It was just one catch a long time ago, but as it is with a pebble dropping into a pond, the ripples seem to go on forever. Percy Howard remembers it as a fire-slant-24-A-side-line. Lining up at wide receiver on the left side, he was to run at the cornerback and accelerate past him, then head for the end zone and look for quarterback Roger Staubach's pass.
Well, he beat the cornerback, Mel Blount of the Pittsburgh Steelers, which was a feat in itself. And when he looked up for the pass, it was there. Howard caught the ball, cradled it as if it were an egg and fell backward on pay dirt, with his legs sticking up like a pair of scissors. In fact, that's about all you can see in replays of the catch, just a pair of legs pointing in the air.
There's a first catch for almost every wide receiver who makes it to the NFL, and there are a number of instances of receivers' breaking their maidens in the end zone. Howard's 4 first catch, though, was unique for several reasons. He made it in the Super Bowl. His 34-yard reception brought the Dallas Cowboys, who were trailing the Steelers 21-10 in Super Bowl X in Miami with less than three minutes remaining, back from the brink. The catch was a key ingredient in what many people consider one of the few outstanding Super Bowls. The TD also had special significance to millions of bettors—Pittsburgh was favored by 6½ points, so by making the final score 21-17, Dallas beat the spread.
But the strangest thing about Howard's first catch, on Jan. 18,1976, is that it was also his last.
Fifteen years later, on a gray day in mid-December, the sound man for a jazz band is unloading equipment in front of Champagne, a nightclub in north Dallas. A stranger asks him if the manager of the place, Percy Howard, is around. The sound man looks puzzled. "Percy Howard?" he says. "You don't mean the wide receiver for the Cowboys, do you?"
Yes, he does. A few minutes later, Howard arrives at the club. "People remember," he says. "In away, that one catch keeps me alive."
Howard still looks as though he should be playing. Athletes often gain weight after their playing days, but the 6'4" Howard was never really a football player per se. The Cowboys signed him out of Austin Peay, where he was a starter on a basketball team that included legendary shooter Fly Williams. That Super Bowl catch actually was Howard's first official reception since he had played football for Fort Lauderdale's Dillard High.
Back in the 1960s and '70s, the Cowboys occasionally took a flyer on a basketball player. Their former All-Pro defensive back, Cornell Green, for instance, also never played college football. Says Gil Brandt, Dallas's player-personnel director from 1960 to '88, "We used to host a cocktail party at the NCAA basketball tournament and solicit opinions from coaches as to which of their players might make good football players. That's how we heard about Percy."
The Cowboys didn't take Howard in the 1975 draft, but they did dispatch Green, who scouted for the Cowboys in the off-season, to Austin Peay, in Clarksville, Tenn., to work him out. Green came back with a glowing report, and Howard signed with Dallas instead of waiting to see if he would be selected in the NBA draft. While at Austin Peay, Howard had met and married Pat Menifield, a Miss Tennessee runner-up.
"All during that first training camp, I never had any doubts Percy would make the team," says Pat. "In retrospect, that seems kind of silly, considering how many receivers were in camp, and how little football Percy had played. But he was that good of an athlete." Pat says that Duane Thomas, the enigmatic running back with whom the Howards became friendly, once told her that Percy was the greatest athlete he had ever seen. Indeed, Howard set speed and agility marks that no Cowboy matched until Tony Dorsett came along a few years later.
Howard made the team as a receiver and return specialist. But in the first preseason game, while returning a kick against the Los Angeles Rams, his cheekbone was fractured when one of his teammates knocked a defender into his path just as he was speeding toward a hole. The injury set back Howard several weeks, and it also served as something of a harbinger for his career. No sooner would something good happen to him than something bad would follow.
Howard played mostly on the special teams during Dallas's 10-4 campaign in '75. He was a backup to both Golden Richards and Drew Pearson, and although the receivers coach, a guy named Mike Ditka, kept pushing head coach Tom Landry to use Howard more, Landry stuck with Richards and Pearson. Super Bowl X was something of a homecoming for Howard because the Cowboys were encamped in Fort Lauderdale. In fact, when the Dallas charter landed at the airport, the Dillard High marching band was there to greet him. "That was something," says Pat. "They were there for Percy, who had never caught a pass. He took a lot of ribbing for that."
Then came the day of the game. "Do you know what else I remember about that day, besides the catch?" says Howard. "I remember me and [backup quarterback] Clint Longley putting on a show in pregame. He had that great arm, remember?" Howard figured those would be the only passes he would catch all day.
The Cowboys scored 10 points early, but the offense was shut down after that, thanks in part to the terrible beating Richards was getting at the hands of the Pittsburgh secondary. "Watching from the stands," says Pat, "I had the same feeling I had during training camp. I just knew Percy would get into the game."
Dallas still led 10-7 after three quarters, but when the Steelers exploded for 14 points (a safety, two field goals and a touchdown, with a missed extra point) to go ahead 21-10, Howard was brought in to replace Richards. On one of his first routes upon entering the game, Howard thought he had gotten by Blount, but Staubach didn't see him. "On my way back to the huddle," says Howard. "Blount said to me, 'Why don't you tell him to go to you if you think you can beat me?' I told Roger I thought I could, and he relayed the message to Landry."
So with about two minutes left, Landry sent in fire-slant-24-A-sideline. Staubach didn't give it a second thought. "We had worked together all year," says Staubach. "I knew the Bird could do it. That's what we called Percy, you know, the Bird."
Howard began his route at a canter to make Blount think he was out of the play. "I stayed real close to him so that when I did make my move, he would have to pivot around to keep up with me," says Howard. "When I went by him, I saw his eyes, and they were this big." Howard, who loves reliving the play, forms two large O's with his hands. Blount never caught up with Howard, who was wide open in the end zone when Staubach's pass arrived.
Dallas got the ball back one more time, and Howard got one more chance to be a hero. With 12 seconds to go and the ball on the Pittsburgh 38, Staubach threw a Hail Mary pass in the general direction of Howard, who was in the right corner of the end zone. Howard, however, had three Steelers on him, and when he leaped to make the catch, the ball was tipped away. "Roger used to kid me that I jumped a fraction of a second too late," says Howard, "and I would tell him he threw it a fraction of a second too early."
"Had Percy caught it," says Staubach, "he would have been a legend."
As it was, Howard became something of a minihero in Dallas. He was surprised to find the fans shouting his name as he got off the plane that brought the Cowboys home that night. "I remember Gil Brandt tapping me on the shoulder after we got off the plane and saying, 'Now go out and become a star,' " Howard says.
The Cowboys got some measure of revenge on the Steelers in the off-season, when they traveled to Pittsburgh for a benefit basketball game. "This time," says ( Howard, "they were on my court." Howard says he scored more than 60 points to lead the Cowboys' rout.
The fates seemed to play a different sort of game with Percy, though. One month after the Super Bowl, the Howards' house in suburban Garland burned to the ground in a fire that started in the utility room. Howard was the only one home at the time. "All I could think about saving was this big TV we had just bought," he says. "Afterward, I would have gladly traded it for some clothes."
Thanks to a call from a prominent Cowboy booster, the insurance company settled the claim quickly and the Howards, with their two-year-old daughter, built another house on the same site in Garland. Percy was a budding star, Pat was writing some free-lance articles on the Cowboys, and they seemingly had the whole field in front of them. But in a 1976 preseason game against the Denver Broncos, Percy severely injured his right knee while running a reverse. He spent the rest of the season rehabilitating the knee, only to have it give way again during a practice in the 77 training camp.
"I remember lying there on the ground, and looking down at me, like he was a figment of my imagination, was Coach Landry," says Howard. "A few minutes later, when I was being looked at in the trainer's room, the coach came over and said, 'You looked scared out there. Don't worry. You've got a long road ahead of you, but we're right there with you.' "
He also missed the entire '77 season, but he accompanied the Cowboys to New Orleans for Super Bowl XII. One night during Super Bowl week, he and some other players were caught breaking curfew. "In the meeting the next day, they said I was fined $250," Howard says. "Heck, I was so thrilled they still considered me part of the team that I would have gladly paid them $500."
However, the knee never did come back, and in 1978, Dallas released Howard. "I truly believe that if Percy hadn't gotten injured," says Brandt, "he would have become All-Pro."
After his football career, Howard, who had a background in the martial arts, trained to become a heavyweight boxer. That didn't work out because of his injured knee, and Howard went through a series of jobs, including one as a cutlery salesman, before he became an investigator for a security company. Eventually, Howard became a private detective.
"I've been shot at, run off the road, and I've had my share of fights," he says. "My football background came in handy one time. I had to follow this guy in my car, and when he went into this bar, I went in, too. I guess I had gotten a little careless, because while I'm playing this video game, he comes up and says, 'You've been following me.' He had his buddies with him, and they were all pretty big. I said, 'Why would I be following you? I just came in for a drink. See this ring? It's a Super Bowl ring. My name is Percy Howard, and I used to play for the Cowboys.' Well, they recognized the name, and pretty soon, we're shooting the breeze about football and my Super Bowl catch."
Ah, the catch. Most people would consider it a great blessing. Percy certainly does. Pat, on the other hand, considers it a curse. "In a way, it was the worst thing that could have happened," she says. "Percy got the big head after that, and he could never come to grips with reality. Believe me, he was a different person before the catch. It reminds me of Santiago's catch in The Old Man and the Sea. It was a great feat, but by the time he has brought the catch to shore, it has been eaten by other fish, and all he has left are bones."
Pat resents the fact that Percy's jobs after football took him further and further away from her and their three children: Pamela, now 17; Philip, 14; and Petey, 9. And she is disappointed that she wasn't able to complete her work toward a master's degree that she started in '78. She is constantly reminded in her classrooms—she teaches 11th-grade English—that she is the wife of Percy Howard. Says Pat, "I'll be talking to the kids about The Scarlet Letter or Huck Finn or nouns and verbs, when some student will suddenly pipe up, 'What's your husband's number?' "
They are no longer husband and wife. Last January they were divorced after 17 years of marriage. Percy was a manager at a nightclub, R.J.'s, in north Dallas at the time, which didn't sit well with Pat, who is a devout Christian. The irony is not lost on Pat that Percy, who never really tasted the champagne of victory, is now running a nightclub called Champagne.
Percy does not seem to be the champagne type, however. An outsider would be impressed by the sobriety with which he runs the club, which caters to an upscale, predominantly black clientele. He is remembered by his teammates as being a very nice guy, and apparently nothing has changed in that regard. It's just that once you catch a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl, life is never the same.
"You know," Howard says. "I often wonder what would have happened if I had caught that Hail Mar)' pass from Roger, and we had won the game."
But then, what if he hadn't caught even the one pass for a touchdown?