In the dream, Dallas Cowboy defensive tackle Leon Lett wraps his arms protectively around the ball and crosses the goal line unmolested. He scores a touchdown and never has to hear Don Beebe say the words, "Leon, can I get you something to drink?"
The last we saw of Lett he was on his knees in the end zone at the Rose Bowl on Jan. 31, with his face in his hands. Now here he is, sitting in Beebe's den, hiding his face again. Beebe, the Buffalo Bill wideout whose previous rendezvous with Lett resulted in the most memorable play of Super Bowl XXVII, is telling his guest how things might have been different.
"See, I was just going to jump on your back," says Beebe. "But then you did that." Beebe points to the television, where a tape is rolling. On the screen Lett is holding the football out like a tray of hors d'oeuvres. "So I went for the ball."
A groan issues forth from behind Lett's hands. To refresh your memory: With Dallas leading 52-17 late in the game, the 6'6", 287-pound Lett picked up a fumble and lumbered 64 yards with it, only to begin his celebration prematurely. Beebe, having sprinted 90 yards in pursuit of Lett, swatted the ball from Lett's hand at the goal line.
In a game from which the suspense had long been drained, this unlikely duo created their own drama, a 14-second morality play on the virtues of hustle and. conversely, the evils of showboating. In the aftermath Beebe received hundreds of letters praising his pluck and grit.
Lett's mail wasn't as heartening. Some of it was creative, such as the package containing the hot dog. Most of the approximately 200 letters he received, however, were from self-pitying losers and bigots. Some wanted Lett to know precisely how much he had cost them in their office pools. Some wished to inform the 24-year-old that he was a "dumb nigger"; those were always unsigned. After reading a few letters Lett threw the rest away. "One guy wrote that if he had lost money because of me, he would have hunted me down and shot me," he says.
But Lett will probably have the last word. In two NFL seasons he has gone from being a seventh-round sleeper out of Emporia (Kans.) State to a major contributor for the Super Bowl champs. Overshadowed by his Super Blunder were the two forced fumbles and the sack of Buffalo quarterback Frank Reich that Lett also racked up in the game. Lett—Big Cat to his teammates—has been called "the best backup in the league" by the Cowboys' former defensive coordinator, Dave Wannstedt.
He is also a hell of a good sport. It is a measure of the equanimity with which Lett has handled the fallout from his fumble that he agreed to let SI fly him to West Palm Beach, Fla., where Beebe spends time during the off-season, for a reunion with his former tormentor. Had he declined, it would have been understandable; Lett has found it all but impossible to lay The Fumble to rest. Immediately after the play, he was met at the sideline by Cowboy head coach Jimmy Johnson, who chewed him out once and hasn't mentioned the gaffe to him since; others have been less kind. Lett was singled out at a Dallas comedy club. "I hear Leon Lett is with us tonight," said the comedian, "but that can't be right. He would have fumbled his car keys."
Dallas tackle Erik Williams cannot resist saying "fumble" under his breath whenever his friend Lett walks past. But Big Cat takes his revenge at clubs and at parties when he introduces Williams to women. "Remember the guy who fumbled right before he was about to score in the Super. Bowl?" Lett will say. "That's him!"
Says Lett, "The only time I came close to losing it was in Amarillo." He plays for the Hoopsters, the Cowboys' traveling charity basketball team. One night last month in Amarillo, Texas, as Lett stepped to the foul line, someone behind the basket screamed, "End zone! End zone!"