Usually it only happens in those novels written for young readers. It is cold and gloomy and all hope seems to be gone, but the good guy who loves his wife and family and country has gone back to try one more long pass against the evil villains who throw bottles and garbage at football officials. The ball sails high and far, 50 yards into the frozen atmosphere, a silly object, it seems, straining to be seen against the feeble lights that glow through the gray Minnesota sky. Now the ball is coming to earth as the scoreboard flickers away the final seconds of the game. There are two men underneath the ball and suddenly one of them slips and falls, and the one who is supposed to catch it and complete the grandest of comebacks and upsets and fairy tales does exactly that. Roger Staubach has thrown a pass to Drew Pearson and the Dallas Cowboys have used up a lifetime of good fortune in a single play to stun the Minnesota Vikings and grasp a victory they had richly deserved all day long.
This has been the year of the men in the striped shirts, the officials, as game after game during the regular season of the National Football League seemed to be decided by a judgment call of one kind or another. And now there is this one in the first round of the playoffs, in which the score will be entered into legend as Dallas 17, Minnesota 14. Did the officials win it for Dallas by letting Drew Pearson push off on the Vikings' Nate Wright before he caught the bomb from Staubach? Earlier, had the officials won it for Minnesota by giving the Vikings the ball after a punt to the Dallas four-yard line which resulted in the cheapest seven points since loaded dice?
That happened way back there in the second quarter of what had been a pounding and vicious defensive game punctuated by the ancient art of punting. It was the biggest play of the day until those desperate closing seconds when Staubach and Pearson got their act together and drove a dagger into the heart of every seed planter on the Minnesota plain.
The Vikings, who had been outplayed the whole way by these surprising Cowboys, had nevertheless managed to put on one gorgeous, sustained drive in the fourth quarter, and with Fran Tarkenton passing and even throwing a block on one occasion, and with Chuck Foreman and Brent McClanahan dancing neatly on the soft natural turf of Metropolitan Stadium, had forged ahead 14-10. Dallas had earned its 10 points—Doug Dennison going in from the four in the third quarter; Toni Fritsch putting up a 24-yard field goal to open the fourth—and Minnesota had earned only seven. But the Vikings led even though they had been outhit and outstatisticked and out-game-planned.
When Minnesota's defense then shut off the Cowboys abruptly and its offense used up some more precious time the stadium, with its thousands of Viking fans wearing purple and gold toboggan caps, was an eruption of joy. Tarkenton, who had been so resourceful all season, had somehow brought his team back on an off-day, and the Vikings were surely going to get out of this and then beat the Los Angeles Rams and return to the Super Bowl where the fourth time would finally be a charm. For their part, the Cowboys looked disheartened, finished.
There was now 1:51 left to play and the Cowboys were 85 of the longest yards imaginable from a winning touchdown. Staubach got a little breathing room with a couple of short passes to Drew Pearson, but then Center John Fitzgerald, who now and again had not snapped the ball very deftly from the shotgun formation Dallas often uses in passing situations, gave Roger another low one and the Cowboys had a six-yard loss. Two more passes failed and it was fourth down and 16—fourth down, gang—and the Cowboys were on their own 25. There were 44 seconds remaining.
In the Dallas huddle Staubach muttered something like "Q pattern." Then he fired a 25-yarder to Drew Pearson, who went into the air at the sideline, made the first-down catch and was floated out of bounds by Nate Wright at the same time. The purple toboggans did not like the completion call, believing that Pearson needed to have both feet in bounds and forgetting that a catch is legal if a receiver has the ball and is driven out of bounds before he can find a place to land.
When Drew Pearson went back to the Dallas huddle he told Staubach, "I can beat Wright deep, but give me a chance to catch my breath."
It looked as if the clock might do that for him. There were 37 seconds left now, and the Cowboys were only at midfield. Staubach gave Pearson his rest while firing an incompletion over the middle. Now there were 32 seconds left, and Dallas was still 50 yards away.
There is something to be said for a man who believes in the miraculous. Staubach is such a fellow. In a playoff game three years ago he had thrown two touchdown passes in the last minute and a half to beat the San Francisco 49ers 30-28. Heck, he only had to throw one now.