It was just one catch a long time ago, but as it is with a pebble dropping into a pond, the ripples seem to go on forever. Percy Howard remembers it as a fire-slant-24-A-side-line. Lining up at wide receiver on the left side, he was to run at the cornerback and accelerate past him, then head for the end zone and look for quarterback Roger Staubach's pass.
Well, he beat the cornerback, Mel Blount of the Pittsburgh Steelers, which was a feat in itself. And when he looked up for the pass, it was there. Howard caught the ball, cradled it as if it were an egg and fell backward on pay dirt, with his legs sticking up like a pair of scissors. In fact, that's about all you can see in replays of the catch, just a pair of legs pointing in the air.
There's a first catch for almost every wide receiver who makes it to the NFL, and there are a number of instances of receivers' breaking their maidens in the end zone. Howard's 4 first catch, though, was unique for several reasons. He made it in the Super Bowl. His 34-yard reception brought the Dallas Cowboys, who were trailing the Steelers 21-10 in Super Bowl X in Miami with less than three minutes remaining, back from the brink. The catch was a key ingredient in what many people consider one of the few outstanding Super Bowls. The TD also had special significance to millions of bettors—Pittsburgh was favored by 6½ points, so by making the final score 21-17, Dallas beat the spread.
But the strangest thing about Howard's first catch, on Jan. 18,1976, is that it was also his last.
Fifteen years later, on a gray day in mid-December, the sound man for a jazz band is unloading equipment in front of Champagne, a nightclub in north Dallas. A stranger asks him if the manager of the place, Percy Howard, is around. The sound man looks puzzled. "Percy Howard?" he says. "You don't mean the wide receiver for the Cowboys, do you?"
Yes, he does. A few minutes later, Howard arrives at the club. "People remember," he says. "In away, that one catch keeps me alive."
Howard still looks as though he should be playing. Athletes often gain weight after their playing days, but the 6'4" Howard was never really a football player per se. The Cowboys signed him out of Austin Peay, where he was a starter on a basketball team that included legendary shooter Fly Williams. That Super Bowl catch actually was Howard's first official reception since he had played football for Fort Lauderdale's Dillard High.
Back in the 1960s and '70s, the Cowboys occasionally took a flyer on a basketball player. Their former All-Pro defensive back, Cornell Green, for instance, also never played college football. Says Gil Brandt, Dallas's player-personnel director from 1960 to '88, "We used to host a cocktail party at the NCAA basketball tournament and solicit opinions from coaches as to which of their players might make good football players. That's how we heard about Percy."
The Cowboys didn't take Howard in the 1975 draft, but they did dispatch Green, who scouted for the Cowboys in the off-season, to Austin Peay, in Clarksville, Tenn., to work him out. Green came back with a glowing report, and Howard signed with Dallas instead of waiting to see if he would be selected in the NBA draft. While at Austin Peay, Howard had met and married Pat Menifield, a Miss Tennessee runner-up.
"All during that first training camp, I never had any doubts Percy would make the team," says Pat. "In retrospect, that seems kind of silly, considering how many receivers were in camp, and how little football Percy had played. But he was that good of an athlete." Pat says that Duane Thomas, the enigmatic running back with whom the Howards became friendly, once told her that Percy was the greatest athlete he had ever seen. Indeed, Howard set speed and agility marks that no Cowboy matched until Tony Dorsett came along a few years later.