Usually it only happens in those novels written for young readers. It is cold and gloomy and all hope seems to be gone, but the good guy who loves his wife and family and country has gone back to try one more long pass against the evil villains who throw bottles and garbage at football officials. The ball sails high and far, 50 yards into the frozen atmosphere, a silly object, it seems, straining to be seen against the feeble lights that glow through the gray Minnesota sky. Now the ball is coming to earth as the scoreboard flickers away the final seconds of the game. There are two men underneath the ball and suddenly one of them slips and falls, and the one who is supposed to catch it and complete the grandest of comebacks and upsets and fairy tales does exactly that. Roger Staubach has thrown a pass to Drew Pearson and the Dallas Cowboys have used up a lifetime of good fortune in a single play to stun the Minnesota Vikings and grasp a victory they had richly deserved all day long.
This has been the year of the men in the striped shirts, the officials, as game after game during the regular season of the National Football League seemed to be decided by a judgment call of one kind or another. And now there is this one in the first round of the playoffs, in which the score will be entered into legend as Dallas 17, Minnesota 14. Did the officials win it for Dallas by letting Drew Pearson push off on the Vikings' Nate Wright before he caught the bomb from Staubach? Earlier, had the officials won it for Minnesota by giving the Vikings the ball after a punt to the Dallas four-yard line which resulted in the cheapest seven points since loaded dice?
That happened way back there in the second quarter of what had been a pounding and vicious defensive game punctuated by the ancient art of punting. It was the biggest play of the day until those desperate closing seconds when Staubach and Pearson got their act together and drove a dagger into the heart of every seed planter on the Minnesota plain.
The Vikings, who had been outplayed the whole way by these surprising Cowboys, had nevertheless managed to put on one gorgeous, sustained drive in the fourth quarter, and with Fran Tarkenton passing and even throwing a block on one occasion, and with Chuck Foreman and Brent McClanahan dancing neatly on the soft natural turf of Metropolitan Stadium, had forged ahead 14-10. Dallas had earned its 10 points—Doug Dennison going in from the four in the third quarter; Toni Fritsch putting up a 24-yard field goal to open the fourth—and Minnesota had earned only seven. But the Vikings led even though they had been outhit and outstatisticked and out-game-planned.
January 5, 1976
When Minnesota's defense then shut off the Cowboys abruptly and its offense used up some more precious time the stadium, with its thousands of Viking fans wearing purple and gold toboggan caps, was an eruption of joy. Tarkenton, who had been so resourceful all season, had somehow brought his team back on an off-day, and the Vikings were surely going to get out of this and then beat the Los Angeles Rams and return to the Super Bowl where the fourth time would finally be a charm. For their part, the Cowboys looked disheartened, finished.
There was now 1:51 left to play and the Cowboys were 85 of the longest yards imaginable from a winning touchdown. Staubach got a little breathing room with a couple of short passes to Drew Pearson, but then Center John Fitzgerald, who now and again had not snapped the ball very deftly from the shotgun formation Dallas often uses in passing situations, gave Roger another low one and the Cowboys had a six-yard loss. Two more passes failed and it was fourth down and 16—fourth down, gang—and the Cowboys were on their own 25. There were 44 seconds remaining.
In the Dallas huddle Staubach muttered something like "Q pattern." Then he fired a 25-yarder to Drew Pearson, who went into the air at the sideline, made the first-down catch and was floated out of bounds by Nate Wright at the same time. The purple toboggans did not like the completion call, believing that Pearson needed to have both feet in bounds and forgetting that a catch is legal if a receiver has the ball and is driven out of bounds before he can find a place to land.
When Drew Pearson went back to the Dallas huddle he told Staubach, "I can beat Wright deep, but give me a chance to catch my breath."
It looked as if the clock might do that for him. There were 37 seconds left now, and the Cowboys were only at midfield. Staubach gave Pearson his rest while firing an incompletion over the middle. Now there were 32 seconds left, and Dallas was still 50 yards away.
There is something to be said for a man who believes in the miraculous. Staubach is such a fellow. In a playoff game three years ago he had thrown two touchdown passes in the last minute and a half to beat the San Francisco 49ers 30-28. Heck, he only had to throw one now.
Tom Landry gave Staubach credit for calling the play. "I was just standing on the sideline feeling very disappointed that we had played so well and were going to lose," the coach said later. "I knew our only chance was to throw one long and hope for a miracle."
In the huddle Staubach said only a couple of words again: "Streak route." Which is what Drew Pearson wanted to hear.
Pearson began the streak down the sideline to his right as Staubach drifted back to set up from the shotgun formation. Nate Wright and Pearson were in a footrace now as the ball went into the air. Pearson looked to be winning the race for a second, but the ball was slightly underthrown and was going to reach its mooring somewhere around the Minnesota five-yard line. Pearson noticed this, but Wright did not. As Pearson pulled up, Wright went in front of him, and only Pearson and Wright will ever know whether there was any pushing off. Wright either slipped, tripped or was pushed to the grass just as Pearson turned and got his hands on the ball at his belt. Pearson felt the ball slip down, wedged it "between my elbow and my hip," and then stepped into the end zone to the accompaniment of the most enormous swell of silence in the history of gatherings of 46,425 wearers of the purple.
No one knew for a matter of seconds that it actually was a touchdown, not even the Cowboys. Everybody saw something orange or red flutter to the ground and thought it was an official's flag—obviously an interference call against either Pearson or Wright.
Even Pearson saw it. "When I looked again, it was a real orange," he said. And what it mostly was, of course, was a real touchdown.
(Could there ever be a bleaker day for Fran Tarkenton? To see victory become defeat so shockingly, and then to learn moments later that his father had suffered a fatal heart attack while watching the game on television at home in Georgia.)
The game's last seconds were as chaotic as the regular season had been so far as the officials were concerned. The Vikings had no possibility of doing much, having to set up from practically beneath their own goalpost. To their credit, what they mainly did was try to plead with their angry fans not to throw things down at the officials, things such as more oranges and a golf ball and whiskey bottles.
Just then a pint whiskey bottle struck the field judge, Armen Terzian, squarely in the forehead and decked him. After learning that his injury was not serious, a few press-box wits were tempted to cut through the drama with humor. Had the bottle been thrown by Carroll Rosen-bloom or Ralph Wilson, the two NFL club owners who were fined $5,000 last Wednesday by Commissioner Pete Rozelle for criticizing the men in the striped shirts?
A more apt question is what really happened on the second-quarter play, the punt that nearly won the game for Minnesota? Neil Clabo's kick was a beauty, and it appeared to be headed for the waiting arms of Dallas Safety Cliff Harris, who was standing on his own four-yard line. Harris decided not to catch the ball, but to let it bounce into the end zone for a touchback.
Instead, the ball bounded crazily to the right of Harris, and a whole pack of Vikings, led by Fred McNeill, were chasing after it for some strange reason—not to kill it but to recover it. And McNeill did. First down Vikings on the Dallas four. A minute later came the easy Minnesota touchdown, with Chuck Foreman leaping over from the one. A television replay seemed to indicate that the ball never touched Cliff Harris. Actually, it did touch another Cowboy, Pat Donovan. This might, however, have been a case of uncalled interference, for the Vikings' Autry Beamon was right in Harris' face mask when Harris was supposed to be allowed an opportunity to field the punt.
Had Dallas lost, the play would have been filed in the 1975 treasury with the Mel Gray pass in the St. Louis-Washington game six weeks earlier and the Mercury Morris fumble or no fumble in the Miami-Buffalo game and several other controversies that have made life so wonderful for the refs and so expensive for some critics.
Upstairs in an owner's box, the Cowboys' Clint Murchison said during half-time, "I've watched the replay several times and I don't see the ball touch anybody." Then he grinned and added, "But whether it did or not, I ain't goin' for the $5,000."
In the bitterness of suddenly being out of the Super Bowl derby, and having lost in the crudest of ways, the Vikings will see what pleases them in the films of the Staubach-to-Pearson touchdown pass. Coach Bud Grant was saying afterward, "Pearson did the right thing, pushing off. He had nothing to lose." And the Cowboys will cherish the heroics of it all—a ball that couldn't be thrown or caught in those circumstances. And a game that couldn't be won, but was.