NASHVILLE — Three years ago, Rose Alviti's eyes bounced between the television and her son, Matt.
On the screen, Notre Dame was playing LSU in the 2014 Music City Bowl. It could've been any game on the TV, but this one had a little more meaning. In an alternate universe, Matt, just finished with his redshirt freshman year, might’ve been in that game, she thought.
Notre Dame had recruited Matt, a four-star dual-threat quarterback, but Malik Zaire, the quarterback starting that game for Notre Dame, committed first, eliminating the Irish from Alviti's list. Instead, he committed to Northwestern, hoping to be the Wildcats’ quarterback of the future.
Rose wondered what might have been had her son, who struggled to find the field in his redshirt freshman season, had chosen Notre Dame. The what-ifs rattled through her mind. A transfer might change things, but Rose didn't want to be overbearing. She opted to leave the subject alone.
Matt stayed at Northwestern, despite losing a quarterback competition to a player younger than him. He played only in blowouts or when Clayton Thorson was injured. He was resilient and tough — he challenged and mentored Clayton Thorson, the player who beat him out. It wasn't what he wanted, but he made it work.
Three years and two hip surgeries later, Alviti stepped onto the same field that Malik Zaire had taken MVP honors on that December day in 2014. Alviti did what he had been doing his whole career. He made the best of a difficult situation.
But he wouldn’t be sitting on the bench, looking at a chart and hoping to come in during garbage time. He would have to rally Northwestern to victory behind center, at long last.
Funny how things work out sometimes.
Just before 4:30 p.m. CST, an entire crowd gasped, then fell quiet and stunned.
In the blink of an eye, a trick pass to the quarterback that looked so promising turned into Northwestern’s worst nightmare.
Trainers rushed out to the field to tend to Clayton Thorson, who looked to be in serious pain after a scary twist to his right knee. The Jumbotron replay was tough to watch.
Thorson would be carted off, representing what appeared to be a doomsday scenario for Northwestern. The heart-wrenching sight of Thorson's exit numbed the stadium, but there was still a football game to play, which, after something so jarring as Thorson's injury, seemed secondary.
Pat Fitzgerald rallied his team at midfield, echoing a paraphrased message from Thorson.
Go win the game.
At that moment, that meant backup signal-caller Matt Alviti, in the final game of his football career, would have to push Northwestern past the finish line.
Regardless of how the game would end, Thorson's status will have serious ramifications for the Wildcats. He had already committed to returning to school for the 2018 season, and, with Justin Jackson's eligibility completely exhausted after the Music City Bowl, Thorson needs to be healthy for NU to a have a shot to succeed with a more difficult schedule looming. But to win the 2017 Music City Bowl, Northwestern had to forget about the future for another two hours with its backup quarterback.
Still, in the moments before Alviti trotted onto the field for the final time, teammates from both sides of ball, both healthy and injured, showered the fifth-year senior with statements of trust and belief that had been years in the making.
You got this.
We believe in you.
You're gonna do this Alviti.
As the masses cleared off the field at Nissan Stadium, Matt Alviti ran to the stands. Donning his white Music City Bowl Champions hat, he hopped up into the bleachers, sinking into a moshpit of family and friends who had made the trip to Nashville.
In the same bowl game he watched with his mom three years earlier, he was on centerstage, having quarterbacked his team to a thrilling victory.
That moment in the stands and the ones immediately following it were bittersweet, Alviti said afterward. He had finally gotten his shot to play extended snaps in a big game (and he won), but it was also the last game his football career.
"It's been five years," Alviti said. "We've all prepared to win games like this. Won ugly, but hey man, we got it done. Just the support I had, that meant everything in the world."
Alviti didn't light up the stat sheet. But for coming in cold after a catastrophic injury and playing without leading receiver Bennett Skowronek, Alviti did a sterling job. Playing more than he had in any game throughout his career, he finished 4-of-11 for 50 yards through the air and rushed 54 yards on nine attempts. Most importantly, he had no turnovers.
His dual-threat billing was on full display, showing off both speed and elusiveness on unscripted scrambles, which burned Kentucky several times on key third downs.
When a team's quarterback goes down, its offense often stalls. After Thorson exited the game, the Wildcats' offense didn't lay down and fold, even though that wasn't all because of Alviti; it came in large part due to 269 combined yards from running backs Justin Jackson and Jeremy Larkin. A defensive touchdown on a pick-six by Kyle Queiro, who may as well be known as Mr. Bowl Game around Evanston, helped too. Technically, Northwestern scored no points on offense in the second half, but that was more due to strange coaching decisions and a missed Kuhbander field goal than Alviti. On the fourth-and-inches call from Northwestern’s own 39, it sure looked like Alviti had secured the team a victory on that QB sneak.
Of course, the referees had other plans, but Alviti's performance was still critical to Northwestern’s win. It took until his last game to lead his team to a victory, but he got there. That's what his coach and Northwestern fans everywhere will ultimately remember. For a player who has fought through disappointment after disappointment football-wise, his behind-the-scenes dedication finally showed up between the lines. In arguably the biggest game of Northwestern's season.
On the last play of his football career, Alviti took a knee. He flipped the ball to the official behind him, and that was it. For once, it wasn’t Clayton Thorson facing the media at the postgame press conference. Instead, it was Matt Alviti giving the answers.
"It's been a long five years," Alviti said while sitting alongside Jackson and Queiro at the postgame press conference. "But it's been worth it thanks to guys like [Jackson and Queiro]. You stay for your university and you stay for your brothers. It's something we built four, five years ago."
"The only thing you can control as a competitor," Pat Fitzgerald said, "is control whether you're prepared. To take that negative from Clayton's injury and flip it around like Matt did, he was prepared for today, he seized the opportunity."
A career so uncommon that Fitzgerald called Alviti a "unicorn," was over. College football, the sport of unlikely heroes, provided one yet again.
An unorthodox path? Yes. Did that matter? No.
As he celebrated in the crisp Nashville air, the only thing on his mind was victory. A victory, at long last, victory—one that truly belonged to Matt Alviti.