Though it was not an epic playoff matchup like the legendary “Sea of Hands” AFC Divisional Playoff game in 1974, this particular game played under a beautiful blue sky on September 23rd, 2001 had an emotional significance like none other before or since.
Professional sports – and pretty much the entire nation – had been at a standstill for two weeks trying to recover from the devastating terrorist attacks of September 11th, and the National Football League was tasked with beginning the healing process. These would be the first games played since two days before the worst attack on American soil in history and the pre-game pageantry, complete with a video tribute to the victims, brought tears to the eyes of players and fans alike.
Defense was Miami’s strength that season with perennial Pro Bowlers
“I remember that game very well, especially the ending,” said Fiedler, whose brother lost a close friend on 9/11. “Obviously, from an emotional standpoint being the focal point of the country at that time with the NFL and being a part of something that helped restore some normalcy at the time in our country brought up a lot of emotions. Once the game got going football was the focus and the competitive juices really got flowing.”
Those competitive juices helped Fiedler engineer a clutch 10-play, 80-yard scoring drive that culminated with his dramatic 2-yard touchdown run in the final seconds for an 18-15 victory. Earlier on the drive Fiedler took a shot to the helmet on a scramble that sent him off the field feeling a bit woozy, but he returned to finish what he started.
Oakland thought it had the game won when it forced a 4th-and-3 for the Dolphins, only to see Fiedler complete a 9-yard pass to Dedric Ward with 27 seconds left at the Oakland 12. He kept the ball on first down and picked up another seven yards before spiking the ball with 12 seconds remaining on the clock.
“We ran a play that was really our two-point play so in that situation that was the play we thought we’d have the most success with from the 2 or 3-yardline,” Fiedler said. “I knew going into that play we would have had enough time for two plays if I threw an incompletion. It was a bootleg out to the right with a number of different options to throw the ball, with a fourth option being for me to run the ball.”
Fiedler had scored a rushing touchdown from the same distance at the end of the first half with 16 seconds left to give Miami a 7-6 lead. He was the team’s second leading rusher behind Lamar Smith with 34 yards on eight carries.
As a passer, Fiedler completed 16-of-34 passes for 217 yards on the afternoon. So that had to be in the back of his head when he took the snap.
“I came out of the pocket and James McKnight and Oronde Gadsden were both working the back end of the end zone and Hunter Goodwin, our tight end, was working the front end of the end zone,” Fiedler recalled. “I thought for a second I might have had a window to throw to Hunter but didn’t pull the trigger on it and as I continued to roll out to the right side I got some pressure from Trace Armstrong coming up the field.
“As I avoided the pressure I just saw the daylight of the goal line and knew once I turned it upfield I was going to be able to get into the end zone before the defenders peeled off and got there. It probably looked a lot closer on film than it looked in my head and thankfully I was able to make it there and dive across the goal line at the right time.”
Once he crossed and the referee raised his arms signaling touchdown the crowd at Sun Life Stadium erupted and Taylor and Thomas could be seen jumping up and down on the sideline. Fiedler raised his fist in triumph while he was still lying on the ground, an image that was captured by a Sports Illustrated photographer and became one of the most iconic covers in the magazine’s history.
McKnight and Gadsden both got unique views of the winning score from the back of the end zone and McKnight still has those images fresh in his memory.
“The play broke down and Jay Fiedler being that athletic quarterback that he is he was able to get across the goal line for the score,” McKnight said. “I don’t remember what side of the field I was on but I just remember the celebration afterwards and looking at Jay holding his fist up across the goal line. We were pretty pumped and for Jay it was a fitting end for a tough ballgame and it feels like it was just yesterday. A lot of us are still in our 30s and to be a part of something so special resonates with me today because both teams were playing for a bigger cause that weekend.”
For Fiedler, it’s pretty easy for him to recall that moment whenever he wants thanks to Sports Illustrated. The magazine made the Dartmouth graduate and immediate successor to Hall-of-Fame quarterback Dan Marino immortal if only for just one week on the newsstands.
“I’ve still got plenty of them,” Fiedler said. “I think my dad ordered 150 copies right after that. All the newsstands in Oceanside, N.Y. were sold out pretty quickly.”