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A Matter of Life and Sudden Death
Rick Reilly
October 25, 1999
The 1982 playoff between the Chargers and Dolphins wasn't just a football game and wasn't a war, exactly, but it did change a few people's lives
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October 25, 1999

A Matter Of Life And Sudden Death

The 1982 playoff between the Chargers and Dolphins wasn't just a football game and wasn't a war, exactly, but it did change a few people's lives

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Winslow had been a one-man outpatient clinic coming into the game: bruised left shoulder, strained rotator cuff in his right, sore neck from trying to compensate for both. It was so bad that Sid Brooks, the Chargers' equipment guy, had to help him put on his shoulder pads before the game. Brooks would get good at it—Winslow went through three pairs that night.

Ahead 24-10 with just 36 seconds left in the half, Benirschke attempted a 55-yarder that was plenty long, but right. His first miss since November. With good field position off the miss, Strock came back sizzling. In three plays he took Miami to its 40-yard line with six seconds left in the half—too far out for a field goal. Just for fun, Miami called timeout and tried to dream something up. "What about the hook-and-ladder?" said Shula. Interesting idea. Dumb idea, but interesting. The Dolphins hadn't tried that play all year, possibly because it hadn't worked once in practice all year.

So they tried it. Strock hit wideout Duriel Harris on a 15-yard curl on the right wing. Nothing fancy. In fact the pass was under-thrown, so Harris had to dive to catch it. Every Chargers defensive back on that side rushed to finish Harris off...except that when they got there, Harris was missing one thing: the ball. He'd lateraled to running back Tony Nathan while falling down. Nathan had come straight out of the backfield, cut right and tucked Harris's lateral under his arm without breaking stride. It was the alltime sucker play. "I never saw him," says San Diego corner Willie Buchanon.

Neither did Harris, but buried under the pile of duped Chargers, he could hear a roar. When he finally sat up, he saw Nathan in the end zone, lonely as an IRS auditor, holding the ball over his head. Touchdown. The lead was suddenly just seven.

The Chargers' sideline froze in shock. "It was a beautiful, beautiful play," remembers Coryell. "Perfectly executed."

Said Fouts, to no one in particular: "Aw, f—-! Here we go again." Then he went into the locker room and set new records for swearing, punctuated by a heaved helmet that nearly decapitated Chandler.

Not that anybody could hear Fouts ranting. The schoolyard flea-flicker had so inflamed the Orange Bowl crowd that Shula could not deliver his halftime speech in the Dolphins' locker room because of the din. "I've never heard anything like it," says Strock. "It was like we were still on the field. It was that loud. We were in the locker room, what—10, 15 minutes?—and it never stopped!"

It would get only louder.

Benirschke never had that third operation. While looking at a pre-op X-ray, doctors noticed that the abscess in his abdomen had disappeared. They couldn't figure it out. Benirschke's father couldn't figure it out. Benirschke, now a devout Christian, calls it a miracle.

Still, the stud college hero was down to 123 pounds and the approximate shape of a rake, and was going to have to learn to live with two tubes coming out of his abdomen for his ostomy pouch. Kick again? He was hoping just to walk again.

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