- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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It was only a three-yard touchdown reception, not particularly difficult, but the man who made it still gets stopped by strangers who ask him to autograph photos of the catch. The entire play took only five seconds -- five seconds out of a 14-year career -- but it's his signature moment.
"A goof play," John "Jumbo" Elliott called it.
Maybe so, but when a 320-pound offensive lineman named Jumbo makes a juggling catch in the end zone in one of the most memorable games of the decade, it becomes a goof for the ages.
Elliott's improbable touchdown will be part of a halftime celebration Monday night at New Meadowlands Stadium, where the New York Jets will commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the "Monday Night Miracle" -- their historic comeback over the Miami Dolphins. More than 20 former players will be in attendance to remember the night they did the impossible.
On Oct. 23, 2000 (and Oct. 24), the Jets refused to say "uncle," rallying from a 30-7 deficit in the fourth quarter to win in overtime, 40-37. It ended at 1:20 a.m. in a half-empty stadium, and many of those in attendance had returned after leaving at halftime.
There were so many memorable plays and performances that fueled the biggest comeback in Jets history, from Vinny Testaverde's five touchdown passes to Marcus Coleman's two interceptions in overtime, but Elliott's touchdown is the highlight. It epitomized the night because it was unexpected and suspenseful. It was a bobbling, falling-down catch that seemed to unfold in slow motion.
It's a vintage moment that lives on like bottles of vintage wine. A diagrammed image of the catch appears on labels of the Jets' own commemorative wine. Maybe they should call it Cabernet Savin'thegame.
The play still makes Elliott laugh. Seated at a table at a Dunkin' Donuts in Lake Grove, N.Y., one of two franchises he owns near his Long Island home, he went back to 2000, half-joking that he almost locked up with fear once he realized he was the primary receiver on the play.
Elliott was a backup lineman at that stage of his career, after he won a Super Bowl with the New York Giants. His back was aching ("I needed WD-40 to get into the huddle," he said), and he knew he was no longer the same player who dominated Buffalo Bills great Bruce Smith in Super Bowl XXV. But with the Jets down by a touchdown in the final minute of regulation, he was sent in as a tackle-eligible.
"I get into my stance and I realize, 'Holy you-know-what, this thing is coming to me first,'" Elliott said, laughing so loudly that customers looked over. "My second thought is, 'Vinny, please throw it somewhere else.'''
Like all linemen, Elliott's hands were heavily taped that night. He could barely move his thumbs, and he was worried that he was going to drop the ball and ruin one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history. And he almost did.
"Vinny laid it in there about as well as he could for me, and I caught it several times," he said, laughing again. "I think I was the leading receiver that night."
There was a replay review and, when the call was upheld, Elliott's big, happy face appeared on the JumboTron. Teammates still say his goofy expression is just as memorable as the touchdown.
"If things turned out the other way -- thanks goodness it didn't -- it would've been heartbreaking," Elliott said. "The guys battled back and put in all that time, all that effort. To mess up a little gizmo play like that, yeah, that would've been pretty brutal."
It was the first and last catch of Elliott's career. On TV, comedian-turned-analyst Dennis Miller cracked that the Jets "had their hands team in" and that opposing defenses "couldn't keep him down forever."
Elliott is amazed that the catch still is a big deal to fans 10 years later. Just recently, his daughter saw a replay on TV, and she made fun of him because of the wide-eyed look on his face.
"I have tons of pictures from over the years. Different angles, too," said Elliott, who lives a quiet life on Long Island and doesn't make many public appearances. "A lot of people come up to me with it or send it. I've had people ring my doorbell. That play, in particular, is a favorite without a doubt. It's kind of a neat thing. It was like a capping to my career at that point."
Elliott felt guilty for receiving a game ball because he was a self-described cheerleader for most of the night, exhorting his teammates to keep their hearts in the game when all seemed lost. The players didn't draw much inspiration from coach Al Groh, who they disliked, so they lifted each other. They turned a laugher into a classic, scoring 30 points in the fourth quarter without the benefit of a single Miami turnover.
"The impressive thing about that night was the guys kept fighting, because I was on a team with the Jets that was different," he said, alluding to the Rich Kotite-coached team from '96, which finished 1-15. "There were some good players on that team, but that team lacked discipline, lacked a lot of things. I saw that team fold, just totally give it up."
There was none of that on Oct. 23, 2000.
Elliott paused a moment, smiling. His mind raced back to the post-touchdown celebration.
"I remember Vinny trying to pick me up," he said. "He's pretty strong because he lifted me about a foot off the ground."
In some ways, Elliot hasn't come down.
1dEric D. Williams