Graham McPhail '98 Wanted to Go to Amherst, But Starred at Williams in The Ephs' Most Amazing Win Over… Amherst
By Graham McPhail
Graham McPhail, had never heard of Williams or Amherst growing up in Dallas, Texas., but something captured his interest and he did agree to visit… Amherst. Despite being stranded at the Springfield, Mass., bus station by the coaching staff, he actually enjoyed his Amherst eventual visit.
Apparently the Amherst coaches were less impressed. When they stopped calling, McPhail pivoted his interest to Williams. He learned the school was a top national liberal arts college with a good football program, happy student-athletes, and successful alums. Something clicked. But, even after he accepted the offer to attend, McPhail still had no idea what the future held in store. "I didn't know at that time that Williams-Amherst would capture an outsized role in my life," McPhail said. "This rivalry drove me to exhaustion, defined my college summers, connected me to the past, present, and future. Before I could fathom a marriage and children, it provided two of the happiest days of my life."
In McPhail's first year (1994), the Ephs went 8-0-0. In his second, Williams "lost" to Amherst 0-0 on the swamp formerly known as Weston Field, to finish their season 7-0-1. Amherst celebrated the 0-0 result as though they had won.
During McPhail's final two seasons the Ephs lost three games, but none to Amherst. His junior year the Ephs drove 98 yards in the fourth quarter at Amherst, to deny the Lord Jeffs a perfect season, 19-13, casting a pall over Amherst's planned capital campaign launch that afternoon, and setting the stage for the memorable 1997 game at Williams.
In 1997 Amherst was undefeated, and even Eph head coach Dick Farley said "I don't think we can stop them." They boasted a potent offense and the top defense in NCAA DIII. They were also out for revenge.
The week before the contest, Williams lost at Wesleyan 28-14, dropping the Ephs to 6-1 for the year. "With a perfect season out of reach, we focused on the goal that mattered most—beating Amherst," McPhail, a team captain, recalled. "That said, I'm not sure even our parents thought we had a chance."
The Ephs shocked Amherst by taking the lead early, 14-7 against a defense that had allowed just seven points a game coming into the season finale. The nearly 12,000 fans were still digesting the shock as the lead grew to 24-7. A late Amherst TD made it 24-14 at the half.
The vaunted Amherst attack showed up in a big way early in the second half. In the first 8:44 of the third quarter they scored 17 unanswered points to retake the lead, 31-24. Meanwhile, their defense blanked the Williams' offense through most of the quarter.
The Lord Jeffs were driving to extend that lead late in the third quarter when Graham McPhail darted in front of a crossing Amherst receiver and leaped, hands outstretched, to pick off a pass at the Williams 22-yard line.
Re-energized by McPhail's interception, Williams drove downfield to tie the score and then tacked on two more TDs, taking a 45-31 lead with just over six minutes remaining in the game.
Amherst refused to succumb, storming back with two TDs of their own. Now trailing 45-44, Amherst snuck a wide receiver down the sideline (the play has since been outlawed) while the rest of the team huddled for the point-after attempt, to tie the contest. On the snap a quick pass to their open receiver put The Defectors up by one, 46-45, with less than two minutes remaining.
As Amherst celebrated an apparent victory, and the end of a decade of struggles against the Farley-coached Ephs, quarterback Peter Supino shook off a third-quarter injury to return to the field.
After three plays, things still looked bleak. Facing fourth and seven on the Ephs' own 25, Supino fired a pass to junior Matt Sigrist for the first down at midfield. A late hit by a flustered Amherst defender gave the Ephs an extra bump to first down on the Amherst 35-yard line.
A 22-yard run by Supino and three more yards from running back Fred Storz put the ball on the Amherst ten-yard line with seven seconds remaining. Farley made a risky decision: he sent out first-year kicker Collin Vataha, who before this day had never kicked a field goal or extra point in competition.
Jogging onto the field, McPhail, who held for the Eph kickers, told Vataha the same thing he said to him before any of his attempts: "you're the man." A perfect snap, a perfect hold, a perfect kick—the Ephs went up 48-46. The Williams stands and sideline erupted. Farley told the kickoff team to squib the ball and make a quick tackle. Senior Matt Colangelo and first-year Dan DiCenzo did the job, and the upset was complete.
"It was a true storybook ending, for a group of seniors that weren't as talented as the classes before them, but worked just as hard and wanted a win versus Amherst just as much," stated McPhail. "A team effort led by the seniors, but aided by first-years, sophomores, and juniors from all over the country. There were no stars on the 1997 team, just a common goal and willingness to fight for the person next to you, and the players that came before you. It remains a great privilege to be part of such a program. The ability to carry on a tradition that was set long before I knew the school or the program remains an unadulterated joy."
Graham McPhail is now the Managing Director and Co-Founder (along with Mark Bussard '94 ) of Rock Springs Capital, a healthcare investment fund. McPhail and his wife Meghan live in Baltimore with their sons Keenan, Colter, and Grady.