August 31, 2013 Updated: September 1, 2013 at 4:31 pm
In an instant, Kale Pearson tumbled from No. 1 quarterback to No. 1 question mark.
Pearson was reclining, in obvious pain, on a training table behind the Air Force bench. He had just suffered a right knee injury, possibly severe, and was surrounded by 10 members of Air Force's football staff.
Backup quarterback Jaleel Awini waded through the crowd. He was preparing to run on the field, but wanted to talk with Pearson first.
"I'm going to do it for you, bro," Awini said.
"Go out and do it," Pearson said. "You're ready."
Pearson is correct. Awini is ready. Pearson won the friendly struggle for Air Force's starting quarterback job with an impressive spring and summer campaign.
But Awini, if Pearson is seriously injured, has dangerous talent. Dangerous for opposing defenses, that is. He's the superior passer of the duo, and he's a deceptively quick and elusive runner.
Air Force stomped Colgate, 38-13, continuing its dominance over Football Bowl Subdivision teams, but this game will be remembered for the moment when Pearson collapsed to the fake grass.
On the Falcons' final drive of Saturday's first half, Pearson burst out of the backfield on third and 5, turned the corner and earned a first down. At the end of the run, Colgate's Kris Kent smacked Pearson - hard - in the thigh.
Pearson's right knee buckled. He had to be helped from the field. His season appears in jeopardy.
Coach Troy Calhoun declined to predict how long Pearson will be gone. Calhoun said he expects MRI results Sunday or early Monday.
The MRI might reveal Pearson's injury is not as devastating as it first appeared, but that's not my expectation. His immediate football future looks cloudy. Make that extremely cloudy.
Awini did not have a clear view of the play. He was standing on the sideline, watching the game, expecting to watch most of the season, when he looked out and saw Pearson crumpled on the field.
Air Force athletic director Hans Mueh had a clear view. He felt a sharp, immediate jolt when he saw Pearson's knee twist in the wrong direction.
"There are people who go through 20 years of football without an injury and then there's a play like that, a single play," Mueh said. "It makes you want to cry. It's just so devastating."
For Pearson, the injury could be a devastating end to a promising season. He's a courageous, swift player who battled, and defeated, the odds. He appeared too small to play quarterback, but Pearson didn't care about appearances. He made the improbable happen.
For Awini, the injury could mean an escape from the bench. This escape did not happen the way he wanted, but it's still an escape.
Awini owns a powerful right arm. He's tall enough to search a secondary. And he's versatile. During his senior season at Aurora's Rangeview High, Awini rushed for 1,088 yards and 17 touchdowns to go with 1,259 yards and 23 TDs through the air. He ignored interest from CSU, Indiana and Vanderbilt to attend Air Force.
It's probable the lives of two young men transformed immensely in one sad instant. One moment, Pearson was rambling along on a dazzling football run, showing everyone why he had won a starting job. The next moment, Pearson was writhing in pain, his season in peril.
In the same instant, Awini traveled - for this game, at least - from bench sitter to starter, from observer to leader of Air Force's intricate offense.