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For three quarters and almost six minutes of the fourth last Sunday, Super Bowl XIII, which Pittsburgh wound up winning 35-31, was everything professional football's championship game is supposed to be, but rarely is. It had the NFL's two best teams, the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Dallas Cowboys, doing amazing things in heroic—and sometimes haphazard, even peculiar—fashion on the damp Orange Bowl turf.
It had Tony Dorsett scuttling around and through the Steelers on the game's first drive only to have the Cowboys fumble away the ball on an ill-conceived, triple hand-off gadget play that was supposed to end with a pass thrown by Quarterback Roger Staubach.
It had Terry Bradshaw passing the Steelers to a quick 7-0 lead on a 28-yard lob to John Stallworth in the end zone at the end of a bang-bang 53-yard drive. It had Bradshaw losing the ball on a fumble, and then three plays later Staubach combining with Tony Hill on a 39-yard touchdown-pass play that tied the score at 7-7 on the last play of the first quarter. It had Bradshaw, after recovering his own fumble in the backfield, being sandwiched by linebackers Thomas (Hollywood) Henderson and Mike Hegman, with Henderson pinning Bradshaw's arms while Hegman pickpocketed the ball and ran 37 yards for a touchdown and a 14-7 Dallas lead. It had Bradshaw complaining that his left shoulder was sore and being told by a team doctor that it might be separated.
It had Bradshaw immediately returning to the game and throwing a short first-down pass to the ubiquitous Stallworth, who turned it into a 75-yard touchdown play as Dallas Cornerback Aaron Kyle, who had been burned on the first touchdown, missed a tackle. It had Bradshaw sending Pittsburgh to the locker room with a 21-14 halftime lead by lofting a seven-yard pass to a leaping Rocky Bleier in the end zone.
Then, in the third quarter, it had Dallas, suddenly starting to look like the better team, all set to tie the score at 21-21, only to have Tight End Jackie Smith—with nary a Steeler in sight—drop Staubach's eminently catchable pass in the end zone. The Cowboys had to settle for Rafael Septien's 27-yard field goal.
And now, six minutes into the fourth quarter, the Steelers were desperately clinging to a 21-17 lead—the same score, incidentally, by which they had defeated the Cowboys in Super Bowl X in Miami—and Bradshaw was dropping back and, under pressure, hoisting the football into one of Lynn Swann's holding patterns 33 yards downfield. Swann and Dallas Cornerback Benny Barnes were chasing the ball in relatively close file, with Barnes slightly in the lead, when Barnes slipped or tripped or stumbled and fell. Swann tripped over Barnes and fell, stretching out vainly for Bradshaw's pass at the Dallas 23-yard line.
Field Judge Fred Swearingen threw his yellow flag. To those who saw it live, the pass play looked to be a case of two players bumping and tripping over each other. That is the way Swearingen apparently saw it, too, but his flag meant one of two things: offensive pass interference on Swann for tripping Barnes, or defensive pass interference on Barnes for tripping Swann.
The call was against Barnes, and Pittsburgh had a first down. Four plays later. Franco Harris crashed up the middle on a 22-yard trap play to put the Steelers ahead 28-17, and there were only seven minutes to go. If that turn of events demoralized the Cowboys, what happened on the ensuing kickoff shattered them.
Dallas inexplicably stationed Defensive Tackle Randy White, who was playing with a cast on his fractured left thumb, in the middle of the field near the 25-yard line as Roy Gerela prepared to kick off. Pittsburgh Coach Chuck Noll had called Gerela to the sideline for a brief conference following Gerela's successful conversion, and told him to kick deep. But Gerela slipped and his kick bounced directly to the 250-pound White, who had no clear idea what to do with it. He half fumbled and half lateraled the ball, only to have it wind up in the hands of Pittsburgh's Dennis (Dirt) Winston at the Dallas 18.
Before Tom Landry could even grimace, Bradshaw—who enjoyed his most productive day as a pro, throwing for 318 yards and four touchdowns, both Super Bowl records—fired a first-down pass into the end zone that Swann leaped high and plucked from out of the night, as only he can. And the riskiest Super Bowl of them all was a rout, with the Steelers leading 35-17. The elapsed time between the two touchdowns was 19 seconds.