Sample Chapter of This Could be the Year: My 30 Years as a Miami Dolphins Fan
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In this chapter, as the Dolphins prepare for a 2002 encounter with the San Diego Chargers, author Rich Libero recalls how he experienced the 1981 AFC Divisional Playoff between the two clubs. As many Dolfans remember, this game remains among one of the greats in NFL playoff history.
The Greatest Game Ever Played
In one smooth maneuver I flung myself off the couch, over the coffee table and onto the rug in front of the television.
No, it couldn’t be!!!
Uwe von Schamann couldn’t have missed another field goal!
Such was my “date” on January 2, 1982. I invited my high school sweetheart over with the intention of going to the movies once the Dolphins-Chargers playoff game ended.
She arrived at my house in the third quarter. We never made the movie.
I think after observing my viewing habits she decided to dump me. Nothing is worse than baring your soul in front of people who just can’t understand.
Did I want my girlfriend to see me act like an emotional puppet? Me, the tough guy, captain of the school’s hockey team, not some goober dressed from head to toe in aqua and orange, not some whimpering, simpering, pleading lump of flesh whose emotions were controlled by what he witnessed on the television screen.
I didn’t care. I couldn’t care. Any serious Dolphins fan who watched them host the San Diego Chargers that day was as powerless as a kitten in its mother’s mouth.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame declared the game the best of the 1980’s, really it is the greatest game ever played. The 1958 NFL Championship Game between the Giants and Colts should always be acknowledged as a significant game in NFL history because it offered a dramatic overtime victory to a national television audience and vaulted the NFL into the national consciousness.
But the Dolphins-Chargers Divisional Playoff Game held a nation spellbound with audacity, heroism, failure, tension, frailty and guts – and that’s just the fans. The players led us through a range of emotion fueled with excitement and hope, which changed to despair, joy, more despair, hope and finally, an empty, depressing feeling that left you emotionally and physically spent.
Movies? You want to go to the movies after all this? Go home you gorgeous, strong, powerful female and leave me to wallow in my male football frailties. I have been exposed as a weakling not worthy of your devotion.
The weather offered up nice swampy conditions as they game turned from dusk to night. But before the Orange Bowl’s lights could take full effect, the Dolphins found themselves trailing their Pacific Time Zone opponents 24-0. Don Shula relegated starting quarterback David Woodley to the bench in favor of uber-reliever Don Strock.
The ever-cool Strock quickly helped the Dolphins put 10 points on the board thanks to a von Schamann field goal and a one-yard touchdown pass to Joe Rose.
With halftime quickly approaching you cannot blame any fans that might have bailed on this game. Actually, we shouldn’t blame them. They should, instead, be the objects of pity because what happened next can only be considered among the ranks of legend.
Shula planned for everything. He always stashed a gadget play or two up his sleeve in the event of an emergency. If ever there came a time to reach up that sleeve and pull out an Ace, this moment certainly qualified.
With six seconds to play in the half, the Dolphins found themselves just outside field goal range on the San Diego 40. Shula broke the glass on his emergency play and called “87 Circle Curl Lateral, aka the old “Hook-and-Ladder.”
“We called it 87 Circle Curl Lateral, and, believe me, the damn thing never worked in practice,” Strock said.
With a dab of Shula magic, the play worked when it was needed most as Strock connected with Duriel Harris on the Chargers’ 25.
My first reaction: ‘Why did they throw short!?’
Suddenly Tony Nathan chugged up field from the left side of the TV screen. Blue-and-yellow-clad chargers converged on Harris. I shouted: ‘Pitch it!’ And in a rare moment, the image on the TV screen obeyed my command. Harris pitched it back to the on-rushing Nathan who bolted the remaining 25 yards to the end zone.
Oh, sweet relief! The Dolphins headed to halftime trailing by only a touchdown, 24-17. The second half offered fresh promise as Rose caught his second touchdown pass of the game just 4:10 into the third quarter to tie things.
But, the Chargers bounced right back, 31-24, as Dan Fouts connected with Kellen Winslow on a 25-yard touchdown strike six minutes later.
Strock and tight end Bruce Hardy coupled for a 50-yard pass-and-catch play that tied the game at 31 near the end of the third quarter.
Seven seconds into the fourth quarter, Nathan scored on a 12-yard run to give the Dolphins their first lead of the game, 38-31.
The Dolphins defense seemed to settle down in the fourth quarter and the offense moved the ball with a sense of deliberation. In fact, the Dolphins found themselves in the midst of a clock-grinding seven-minute drive when they fumbled the ball on their own 18.
Fouts drove the Chargers 82 yards and, with 58 seconds to play in the game, found James Brooks in the end zone to knot things at 38.
With 58 seconds to play, the Dolphins still enjoyed a last-gasp chance to win the game, but San Diego blocked von Schamann’s 43-yard attempt.
The teams embarked on the most famous playoff overtime in NFL history.
The Dolphins dodged an overtime bullet as the Chargers to the Miami 10-yard line on their first possession and stalled. A poor snap and hold doomed Rolf Benirschke’s game-winning 27-yard field goal attempt.
The Dolphins then marched into San Diego territory and it looked as if the football gods would again favor Shula. The Dolphins lined up for their own game-winning attempted, but San Diego blocked their second kick of the game.
The game trudged on through strength-sapping humidity. Fatigue visually began to take its toll on the players until, after 13:52 of overtime, Fouts found Joiner at the Dolphins 10 and Benirschke’s 29-yard field goal put the spike through all our hearts.
The post-game numbers boggled the mind. For the first time in NFL history two quarterbacks passed for more than 400 yards each. Strock completed 29 of 43 passes for 403 yards and four touchdowns. Fouts proved equally prolific, completing 33 of 53 passes for 433 yards and three touchdowns.
The game’s ever-enduring image: Winslow helped off the field by a pair of teammates; a towel draped over his head. Winslow appeared virtually all over the field that night catching 13 passes for 166 yards and blocking the first of von Schamann’s field goal attempts. Winslow joined a group of five players to record more than 100 receiving yards in the game.
By allowing the Dolphins to overcome the early deficit, there’s a probability the Chargers cost themselves a Super Bowl berth. The team retreated to San Diego for practice before traveling to frigid Cincinnati where they lost the infamous “Freezer Bowl” 27-7 to the Bengals in temps of minus-9 degrees and a -37-degree wind chill. The Bengals narrowly lost to the 49ers in the Super Bowl that year.
Who knows how the Dolphins might’ve fared if they had beaten the Chargers and hosted the Bengals in the AFC Championship Game? The Dolphins were certainly rounding into peak form at this time because the next year they advanced to the Super Bowl. But before they reached the 1982 “Mud Bowl” AFC Championship game against the Jets, they again met and finally dispatched the Chargers 34-13 at the Orange Bowl.
Like that girlfriend who watched the game with me, the 1981 Divisional Playoff game will leave us all wondering about how things could’ve played out through a series of “only-if’s.” In the end, though, it probably wouldn’t have worked out.