It happens every weekend during the fall without fail.
I am sitting at home with my family, watching the Detroit Lions on television, and one of my son’s best buddies, 11-year-old Aaron Iafolla, walks in the house. The very second he sees what is on television, he tells us in a tone full of pride, “Did you know my dad tackled Barry Sanders?” We laugh, because he told us the exact same thing the week before. Aaron simply beams and joins us for the game.
Dave Iafolla was not raised in Northern Michigan. He did not play football in Northern Michigan. The game described in the story below happened twenty six years ago in Oklahoma and barely registered a blip on the national media’s radar. So why are we including the story in The Crooked Porch? Because Dave Iafolla represents something important to this region. He is a man, like many men, that chose place over career. He loves this area and his family is a fixture in the Harbor Springs community. It is our belief, at The Crooked Porch, that hearing a neighbor’s story, and celebrating that story, connects us all.
September 10, 1988
For the team from Miami University (Ohio), 1988 was going to be a rebound season. In 1986, Dave Iafolla’s freshman year, the team went 8-4 with a stunning 21-12 defeat of 8th ranked LSU and a spot in the California Bowl. The 1987 season was a major let down, with the team going 5-6 and no bowl game. Hopes were high in 1988, even after the team lost their season opener to Eastern Michigan University 24-17.
Dave was a star linebacker out of South Lyon who played well against tough competition, including making six solo tackles against a 1987 Miami (Florida) team that featured future NFL stars Brett Perriman, Steve Walsh, Bennie Blades, and Michael Irvin. The Miami (Ohio) team journeyed to Stillwater confident that they could pull off the upset.
Oklahoma State was ranked #20, yet expected to have a down year. College football experts questioned whether the Cowboys could replace future NFL Hall-of-Famer and 4-year Oklahoma State starter Thurman Thomas at running back. People knew of Barry Sanders, but previously he had been a specialist, returning kicks and punts while only occasionally spelling Thomas in the backfield. The Miami (Ohio) game was the 1988 season opener for the Cowboys, and Barry Sanders’ first game as a starting running back. Few outside of the two colleges paid attention.
“[Barry Sanders] was known as a good player, but no one expected what he was going to do that season.” Dave Iafolla said. “Our scouts told us to watch him because he was fast and strong on his feet. But we had no idea that he was about to run past us and college football. I could tell after the opening kickoff that he was something special.”
Dave Iafolla was on the field for the opening kickoff. On the far end of the field, Barry Sanders awaited the kick. “He took it one-hundred yards. No one touched him. He hit the open space and no one even got close to him.” It took Barry 14 seconds to travel from endzone to endzone, stutter stepping twice around Miami defenders.
In three quarters of action, Barry Sanders rushed 18 times for 178 yards and two touchdowns, including an 89-yarder when Sanders skipped past Dave Iafolla as shown in the photograph below.
In what would become the greatest individual season in college football history, Barry Sanders rushed for 2,628 yards in 11 games during the regular season, an average of 238.9 yards per game, and scored 39 total touchdowns. In the Holiday Bowl against Wyoming he rushed for 222 yards and 5 touchdowns. Barry Sanders won the 1988 Heisman Trophy in a landslide.
But what about the tackle?
“It was a draw play,” Dave remembers. “During the game I missed tackling him two times. Both times I went to wrap him up and found just open air. By the time I filled the hole, he had already accelerated through it, leaving me nothing to try and tackle. Half our team missed him at least once. They would give him the ball and leave it up to him to select the hole. We never knew which way he was going. On the play I tackled him, they gave it to him deep. He started to go strong, but got bottle-necked in the backfield and cut in the opposite direction. I was the weak-side backer and saw him break towards me. Before he could break out, I got a clean up hit on him and he went down for only a short gain.”
1988 ended up a major disappointment for Miami (Ohio) and Dave Iafolla. The team went 0-10-1. Still, the season provided Aaron Iafolla a reason to be proud. His father tackled Barry Sanders.
The video below is a recap of the 1988 Miami (Ohio)/Oklahoma State game from the perspective of Barry Sanders’ record breaking season. Dave Iafolla shows up in the video several times wearing #17. Unfortunately the tackle, or any tackle, is not included in the recap.