Commentary

Legends, underdogs, goats shared Texas Stadium spotlight

Texas Stadium is entering its 37th and final season. Before its hole in the roof is turned into a hole in the ground, Frank Luksa recalls the 10 most memorable games in the stadium's history.

Originally Published: September 15, 2008
By Frank Luksa | Special to ESPN.com

Terrell Owens, Jimmy JohnsonAP Photo/Getty ImagesTerrell Owens, with the 49ers in 2000, celebrates a TD on the Texas Stadium star, which prompted a pop from Dallas' George Teague. Jimmy Johnson guaranteed the Cowboys' win in the '94 NFC Championship Game against the Niners at Texas Stadium.
Texas Stadium will complete its 37th and final season as home field of the Dallas Cowboys in 2008. Before its hole in the roof is turned into a hole in the ground, I pause to reminisce.

I have seen virtually every game there since 1971 and reduced more than 300 of them to a top 10 of my most memorable. To qualify, a game had to produce a scene never seen before and not likely to ever repeat.

For instance, I rejected the game (Oct. 27, 2002) in which Emmitt Smith set the NFL career rushing record. Even though it was a historic achievement, it lacked suspense. That Smith would pass Walter Payton's 16,726-yard total was a certainty and a mere waiting game until the moment arrived.

Here, in my opinion, are the top 10 games in Texas Stadium history.

1. Dallas 35, Washington 34 (Dec. 16, 1979)

Roger Staubach's last hurrah, his 21st fourth-quarter comeback and one of 14 in the final two minutes. His second touchdown pass in the last four minutes -- an 8-yard fade route to Tony Hill with 39 seconds left -- supplied a he's-done-it-again climax.

The game featured a series of wild surges. Washington scored the first 17 points, Dallas the next 21, Washington 17 more in succession and Dallas the final 14. The game included the most famous tackle in Texas Stadium history -- defensive lineman Larry Cole's third-down stop of John Riggins to prevent the Redskins from deep-freezing their 34-28 lead.

All-in stakes rode with the outcome, another reason even Hail Mary author Staubach described it as "absolutely the most thrilling 60 minutes I ever spent on a football field.'' Bitter rival Washington drew a playoff blank. The Cowboys won the NFC East title, their last hurrah under Staubach.

Staubach's Hall of Fame career ended a week later on an incongruous note during a 21-19 playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams. He completed his last NFL pass to guard Herb Scott, an ineligible receiver.

[+] EnlargeClint Longely
Russ Russell/NFLUnheralded QB Clint Longley stunned the Redskins with a Thanksgiving Day comeback.
2. Dallas 24, Washington 23 (Nov. 28, 1974)

No one can pinpoint the genesis of when the Cowboys-Redskins series turned mean and nasty, and then got worse. It was ornery enough before Diron Talbert's pregame threat to disengage Roger Staubach from his senses.

"We put Staubach out and all they've got is that [Clint]) Longley kid,'' said the Redskins' defensive lineman, unaware that answered prayers can boomerang.

Talbert looked prescient when the Redskins sidelined Staubach with a concussion and rookie Longley entered. Nicknamed "The Mad Bomber" for bouncing passes off Tom Landry's coaching tower in training camp, Longley inherited a hopeless-looking 16-3 deficit early in the third quarter.

He wound up winning the game with a 50-yard touchdown pass to Drew Pearson with less than a minute left.

"I was in the huddle when he called basically the last play of the game, and we all knew it wouldn't work. So it was, 'OK, let's get this over with,'" recalled fullback Walt Garrison. "Who's going to throw a 50-yard pass for a touchdown? They'll have Drew covered like a blanket. He'll probably throw a 5-yard out to me or Duane Thomas and hope we can run for a touchdown. Hell, I hadn't run 40 yards in my life. I guess that was the only game Longley had that was worth anything, wasn't it?''

This was true. In the summer of '76, Longley sucker-punched Staubach in the locker room at training camp, was traded and faded from the NFL. Nevertheless, his heroics remain immortalized by guard Blaine Nye, who analyzed them as "a triumph of the uncluttered mind.''

[+] EnlargeLeon Lett
Paul K. Buck/AFP/Getty ImagesNo one knows for sure what Leon Lett (78) was thinking in the closing seconds of the Cowboys' 1993 Thansksgiving Day game.
3. Miami 16, Dallas 14 (Nov. 25, 1993)

A freak snow-and-sleet storm left Texas Stadium's surface glazed on Thanksgiving, a day forever frozen in infamy by a confused Leon Lett.

Jimmie Jones blocked a 47-yard field goal by Pete Stoyanovich to preserve an apparent 14-13 Dallas victory with scant seconds left to play. As the ball rolled toward the Cowboys' end zone, Dallas players waved their arms in a distinct don't-touch-it warning, like a safe call in baseball.

Lett never got the message. The defensive lineman ran through three lounging Dolphins, stop signs from teammates and ankle-high slush for purposes unknown to this day. Whatever his muddled intent, he kicked the ball to the Cowboys' 1-yard line, where Miami recovered. Stoyanovich converted a 19-yard field goal with 3 seconds remaining to saddle the disbelieving Cowboys with their most bizarre home loss.

"There were 11 men on the field and 10 of them knew what to do,'' sighed special teams coach Joe Avezzano.

4. Dallas 42, Green Bay 31 (Nov. 24, 1994)

Troy Aikman and Rodney Peete were hurt. Neither would play. That left No. 3 quarterback Jason Garrett overmatched against Packers ace Brett Favre.

So it seemed when Green Bay intercepted Garrett's first pass. More evidence of Garrett in over his head arrived at the half with the Packers ahead 17-6. What else could anyone expect? This was second-year Garrett's first NFL start; he'd been inactive the first 10 games of the season and not terribly active thereafter.

What followed has never been explained except in supernatural terms. Garrett produced five touchdowns in less than 19 minutes of the second half. It's his signature on a franchise-record 36 points scored in the second half. He finished with 311 yards passing, two touchdowns and one first-play interception.

Garrett also finished somewhat dazed by what he'd done.

"If this is a fairy tale, so be it,'' he suggested.

5. Philadelphia 27, Dallas 0 (Nov. 23, 1989)

Ah, the Bounty Bowl, when Eagles coach Buddy Ryan allegedly offered $200 to knock kicker Luis Zendejas out of the game and $500 for a Troy Aikman KO.

[+] EnlargeBuddy Ryan
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesThings got testy between Eagles coach Buddy Ryan, above, and Jimmy Johnson in 1989.
The charge originated with Zendejas, who claimed he taped the threats via a phone conversation with a Philadelphia source but never produced it for anyone to hear. It didn't matter since it was easier to cast Ryan as a villain who'd already stooped to score a rub-it-in TD against Tom Landry and harpooned successor Jimmy Johnson as a suspect NFL head coach.

"Tell Jimmy there won't be any East Carolinas or Cincinnatis on his schedule,'' Ryan needled when Johnson replaced Landry.

Even after Ryan failed to machine-gun the lifeboats and pulled his regulars late, Johnson was furious at the finish. He bolted to midfield looking for Ryan, thereby prolonging the lack of emphasis on the lousy season unfolding in Dallas.

"I would have said something to Buddy, but he wouldn't stand on the field long enough. He got his fat rear end into the dressing room,'' Johnson snapped.

NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue's investigation predictably cleared the Eagles of plotting naughty things against the Cowboys. The sour aftermath caused curious minds to ponder what might happen in a Buddy-Jimmy rematch later in Philly.

"I wonder if they're going to shake hands … or arm wrestle,'' said Dave Widell of the Cowboys. Nothing untoward occurred between Johnson or Ryan, but it was the game in which Eagles fans pelted Johnson with snow balls (batteries included).

6. Dallas 38, Cincinnati 10 (Nov. 4, 1973)

The greatest one-man show by a middle linebacker and no one else remembers? Good grief. How could anyone forget?

Lee Roy Jordan intercepted three passes from Ken Anderson and returned one 31 yards for a TD. That alone is a remarkable feat for any linebacker and a fancy haul for a defensive back. But wait. It's only a tease.

Jordan intercepted three passes in the first quarter! But wait again. There is more to tell. Jordan made all his interceptions within the span of five minutes! I knew that Jordan stole three but not until I researched old newspaper accounts did the five-minute interval resurface.

I insist that's a record for most picks in the least amount of time in NFL history and await dissenting proof. Jordan's 32 career steals led me to the Elias Sports Bureau to check how Jordan, who played from 1962 to '76, ranked on the all-time list of most interceptions by NFL linebackers.

As expected, he ranked high, tied for third with Miami's Nick Buoniconti (1969-76) and Jack Ham (1971-82) of Pittsburgh. Who is the interception leader? He's Don Shinnick (Baltimore, 1957-68) with 37, followed by Stan White (Baltimore, 1972-79; Detroit 1980-82) with 34. (Elias and I accept your thanks for this information.)

Here is one last note about Jordan, who last played 31 years ago. He still ranks No. 7 on the Cowboys' all-time interception list, ahead of a couple of defensive backs named Cliff Harris (29) and Darren Woodson (23).

7. Dallas 38, San Francisco 21 (Jan. 23, 1994)

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The game itself paled in astonishment to what occurred before a duel began for the NFC Championship.

This was the play-in game for the Super Bowl, when countdown nerves are taut and no one pops off because loose lips sink ships.

Therefore all was quiet on both fronts. Or it was until …

Jimmy Johnson did something no NFL coach in memory ever did or even thought of doing. First, he called a local radio sports show. Johnson then announced to a baffled talk show host and a stunned audience that the Cowboys would beat the 49ers. Players have guaranteed victories before and after Joe Namath made it a popular gesture; I never heard a head coach with enough nerve or stupidity to do it publicly.

"We will win the ballgame,'' Johnson predicted. "You can put that in three-inch high headlines.''

What made Johnson boast? Well, he was ultra-confident and forever cocky. Like when he was asked if the Cowboys might not have been so successful without Troy Aikman.

"They'd still had me,'' Johnson half-joked.

Others said Johnson was so worked up over the game he couldn't contain himself. Another insider report hinted that some of his bravado could have been Heineken-fueled.

San Francisco coach George Seifert considered Johnson's remark with admiration and bemusement.

"Well, the man has balls. I'll say that,'' Seifert began. "I don't know if they're brass or papier-maché. We'll find out.''

They were brass.

8. San Francisco 41, Dallas 24 (Sept. 24, 2000)

George Teague became captain of my All-Hero team for his tangle with a visiting peacock. Teague knocked Terrell Owens on his butt.

Well, you say, that is supposed to happen when Teague played safety and Owens wide receiver for the 49ers. Yes, but this was different.

It occurred after Owens caught a touchdown pass and for the second time celebrated by racing to midfield where he stood astride the Cowboys star emblem and posed with upraised arms. A blur of blue interrupted the scene and knocked Owens on his pompous rear. That was Teague, the only Cowboy with enough chest hair to physically retaliate against a rank insult with the 49ers ahead, 41-17.

Emmitt Smith had offered a psychological reproach after matching Owens' first TD. He ran to the 50-yard line and spiked the ball on the spot Owens had desecrated. But it took Teague to make the proper response.

"The first time it was, 'OK, you got us. You got your hurrahs,'" said Teague. "But to go back again is where you cross the line. Then it becomes disrespectful.

"We were losing by three touchdowns, maybe four. It was about 145 degrees on the turf and nothing was going our way. I had an intuition that if Owens scored again he'd do something crazy. I made up my mind that if he scores again and grandstands there'll be a fight. Before I knew it I whacked Owens pretty good. What I really appreciated was being quick enough to duck a 300-pounder who then went after me.''

Because Owens later signed with the Cowboys, this incident is hardly ever talked about.

9. Dallas 44, New England 21 (Oct. 24, 1971)

Texas Stadium, with its unique hole-in-the-roof design and thus nicknamed a half-Astrodome, opened to popular acclaim by everyone except the players.

[+] EnlargeTexas Stadium
Glenn James/NFL/Getty ImagesWhen Texas Stadium opened in 1971, it reminded some players of the Roman Colosseum.
Three complaints arose about the 65,000-seat playpen owner Clint Murchison Jr. built in suburban Irving. First, the field was too hard.

"I dunno what kind of turf it was but if you slid it cut hell out of you. It was harder than Chinese arithmetic,'' said Walt Garrison.

Second, fans in those $50,000 Circle Suites were too aristocratic and cool. Their closeted, on-high presence conjured images of performing in the Roman Colosseum.

"I'd have to say that old-school guys hated the stadium,'' said Larry Cole. "We used to talk about the Christians, lions and gladiators in the context that all those fat cats up in boxes were drinking scotches and we were the peons down there getting paid very little to entertain them.

"Our concept of football was more like the Cotton Bowl with the crowd outside and involved. You didn't watch a football game with a coat and tie on from a box.''

Third, fans were protected from the elements by an overhang, but players beneath the open hole weren't.

"Hell, if Clint wanted us to fight the elements why didn't he just roof the SOB over and put in a sprinkler system?'' Charlie Waters wondered.

However, negative opinions later softened.

"As time went on it's like, 'This is a pretty nice place,''' said Cole. "What was really nice was when we started playing games there in December. The cold wind didn't blow through the hole in the roof. I loved playing there during the playoffs.''

Murchison's $50,000 tag on Circle Suites was originally accepted as absurdly overpriced when, in retrospect, they were the best real estate buy in north Texas. Some soon resold for $500,000 and up.

10. Green Bay 20, Dallas 10 (Dec. 24, 1989)

Surely no one else remembers anything about a game that ended the maiden season of the Jones-Johnson era with a shiver. The result capped a forlorn 1-15 season with a seven-game losing streak on a subfreezing afternoon.

Why would a visually and physically numbing game stick in my memory? Recall that my criteria for top-10 inclusion should contain an unexpected or unprecedented element. This one qualified because for the only time in Texas Stadium history it was so cold that …

Toilets froze.

I pondered how to combine the frigid scene and 1-15 finish with my usual vibrant prose. Hence I remain pleased to have written:

"The 1989 season was so bad it wouldn't even flush.''

Frank Luksa is a freelance writer based in Plano, Texas. He was a longtime sports columnist for The Dallas Times Herald and Dallas Morning News.

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