kickoff, Titans head coach Jeff Fisher and special teams coordinator Alan Lowry would call a play, “home run throwback,” as a last-ditch effort for victory. Tennessee’s starting kick returner Derrick Mason was injured and couldn’t participate in the play. Instead, Dyson got the chance to take part in what is now known as “The Music City Miracle.”
Christie’s kickoff was received at the 25-yard line by Lorenzo Neal, who would turn and hand the ball back to tight end Frank Wycheck. Wycheck ran to the right, drawing the Bills players his way, before tossing the ball across the field to Dyson, who would catch the backwards pass and return the ball 75 yards into the end zone to give the Titans the scintillating victory.
“There wasn’t much going through my mind during the whole thing. My coaches used to tell me that football players need to be football players, and to just go and make a play.” Dyson said, “It was a unique moment. I wasn’t supposed to be a part of the play. I was being addressed on the way out, I knew the gist of the play, I had just never ran it.
“I think the coaches picked me out of the group because I had some background in returning,” he added. “I was told, ‘Hey, they’re going to lateral it back to you. Catch the ball, get up field, then get out of bounds so that we can kick a field goal and win the game.’ So it was always in my mind to get out of bounds, but then I saw the convoy that I had and when Christie went down — oh, I knew I was in there then. Now I just do what I was gifted to do and that's just to run.”
Deafening pandemonium would ring through the stands as Dyson put his hand up to his ear after sending his team through to the next round of the playoffs.
“I think the magnitude of that game was big,” he said. “The energy after that moment and the disbelief that something like that had happened in the playoffs. I thought I understood it as a 23 year old, the magnitude of that play, but to see how it still affects different people in different ways, I don't think I gave it its full appreciation of the magnitude of that play at that time. I’ve definitely become more appreciative of it now as I’m no longer playing ball.”
All these years later, Dyson is quick to give credit to his teammates that took part in the play.
“I’ve received a lot of credit over the years because I scored the touchdown, but really there's a lot of dudes who had been a part of that play for so many weeks and repped it out and worked it out; and to do what they did, they helped our team,” he said. “I’m just the one that gets a lot of the credit because I scored the touchdown, but they did all the dirty work. I just had to run, and that was the easy part.”
Lightning struck twice for Dyson, but what about a third time?
A few weeks after Dyson made that heroic run back for a touchdown, the Titans would find themselves taking part in Super Bowl XXXIV against the St. Louis Rams. With millions of viewers across the nation tuning in, the Titans were looking to secure their first-ever NFL championship.
St. Louis took a 16-0 lead midway through the third before the Titans would storm back and tied the game with 6:17 left in the fourth quarter. But with just over two minutes left to play, the Rams scored a touchdown to make it a 7-point lead.
On the ensuing series, Titans quarterback Steve McNair rolled out of the pocket with 22 seconds left in the game and broke two tackles before finding Dyson for a 16-yard pass to put the Titans on the ten yard line with five seconds remaining — one last play.
On the snap, Dyson would take a few steps before coming out of his break. A glance toward McNair found the ball flung in his direction. He made the catch, turned upfield, felt a defender make contact and stretched out his arm in hopes of reaching the goal line, but he was 1 yard short.
Dyson’s outstretched arm wasn’t enough to give Tennessee the victory.
“The first thing (that went through my mind) was disbelief, I just couldn’t believe it was over,” he said. “That was the first time all year that we weren’t successful. There was a moment of disbelief that there's no way that this can be over. I laid there and something came over me, and it was probably the voices of coaches past telling me to get up, be gracious in defeat, shake their hands, and don’t show them that you're hurt. So that's what I did. Then I went to the locker room.”
Although it was one of the most heartbreaking plays in history, Dyson remains upbeat 20 years later; he is remembered and continues to use it as a platform of positivity.
“For me to be a part of something and still be recognized 20 years later is special, and something that I am appreciative of and don’t take for granted.”
Dyson remains an active member of the Nashville community and continues to engage with both Utes and Titans fans on a regular basis. Recently, he made some exciting changes in his life: Dyson graduated with his doctorate degree and is currently the principal at Grassland Middle School in Franklin, Tennessee.
“I always tell people: Football is something that I was fortunate to do, it's not who I am,” he said. “To be an example to young men and women and even some adults is pretty special. There's a responsibility that we as athletes and entertainers have if we want to admit it or not, but we are role models. And unfortunately we sometimes are the only role model in some of these peoples homes. But we need to take that responsibility seriously, and that’s what I try to do.”