On Oct. 25, 1997, Michigan State’s Todd Schultz took the third-and-long snap in Spartan Stadium with a little more than two minutes left in the third quarter, his team trailing arch-rival Michigan Wolverines by six. Schultz stepped back and, after evading pressure from defensive end James Hall, scrambled to his right and was able to get a pass off before Juaquin Feazell pummeled him. What Schultz didn’t see after he hit the turf was one of the greatest defensive plays in college football history. Charles Woodson leaped, according to ESPN’s Bill Curry, “15 feet in the air” to make a one-handed interception, touching his left foot down “acrobatically” inside the Michigan sideline.
Michigan went on to beat Michigan State, 23-7, that day. Woodson’s “climbing into thin air” interception was a building block to solidify his Heisman Trophy award that year. Notably, Woodson is the only primarily defensive player to ever win the Heisman. While Woodson’s punt return for a touchdown against Ohio State that season may have been his “biggest,” his “highlight reel” interception against Michigan State is one of his most memorable plays.
The game had a number of experienced officials, including referee Jim Kemerling, umpire Roger Haberer, head linesman Ed Peters, line judge Tom Hofmann, field judge Tom Bryan, side judge Tom Clark and back judge Scott Helverson. Woodson’s interception happened on Peters’ sideline, so he made the memorable call.
Peters was on the sideline, perfectly positioned to see the play. If you follow his eyes, they go from the ball touching Woodson’s hand to focusing on Woodson’s feet to make sure one foot came down inbounds. Then Peters emphatically signaled the change of possession.
“To this day, I still think the quarterback was just trying to dump the ball because the receiver was downfield a little farther,” Peters said. “Woodson just made a fantastic play. Something I will remember forever and ever. I won’t say it was the biggest call of my career because all the calls are big calls. That particular play was probably one of the most athletic plays I’ve ever seen … it was phenomenal.”
Just like the fans and announcers, Peters could hardly believe what he saw but he had a job to do, and he sold the call.
“I was amazed but when I saw him make the play and he got the foot down it was like … you’ve got to be emphatic at times,” Peters said. “I’ve been dealing with the coaches and the players and it lets everybody know you’re doing what you’re supposed to do and you’re on top of the game. And, of course, you have to remember we didn’t have replay at that time either.”
The historic interception game happened at about the middle of Peters’ onfield career in the Big Ten. He made his start in officiating in another sport after taking an officiating class while he was a senior at Olivet College in Michigan.
“I actually started out doing basketball and at one time my goal was to become a Big Ten basketball official,” he said. “I was an elementary school teacher in Marshall, Mich., and my next-door neighbor just happened to be a supervisor of officials in a Division III league in Michigan. He really got me started in football.”
Peters worked his way up doing freshman, JV and varsity football, and then he worked in the Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association. He moved on to the Mid-American Conference for eight years and officiated in the Big Ten for 15 years from 1989 to 2004. He was a head linesman for most of his career.
When Woodson went on to win the Heisman in 1997, Peters had a little flashback to that moment — the interception and his call. Even now he still gets reminded about it.
“I’ll never forget it,” Peters said. “When they replay that game on Big Ten Classics, I’ll have somebody send me a text or give me a phone call: ‘Hey, I saw you on TV again.’”
Peters retired from onfield officiating in 2004, but he is still active in college football.
“I’m still involved with the Big Ten,” he said. “I’m one of their timers. So I still work for the Big Ten but I’m not on the field, I’m the official game clock operator.”
Watching clips of Woodson’s interception and championship season shed light on the passage of time. The uniforms look a bit outdated, the footage grainy, the announcers sound rather “old-school,” and the players were just “kids.” But some plays for officials are etched in memory like they happened yesterday.
This past year, Woodson was inducted into the College Football and Rose Bowl halls of fame and his 1997 interception against Michigan State was a centerpiece in his highlight reel. While doing a job he loves, Peters observed Woodson cement his legacy as one of college football’s all-time greatest players.
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