A tour of themangled right thumb of Louisville junior quarterback Brian Brohm begins with asurgical scar that slices an arc across the bottom of the lower knuckle. Northof that is a lump of swollen flesh which covers the coil of thin wire thatdoctors used to hold Brohm's ulnar collateral ligament in place whilereattaching the ligament to the bone on Sept. 17. (Brohm had fallen on thethumb one day earlier, during a 31--7 victory over Miami.) Finally there is thetip of the thumb, pale and wrinkled from hours spent wrapped for treatment withice and heat, deprived of light and alternately choked off from and engorged byits blood supply.
It looks less likea living body part than it does roadkill. "It actually looks betternow," Brohm insisted on the afternoon of Oct. 30, wiggling the appendageadmiringly three days before he used it to pass for 354 yards in the Cardinals'program-defining 44--34 victory over West Virginia. His statement tests theimagination. Yet his thumb speaks volumes, an unlikely instrument of success inwhat has become a season of unlikely success for Louisville and the reborn BigEast Conference.
This Thursday nightin a modest stadium in Piscataway, N.J., unbeaten Rutgers (8--0), which has notbeen such a player in college football since it took part in the very firstgame 137 years ago, will host the No. 3--ranked Cardinals (also 8--0), who willbe launching a four-game homestretch that could send them to the BCS nationalchampionship game (barring poll or computer judgments that could elevate aone-loss team from a conference perceived as stronger).
Big-game atmospherehas already descended on the Rutgers campus (it remains to be seen whetherlocals will recognize it), as athletic department officials are trucking in2,000 bleacher seats, expanding the capacity of Rutgers Stadium to more than43,000. Students will spill onto a grassy hillside behind the south end zonefor the first time in the school's history.
"Our practicefields were a little wet, so we worked out in the stadium last night," saidRutgers coach Greg Schiano last Friday. "Our players walked down the hillinto the stadium and they could see the new bleachers. That was prettyexciting."
That any Big Eastschool--much less Louisville and Rutgers on national TV on back-to-backNovember Thursdays--could host a game with national championship implicationswas unthinkable just two years ago when the conference, crippled by thedefections of Boston College, Miami and Virginia Tech to the ACC, teetered onthe brink of extinction. "The low point came when it appeared that ourmembers were ready to dissolve something we had all started [in 1979],"said conference commissioner Mike Tranghese at halftime of Louisville'srollicking win over West Virginia. A sea of black shirts on Black Out Thursdayat Papa John's Cardinal Stadium demonstrated how far the league has come fromthe dark days that Tranghese described.
It did not happeninstantly. Louisville joined the conference (both the eight-team footballleague and the sprawling 16-team basketball version) for the 2005 footballseason and was regarded as critical to the Big East's revival. Coach BobbyPetrino was a respected offensive innovator who had been hired in December2002, and one of his early recruits was Brohm, a homegrown Trinity Highquarterback who had appeared on the cover of the Nov. 18, 2002, edition ofSports Illustrated.
A 6'4",224-pound classic thrower, Brohm turned down Notre Dame and Tennessee to stayhome, following in the football footsteps of his father, Oscar, and his olderbrothers, Greg and Jeff. At the press conference at which he announced hisdecision to sign his letter of intent, Brian said, "I do think we have theability to move forward and compete for a national championship." Thosewords were regarded as folly by most college football insiders, who also howledwhen, as Louisville's coach in 1989, Howard Schnellenberger pronounced in hisunmistakable basso profundo, through a swirl of pipe smoke, "We're on acollision course with the national championship; the only variable istime."
Schnellenbergerdidn't win a title, but he did put Louisville on the football map, thanks inpart to a 10-1-1 season in 1990. Last fall the Cardinals scored a total of 94points in season-opening victories over Kentucky and Oregon State and appearedpoised to carry the conference to national prominence. That plan collapsed,however, in Louisville's Big East debut, a desultory 45--14 loss to SouthFlorida in a two-thirds-empty NFL stadium in Tampa. Tranghese sat alone in apress box seat that night. "This was supposed to be our best team," herecalls. The Cardinals were 0--1 in their Big East career. Some flagship.
It was WestVirginia that redeemed the Big East in 2005, beating a respected SEC team,Georgia, 38--35 in the Sugar Bowl, matching the Bulldogs in speed and power andawakening the college football nation to the potential of a conference presumeddead.
Louisville,meanwhile, fizzled to a finish that was just respectable, losing at WestVirginia, 46--44 in triple overtime, winning five straight and then losing toVirginia Tech in the Gator Bowl. Brohm wasn't around for the finale, havinggone down with a torn ACL and assorted collateral injuries to his right knee ina victory over Syracuse on Thanksgiving weekend.
He spent theoff-season doing what injured football players do: rebuilding the damagedjoint. "I wanted to spend some male bonding time with him, but I couldnever get him out of the football facility before late Friday afternoon,"said Oscar Brohm, standing on a sidewalk overlooking the postgame celebrationlast Thursday. "For us, it's kind of emotional because we know what he'sovercome." Oscar, a stout man dressed in Louisville black with a long redscarf, blinked back tears.
Brian healedquickly. "I was throwing by spring practice," he says. But the kneeinjury would be just the start of problems for Brohm and Louisville. In theCardinals' season-opening 59--28 victory over Kentucky, senior tailback MichaelBush, a 6'3", 247-pound force of nature (and like Brohm, a Louisvillenative who stayed home) broke his right leg and was lost for the season.
Then Brohm wentdown in the Miami game, after releasing a pass and breaking his fall with hisright hand. "It didn't feel bad," Brohm says. "I stayed on thefield for the next play, but when I took the snap, the ball felt flat. I knewit wasn't flat, so I ran over to Coach Petrino and told him I better comeout."
Teammates werecrestfallen. "I'm out there thinking, Man, guys are dropping likeflies," says sophomore wideout Mario Urrutia, yet another Louisvilleathlete who stayed home. "There goes our perfect season."
After surgeryBrohm's doctors told him that the recovery period was four to six weeks.Privately, another surgeon told Oscar that some patients need six weeks just toget out of the initial cast, a piece of information that father did not sharewith son. Brian, meanwhile, spent three weeks buttressing the rehab on hisstill-not-100% knee. He got his 40 time back down to 4.8 seconds from a glacialfive-flat in preseason practice. Without him, the Cards easily beat KansasState and Middle Tennessee State behind sophomore quarterback Hunter Cantwell."The team grew in those three weeks," says Petrino. "That's whathappens when you have to believe in each other."
On Oct. 8, 22 daysafter the injury, Brohm began throwing at practice. "Five yards, then 10yards, it felt O.K.," says Brohm. "Not great, but O.K."
Brohm was on thefield for every snap during sluggish victories over Cincinnati (23--17) andSyracuse (28--13), both games in doubt much longer than expected. His timingwas slightly off, and his numbers showed it: He threw two interceptions andonly one touchdown pass. But Louisville had 11 days between the Syracuse andWest Virginia games, and Brohm got sharper. "You could see it everyday," says Urrutia. "He was getting zip back on the ball."
The game againstthe No. 3 Mountaineers held special meaning for Brohm. A year earlier he hadcompleted 31 of 49 passes for 277 yards and two touchdowns and led theCardinals to a 24--7 lead midway through the third quarter. Louisville failedto convert on what could have been a killing fourth-and-one at the WestVirginia 34, opening the door to a frantic Mountaineers comeback. The gameended when Brohm was stopped on a two-point conversion try in the third OT."My most vivid memory is having to walk all the way down the field afterthat play, with the whole stadium singing that John Denver song [Take Me Home,Country Roads]," says Brohm. "I watched the game on TV once lastsummer; it was sickening watching them come back."
Scouting video fromthis season was more encouraging. Petrino and Brohm found huge holes in WestVirginia's pass defense, and last Thursday the Cardinals exploited themliberally. Brohm's 19 completions went to six receivers for a staggeringaverage of more than 18 yards a catch. Schiano watched the game from an ESPNstudio in Bristol, Conn. "We had already been working on Louisville forseveral days, but they did some different things," he says. "And Brohmis just phenomenal. I don't care how he played before the West Virginia game,he can do things that are special."
Five days beforethe victory over the Mountaineers, Oscar Brohm had called his youngest son onhis cellphone. He told Brian to play football just for the joy of it and tocall up his memories from an epic high school matchup, the 2002 Kentucky 4Achampionship game, in which Brohm threw for seven touchdowns in a 59--56victory over Bush's team from Male High. "Just go out there and havefun," father told son. "Play like it's the Male game again."
It's a rare storyin college sports: Hometown star stays home. Wins again. It remains to be seenif Louisville can handle the immense physical challenge of Ohio State orMichigan. Or even the madness of Piscataway. But the ride to find out will be asweet one.
See how high Louisville rises in Stewart Mandel'srankings, and get a preview of the Cardinals' showdown with Rutgers atSI.com/collegefootball.
When Brohm hurt his thumb, Urrutia thought, "Man,guys are DROPPING LIKE FLIES. There goes our perfect season."
Football insiders once HOWLED AT Schnellenberger's claimthat Louisville would someday win a national championship.
Photograph by Bob Rosato
¬†ONE FORTHE THUMB
The flawless Brohm threw for 354 yards and a touchdown, then celebrated thebiggest victory in Louisville history.
MICHAEL CLEVENGER/THE COURIER-JOURNAL
Another Cardinals star who played high school ball in Louisville, Urrutiaburned West Virginia for 113 receiving yards.
Louisville returned a Steve Slaton fumble for a touchdown early in the thirdquarter, and the rout was on.