First-play lightning: McAlister's kick return sparked '98 Arizona Wildcats

'That guy just went to the house in a blink'

I asked former Arizona Wildcats quarterback Keith Smith when he knew the 1998 season could be something special.

"Oh, man, honestly ... I think it has be Chris Mac to the house at Hawaii," he said.

Yes, it's always good to start a story at the beginning.

Head coach Dick Tomey and others will tell you -- correctly -- that the foundation of Arizona's 12-1 season was laid by a four-game winning streak to end the 1997 season, but Chris McAlister's 100-yard kick return on the opening play of the season was the emotional bolt of lightning.

"He set the tone," Smith said.

"Holy (expletive), that guy just went to the house in a blink. It was like, this is how it's going to be. ... We could tell that Chris Mac was a mission to do something special."

McAlister, in addition to his five interceptions and 15 pass break-ups, dabbled on offense, returned a punt for a touchdown and was also used as a punt-blocker off the edge.

But, as Smith said, that kick return, taken a yard or two deep in the end zone, set the tone and served as the counterpoint to what happened on the first play of the 1997 season, when Arizona gave up a 100-yard kick return to Oregon's Saladin McCullough in a 16-9 loss.

That was 1997. This was 1998.

This is how it's going to be.

You can see McAlister's kick return, starting at about 4:20 of the video below.

His speed and athleticism is obvious, but there was more to it than that.

"I was on that kickoff return. I was the guy who set the wedge," said running back Kelvin Eafon. "You have to go back and look at it. We had all starters on the kickoff return."

Maybe not all starters, but point well-taken. If you watch closely, in addition to Eafon, you see receiver Dennis Northcutt, tight end Mike Lucky and tight end Brandon Manumaleuna, among others, on the kick return team. That's the kind of talent you rarely see on special teams.

"It didn't surprise me," Eafon said of the opening play of the 1998 season.

"I kind of expected it. I had a nice big block on the play and there were some other big, crashing blocks that led him all the way to the house."