Continuing with our list of the great moments of football in the 1970s, part of the time period in which A COACH AT HEART takes place.
10. Some moments are so great, they become bigger than themselves, like when they spawn a new entry into the lexicon of sport. One example was a 1975 NFC playoff game between Dallas and Minnesota. The two franchises were at their pinnacle, with Super Bowl appearances sprinkled throughout the decade, and the game was described as a physically brutal battle. The Cowboys took possession of the ball with a bit under two minutes left in the fourth quarter, down 14-10, and worked their way to the 50-yard line. That’s thanks, in large part, to a completion from QB Roger Staubach to WR Drew Pearson on fourth down and 16 yards to go. A controversial connection, it was, for Vikings fans thought Pearson caught the ball out of bounds. Well, with half a minute left, Staubach dropped back to pass, pumped left and arched a bomb toward the right sideline, where Pearson was able to snag the ball away from CB Nate Wright and backpedal five yards into the end zone. Staubach, raised a Catholic, later told reporters, apparently in jest, that he said a “Hail Mary” as he was being knocked down by the Vikings’ pass rush. Thus, the term “Hail Mary pass” was born and will forever be used in connection with a last-second desperation heave to the end zone in a close game. The Cowboys made it to one of the more memorable Super Bowls of the time, and the Vikings made it the next season. In a 2010 interview with the Dallas Morning News, Pearson said he still hears about the play all the time. Here is a video from the NFL website.
9. Nothing is quite so exhilarating as the completion of a quest, and for Stanford QB Jim Plunkett, WR Randy Vataha, S Jack Schultz and other seniors, the 1971 Rose Bowl signified the end of a job well-done. Then known as the Indians, football was an after-thought on The Farm when they showed up in Palo Alto. But in 1968, head coach John Ralston and his assistants reconfigured their offense to emphasize the pass and, after first considering making Plunkett a defensive end, handed him the ball and told him to throw it. That first year saw the win total climb from five to six, and the next year added one more victory and, as detailed in A COACH AT HEART, a devastating setback to delay a Rose Bowl appearance by another year. In 1970, it all came together, and the team spent Jan. 1, 1971 in Pasadena. The opponent, Ohio State, undefeated and filled with veterans who had won a national championship a couple of years earlier. But when the game was on the line, the Indians were able to move the ball through the air and the Buckeyes were not, and Stanford’s 27-17 victory was considered one of the sport’s great upsets. The Indians came back to beat Michigan, also undefeated, the next year. Both games are recounted in A COACH AT HEART.
8. You knew what was coming when the Buffalo Bills had the ball in 1973, because they had the Juice and the Electric Company. Until that year, the single-season record for rushing in the NFL was set by Jim Brown in 1963, at 1,863 yards. Ten years later, the offensive line known at the Electric Company paved the way for the first-ever 2,000-yard season by a running back, with Reggie McKenzie, Dave Foley, Mike Montler, Joe DeLamielleure and Donnie Green opening holes for the Juice — O.J. Simpson. In the 40 years or so since, only six other 2,000-yard seasons have been recorded.
7. Unit nicknames must have been big in the 1970s, because you not only had the Electric Company, but the Vikings front four that knocked Staubach down was the Purple People-Eaters. Yet another group lifted one of the worst franchises in all the NFL from decades of mediocrity into a fearsome bunch that would go on to win four Super Bowls in six years. The defense featured four future members enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame — Mel Blount, “Mean” Joe Greene, Jack Ham and Jack Lambert. They played for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and were fittingly named “The Steel Curtain.”
6. “Johnny Football” couldn’t do it, and neither could Robert Griffin III, Tim Tebow or other Heisman Trophy winners who were underclassmen. Florida State QB Jameis Winston will try, and based on his performance in the Seminoles’ 37-31 season-opening win over Oklahoma State, he has as good a shot as anyone of matching a feat that has happened only once — receiving the award for being college football’s best player twice. The only one to do it was also named Griffin, this one being Archie. In an era in which freshmen were only beginning to play on a regular basis, Griffin hit the national radar in 1972 with 872 rushing yards and nearly doubled it to 1,577 the next season, when he finished fifth in Heisman voting. He upped the total to 1,695 in 1974 to win his first Heisman, averaging an eye-popping 6.6 yards per carry. The next year, his total was 1,450 and 5.5 ypc. He more than doubled the vote total, and number of first-place votes, of his closest competitor each year. Winston might do it.
5. We college football fans are now prone to yawning whenever someone uses the term “Game of the Century.” Yeah, yeah, heard it before. But in 1971, such a matchup actually delivered. It was Nebraska-Oklahoma. No. 1 vs. No. 2 in an era when traditional rivalries actually meant something — this realignment stuff has devastated this part of football, BTW. The Cornhuskers were defending national champions with a stiff defense that was yielding only one or two scores a game — no “contests” had even been close. The Sooners had topped 40 points seven times. The teams traded the lead several times, with the Sooners twice overcoming 11-point deficits. But it was the ‘huskers who prevailed in the end, scoring in a 12-play drive with 1:38 remaining to win 35-31. Both teams easily won their bowl game, and the Cornhuskers won a second straight national title. Here’s a link to a highlight video.
4. Just this past week, CBS won the weekly network ratings battle in part because it aired the Pittsburgh-Baltimore game. It helped that the contest was coming on the heels of the Ray Rice fiasco. But there was a time when pro football wasn’t such a prime time fixture. It took Monday Night Football to change all that. On Sept. 21, 1970, the first MNF contest was aired, with Keith Jackson on play-by-play and commentary by Don Meredith and Howard Cosell. Americans were entertained by Meredith, a former Cowboys quarterback, singing “Turn out the lights, the party’s over” when games got out of hand in the fourth quarter. For years, people jokingly said viewers angered by a preposterous remark by Cosell would throw a brick at their TV screens. It should be noted that the first MNF game, in which the Browns defeated the Jets, was not the first prime time pro football game. Both CBS and NBC aired a handful of NFL and AFL contests on Monday nights in the late 1960s, but MNF was the first regularly programmed series of games. Among the standout moments: Tony Dorsett bursting for a 99-yard touchdown run against the Vikings n 1983, the Packers-Seahawks “Fail Mary” play in 2012, Redskins QB Joe Theismann breaking his leg in 1985, the Saints post-Katrina return to New Orleans in 2006. All thanks to MNF. Here’s a link to a video of the opening of that first game (check out the hilarious porn-ish sound track!)
3. One of the great, and as A COACH AT HEART main character George Steele could tell you, frustrating things about football is how fortune can change on a dime. If it happens in the first quarter, no one remembers, right? In the fourth quarter, it’s a huge deal. A shocking turnaround on the last play? In a playoff game? Historic. Even more so when you have an upstart taking down a traditional power. This is what happened a few days before Christmas in 1972 when the Raiders, long an AFL and now AFC championship contender, went to ice-bound Pittsburgh, where the Steelers were a perennial doormat. When Raiders QB Ken Stabler, as detailed in A COACH AT HEART, scrambled for a late touchdown to put Oakland up 7-6, it seemed like fans in the Steel City would take their lumps and go home, pleased with the improvement of the team. But fate would shine on them and bring a turning point that led to years of Steelers dominance and their status today as one of the league’s top franchises. Facing fourth down, with the clock winding down and the ball at his own 40, QB Terry Bradshaw dropped back to pass, eluded a pass rush and fired to receiver John “Frenchy” Fuqua. Ferocious Raiders safety Jack Tatum leveled the intended receiver, and the ball ricocheted straight to RB Franco Harris, who took the ball and skipped down the sideline for a game-winning touchdown — in what became known as the “Immaculate Reception.” The Raiders arguments that the ball bounced from one Steeler to another, making it an illegal touch, was rejected by the referees. The Steelers had to wait a couple of years before going on their run of Super Bowl victories, but there is no question that fortune shined on them that game, even if for just a few seconds. Here’s a link to the TV broadcast of the play.
2. The weird thing about the Dolphins undefeated season is you could arguably name several teams since that were better, but failed to win every game. Start with the 2007 Patriots, who bested their opponent all the way up to the Super Bowl, only to lose to the Giants. No question those Dolphins were a dominant club, though. They led the NFL in offense and defense, and played only four regular season games that were particularly close. The won by two-touchdown margins in six of their last eight regular season games. In the playoffs, they beat Cleveland 20-14 and Pittsburgh 21-17. In one of the most dull Super Bowls ever — other than K Garo Ypremian trying to pass for a two-point conversion — they topped the Redskins 14-7. Now teams have to win 19 games to go undefeated, which is even harder to do, as the poor Patriots discovered.
1. Competition certainly brings out the best in people and organizations, but so can peace. And with the National Football League now the dominant force in the American sports scene, and life in general, you have to point to the merger of the NFL with the American Football League as the moment the gargantuan was spawned. In 1970, pro football was decidedly third in popularity behind Major League Baseball and college football. Even a major boxing match would have drawn far more interest than an NFL game back then. But since, the franchises and front office with commissioners Pete Rozelle and Paul Tagliabue built the game of professional football to one in which fans will plan their lives around. People out west will skip church to view a morning game. Fanatics spend hours researching players and defenses for their fantasy leagues. It matters not that the Super Bowl is the most vastly over-rated annual event in the world. The NFL now thinks it can get the biggest of all musical acts to pay for the right to perform at halftime. All this became possible because the NFL and AFL agreed to join forces, and not wage a bloody fight.
There you have it. The order is the author’s, and you can certainly argue placement. The point is, there were some amazing events in football during this time period, and they have shaped the game that we watch, enjoy, and geek-out over each fall weekend.