When Navy linebacker Ram Vela took a flying leap over a Notre Dame blocking back with less than a minute to go in regulation of Navy's 46-44, triple overtime victory last Saturday, he became a YouTube star and a role model for an NFL linebacker.
It isn't what he planned.
"I just wanted to make the play," Vela said. "I had missed a sack [by inches] earlier in the game. I felt like I'd let the whole team down. I thought I had lost the game for us and the weight of the world was on my shoulders."
The play Vela didn't make on fourth-and-14 midway through the fourth quarter kept alive a Notre Dame scoring drive that tied the score at 28. The one he made with 45 seconds to play on fourth-and-eight allowed his teammate, end Chris Kuhar-Pitters, to finish off a sack.
The victory ended Navy's 43-year losing streak to Notre Dame and set up today's meeting at North Texas, where the Midshipmen (5-4) can wrap up an invitation to the Poinsettia Bowl on Dec. 20 in San Diego with their sixth victory of the season.
Vela said he decided to take to the air last Saturday because watching film he had noticed Notre Dame tailback Armando Allen always seemed to go low when trying to make a block on blitzing linebackers.
"I told myself that if I saw him doing that in the game, 'Maybe I'll leap over him,'" Vela said. "Maybe that was in the back of my mind, but I think it was probably just instinct. I had to redeem myself for missing that earlier sack. It was do or die. I had nothing to lose."
Whatever it was, when the ball was snapped Vela charged across the line of scrimmage and leaped over Allen. After the game some of Vela's teammates said they saw him going past them at ear level in their peripheral vision.
Others watched it again and again on YouTube, where he could be seen flying into the backfield and getting his hands on Fighting Irish quarterback Evan Sharpley, setting up the play for Kuhar-Pitters to complete.
It was quite a play for the 5-foot-9, 196-pound Vela, a sophomore who came to Navy as a slotback and was battling for the second spot on the depth chart at right corner in the spring. He is now the starter at outside linebacker and not the largest linebacker a Division I Football Bowl Subdivision team is going to see.
But Navy defensive coordinator Buddy Green said the 20-year-old from San Antonio plays hard and that the play everyone noticed wasn't the best play Vela made.
"The one that stands out to me was a running play on the outside," Green said. "He gets cut and lands on his shoulder and jumps off the ground and makes the tackle after getting cut and bouncing off the ground.
"He's getting a better feel for that position. His first start was Air Force. Golly, he's getting better every game."
Vela remembered that play, too. It came in the third quarter on first-and-10 at the Navy 23-yard line with Notre Dame driving. The Irish were stopped for no gain, and three plays later they missed a 40-yard field-goal try.
"I got chop-blocked, and I got up and I did make the tackle," he said. "It was a big tackle. It got everyone excited."
Vela smiled. It was just one more surprising play in a crazy year.
"It's definitely not normal for every player on our team to make three [position] changes in a year and a half," he said. "But you just try to make the best of it."
Which is what Vela was trying to do this week as the accolades kept rolling in.
The day after Vela took flight on the fourth-quarter sack, Minnesota Vikings linebacker E.J. Henderson, a former Maryland standout, said the Navy linebacker inspired him to leap over San Diego Chargers running back LaDainian Tomlinson on Sunday to sack quarterback Philip Rivers.
"I was watching the last part of Navy's game, and this kid jumped over a blocker and went flying at the quarterback and he stopped Notre Dame," Henderson said in post-game interviews. "I came through and saw the blocker going low and thought, 'If that kid from Navy can do it, I can do it.'"
Vela said he had heard about Henderson's comments and was a little overwhelmed.
"It's definitely such an honor to hear that, to hear someone you model your play after come back and say something you did on the field inspired him," Vela said. "I feel really, really great about it. I just wish I could meet him in person and show him my appreciation."
Vela has seen the video on YouTube, and many of his friends have e-mailed the video to him. But now, back in his home state today for Navy's meeting with North Texas in Denton, it's time to put "The Play" behind him.
"Of course you want to soak up the moment," he said. "And maybe after the season I'll think about it more and watch it again. ... It's time to think about North Texas and move on."