Joe Santoro: Gentleman Corbett made sure Pack kept cannon
Special to the Sun
Austin Corbett is simply Nevada Wolf Pack football.
If you cut Corbett, he’d no doubt bleed silver blood. No proud Wolf Pack player, who was raised on Chris Ault, Alphie and Wolfie and Mackay Stadium miracles, would ever allow his blood to resemble UNLV Rebel red. If you listen closely to Corbett’s chest, the heartbeats sound like mini Fremont Cannon blasts. When Corbett is someday blessed with children, he’ll likely name his first off-spring Silver and the second one Blue.
“This is the one game that matters most of all,” said Corbett of the Wolf Pack-Rebel rivalry. “I know what it means to this community.”
Wolf Pack football has definitely lost its heartbeat now that Corbett’s college career came to a fitting end with a 23-16 Pack victory over UNLV Saturday at Mackay Stadium.
“It is really such an honor to be able to walk out of here with the cannon and keep it blue,” Corbett said after Saturday’s Fremont Cannon victory. “This is college football to a T.”
Corbett is Wolf Pack football to a T. He played his high school football career in Sparks at Reed High as one of the best offensive linemen in the state. He came to the Wolf Pack in 2013 as a walk-on, determined to prove every college football team in the nation was wrong by not offering him a scholarship. After just one year he was in the Wolf Pack’s starting lineup and stayed there for four years, becoming one of the best offensive linemen in the nation. He earned his undergraduate degree last spring with a 3.6 grade point average, got married the following day and is now working on his masters in biology.
If you want to take away something inspiring, inspirational and, yes, heartwarming from this 3-9 Wolf Pack season, never allow yourself to forget the sight of Corbett late Saturday afternoon. There was the 6-foot-4, 305-pound offensive tackle fulfilling his lifelong dream, wheeling the Fremont Cannon off the Mackay Stadium turf after the final game of his Wolf Pack career.
It’s a moment all Wolf Pack fans should never forget, especially at the end of a difficult 3-9 season. It’s a reminder there are young men who deserve your cheers even at the end of a 3-9 season. That moment is why young men want to grow up to be Wolf Pack football players.
“It was the biggest party ever,” said Corbett of the Pack’s post-game celebration that involved a picture with the cannon on the field with the scoreboard in the background. “Those are the memories I’m going to remember and cherish my entire life. Just to be able to celebrate around that cannon and give it the glory it deserves, is truly such an honor.”
Corbett wore a smile that stretched from Verdi to West Wendover after Saturday’s game. Beating the Rebels at Mackay Stadium in his final college game justified all of the sacrifices, all of the losses he endured the previous five years. He lifted the weights for five years when nobody was looking. He took the punishment in practice day after day. He devoted himself entirely, physically and mentally, to the Wolf Pack football program like few players before him.
And Saturday was the reward.
“The cannon is the only thing that matters,” Corbett said. “You play your whole career and then you get to your senior year, it doesn’t matter what you did your previous years. You left a legacy on this university.”
Every Wolf Pack coach, except Ault, has merely given the Battle for the Fremont Cannon some meaningless lip service. They say all the right things, spouting all of the tired and well-worn clichés to make their athletic director and fan base happy leading up to the game. But none of them truly mean it like players mean it.
Players, that is, like Corbett.
Corbett has served as the keeper of the Fremont Cannon tradition up on north Virginia Street for his five seasons with the team. Corbett is northern Nevada. A Reed High graduate, he was weaned on Wolf Pack football. He didn’t have to check Wikipedia and learn about Wolf Pack football when he stepped on campus for the first time as a true freshman in 2013. He lived it. It was important to him. And all of that importance and meaning was on his broad shoulders on Saturday.
“On our Wolf Pack walk before the game (when the players walk through campus on their way into the stadium), it was by far the most alumni we’ve had out there all year,” Corbett said. “Each one of them kind of touched on a personal story (about the cannon) they had. Just to have their support and to be able to keep that, that’s why we play this game.”
Corbett, the unquestioned leader of this Wolf Pack football team, deemed it his responsibility to make sure his teammates understood Saturday wasn’t just another football game.
“I told our guys before the game that, ‘Once the game starts, it’s not our cannon anymore,'” Corbett said. “We’re fighting to win it again. We’re not fighting just to not lose it. We’re fighting to win it. When you fight to win it, you are just playing your guts out.”
Corbett gathered his teammates on the offensive line with 74 seconds left in the game. The Wolf Pack, leading 23-16, was about to take over the ball at its own 22-yard line with a chance to put the game away.
“They (UNLV) had all three timeouts left,” Corbett said. “I just got on the Union (the Pack offensive line) and told them, ‘This is on us. This is why the Union is called the Union. Our job is to run down their (UNLV) throats and end this game right.”
The Rebels, thanks to the Union, never saw the football again. They also won’t see the cannon until the Pack brings it to Las Vegas next fall.
“That’s what the Union is,” said Corbett, who was named the winner of the Wolf Pack’s Basalite Big Blocker award on Sunday for the second time (also in 2015) in his career. “We impose our will on people. In the fourth quarter we’ll do what we want to do. We’ll run the ball when we want and as far as we want and we will run out the game.”
There was no way the other Union members were going to disappoint Mr. Corbett Cannon. The Union opened up enough holes on the Pack’s final drive for running back Kelton Moore to gain four and seven yards on his first two carries for a first down. The Union also played an integral role in the Pack’s game-winning drive, which started at the Wolf Pack 9-yard line with just under 11 minutes to play. The Wolf Pack ran the ball on six of the eight plays on the 91-yard drive, which ended in a 1-yard scoring run by Moore with 7:34 to play.
Corbett might have made the play of the game to keep that game-winning drive alive. There was head coach Jay Norvell, almost on cue, making a goofy, ill-advised, downright ridiculous play call at one of the most important moments of the most important game of the year.
“It was probably the worst opportunity to call the play,” said Corbett with a big smile.
It was OK for Corbett to smile at that moment. The Pack, after all, won the game. But Norvell nearly made Corbett, his team leader, play a huge part in what could have gone down in Wolf Pack lore as one of the biggest blunders in the history of the Battle for the Fremont Cannon.
With the game tied at 16-16, the Pack faced a 1st-and-10 at the UNLV 19-yard line with about nine minutes to play. What play does the Wolf Pack call at this all-important moment? A safe and likely productive run by Moore, who had 88 yards rushing thus far in the game? A safe and likely productive pass by quarterback Ty Gangi, who had completed 24 passes for 266 yards in the game at that point?
The Pack picked this all-important, crucial moment in the biggest game of the year to fire a difficult-to-handle, across the width of the field lateral pass to, you guessed it, their 6-4, 305-pound senior left tackle. You could almost hear the air being sucked out of the stadium as the ball flew through the air toward Corbett.
“I saw the ball leave Ty’s hands and immediately lost it,” Corbett said. “I just said, ‘OK, I can’t see anything.'”
If that ball bounces off Corbett’s hands, if he misses it completely, UNLV likely picks up the loose ball and rumbles about 80 yards for a touchdown and the lead.
But this is not the time to think such horrific thoughts. The Pack, after all, won the game and Corbett was smiling when it was all over thanks to the Fremont Cannon Gods that were smiling down upon him and the Pack on Saturday. Not much has gone right for this Pack team this year, especially when Norvell has felt the urge to call an ill-timed, needless trick play at the precise moment that it could hurt his team the most. The cannon Gods, though, weren’t going to allow Corbett to be the lead character in another one of Norvell’s follies. Not on cannon day.
“The last second I saw (the ball) come out and I saw a guy come right at me,” Corbett said.
Corbett made a wonderful catch of Gangi’s slicing throw and turned up field looking for Fremont Cannon glory. That person he saw as the ball approached him, though, was UNLV defensive back Jericho Flowers, a 175-pounder who somehow brought the 305-pound Corbett down for a 1-yard loss. The Pack scored the game-winning touchdown four plays later.
“I don’t want to say I attempted a hurdle (over Flowers),” Corbett said, still smiling. “But I tried to get over him. But 300 pounds doesn’t move that well.”
That’s why you don’t ask 300 pounds to catch a difficult pass, especially when that pass is a lateral, with a game against your rival on the line in the fourth quarter.
“That’s fun, that’s fun,” Corbett said, grinning. “That’s every big guy’s dream. We barely get a chance to ever touch the ball. To have my coaches bless me with that opportunity is amazing even though I lost a yard. It was all right.”
That play, though ill-advised, was all you need to know about how much the Wolf Pack respects Corbett. They wanted him to have a little fun before he walked off the field for the last time.
“We got the cannon back,” Corbett said. “That’s all that matters.”
Saturday was the first time Corbett won the Fremont Cannon as a player at Mackay Stadium, the same stadium he witnessed countless Wolf Pack teams beat the Rebels as a boy and young man. The only other time Corbett played the Rebels at Mackay before Saturday was in 2015 when the Rebels wheeled the cannon away after beating the Pack 23-17.
“This is our house,” Corbett said. “This is our valley. We have to protect our valley at all costs. I failed two times previously but, you know, not a third. I wasn’t going to let that happen.”
That’s the type of young man Corbett is. He takes full responsibility for the Pack’s 27-22 loss to UNLV at Mackay Stadium in 2013, even though he didn’t play in the game because he was red-shirting his true freshman year. Those were his teammates, after all, out there in 2013 fighting to keep the cannon. Corbett felt that loss through to his Wolf Pack soul, just like he did as an active player in 2015 and just like he did when the Pack lost when he was just a fan in the stands growing up. All of those losses served to motivate him on Saturday.
“We gave the community what it deserved,” Corbett said. “The cannon is staying in this building where it belongs.”