Saturday, December 20, 2008

A Niners' Fans Take on the Top 10 Moments in Texas Stadium History

As a loyal (though not die-hard) fan of the San Francisco 49ers, I'm in an odd position. I grew attached to the Niners soon after moving to the Bay Area in 1987, which means I was in full throat by the time the Dallas Cowboys routinely crushed Steve Young and the boys. Naturally and despite ultimately getting over the Star-shaped hump, those wounds have left scars of deep and abiding animosity for the 'pokes.

Since the sports networks feature all things Dallas so prominently, I grabbed these many opportunities to point out how ridiculous some of the coverage is.

As a result, I've gained some visibility in the Cowboys' community on Bleacher Report and have been asked to write a Top 10 list for Texas Stadium as a pseudo-eulogy (little known secret - tonight's game against the Baltimore Ravens is almost certainly the last Cowboys' game on the hallowed turf).

That's odd.

Because my top two moments are Terrell Owens basking in God's glory while standing on the Star at midfield and Leon Lett's inexplicable stupidity against Miami with the entire country watching on Thanksgiving Day.

But that's not fair nor is it accurate.

As much as I dislike the Cowboys and Jerry Jones, you can't send a stadium that has seen its share of great moments out like that. As much as I'd like to, it and the franchise deserve their moment.

So, without further ado, an attempt at an objective list of the top 10 greatest moments in the history of Texas Stadium, home to a team I love to hate (in the sports' sense of the word):

10. Southern Methodist University soils the field one last time.

I don't know the exact date and I don't know what happened. What I do know is that, from 1979 until some point in 1986, the SMU Mustangs called Texas Stadium home. That last year, the NCAA handed down the first and only Death Penalty to a university's athletics program. It's been called the nuclear bomb of sanctions - used once in the most extreme case and never used again because of the horror it wrought (again, in the sports' sense).

This is the college athletics' scandal that set the bar for all those that followed.

Between 1975 and 1985, SMU got hit with probation five times. In '85, the NCAA placed the football program on probation for three years due to recruiting violations involving an assistant coach and boosters. Then, it hit the fan.

An investigation of the program (with the help of former players) uncovered a slush fund set up to compensate SMU football players for their time and effort. Even worse, the payments continued despite the probationary period. With the full knowledge and voluntary cooperation of the athletic department staff (they didn't want to leave their guys high-and-dry).

And boom goes the dynamite.

The NCAA terminated the program for the 1987 season, SMU terminated it for the 1988 season, and it has yet to recover. In an effort to emphasize the clean start when the program resumed in 1989, home games were moved to another location. As if Texas Stadium were somehow a co-conspirator.

Quite the contrary.

The stain was SMU football and the day it was bleached from Texas Stadium was one of the arena's best.

9. Leon Lett actually becomes a Thanksgiving turkey before our very eyes.

Ah, this is one of my fonder football memories. As is Don Beebe knocking the ball away from a prematurely celebrating (and morbidly obese) Lett before the latter could cross the goal line in the Super Bowl.

But that play only mattered because it cost Dallas the record for most points in a Super Bowl (currently owned by my Niners, thank you very much).

This one was quite a bit dumber and quite a bit more costly.

We all remember it. Miami's going for a long field goal to win the game. It's Thanksgiving Day 1993, every football fan in the country is watching because these are the days when both teams are relevant (as well as trying), and it's almost a white-out on the field in Dallas. The kick is blocked and, while the rest of the team celebrates, Professor Lett charges down to recover the ball, slides on the snow/ice, manages to kick it instead, Miami recovers, and kicks a much shorter field goal to win.

Of course, the Cowboys would ultimately raise another championship trophy that year so Lett got the last laugh.

8. The Triplets go into the Ring of Honor on Monday Night.

Forget about the actual game. I won't even mention what happened on the field that night (September 20, 2005). The real event was at halftime. Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin, and Emmitt Smith entered the Dallas Cowboys' fabled Ring of Honor as a unit. As it should have been.

You could argue that all three are underrated because of the collective excellence. YOU could argue that; I will not.

The fact remains, the Triplets delivered three titles to Big D. During the 1990s, they set the bar for championship contention in the National Football League. The offensive line was also revolutionary, but these three guys were the payload. Other teams (Young's championship club in particular) were built to beat the Cowboys and their damned Triplets.

They single-handedly kept Steve Young from ascending to Joe Montana's heights.

Let's move on.

7. Emmitt Smith breaks Sweetness' all-time rushing record.

This was another moment more significant for what it represented than the actual instant on the field. It was a rough year for Dallas and a rough year for Smith, who would ultimately slump off to Arizona before hanging 'em up. October 27, 2002 would be no different. Dallas lost the game to the Seattle Seahawks, wouldn't make the playoffs, and would finish in last place.

But the 11-yard rush that broke Walter Payton's astounding total put the cherry on top of one of the greatest careers ever produced by an NFL running back.

For that reason, alone, it makes the list.

6. Clint Longley relieves Roger Staubach, and then tries to retire him.

OK, so this didn't all happen in one game. But the story is pretty shocking while being utterly ridiculous.

The good part for Longley actually happened on November 28, 1974 in Texas Stadium. In another stellar example of the bitter and dangerous intensity that exists between two rivals, the Washington Redskins came into the game gunning for Staubach. They openly boasted of their plan to knock him unconscious. If they did that, game over because the back-up (Longley) was trash.

And that's just what happened. Staubach left for good and Longley entered facing a 16-3 deficit.

Even at home, a 13-point hole is a lot to make up against a heated rival. Improbably, that's just what Longley did. He marched the 'pokes all the way back to ultimately win the game on a 50-yard bomb with less than a minute left.

Of course, two years later Longely sucker-punched ol' Roger and that was the end of Clint Longley.

5. Terrell Owens looks to the heavens for praise, but gets George Teague's shoulder pad instead.

C'mon. You knew it was gonna be somewhere and it has to be a top five moment.

First, everyone remembers it. September 24, 2000. It was arguably this date or the Sharpie Incident that vomited forth the current version of TO. I vote for this one since we loved him for it in San Francisco. In a sense, it gave him a false sense of security - be a disrespectful jackass and someone will always adore you. They will make you a hero.

The Sharpie Incident gave him a lot of attention, but few people were congratulating him on his sense of leadership.

Second, it had to be a sweet moment for Dallas fans as well. TO got away with his first Star-gaze by surprising everyone. He wasn't so lucky the second time. Owens went back to the Star in a game SF would ultimately win 41-24 and Teague leveled him. The Dallas crowd went crazy.

So did the players.

Third, Terrell Owens went from authoring the most disrespectful moment in Texas Stadium history to a proud member of the franchise that calls it home. Only on a team owned by Jerry Jones.

4. The Triplets make one last ride to the Super Bowl over Brett Favre in 1996.

On January 14, 1996, the Dallas Cowboys won the National Football Conference Championship for the last time to date. On the way to their last Super Bowl title to date. They emerged victorious despite facing a fourth quarter deficit built by the Most Valuable Player of the League and its Offensive Player of the Year, Brett Favre.

Favre gun-slinged his way to a three-point lead in the ultimate stanza and turned it over to the Minister of Defense, Reggie White, and the Green Bay Packer defense.

But, powered by the fumes on which the Triplets were running (Smith was banged up, ditto Aikman, and Irvin had started to self-destruct), the Cowboys prevailed. Early in the game, Smith kept them close with his legs while Aikman did his part, throwing two scores to Irvin.

However, when the chips were down, Dallas turned to #22. Smith, as he so frequently did in those days, pushed the Cowboys ahead and put it away with another score after an interception.

Dallas won the de facto Super Bowl (although they had to wait to pick up the hardware until they officially dispatched the Pittsburgh Steelers) and Favre had to wait another year for his Super Bowl.

3. Staubach makes his last stand at Dallas' Alamo against the Washington Redskins.

I never saw the man play, but Roger Staubach was supposedly a sight to behold. Apparently, he was Joe Montana 1.0. Or Joe Cool was Staubach 2.0. Either way, his credentials back up the comparison.

This game was the last of his 21 fourth-quarter resurrections. It was the last of 14 to come in the final two minutes of a game. Even more impressively, it came in his last regular season game and vaulted the 'pokes into a division title.

The real icing on the cake, though, was that it bounced the hated 'skins out of the postseason. Roger sent them packing for fishing trips and family vacations rather than a first round playoff game.

Captain Comeback followed Washington into the NFL sunset only a week later and his trip was for good. But December 16, 1976 was one last, little treat for the fans before the curtain came down.

2. Staubach christens Texas Stadium with its first playoff win over the 49ers.

This is the first of the bitter pills for me to swallow, although I wasn't a Niner fan (nor born) at the time since it happened on January 2, 1972. The stadium had opened several months earlier and it still had that new-car smell. The Niners came into town looking to avenge the upset they had suffered at the hand of these same Cowboys a year earlier in San Fran.

It didn't happen.

Staubach and his mates never let the Niners into the game, surrendering only three points. Roger didn't throw for much, but he led his team in rushing and the victory catapulted Dallas to its first Super Bowl Championship.

Not bad for the first playoff game in Texas Stadium's history.

1. Jimmy Johnson's mouth writes a check that his team has no problem cashing.

This one's gonna hurt a LOT worse.

“We will win the ballgame, and you can put that in three-inch bold headlines.” That's all it took to inspire life-long bitterness and antipathy from an entire fanbase. To this day, I dislike Jimmy Johnson and his mouth. I've never encountered a man who is more impressed by himself than ol' Jimmy. To me, he is a joke and will remain one.

Maybe he was drunk when he called the local radio station, that's the rumor. More importantly, he was right on January 23, 1994 in Irving, Texas.

The game was never in doubt. Dallas jumped out to a 28-7 lead and it didn't even matter that Aikman left the game, concussed. The Cowboys rolled over Steve Young and my Niners (again) and didn't stop rolling until they raised their second consecutive Lombardi Trophy.

If the game wasn't already bad enough, the disappointment followed on the heels of a baseball season that saw the San Francisco Giants win 103 games and miss the playoffs.

The final nail was driven home by Bernie Kosar. BERNIE KOSAR!

There are a handful of games that might make other lists - Tony Romo's debut, Jason Garrett outdueling Brett Favre, the first game the Triplets took the field together, etc. No list will be definitive.

The only hedging I'll do is this: If Dallas manages to beat Baltimore in the final game tonight, I'd put it in my top three. With all that's on the line, the caliber of the opponent, the recent turmoil, and the fact that it's Texas Stadium's swan song?

A win tonight would be the perfect way to blow the final whistle on Texas Stadium.

Something tells me it will happen with all those ghosts smiling down through the open roof.

With all the greats watching the place they called home for so long and will do so one last time.

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