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Ambush becomes a one-hit wonder

November 26, 2003|by BOB PARASILITI

bobp@herald-mail.com

COLLEGE PARK, Md. - To Leroy Ambush, it was a hit like any other hit ... but this one hit the jackpot.

It felt like any other tackle he had made over the years. But in that one split second, Ambush's final tackle in the University of Maryland's come-from-behind victory transformed him from a dependable senior linebacker to a part of Terrapins football history and lore.

Ambush's hit on North Carolina State running back T.A. McClendon with 1:50 remaining caused the fumble that resulted in Nick Novak's improbable game-winning field goal for a 26-24 victory that ultimately landed a Gator Bowl bid for the Terps.

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And for Ambush, it landed that one shining moment in time which defined his career.

"I told Leroy that that tackle on McClendon will probably go down in the annals as one of the great plays in Maryland football history," Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen said Tuesday during his weekly press conference.

After spending much of the previous two seasons playing in the shadow of E.J. Henderson, one of Maryland's all-time greats, the Thomas Johnson graduate made the tackle which will put him in highlight films for years to come ... although it didn't seem like anything special at the time.

"I've made that play plenty of times in high school and in practice," Ambush said. "But it wasn't on the caliber of that. I didn't feel a thing. I felt like I just was falling on a mat. I guess I had the adrenaline pumping.

"I was just in the right place at the right time. Anyone could have made it."

But it was Ambush's tackle which did so much.

It was the decisive play. It made Novak a hero after he missed a game-tying extra point just moments earlier. And it probably salvaged Maryland's season goals and its bowl destiny all in one fell swoop. But the 6-foot, 225-pound senior didn't realize what he had done.

"I had no clue the ball came out," Ambush said. "I was just trying to get (McClendon) on the ground and get up to play defense again. I didn't know he had fumbled. I got up and just saw everyone jumping around."

Maryland had rallied from 14 points down with what looked to be a tying score with 2:29 remaining, but the usually automatic Novak pulled the extra point to the left to leave the Terps trailing, 24-23.

Then, 39 seconds later, Ambush laid the biggest blow of his career, knocking the ball free on the Wolfpack 46. Five plays later, Novak got his shot at redemption.

"I just did what I could do to give the ball back to the offense," Ambush said. "Nick keeps coming up to me and calling me "The Man."

Obviously, it was more than an ordinary tackle to Novak.

"I owe him a lifetime of debt," Novak said. "I told him I owed him a lifetime of gratitude. I didn't want to come back here after losing the game. We all went celebrating afterwards, and since we are both over 21, I bought him a couple of drinks. I didn't think it would turn out that way, but I'm glad it did."

Ambush still isn't sure what happened though, even though his tackle is already being chronicled as one of the Terps' greatest hits.

"It hasn't sunk in yet," Ambush said. "I downloaded the play on my computer. I think I've seen it 25-plus times. I look at it three or four times a day. The computer is next to my bed, I don't have to go far to see it. I just reach over and click it. I'll have to watch it a few more times to let it sink in."

Even Ambush's mother, who was at the game, never saw the play of her son's career.

"She said everyone was standing and she didn't see it," Ambush said. "She went home and saw it on replay and then called me."

Ambush has made 104 total tackles in his 43-game career, but the one in his third-to-last game for Maryland will live on forever because of what it represents. Although it is a play which will probably be shown on any number of Terrapin highlight films in years to come, it has extra important meaning to Ambush because of a personal link.

"(Henderson) used to talk to me all the time," Ambush said. "He was tremendous and it's exciting to have my name mentioned in the same sentence with his. This has been a really exciting senior season. I have two games left and then I will be able to sit and watch myself on the highlights next season."

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