Thirty years ago. I remember it like it was yesterday. A playoff game. A packed Orange Bowl. Early January. The Dolphins are trailing San Diego 24-0 after one quarter. It seemed all but over. And then something remarkable happened, something those fortunate enough to be there will never forget.
It became a game for the ages.
Don Strock replaced David Woodley at quarterback and the comeback began. Just before halftime, Strock hits Duriel Harris, who laterals to Tony Nathan who scores an improbable touchdown to trim the deficit to only seven points at 24-17. The famous hook and lateral. The Dolphins playbook called it “87 Circle Curl Lateral.”
“The damn thing,” said Strock, “never worked in practice.”
But on this night, on this magical night, it was a thing of beauty. A masterpiece that will always share a prominent place in Dolphins history.
I don’t ever remember the old bowl being more electric than it was at that precise moment. The rafters were rocking. My ears were vibrating. The Dolphins didn’t merely run to the locker room; they floated. I remember turning to the guy next to me in the press box and whispering, “Do you realize what an unbelievable game we are watching?” He simply smiled and nodded.
The Dolphins are playing the San Diego Chargers this Sunday in San Diego. It is just another game in a marathon of a season. But with this being the 30-year anniversary of that incredible playoff game, it is impossible not to reminisce just a little.
First the bad news; the Dolphins lost that game to the Chargers 41-38 in overtime.
Now the good news: I’m not sure there were any losers on that field.
Said Don Shula, “A great game, maybe the greatest ever.”
Added television announcer Bryant Gumbel: “If you didn’t like this game, then you don’t like football.”
So many images remain vivid to this day.
• San Diego tight end Kellen Winslow being carried off the field in total exhaustion after playing the game of his life, both catching passes and blocking kicks.
• Dolphins kicker Uwe von Schamann staring at the sky in disbelief as not one but two of his kicks were blocked, one on the last play of regulation and one in overtime. I’m sure von Schamann to this day has nightmares about Winslow’s massive hand batting that final kick away.
• Strock also playing the game of his life, replacing an ineffective Woodley. What a great intuitive move by Shula. I’ll never forget Strock standing by his locker afterward, puffing on a cigarette, trying to put into words what had just transpired. “I’ve never been so tired in my life,” he said.
• Tony Nathan making one play after another, catching nine passes, fighting for so many key first downs and, of course, holding the ball up so high as he finished that hook and lateral play. Years later, I would ask Nathan about that moment. “Unreal,” he would say.
• And finally, there was San Diego kicker Rolf Benirschke putting an end to it all with a 29-yard field goal deep into overtime. It was almost like a gigantic plug was pulled. The stadium went silent. For a moment, there was confusion. Was it really over? Do the Dolphins get a chance to tie it again? Do you cry? Do you laugh? Don Shula slowly walked off the field, shaking his head, then waving as the fans in the end zone applauded.
There are games and then there are games. But this was something in a category all by itself. The Pro Football Hall of Fame voted it “The Game of the 80’s.”
It was the first time in NFL history two quarterbacks in the same game each passed for more than 400 yards. Back then, it was unheard of.
I remember walking to my car that night in early 1982, about two hours after the game, and the parking lot was littered with beer cans and wrappers. I happened to run into Tommy Vigorito, an undersized running back on the Dolphins who didn’t do much in the game. Didn’t seem to matter.
“I think I’ll be telling my kids about this one,” Vigorito said. “Hopefully by then I’ll forget that we lost the game.”
This Sunday the Dolphins and Chargers go at it again. They have played 16 times since that January night in 1982. This will mark the 17th. But the bond that was created in that playoff game 30 years ago will link these two franchises as long as they play football. Nothing can change that. Nothing ever will.
The faces of both teams have changed dramatically since that memorable overtime game. You have to search hard to find people connected with either team who were there that night. But if you were there, as I was, it will forever remain etched in your memory.
Thirty years. Yep, just like yesterday.