Don McNeal is a true believer. This is evident not only from the fact that he is currently serving as the children's pastor at New Testament Baptist Church in Miami, but also by the fact that on the morning of January 30, 1983, the former Dolphins cornerback was sure his team could win Super Bowl XVII with David Woodley playing quarterback and John Riggins and The Hogs suiting up for the Washington Redskins.
"Absolutely, we were confident," McNeal says. "We had the Number One defense in the league, we had The Killer B's, we were a tight group, we had a great team."
For a long time, the football gods seemed to reward his faith. Woodley hit Jimmy Cefalo for the game's first touchdown in the first quarter and Fulton Walker returned a kickoff 98 yards for six more in the second. The Dolphins led 17-10 at halftime and 17-13 with a little more than 10 minutes left in the fourth quarter.
Then his faith was tested. Well, not so much tested as run over. You know the play: Washington had the ball, fourth-and-one on the Miami 43-yard line, and the handoff was to Riggins. "Miami called a time out before the play," The Diesel says, "and I remember in the huddle thinking that was funny, because we all knew what was going to happen. I knew, there were 90-some thousand people in the Rose Bowl who knew, there were countless millions across the country who knew, and certainly the 11 men on the other side of the line knew. I was getting the ball."
Ever the theatrical one, Riggins thinks back on the moment now and wishes he'd pointed to the left side of the line before the snap, calling his shot like The Babe back in '32. McNeal's recollections begin more technically. "We were in goal-line defense at that particular time," he recalls. "I was supposed to shadow the receiver in motion, Clint Didier, one-on-one." When Didier reversed his field, McNeal spun to keep pace. He slipped and fell, and then scrambled to recover. "[Didier] was ahead of me just a smidgeon when the ball was snapped, he blocked our defensive end, and I replaced, just the way I'm supposed to." And there was Riggins, ball tucked under his right arm, a full head of steam, and eyes angling for the outside. McNeal, coming from Riggins' right, wrapped the big fella up, but he couldn't hold on. Forty-three yards later, the Redskins had the lead and, as it turned out, the Lombardi Trophy.
It happened fast. McNeal had a shot ... and then he didn't. "I could just feel him sort of sliding off me," Riggins says. "And then all of a sudden it was like, 'Gee, I wonder how far I'm going to get.'" Photographs and footage of the play reveal the cornerback's desperation. His fingers claw at Riggins' jersey just above the waist. He reaches feebly up from the ground like one of the damned in Michelangelo's "Last Judgment." "I got my arms around him, but it wasn't enough," McNeal says. "I got my fingernail caught onto his jersey, but he just ripped it off on his way for the touchdown."
Riggins was running down hill at 6-2, 240 pounds. He looked and felt invulnerable. "It was my time," he says. "I could feel that. I was bouncing on the balls of my feet. It was like I'd had a double-shot of espresso with a little grappa on the side." McNeal was a Lilliputian, just 5-11, 185 pounds, and playing catch-up. "He had a glancing shot at me," Gulliver remembers, "but goddang, if I can't make that play, I don't belong in the NFL!"
It wasn't a fair fight. But in the seconds after Riggins broke free, you could tell McNeal didn't see it that way. He rolled over and sat up on the grass, legs bent with an elbow on each knee, like an old man sitting in a rocker on a stoop, and he watched The Diesel tear off down the road. He didn't look defeated like Ralph Branca at the hands of Bobby Thompson, or dazed like Craig Ehlo after Jordan hit the runner, or terrified like Nate Wright, curled at the feet of Drew Pearson and his Hail Mary. He looked dumbfounded. Genuinely surprised. If he'd had a thought bubble floating over his head it would have read, "Well, I'll be a son-of-a-gun ..."
"I had a chance to make a tackle for a loss and get us off the field," McNeal says. "I feel I can make every play I'm confronted by, and I should have made that play. I tackled him too high. If I make that play, we probably win the game"
Forget that the play was damn near impossible. Forget that it would go exactly the same way 99 times out of 100. And appreciate instead the way McNeal, to this day, rises up to meet the scale of the game and the moment. It's on him. He gives the other side their props - "Riggins and The Hogs were awfully tough that day" - but he doesn't shirk, doesn't shrink.
There've been down times, to be sure. Twenty-three years ago, McNeal sat in the post-game locker room in the Rose Bowl, listening to reporters suggest that Dolphins head coach Don Shula cut him, and feeling utterly lost. And like Lane, he's rehearsed the play mentally a thousand times over the years, looking for clues to what went wrong. "It was tough, it was tough, it was tough," he says. "It hurt me to think on it."
But he's embraced the play, too. He'll tell you how it brought him closer to God, because, with something like an ascetic's clarity, he realized while dangling from Riggins' jersey that he was "alone in the world but never alone in his spiritual life." And he'll show you an artist's rendition of the play hanging on the wall in his office at home, because keeping it in a frame reminds him that the play, although it happened in the Super Bowl, is not, finally, the be-all and end-all. It's written in ink, but it's only one chapter. "I don't want to remember the feeling of Riggins getting away," he says, "but the play is just a part of my life. Just a part. It's what happened, but it doesn't define me. I've got to go ahead on."
In fact, the play's gone from being something that mystified him to being something McNeal now puts to good use. It's become a teaching tool in his classes at the church. How will you deal with difficulty? What will you do in the face of loss?, he asks his students. And when they ask him to watch a clip of his showdown with Riggins, or when he stumbles across it on television, he always watches it through to the end.
"I know it sounds funny," he says, "but you know what I always think? I always think I'm going to make the play. I never do, of course, but I'm optimistic."