Jim Marshall, the former right end on the Purple People Eater defenses of the Vikings in the 1960s and 70s, had a glorious NFL career that included trips to four Super Bowls and two Pro Bowls. He still holds the NFL career record for fumble recoveries, with 29, but one particular fumble he picked up 30 years ago this week has forever branded him as Wrong Way Marshall.
On the afternoon of Oct. 25, 1964, Marshall was having a good day against the 49ers at San Francisco's Kezar Stadium. In the fourth quarter he forced Niner quarterback George Mira to fumble, and Marshall's teammate Carl Filer picked up the loose ball and returned it for a touchdown, giving the Vikes a 27-17 lead. That's how the score stood with 8:12 left when Mira completed a short pass to Billy Kilmer, who was hit coming through the middle and fumbled. Marshall spied the free ball and an open field: a lineman's fantasy. "I picked it up and took off running," he recalled recently. "Everyone was waving and shouting, but I thought they were cheering me on."
Upon reaching the Vikings' own end zone 66 yards later, Marshall heaved the ball toward the stands, thus giving the Niners two points for a safety. "What alerted me that something was wrong was the noise." says Marshall. "I had never heard a crowd react that way. Then I turned and saw some of my teammates pointing back the other way. [49er center] Bruce Bosley grabbed me and said thanks. My spirits just sank."
Minnesota won the game 27-22, fortunately for Marshall. "In the locker room afterward, our coach, Norm Van Brocklin, came up to me and said. 'Jim, if you hadn't run the wrong way, the game would have been a dog.' " From others less sympathetic, Marshall took a ton of ribbing. "I can remember some games, if we were ahead, the other team's fans would be hollering, 'Give the ball to Jim, he'll score for us!' "
Marshall retired in 1979 after 20 seasons in pro football and now runs Professional Sports Linkage, a nonprofit organization that coordinates educational programs for disadvantaged youths in Minneapolis. That play remains the one moment in his career that he can never live down. "Little kids who weren't even born back then will come up and say, 'You're the guy that ran the wrong way,' " says Marshall. "It's a helluva thing to be known for, isn't it?"