Head coaches Matt LaFleur and Ryan Brady found success and friendship on the sidelines. On the field, they were rivals in one of the most significant games in the history of SVSU.
In football, not all things end when the scoreboard clock reads zero time remaining.
For some who were present, the story of the 2001 NCAA Division II Quarterfinals between SVSU and Grand Valley State University really started after the game clock expired. That is when the game’s most lasting plotlines — the sports nemeses established, and later, the friendship formed — kicked off. Nineteen years later, the story continues to evolve.
“That game was really the beginning of that rivalry; that SVSU vs. GVSU football rivalry as we know it now,” said David Slaggert, the WSGW color commentator who witnessed the pulse-pounding 33-30 GVSU victory on Nov. 24, 2001.
“We didn’t know it so much at the time, but we were watching the start of something special.”
Even beyond the gridiron grudge born that day, the game also marked a milestone for both teams’ star performers, GVSU’s Ryan Brady and SVSU’s Matt LaFleur.
The contest was the first and only time they dueled as opposing quarterbacks, and it was a memorable matchup, as they traded lead-changing touchdown passes and directly contributed to seven of the game’s nine touchdowns scored. The significance of their 2001 showdown was amplified in 2019 when the onetime opponents were respectively hired as head coaches for two teams of note. Brady was chosen to lead the SVSU program he once helped defeat. LaFleur, meanwhile, inherited the reins of one of the world’s most storied sports franchises, the NFL’s Green Bay Packers.
“We’re all Packers fans here now,” Brady said, referring to the SVSU football program’s support for one of its all-time greatest players.
Brady said the admiration for his former rival is mutual. The two became professional acquaintances after years spent crossing paths within the close-knit football coaching community.
“Matt and I are in touch with each other pretty often,” Brady said. “We’re both pretty busy now, so it’s mostly by text.”
When presented with a copy of the scoring summary from that November 2001 game to help jog his memory, Brady set the piece of paper down on his desk in SVSU’s football offices and glanced at it briefly. As it turned out, he did not need any help recalling details from the game.
“I have a few games I remember vividly,” Brady said, poking his finger at the print-out.
“This. This is one of those games.”
To understand the significance of the game, Slaggert said, it is important to remember how momentous it was for both programs to advance to the quarterfinals in 2001. While both schools qualified for NAIA playoffs appearances previously (SVSU’s football program began in 1975; GVSU’s in 1971), neither moved beyond the first round in the 20th century.
The 2001 season changed that.
“It was an electric year,” said Slaggert, who was SVSU’s color commentator for broadcasts from 2001 to 2013 as well as a few games in 2019.
That particular SVSU roster gained the moniker “The Cardiac Cards” for its tendency to keep fans’ hearts racing — the team would fall behind early before surging into the lead for late-game victories. With a 10-1 regular season record, SVSU secured four of those victories by 10 points or less. The lone regular season loss came against GVSU — a 38-7 rout in September on the Lakers home turf. GVSU rolled through the regular season undefeated.
For those historic first-round victories, GVSU bested Bloomsburg, 42-14, while SVSU reinforced its “Cardiac Cards” nickname with a 33-32 come-from-behind thriller over Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP).
“We were on cloud nine after that IUP comeback,” Slaggert said. “There was just a crazy amount of excitement going into that Grand Valley game.”
Despite the regular season set-back at the hands of GVSU, SVSU possessed one significant advantage heading into the rematch: Star GVSU quarterback Curt Anes was out with an injury, replaced by backup Todd Wojciechowski. Brady, who was starting at wide receiver for every game leading up to that point, was used at quarterback only in an emergency.
“I probably took 20 percent of the reps in practice that week,” said Brady, who originally was recruited as a quarterback both by SVSU and GVSU. “I was dying for an opportunity. I played wide receiver but was a QB at heart.”
LaFleur, meanwhile, entered the game hot off his best performance during the most impressive statistical passing season of any SVSU quarterback at that point in program history. In the first-rounder against IUP, his four touchdowns thrown and game-winning rushing score catapulted the Cardinals to a 25-point comeback in the second half.
The historic first-round wins raised the stakes for the SVSU vs. GVSU rematch at the Lakers’ stadium in Allendale, Brady said. The setting was perfect for a football game. Even the weather seemed to match the grittiness of the moment.
“It was right before Thanksgiving, and I remember it was cold, rainy and gloomy,” Brady said.
The first half featured two touchdowns from LaFleur, who scored once on a throw and once on a 70-yard run.
“That’s what I remember about Matt that game,” Brady said. “He could run, and he could throw. He was everywhere.”
Up 17-13 after the second quarter, the Cardinals seemed positioned to finish strong, especially after GVSU coach Brian Kelly pulled Wojciechowski from the game at halftime after suffering a rib injury.
“I remember Coach Kelly came to me and said, ‘How much of the playbook do you know?,’” Brady said. “I told him, ‘I know all of it,’” and he said, ‘You’re in.’ I said, ‘I know I’m in,’ and he said, ‘No, you’re in at quarterback.’”
Slaggert recalled sensing a pending victory for SVSU when noticing the change behind center.
“Ryan was impressive, and he had a lot of heart, but I was thinking we were in pretty good shape if GVSU is down to their third-string quarterback in the second half,” Slaggert said.
“I thought, ‘Maybe we got this.’”
But Brady went to work. Within the first four minutes of play, he tossed an 11-yard touchdown pass to give GVSU its first lead, 20-17. Five minutes later, his 38-yard touchdown pass pushed the Lakers further ahead, 27-17.
“Right away that second half, I made up my mind that I was going to will us to victory,” Brady said.
A 4-yard touchdown run from LaFleur near the end of the third quarter brought SVSU within striking distance, 27-23. But Brady answered with a 3-yard touchdown run of his own to push GVSU ahead by 10 halfway through the fourth. With more than three minutes left, a LaFleur touchdown pass kept the game close. With the seconds ticking off the clock, though, the “Cardiac Cards” were unable to pull off another comeback.
“That win was a big moment in my collegiate career,” Brady said. “I’ll never forget it.”
With Brady and Wojciechowski splitting time at quarterback, GVSU went on to win in the next round before losing in the championship game.
The following season, GVSU and Brady — playing again primarily as a receiver — won the first of four Division II championships in Lakers football history.
The two programs played each other in memorable games in the years since. In 2003 and 2005, SVSU faced GVSU again in the quarterfinal round of the playoffs, losing both times. Most recently, when Brady returned to GVSU as head coach of SVSU during an October 2019 regular season game, a thrilling Cardinals comeback came up short when the team was stopped from sending the game into overtime while within 1 yard of the end zone as time expired, losing 35-28.
The rich rivalry between SVSU and GVSU football for a time spilled over into an off-the-field contest between the two fan bases. From 2003-18, the “Battle of the Valleys” student-led fundraising competition coincided with the annual football matchup, raising more than $670,000 for nonprofits. SVSU students alone gathered more than $445,000 of that total.
Slaggert, for one, traced the genesis of the intense rivalry back to that afternoon in Allendale 18 years ago, when the play of two dynamic student-athletes became the opening chapter in a storyline still unfolding today.
“How ironic that the two quarterbacks from back then are where they are today — one is coaching for the team he beat as a player and the other has Vince Lombardi’s old job,” Slaggert said.
“What they did that day — what those two teams did — was really the start of something special.”