In the dream, Dallas Cowboy defensive tackle Leon Lett wraps his arms protectively around the ball and crosses the goal line unmolested. He scores a touchdown and never has to hear Don Beebe say the words, "Leon, can I get you something to drink?"
The last we saw of Lett he was on his knees in the end zone at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 31, with his face in his hands. Now here he is, sitting in Beebe's den, hiding his face again. Beebe, the Buffalo Bill wideout whose previous rendezvous with Lett resulted in the most memorable play of Super Bowl XXVII, is telling his guest how things might have been different.
"See, I was just going to jump on your back," says Beebe. "But then you did that." Beebe points to the television, where a tape is rolling. On the screen Lett is holding the football out like a tray of hors d'oeuvres. "So I went for the ball."
A groan issues forth from behind Lett's hands. To refresh your memory: With Dallas leading 52-17 late in the game, the 6'6", 287-pound Lett picked up a fumble and lumbered 64 yards with it, only to begin his celebration prematurely. Beebe, having sprinted 90 yards in pursuit of Lett, swatted the ball from Lett's hand at the goal line.
In a game from which the suspense had long been drained, this unlikely duo created their own drama, a 14-second morality play on the virtues of hustle and. conversely, the evils of showboating. In the aftermath Beebe received hundreds of letters praising his pluck and grit.
Lett's mail wasn't as heartening. Some of it was creative, such as the package containing the hot dog. Most of the approximately 200 letters he received, however, were from self-pitying losers and bigots. Some wanted Lett to know precisely how much he had cost them in their office pools. Some wished to inform the 24-year-old that he was a "dumb nigger"; those were always unsigned. After reading a few letters Lett threw the rest away. "One guy wrote that if he had lost money because of me, he would have hunted me down and shot me," he says.
But Lett will probably have the last word. In two NFL seasons he has gone from being a seventh-round sleeper out of Emporia (Kans.) State to a major contributor for the Super Bowl champs. Overshadowed by his Super Blunder were the two forced fumbles and the sack of Buffalo quarterback Frank Reich that Lett also racked up in the game. Lett—Big Cat to his teammates—has been called "the best backup in the league" by the Cowboys' former defensive coordinator, Dave Wannstedt.
He is also a hell of a good sport. It is a measure of the equanimity with which Lett has handled the fallout from his fumble that he agreed to let SI fly him to West Palm Beach, Fla., where Beebe spends time during the off-season, for a reunion with his former tormentor. Had he declined, it would have been understandable; Lett has found it all but impossible to lay The Fumble to rest. Immediately after the play, he was met at the sideline by Cowboy head coach Jimmy Johnson, who chewed him out once and hasn't mentioned the gaffe to him since; others have been less kind. Lett was singled out at a Dallas comedy club. "I hear Leon Lett is with us tonight," said the comedian, "but that can't be right. He would have fumbled his car keys."
Dallas tackle Erik Williams cannot resist saying "fumble" under his breath whenever his friend Lett walks past. But Big Cat takes his revenge at clubs and at parties when he introduces Williams to women. "Remember the guy who fumbled right before he was about to score in the Super. Bowl?" Lett will say. "That's him!"
Says Lett, "The only time I came close to losing it was in Amarillo." He plays for the Hoopsters, the Cowboys' traveling charity basketball team. One night last month in Amarillo, Texas, as Lett stepped to the foul line, someone behind the basket screamed, "End zone! End zone!"
Lett missed both free throws. "Almost went after the guy," he says.
To put The Fumble behind him, Lett looks resolutely forward. "I'm focusing on taking care of immediate business," he says. He could only get together with Beebe if the rendezvous were on a Wednesday, the only weekday the Cowboys don't hold conditioning workouts.
Yet for all his determination to look ahead, Lett cannot help but relive the play. "It pops up in my mind at night," he says. "What if I had held the ball a little bit longer? What if I had tucked it up and sprinted all the way in?" Deep breath. Sigh. "I wouldn't be sitting here."
The odd couple meet at a bagel joint near Beebe's condo. They are barely settled into their booth when Beebe says, "A lot of people in Buffalo have said to me, 'I'm glad you knocked the ball out of that guy's hand; he was showboating, rubbing it in our faces." I say. "Wait a second here. The guy's a defensive lineman, he's probably never scored, and here he is about to score a touchdown in his first Super Bowl! You don't know the guy, so you don't know if he's a hot dog.' I tell them, Leon."
"People come up to me in Dallas," Lett replies, "and they say, 'You shoulda knocked that Beebe out.' "
Beebe laughs—a trifle too hard. Eventually the talk turns to their college days. They are alumni, they discover, of two of the nation's more obscure football outposts, Emporia State and Chadron State, in the northwest corner of Nebraska. "How did you end up there!" asks Lett.
"It's kind of a long story," says Beebe. He tells it while they wait for their orders to arrive—French toast for Beebe; scrambled eggs, grits and white toast for Lett.
A three-sport star at Kaneland High in Maple Park, Ill., Beebe accepted a football scholarship to Western Illinois, where he lasted two weeks. "I lost 20 pounds," he tells Lett. "So I just said, 'This is ridiculous.' and left." (Beebe does not mention the role that his acute love-sickness for Diana Beckley, his girlfriend and wife-to-be, played in his decision to bail out.) Beebe went to Aurora (Ill.) University for a year, then spent three years hanging aluminum siding with his brother-in-law.
"Everything was going fine," he says, "but I'm a real religious person, and I felt that God meant for me to give football another shot."
Not one to take such divine suggestion lightly, in the spring of '86, Beebe drove to the Lake Forest, Ill., training camp of the Chicago Bears and requested an audience with Vince Tobin, the club's general manager. Tobin gently explained to Beebe that the Bears couldn't grant a tryout to everyone who walked in off the street. "So that fell through," says Beebe.
Lett nods. Another piece of the Beebe puzzle is falling into place. Asked earlier why he had agreed to the meeting, Lett had answered, "To figure out why this guy was chasing me." Lett had already gathered some intelligence on Beebe. The word from Buffalo strong safety Henry Jones—whose agent, Mike Claiborne, also represents Lett—was that Beebe practices with such intensity that it occasionally ticks off his teammates. The story of the abortive Bear tryout helps to flesh out Beebe's character: Anyone clueless enough to try to talk his way onto an NFL team without so much as a season of college football experience is the kind of person who would sprint 90 yards—after his teammates had already begun walking off the field—to prevent a touchdown in a lost-cause game.
We are beginning to realize that Beebe lacks 1) the ability to go less than full speed and 2) the ability to discern the impossible from the improbable. After being rebuffed by Tobin, Beebe returned to Western Illinois in 1986 and endured another fall camp, only to learn that because of insufficient transfer credits from Aurora, he was ineligible. After a semester at a junior college he transferred back to Western. In the spring of '87, a Dallas Cowboy scout visited the campus to time seniors in the 40. Beebe happened upon them while in his street clothes and asked if he could run. Barefoot, he ran a 4.3.
"Who are you?" asked the scout.
After that season Beebe's NCAA eligibility was used up. He transferred to Chadron State, an NAIA school, where Brad Smith, a former Western Illinois coach, had recently taken the head coaching job. After playing a season at Chadron, Beebe ran a 4.3 for a scout named Bill Giles, who said, "Kid, I gotta get you in the combine." He did. Beebe was the fastest wide receiver in Indianapolis—the fastest player there, other than Deion Sanders. After that, 21 teams sent scouts to Chadron. He was Buffalo's top pick—a third-rounder—in the '89 draft.
"Damn!" says Lett, "I thought I did it the hard way."
He did. Lett grew up in Fairhope, Ala., a quiet burg of 5,000 on Mobile Bay. When he was 16 his father, "a huge man," says Lett, died of heart problems. "That's when I got off the track, as far as school," he says. Lett signed with Auburn but scored a 14 on his ACT exam. He needed a 15 to be admitted. After two seasons at Hinds Junior College in Raymond, Miss., he was wooed by New Mexico State, but he, too, had a problem with transfer credits. Scratch New Mexico State.
A friend of Lett's was playing at Emporia State. An assistant there, Reuben Rice, offered Lett a partial scholarship and soon regretted it. Lett reported at a jiggly 305 pounds and was bench-pressing only about 220. But Lett played his way into shape. After a torrid junior year he injured his right knee and missed his first four games as a senior. He was not invited to any senior all-star games or the scouting combines.
The Cowboys' selection of Lett in the '91 draft came as a complete surprise—not only to Lett, but also to his agent at the time, Mike Racy. Several hours after he was drafted, Lett got a call from Racy. "Heard anything?" the agent asked. "Uh, yeah, Mike," said Lett. "The Cowboys took me in the seventh round."
After spending 11 weeks of his rookie season on injured reserve, Lett was activated in late November for a game against the Washington Redskins. "Before my first play my hand was trembling when I got into my stance," he says. Hoping to fool the rookie, the Redskins ran a counter trap at him, and Lett stuffed running back Earnest Byner after a one-yard gain. By the beginning of last season he was splitting time with Russell Maryland, the overall No. 1 pick in that '91 draft.
Lett's story is a good one. Beebe one-ups him. In the second series of Beebe's NFL career, in a nationally televised game against the Houston Oilers, quarterback Jim Kelly called a play in which Beebe was to run a curl. "If he presses you," Kelly said to Beebe in the huddle, "take him deep." When Houston cornerback Chris Dishman came up to play bump-and-run, Beebe streaked past him and caught a 63-yard touchdown pass.
Having finished their reunion brunch, Beebe and Lett head over to the Beebe residence. Neither man has yet sat down to watch a tape of the Super Bowl, now three months in the past. Beebe, in fact, hasn't watched any of the Bills' three Super Bowl defeats.
Lett is in no hurry to watch himself on TV. Having settled comfortably into Beebe's sofa, he immerses himself in The Price Is Right. "That ol' Bob Barker is still looking pretty good," he says.
To ease the impending sting of the videotape for Lett, they agree not to immediately fast-forward to his fumble. They will first review Lett's Super Bowl highlights...and one minor low. On his first play of the game, Lett draws a 15-yard penalty for roughing Kelly. Beebe insists on reviewing the infraction in slow motion. "I just brushed him," grouses Lett.
"Oh, you could have held up," says Beebe, laughing.
"I know. But, see, I was anxious to hit somebody."
Lett pops up again on Buffalo's next possession. Cowboy defensive end Charles Haley nails Kelly at the Buffalo one, the ball spurts out of Kelly's hands, bounces off Lett's helmet and into the arms of defensive tackle Jimmie Jones, who scores a touchdown. Later, in the second quarter, when Lett forces running back Thurman Thomas to fumble, Jones recovers. Reviewing the play in slow motion, Lett can't hide the resentment in his voice: "I've got my hand on the ball—watch how Jimmie steals it from me."
Midway through the fourth quarter, with the Cowboys leading 52-17, Bill wide receiver Steve Tasker catches a pass from Kelly's backup, Reich. Lett chases the play 20 yards downfield and clubs the ball out of Tasker's arms. "Whoa," says Beebe, "that's a great play."
"Thanks," Lett says. "It was strange out there. Sometimes you go for weeks without seeing the ball up close. Against you guys it was right there, all night."
An understatement, to be sure. Lett's momentous fourth-quarter folly was made possible by Buffalo's ninth turnover—a Super Bowl record. The tape is winding down now toward the last five minutes of the game. On fourth-and-six from the Buffalo 31-yard line, Dallas defensive end Jim Jeffcoat bears down on Reich and strips him of the ball, which lands, literally, at Lett's feet.
Time to pick the scab. "If it's a close game, I'd just fall on it," says Lett. "But it's late in the game, we're blowing them out, so I decided, Why not? All I saw were offensive linemen, and I knew none of those guys was going to catch me." His cockiness would appear to have been well-founded: Lett's best 40 time is 4.7, extraordinarily fast for a down lineman.
The tape rolls relentlessly. With Jones as an escort, Lett takes off for the end zone. Beebe, having run a fly pattern up the left sideline on the play, stops 20 yards downfield, sees Lett scoop up the ball and reflexively gives chase. "At first I thought, There's no way I could catch him," says Beebe. "Then, about right here"—on the screen, Lett is 25 yards from the goal line—"I'm thinking, this guy's a D lineman, maybe I can catch him."
To this point Beebe had been having a so-so game. He had dropped a tough look-in pass in the end zone in the second quarter, then snagged a 40-yard touchdown pass on the last play of the third quarter, putting the Bills, however briefly, within striking distance at 31-17. After his TD, Beebe dropped immediately to one knee for a brief prayer. "You heard my story," he says. "I mean, there's no way I should be here. So each time I get in the end zone, I want to glorify God."
During the off-season Beebe has worked his pursuit of Lett into the standard address he gives to church groups. Says Beebe, "I tell parents, If you bring your kids up right, when they get into a situation like that, they don't have time to think, they just react. If you're brought up right, you react by not quitting, even if the score is 52-17."
Lett absorbs this in respectful silence. The tape continues. Fifteen yards from the goal line, Lett slows. He and Jones are looking inside, over their left shoulders. Meanwhile, Beebe is on the outside, hugging the sideline and closing fast. "Look at that," says Beebe as he blows by Jones. "I was so close. He could have swatted me like a fly."
Despite being undetected by Jones or Lett—who must have been the only two people on the planet who failed to realize what was unfolding—Beebe still had no plan for preventing a touchdown. "I was going to jump on your back," he tells Lett. That wasn't necessary.
At the 12, Lett triumphantly holds the ball out in his right hand.
Watching in disbelief two time zones away was Reuben Rice. On a wall in Rice's office at Emporia State is a framed black-and-white photograph of Lett. In the picture Lett has just recovered a fumble against Carson-Newman in the 1989 NAIA championship game. He is holding it at arm's length. "But this time," says Rice of the Super goof, "he got caught."
As Lett hits the one-yard line, Beebe reaches out with his right hand and swats the ball out of Lett's grasp and out of the end zone. Exhausted and incredulous, Lett drops to his knees while the zebras huddle. "And look at Lett!" NBC's Dick Enberg is shouting on the broadcast, "If they call that a no-touchdown, he's going to dig a hole and crawl out of this place."
"He's going to need a big hole," says analyst Bob Trumpy.
Beebe laughs, then notices that Lett is not amused. "Sorry, Leon," he says.
The officials rule the play a touchback. Buffalo gets the ball back on the 20.
"That would have made it 59-17," proclaims Enberg, and that reminds Beebe of office-pool squares.
"Do you ever get people telling you, 'Hey, you cost me $500, man'? " Beebe asks.
"I had a policeman tell me that," says Lett. "Now I'm scared to get stopped by the Dallas police."
"The worst I got was some guy told me I cost him $20,000," says Beebe.
"Probably the guy that sent me the hot dog," says Lett.
All those 9-7 office-pool-square owners who wrote to him, Lett noticed, tended to think alike. "They all sent me the squares," he says. "It was like they felt I needed to sec them, like it was their receipt or something. One guy told me that thanks to me, he lost the money he was going to use to have a backyard pool put in for his kids. Another guy told me I cost him the $150 he was going to use to take his family on vacation. I'm thinking. Where were you going to take them—the movies?"
The tape winds down. An NBC camera finds Lett smiling on the sideline, but the smile is forced.
After the game his teammates celebrated, but Lett locked himself in his hotel room. When he got home, he wouldn't pick up his phone for two weeks. Big Cat was scared for his job. Ridiculous? Consider that against the Bears on Dec. 27, Cowboy tailback Curvin Richards fumbled twice. Johnson summoned Richards to his office the next day and cut him. Merry Christmas to you, too, Coach. Lett's teammates had to persuade him to attend the victory parade thrown by the city of Dallas.
Johnson, in his mercy, spared Lett...this time. Some time after the Super Bowl, Johnson playfully told reporters, "Leon is extremely fortunate it was the last game of the season and we won, so I won't cut him."
Lett figures Johnson was trying to put a good scare in him. "It worked," he says.
After a dozen replays Beebe and Lett decide they've seen enough. While Beebe goes upstairs to change into his golf duds—he had invited Lett to play a round, but Big Cat isn't a golfer—Lett seizes the remote control. He fast-forwards to the game's final play, in which he sacks Reich.
"There," says Lett. "Now I feel better."
Out in the driveway the two men shake hands. They part company after promising to look one another up this September, when the Cowboys host the Bills. And of this you can be sure: If Lett gets his hands on the ball in Texas Stadium that afternoon, he'll be looking over his shoulder.