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US Football:  2001 a Year of Surprises - 2001-12-27

Every year, American-style football fans witness stunning triumphs, heartbreaking defeats, championships, retirements and new emerging stars. 2001 was no exception.

The 2001 football season opened January 4 with an entertaining national championship game in college football.

The Orange Bowl in Miami was the venue for the Oklahoma Sooners to try to complete an undefeated season and, with it, claim a national college football championship. Despite winning all their games during the 2000 regular season, many fans felt Oklahoma still did not match the power of the Florida State Seminoles, the defending champions.

But the Sooners quickly left little doubt they were the better team in a 13-2 domination of Florida State. "Our players recognize that the history of Oklahoma is about winning championships," said Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops. "We already have six national championships, now we have seven. We play well in the Orange Bowl. You cannot say, that was then, and this is now. That is Oklahoma football. We have a great history in this Orange Bowl, and it is only getting better."

The 2001 regular season also produced many surprises, with perhaps the biggest saved for the upcoming championship game at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Miami heads into the January 3 contest with an undefeated season. But a computer formula used by the Bowl Championship Series vaulted fourth-ranked Nebraska into the title game. A loss by Miami could result in two teams sharing the national championship, a scenario the BCS was created four years ago to avoid.

During the past season, some traditional powers, like Penn State, tried to find their way back to prominence. Despite a lean year, with a 5-6 record, coaching legend Joe Paterno passed Alabama's Bear Bryant to become the winningest coach in college football history. It came in a 29-27 comeback victory over Ohio State. "The one thing that keeps going through my mind is how many great moments I have had in coaching," said Paterno. "It is hard to measure something that happened 10 years ago, or five years ago, with today. There certainly wouldn't be anything that tops this. This would have to be right there with everything that has happened to me."

Joe Paterno's record-setting 324th win was followed by three more before the end of the season. While Paterno remains with Penn State University, a well-liked professional football star made an exit in 2001. One of the all-time best NFL quarterbacks, Troy Aikman of the Dallas Cowboys, decided his playing time had come to an end. "I have been playing this game since I was seven-years-old," Aikman said, "and to all of a sudden recognize that you are not going to be doing it anymore is hard. I know it is the right thing for me because of my health, concussions, my back problems, that I have had. It took its toll. And I know to try to go out there and play another year was going to be a tough thing to do."

Tragedy also touched the NFL before the start of the season. Corey Stringer of the Minnesota Vikings became the first NFL player to die from complications of heat stroke during training camp. Fans around the country were stunned, as were Stringer's Minnesota teammates and head coach Dennis Green. "Our loss is also their loss, because a lot of, not just a lot of Viking fans, and not just football fans, but people throughout the country recognize the tragedy that has taken place," Green said.

Training camp and the pre-season moved ahead, leading to opening day, when President Bush made the first coin toss. "And now to officially begin the NFL's 82nd season, the coin toss. Here we go. It is tails. I wish the players of the NFL good health, and have a great season," the president said.

The NFL season was unexpectedly interrupted after one week, when the United States was attacked by terrorists on September 11. Virtually every sports activity, including professional football, came to a brief standstill. The NFL decided to play the postponed games in January 2002, and push the date of the Super Bowl championship into February for the first time ever.

It took some time for players to focus on their games, especially in New York where Giants quarterback Kerry Collins had a look at the World Trade Center devastation. "How can you think about anything else? How can you talk about anything else?" Collins wondered. "And the first time I was able to get a glimpse of it today, I looked. If you think that we were going to get ready to play this week and [have] our heads and hearts be in it, I think we would be fooling ourselves."

NFL players did regroup, and teams refocused their efforts on winning a title. The Baltimore Ravens, who won last season's Super Bowl with a 34-7 victory over the New York Giants, are once again a contending team. Others include the St. Louis Rams, San Francisco 49ers, Green Bay Packers, Miami Dolphins, Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders. Among the surprise teams in the race for the Super Bowl are the Chicago Bears and New England Patriots.

Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001