Pisarcik eager to set record straight; others aren't
Thirty years later, it's still unclear what exactly triggered the Miracle at the Meadowlands. Why? Because many of the principals involved still aren't talking, writes Greg Garber.
- AP Photo/BurnettLeading the Eagles 17-12 in the waning seconds on Nov. 19, 1978, the Giants decided to run a play instead of taking a knee. The ensuing Joe Pisarcik fumble led to one of the most improbable outcomes in NFL history.John McVay, wrestling with a fresh batch of chlorine on the deck of his pool, asks for a moment. He won five Super Bowl rings as a leading executive with the San Francisco 49ers, but these days he is primarily a grandfather and, sometimes, the pool boy at his home outside Sacramento.
Thirty years ago, on Nov. 19, 1978, McVay was the head coach of the New York Giants when they suffered one of the worst late-game collapses in the history of sport against the Philadelphia Eagles. Depending on your perspective, it was The Miracle at the Meadowlands, or, simply, The Fumble.
McVay listens politely to an interview request for a television feature that will revisit the infamous play. And then he laughs.
"I closed the book on that chapter 30 years ago," he says, cordial but measured. "I have never discussed it with the media, then or since -- nor am I inclined to do it now."
Such is the power of the "Miracle" that, as the Eagles prepare to face the Giants on Sunday, one of the most successful men in the history of the NFL won't talk about that single play in an otherwise nondescript regular-season game three decades ago.
"It was a miracle, it was a flat-out miracle," explained Ron Jaworski, the Eagles' quarterback that day, "because all they had to do was take a knee."
Joe Pisarcik, then the Giants' quarterback, hears about it almost every week of his life.
"Yeah," he said, "it's like, 'You were involved with that play. You were the guy who fumbled the ball.'"
Yeah. That guy.
"It was shock when it happened," said Dick Vermeil, who was the Eagles' head coach, "and it's lasted forever."
The Eagles (6-5) and the Giants (5-6, losers of three straight) met at the New Jersey Meadowlands well entrenched in the NFL's pack of mediocre teams. Pisarcik, in his second year as the starter, had thrown two touchdown passes and the Giants were leading 17-12 when Jaworski threw his third interception of the game, to rookie defensive back Odis McKinney. There were less than two minutes left and the Eagles had no timeouts.
"We ran out onto the field, and I wanted to fall on the ball three times and go home," Pisarcik remembered. "Let's go have a cold one. It's Miller time."
With no direction from the sideline, Pisarcik took a knee 3 yards behind his center, Jim Clack, and was touched down roughly by the frustrated Eagles; there was no automatic kneel-down in those days. The Giants, taking exception, pushed and shoved their Eagles counterparts.
What happened next remains a subject of intense conjecture. Some Eagles maintain that the Giants, unhappy with the aggressive play of defenders Frank LeMaster and Bill Bergey, who knocked Clack into Pisarcik, called a running play so the offensive line could tee off on the Eagles.
Several years ago, at the 80th birthday party for Giants patriarch Wellington Mara, Pisarcik learned there might have been another reason for the ill-advised play call by offensive coordinator Bob Gibson. Jim Galat, then a Giants defensive assistant, approached Pisarcik and, according to Pisarcik, told him the following story:
"You ran out there and fell on the ball, and I turned to Gibby and said, 'Hey, that's not a bad idea. Just fall on the ball.'
"Bob said, 'Hey, I'll call the plays here, not you. Don't worry about it.'"
If that exchange occurred -- and, in the historic context of friction between offenses and defenses, it rings true -- it sheds some light on Gibson's motivation. Was The Fumble ultimately born of a coach's stubbornly exercising his authority?
"Yes," Pisarcik said, nodding his head. "Very much so."
The call -- Pro 65 Up -- came down from Gibson, who had recently taken to calling plays from the press box. Wide receiver Jimmy Robinson carried the play, an off-tackle run by fullback Larry Csonka, in to Pisarcik.
Giants players urged Pisarcik to ignore the call and again fall on the ball. But because he had been reprimanded by Gibson for changing a call in the huddle one week earlier, Pisarcik called the play and Csonka gained 11 yards off left tackle.
And then, with 31 seconds on the clock in what should have been the game's final play, the Giants ran the same play again from their own 29-yard-line. Clack, seeing the play clock winding down, snapped the ball before Pisarcik expected it, and it glanced off the quarterback's forearm before he collected it.
The Eagles, meanwhile, were playing to the last whistle. Defensive coordinator Marion Campbell called an all-out blitz. One of those defenders charging across the line of scrimmage was Herman Edwards, an undrafted free-agent cornerback who had been beaten by one of Pisarcik's scoring passes.
Here, from Pisarcik's perspective, is what happened next:
"I was turning, handing off to Larry and ... he is there a little bit quick; he takes a quick angle and he should have bellied a little bit more. I hit the ball on his hip a little bit. I jump to try and fall on the ball, and it jumped between my two hands."
Csonka, one of the Giants who argued for a kneel-down, reportedly told Pisarcik as the huddle broke that he wouldn't take the ball if it was handed to him. Pisarcik, apparently, didn't hear him.
Based in Ohio, where he is a hunting and fishing enthusiast, Csonka declined to be interviewed for this story.[+] EnlargeJohn Rieger/US PresswireHerm Edwards, today the coach of the Chiefs, was the chief beneficiary of the Giants' infamous blunder.
The ball bounced high enough for Edwards, who swept past unaware Giants halfback Doug Kotar, to gather it in without breaking stride.
"Once the ball hits the ground my mindset was, 'If I can get it on the bounce I've got a chance to score,'" said Edwards, today the head coach of the Kansas City Chiefs. "I remember picking up the ball and when I started running it felt like everything was in slow motion.
"I was fortunate enough to scoop it and score, and after that Giants Stadium got real quiet."
Incredibly, unfathomably, the Giants lost 19-17.
Harry Carson, the Hall of Fame linebacker, was sitting on the Giants' bench when the Eagles players sprinted to the end zone and engulfed Edwards. Carson didn't see the play; like most of the Giants defenders, he already was savoring a hard-fought victory.
"All the players, all the coaches were in shock," remembered Carson. "You're thinking, 'This is a sorry-ass [expletive] team. You can't even win when you have this opportunity to win.'"
Carson, while the stadium emptied and the players returned to the locker rooms, sat on the bench, not saying a word, for more than 10 minutes.
Pisarcik immediately became a symbol of extreme ineptitude in the crucible of crunch time. Over the years, he would be seen as synonymous with Bill Buckner and Chris Webber and Leon Lett. But, clearly, Gibson's decision to run the ball was the greatest factor in the disaster. Gibson reportedly was worried about the rough contact on his quarterback and, as an old-school coach, believed that taking a knee bordered on unsportsmanlike.
"I am ready to accept whatever responsibility that goes with it," Pisarcik said. "Or Larry. But the play should have never been called, obviously."
The Giants fired Gibson after the game, and he never called another play in the NFL. Reached recently at his home in Florida by ESPN producer Chris Bloxom, Gibson declined an interview request, saying, "I haven't talked about it in 30 years, and I am not going to start now."
Almost immediately, winning teams changed the way they handled the ball at the end of close games. The so-called Miracle at the Meadowlands was the origin of today's Victory Formation.
"I think it's embedded a memory in every coach that you don't take something like that for granted," Vermeil said. "You don't assume anything."
"I can remember the next week had a guy back there just in case something happened," Edwards said. "Even now, that's one of the formations we walk through on Saturday."
Instead of going 8-8 that season, the Eagles eventually finished 9-7 and made the playoffs. Two seasons later, they reached the Super Bowl (January 1981). The Giants cleaned house after the season -- McVay's contract expired -- paving the way for the hiring of general manager George Young, who drafted Phil Simms and Lawrence Taylor and promoted Bill Parcells to head coach. Ultimately, the Giants won two Super Bowls under Young's guidance.
Oddly, with the exception of Gibson, most people involved in the "Miracle" went on to success in their chosen careers. McVay, Vermeil and Edwards all made their mark in the NFL. To this day, the play resonates; if you know your way around the Internet, you can find a 16x20 photo of the play -- Pisarcik prone and the football hanging tantalizingly in the air, awaiting the arrival of Edwards -- signed by both men for $199.
Pisarcik was traded to the Eagles after the 1979 season and was part of Philadelphia's run to Super Bowl XV. Today, he remains a close friend of Jaworski's and is a mortgage broker for ICAP, the largest interdealer brokerage firm in the world. Pisarcik, the president of the Philadelphia chapter of NFL alumni, plays golf with Jaworski 15 to 20 times a year in the offseason.
"You see strangers, and it's Joe Pisarcik and Jaws, and people say 'Oh, I remember the Miracle at the Meadowlands,'" Jaworski said. "I mean, Joe can't avoid it. No matter where he goes, it's the one play that defined his career, and it's sad because he was an incredibly talented player."
Said Pisarcik, "That was a chapter and a page in my life that I look back and I am proud of. I take it as a great positive going forward in my job and everything.
"I learned that in life and sports and raising your children it's not all this smooth highway. There are peaks and there are valleys in it, and from that you have to get up and dust yourself off, and you have to keep on going, and keep on going."
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