OMAHA, Neb. – A dramatic fourth-quarter comeback led by a couple old NFL hands overshadowed Maurice Clarett's return to football.
The Omaha Nighthawks played their first game before a UFL-record crowd of 23,067 at Rosenblatt Stadium, with Jeff Garcia's 12-yard touchdown pass to Robert Ferguson with 6 seconds left producing a 27-26 win over the Hartford Colonials and a fantastic finish on the fledgling league's biggest night.
"This market has had something special about it from the day we announced it," UFL Commissioner Michael Huyghue said in the Nighthawks' locker room after the game. "They've really been a model franchise at every level. And then to have a game that played out the way it did, you couldn't have scripted it any better.
"If this is foreshadowing of what this league can be about, then we're really onto something special."
The five-team UFL is in its second season as a place for aging veterans and borderline NFL players looking for another chance in the big time.
Omaha already is the signature franchise. The game was declared a sellout Tuesday, and the attendance obliterated the league record by about 10,000.
What a show the fans saw. The Nighthawks trailed 23-10 after three quarters. Garcia, who was 23 of 39 for 226 yards, threw the second of his three TD passes from 2 yards to Devard Darling to make it 23-20.
After Ferguson caught the pass that tied it 26-all, and before Jeff Wolfert kicked the winning extra point, the former Green Bay receiver leapt into the end zone seats, a la the Lambeau Leap.
"If he didn't do it, I was going to do it," said Ahman Green, who was Ferguson's teammate in Green Bay.
Hartford's Josh McCown, an eight-year NFL veteran who most recently played with the Carolina Panthers, was 22 of 25 for 264 yards and two touchdowns.
Clarett ran back one kickoff for 13 yards and nearly blocked a punt, but he got no playing time at running back in his first game since leading Ohio State to the 2002 national championship.
He willingly played the role of cheerleader. He said coach Jeff Jagodzinski had told him that he wouldn't be getting any carries as the backup to Green and Shaud Williams.
"We got a group of good guys, a lot of veterans, so I'm taking this thing one game at a time," Clarett said. "I contributed on special teams and we got a victory. You don't have to make plays all the time to contribute to the game."
Clarett was a bust with the Denver Broncos and spent 3½ years in prison for having a hidden gun and holding up two people outside a Columbus, Ohio, bar, in 2006. He signed with the Nighthawks on Aug. 30 after receiving permission from a judge to leave Ohio.
He also had to get the OK to play from Huyghue, who made a bee line to Clarett's locker after the game to offer him congratulations.
"I think that's what this league is about," Huyghue said. "It's about giving guys a chance. He paid his debt. He's back here doing something he loves. You can see his heart is in it. I'm just praying that everything works out for him."
Huyghue said Clarett approached him on the field before the game to thank him for the opportunity.
"He came up to me and said, 'Eight months ago I was sitting in a prison cell, and if you asked me if I was going to have this opportunity to turn my life around and play this level of football, I would have told you it's never going to happen.' It's a lot more than about the game sometimes."
The game was an excuse for Omaha to party.
Tailgating was going strong by mid-afternoon. Fans decked out in black-and-white Nighthawks gear mixed in the parking lots as rock music blared over the stadium loudspeakers. Many wore jerseys bearing the name and numbers of Green and Garcia.
There is no Clarett Nighthawks jersey available yet, but one woman showed up wearing a replica of Clarett's Ohio State jersey.
Green is the face of the franchise. He played high school football in Omaha before going to Nebraska, then became the Packers' career rushing leader. Not surprisingly, the loudest cheer of pregame introductions was for Green.
"Why do this? It's my hometown, and I love playing football. That's really it in a nutshell. It's really a no-brainer," Green said.
The Nighthawks seem a good fit in Omaha, which is in a football-mad state whose appetite has long been satiated by the Nebraska Cornhuskers.
Omahans love their pro football, too. The Kansas City Chiefs are the nearest NFL franchise, but Omahans root just as hard for the Vikings, Bears and Packers along with the Denver Broncos.
The Nighthawks fill a niche.
"There's no team here other than the university, and a lot of people can't get tickets," said Omahan Todd Gosch, 39, who was wearing one of those Ahman Green jerseys. "We're talking about players on our team who have Super Bowl rings. No one can call this 'minor league' when you have players like that."
Connie Wilson of Lincoln said she bought season tickets because she loves football and couldn't get Huskers tickets.
"People are really into football, so Omaha is the perfect city for expansion," Wilson said. "They'll probably sell out the rest of their games. And the more Nebraska players they get the better."
It's too early to know whether the Nighthawks will turn out to be a fad or an enduring piece of the Omaha sports landscape.
Right now, though, they're all the rage in this metropolitan area of more than 800,000.
Pat Lawlor, owner of the city's only licensed Nighthawks gear supplier, said for every one piece of Huskers gear his store has sold the past week it has sold 20 pieces of Nighthawks gear.
"In this economy," Lawlor said, "the Omaha Nighthawks are a godsend."