Don Strock’s memorable performance in the ‘Game of the ’80s’ was just one example of his ability to come off the bench and rally the Dolphins.
One year before the Miami Dolphins returned to the Super Bowl after an eight-year absence thanks to their memorable shutout of the New York Jets in the 1982 AFC Championship Game, Don Strock etched his name in the annals of history as part of the “NFL’s Game of the ‘80s” when he carried his team oh-so-close to victory over the San Diego Chargers.
Although he concedes that it does not feel like yesterday, Strock still vividly recalls the emotional roller coaster that was a 41-38 overtime loss at the Orange Bowl in the 1981 AFC Divisional Playoffs. That was his signature moment in an underappreciated 14-year career, 13 of those seasons with the Dolphins and his last in 1987 with the Cleveland Browns.
Strock and Dan Fouts became the first pair of quarterbacks from opposing teams to each throw for over 400 yards in a game, with Strock completing 29 of 43 passes for 403 yards and four touchdowns in a little less than three quarters of action. He entered the game with just over 12 minutes remaining in the first half and his team trailing 24-0, and the deficit at the time seemed insurmountable to those in the stands and watching on television.
“In my mind I just felt like, we have the ball and we need to go down and just score some points, whatever it is, a field goal, just to get something going,” said Strock, who now works at the Miccosukee Golf and Country Club coordinating tournaments like the Miccosukee Mini Tour Pro Am. “We got an interception after we kicked the field goal and drove down and scored a touchdown (on a 1-yard pass from Strock to tight end Joe Rose) and then obviously the hook-and-lateral turned the whole football game around.”
Many classic moments emerged from the contest, including Kellen Winslow’s blocked field goal and seeing him being helped off the field by his teammates at the end because he was suffering from heat exhaustion, but the hook-and-lateral is perhaps the one that is most often replayed. It came on the last play of the first half and was executed to perfection: Strock hit Duriel Harris for 15 yards in the right seam and Harris immediately flipped it back to running back Tony Nathan, who was trailing the play. Nathan sprinted the last 25 yards untouched into the end zone and the Dolphins went into the locker room with all the momentum, trailing by just a touchdown with two quarters to go.
“The first thing I was looking for (after the play) were flags, because usually when you have a play like that something goes wrong,” Strock said. “But it had to work perfect against the right guy to make it work, and it did. After I didn’t see any flags I knew we were back in the football game.”
Strock’s leadership kept the team focused in the second half and the Dolphins actually took a 38-31 lead early in the fourth quarter on Nathan’s 12- yard touchdown run. But Fouts was not to be denied on the other side and drove his team to the tying score with 58 seconds remaining in regulation, connecting with running back James Brooks from 9 yards out to cap a 10-play, 82-yard drive.
Rolf Benirschke broke the hearts of the Dolphins and their fans with his 29-yard field goal 13:52 into sudden-death overtime. As devastated as he was, Strock knew he had just played in one of the greatest games, if not the greatest game of his lifetime. He was midway through his playing career, and nearly got that Super Bowl ring the next season, but the Washington Redskins beat Miami in Super Bowl XVII in a game some of his teammates felt might have ended differently had he once again replaced quarterback David Woodley sooner in the second half.
“I don’t know that for sure, but I think we might have gotten a little bit of a false sense of security that we were playing well because Fulton Walker returned a kick (98 yards for a touchdown with less than two minutes to go in the first half),” said Strock, who spent five years as the first head coach of Florida International University’s football team from 2002-06. “But Shula said in the locker room that we really hadn’t done much and I just do what I’m told. I was always a team player and I didn’t really go in until really, really late in the game.”
When he talks about the characteristics that made those Miami teams special, Strock always starts with the team concept Shula preached. Strock has been following the resurgence of the current Dolphins under Head Coach Tony Sparano, his veteran staff and Executive Vice President of Football Operations Bill Parcells. In fact, he gets a kick out of seeing offensive coordinator Dan Henning still calling plays since he played under him with the Dolphins from 1979-82 and in college at Virginia Tech, where Henning was his quarterbacks coach.
“There was no ego on our teams and no ‘I’ guys, which is what I’m seeing with this group,” Strock said. “It comes from the top, from Coach Parcells to Coach Sparano to an excellent coaching staff. They let these players know what’s expected of them and what their role is, so there’s no question when they’re in the game what they’re asked to do. That’s how you win football games.”
That also happens to be how Strock almost helped the Dolphins win what became known as “The Epic In Miami.”