Where were you when Tommy Kramer led the Vikings to an astonishing comeback over Cleveland at Met Stadium on a chilly December afternoon nearly 40 years ago? A former copy desk colleague of mine recalled that she and her dad were listening to the game on the car radio, and that he pulled over on Franklin Avenue after Ahmad Rashad’s winning catch so that they could jump up and down in celebration. I, too, was listening on a car radio, running errands in the same part of Minneapolis. I let out a whoop but didn’t stop the Pinto wagon or even honk its horn, though I distinctly remember hearing many others honking theirs.
Minutes later, the Tribune’s Joe Soucheray was in the visitors’ locker room at the Met, gathering fodder for this page one account of the “miracle catch.”
Sign of the times (1): It appears that the Tribune sent only one photographer and two reporters – not counting Sid Hartman — to cover a home game that had playoff implications. Nowadays, such a game would draw three times as many staffers, with or without Brett Favre wearing purple.
Sign of the times (2): By advancing to the playoffs with this victory, each Viking pocketed an extra — wait for it – $5,000.
Vikings win title again, but … it was no less than astonishing
By Joe Soucheray
Maybe we have become too cinematic with this game of football and all its pretentions, but Sunday afternoon at Metropolitan Stadium the ball seemed to travel its arc through onrushing dusk as though in slow motion. There aren’t many moments like it, when the season is on the light end of the scale and the football is sailing through the air to upraised hands in the end zone and thousands of cold and disbelieving fans have stopped in their tracks to the exits.
The Vikings trailed Cleveland by a point, 23-22, and Tommy Kramer had just launched a pass from the Browns’ 46-yard line into the right corner of the end zone, with four seconds showing on the scoreboard clock. Terry LeCount, Ahmad Rashad and Sammy White had been deployed to the right corner, LeCount in the middle as if it had been a wing formation. The clock ticked down to zero with the ball in flight. The Browns had responded by sending out a fleet of six deep backs, most principally Thom Darden, the eight-year safety out of Michigan.
|Vikings quarterback Tommy Kramer embraced wide receiver Ahmad Rashad after the two hooked up for the winning touchdown against Cleveland at Met Stadium in Bloomington on Dec. 14, 1980. (Star Tribune photo by Duane Braley)|
“I chose to stick with White,” Darden said later in his locker room. “I am sure the ball was intended for White to tip to Rashad. In my mind White was the tip man and I wasn’t going to permit it.”
“Where was Rashad?” somebody said.
“At that point I was between White and Rashad,” Darden said. “Suddenly, White stopped. When he stopped, I stopped. And when he went into the air I went with him. I did get a hand on the ball.”
“Where was Rashad now?” somebody said.
“By now he was in the vicinity,” Darden said.
Rashad caught the ball, on what the Vikings insist was a tip off White’s fingers. Rashad was near the 2-yard line and he backed in, victorious in this astonishing and totally unlikely game of volleyball that had given the Vikings a victory and yet another Central Division championship. It was almost a replay of the ball Drew Pearson of the Cowboys caught in the shadow of Nate Wright at the Met in a 1975 first-round play-off game.
“I wasn’t going to allow Sammy to tip the ball, much less catch it,” Darden was saying. “And I ended up tipping it to Rashad. It did not occur to any of us – me or Rashad or White – what had happened until we heard the crowd reaction.”
In the Cleveland locker room later there was an occasional curse. Dirty laundry was flung this way and that. A television newsman discovered Cleveland coach Sam Rutigliano in the corner of the bathroom.
“Can we get a live interview?” the TV man said.
“How can you?” Rutigliano said. “I’m a dead man.”
Rutigliano was more than gracious, almost bemused by what had just happened. He couldn’t for the life of him remember Darden as his primary defender on the miracle catch.
“It was great concentration by a great player,” Rutigliano said of the catch. “It was a 30-foot putt and he’ll never make it again, but it was memorable. Neither team got much pressure to the quarterback today and the quarterbacks proved resourceful, didn’t they?”
“Are you as cool on the inside as you appear on the outside?” Rutigliano was asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “You’d have to perform an autopsy.”
As interesting as the miracle catch – or more accurately, as astonishing – was a Brian Sipe pass intercepted by Bobby Bryant minutes earlier in the fourth quarter. Cleveland held a 23-15 lead with nearly five minutes left in the game and the Browns were cruising upfield when Sipe chose to pass on a second-and-nine from his own 41 yard line. The pass was intended for Reggie Rucker.
“That was an option screen play,” Rutigliano said. “It worked well for us earlier in the game. We were thinking first down. We were thinking ball possession. I had warned the team at half time that the Vikings were an extremely patient team.”
“Were you surprised that Sipe passed at that point?” [Vikings coach] Bud Grant was asked.
“Not at all,” Grant said. “They’ve always used the short pass as a form of ball control. Bobby Bryant just cheated a little. He knew that Sipe wouldn’t throw deep and he moved in front of Rucker.”
“Rucker was the intended receiver,” Sipe said over in his quarters. “But in retrospect I wish I would have dumped it off to Cleo Miller, which was my option on the play. But hey, even after that I didn’t think we were in trouble.”
But the Vikings struck quickly with a touchdown to Rashad. Cleveland got the ball back and eventually punted, giving Minnesota its final possession at the Minnesota 20-yeard line with 14 seconds left in the game. The play that moved the team downfield was a pass to Joe Senser and the subsequent lateral to Teddy Brown, a play that moved the ball from the Viking 20 to the Cleveland 46, from where Kramer struck with the miracle throw.
“A flea flicker is what beat us as much as anything,” Calvin Hill said afterwards. “A damn good flea flicker, that Senser-to-Brown play.”
But it was the catch that people will remember, one of those great moments in sports that can be called up in the mind and played over and over again. It did take the chill off a winter day, all that heat and passion boiled down to the final play of a football game.