Forty years separate Gary Sanders from that historic game at Legion Field.
It was the 1972 Iron Bowl, and Auburn was trailing 16–0 with less than 10 minutes left on the clock.
Rounding out his fifth year as Auburn’s radio play-by-play announcer, Sanders went into the game hoping for the one thing that could satisfy a loss the previous year: revenge.
“It was such a memorable game because the year before, Pat Sullivan had won the Heisman Trophy,” Sanders said. “They announced it on Thanksgiving Day, on Thursday, and so two days later, on Saturday, Auburn and Alabama played at Legion Field.”
“It was one of the more disappointing losses I’ve ever been associated with because Alabama ran the wishbone; kept the ball all day and just beat Auburn 31–7,” he said.
“Pat had won as a freshman, then won both sophomore and junior years, and so here he comes his senior year, Heisman Trophy winner, and Alabama really just stifled us that day. I didn’t sleep that night. Normally, as a broadcaster, you know you’re going to do a lot of games and you’re going to win some and you’re going to lose some and you can’t let them bother you, but that one bothered me.”
Little did he know, this game would not only cripple the Tide nation, it would establish Sanders’ place in Auburn history forever.
The game now referred to as Punt, Bama, Punt is one of the most talked-about games in the in state rivalry’s saga and ranks among the top comebacks in all of college football.
The Alabama Crimson Tide, with its unblemished record, was a 16-point favorite coming into the game, and for the first 50 minutes, the Tide lived up to the hype.
Then the unthinkable happened.
The comeback was initiated by an Auburn drive that resulted in a field goal, thanks to Bear Bryant and the Alabama defense overpowering the Tigers yet again.
“At Legion Field, with the seats evenly divided, half of them Auburn, half of them Alabama, it’s 16–0 Alabama,” Sanders said.
“Gardner Jett, who was a whole 5’8”, 145 pounds, was our field goal kicker. and Coach Jordan sent him in to try the longest field goal of his career. He said it’s the only time he’d ever heard the fans on both sides boo at the same time. The Auburn fans booed because they thought I had given up on the game. The Alabama fans booed because the betting-line was 16 and it was 16–0.’”
Little did the Auburn faithful know, it was only the beginning.
Alabama’s next possession was stifled by the Tigers’ defense, bringing in Tide punter Greg Gantt to kick it away.
In one swift motion, walk-on linebacker Bill Newton blocked the punt. It was then that fate seemed to sweep in, placing the ball into defensive back David Langner’s hands for a 25 yard Auburn touchdown.
“Greg Gantt is in to punt, Johnny Simmons is going back as a single safety, Mitchell and Langner on the…uh…line of scrimmage coming from either side to try to block the kick,” Sanders announced from the press box. “Auburn trying to go after it, here’s the snap, they got it! Blocked kick! Ball’s back to the 25, picked up on the bounce at the 25-yard line, and in for a touchdown is David Langner!”
And like that, with just minutes to spare, the game was 16–10.
But the magic didn’t stop there.
With 90 seconds left on the clock, Auburn stopped an option play on third-and-four to force yet another punt. And once again, Newton was there.
The ball ricocheted off the linebacker and into the hands of Langner, who once again returned it for a touchdown.
Sanders’ call of the second blocked punt is still played throughout the Auburn nation today.
“Greg Gantt standing on his own 30, Auburn will try to block it,” Sanders said to the thousands listening to the broadcast. “Auburn going after it, here’s the good snap…it is blocked! It is blocked! It’s caught on the run! It’s caught on the run and he’s gonna score! David Langner! David Langner has scored and Auburn has tied the game! Roger Mitchell blocked the kick! And it’s 16 to 16!”
The only problem: Mitchell isn’t the one who made the play.
To this day, Sanders will be the first to admit he botched the call of the second punt, caught up in the moment of an Auburn comeback.
“Now, as the play-by-play guy, I am not proud of the fact that I messed up the second block,” Sanders said. “I did not give Bill Newton credit even though he did it. I gave credit to a guy named Roger Mitchell. Mitchell was coming in from the outside and I still think if Newton doesn’t get it maybe Mitchell will, but what Mitchell had done was he blocked the extra point after Alabama’s first touchdown and that’s why it was 16–0 instead of 17–0. So I told Roger, even though Bill Newton might not appreciate it, I said you deserve some credit. So I gave him credit for blocking the second punt.”
The extra point from Jett sailed through the uprights, giving Auburn a 17–16 lead the Tide was never able to overcome.
Even though the game was played nearly a half century ago, its memory still resonates in the hearts of Auburn and Alabama fans alike.
“I enjoy the people and the stories and the fun of it,” Sanders said. “I never had an unlisted number, so I’ve had a lot of middle-of-the night phone calls from Tide faithful when things are going their way, and I’ve had scores painted in my driveway and things like that, so I don’t feel ashamed at all reminding them as often as I can that we blocked two punts on them.”
Now Auburn fans young and old can remind Alabama fans of the heartbreaking loss over and over again.
In honor of Punt, Bama, Punt’s 40th anniversary, Sanders is releasing an MP3 of the major plays, including both blocked punts, as well as a ringtone of the second block on his website, puntbamapunt.com.
“Primarily, I’m looking at the fun of it,” Sanders said. “I can see somebody getting a phone call and it saying, “It’s blocked! It’s blocked!” and some Alabama guy standing there going ‘What the heck is this?’”