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For starters, the NFL game broadcast live from Texas Stadium in Irving was the coldest regular-season game in Texas in Cowboys history. But the cold wasn’t what caused all the commotion. It was the blinding, bone-chilling sleet and snow that came down through the hole in the roof of Texas Stadium — a hole that was put there by design so that, as former linebacker D.D. Lewis famously quipped, “God can watch His favorite team play.”
The game was billed — and rightfully so — as a forerunner of Super Bowl XXVIII. The Cowboys were the reigning Super Bowl champions, and the Dolphins were an NFL-leading 8-2. Even though Miami had to play the game with third-stringer Steve DeBerg at quarterback — starter Dan Marino was out with a torn Achilles and backup Scott Mitchell had a dislocated shoulder — Don Shula’s team was the toast of the league.
Both teams fumbled around in the snow — figuratively and literally — for the entirety of the game. But what the game lacked in dramatic long passing plays and breakout runs it more than made up for with nail-biting, buzzer-beating suspense. Here’s the scene for those of you who have erased this game with a selective lobotomy (and for you Dolphins-loving Cowboys haters, here’s your happy place):
Dallas was up 14-13 with only seconds remaining. The field was a blanket of snow pockmarked by icy footprints. Miami kicker Pete Stoyanovich speared at the field with his cleats to find a green patch for his field-goal attempt. He was more successful at clearing snow than he was at making 40-yarders in those conditions, as the ball barely lifted off the ground before it was blocked by Dallas defensive tackle Jimmie Jones, and the ball came to a rest on Dallas’ 1-yard line. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones raised his hands victoriously on the sideline. “The Cowboys will win,” announcer Dick Enberg proclaimed as the camera panned to Dallas QB Troy Aikman and wide receiver Michael Irvin hugging and congratulating each other.
“Wait a minute, wait a minute …” began co-announcer Bob Trumpy, “a Dallas player touched the ball and then the Dolphins went on and recovered it. … It’s Leon Lett! No!”
Leon Lett. That Leon Lett, who started his fumble-returning touchdown dance too early in Super Bowl XXVII and was embarrassed when Buffalo Bills wide receiver Don Beebe knocked the ball out of Lett’s hands and into the end zone for a touchback, had done it again.
Dolphins kicker Stoyanovich got a second chance, this time from the Cowboys’ 1-yard line. The Dolphins offense went to work clearing a spot for holder Doug Pederson. Pederson even took his towel out of his waistband and started wiping down the field. With three seconds left, Stoyanovich nailed it. “The Dolphins pull it out, 16-14!” Enberg shouted. “Game over!”
“There have been a lot of Ws, but this one is special,” Shula said after the game, which marked his 327th victory. “I’ve never seen one end like that.”
Something else Shula never saw — or, at the very least, never saw coming — was how the 1993 regular season would end. Here’s where the stroll down memory lane becomes one of sweet memories for the Cowboys and of sheer disbelief for the Dolphins. After the Thanksgiving Classic, the Dolphins, who had the best record in the NFL at 9-2, did not win another game that season. The Cowboys, who were 7-4, won every one of their remaining games, including Super Bowl XXVIII.
That was 20 years ago this month, though many of us remember it like it was yesterday, thanks in part to our virtual vacationing. But for five players on the 1993 Dallas Cowboys roster and for one player and two coaches on the 1993 Miami Dolphins staff, the Thanksgiving Classic was a symbolic nod to a tradition that started 60 years earlier. Dallas Cowboys players Derrick Gainer (Florida A&M), Kenneth Gant (Albany State), Nate Newton (Florida A&M), Jimmy Smith (Jackson State) and Erik Williams (Central State), and Miami Dolphin Jeff Hunter (Albany State) and coaches Mel Phillips (North Carolina A&T State) and Junior Wade (South Carolina State) are graduates of America’s historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), institutions formed when this country was completely separate and education was anything but equal. Athletics were no different. The Orange Blossom Classic started in 1933 as a way for top black athletes to compete on a grand level at a time when most football stadiums, including the iconic Orange Bowl in Miami, wouldn’t allow integrated teams to play. Now, 80 years after the first Orange Blossom Classic, author Samuel G. Freedman diligently chronicles how football has evolved — and improved — since that first game between Florida A&M and Howard.
This issue of American Way should be a good stroll down memory lane for all you holiday pilgrims. And here’s to collegiate professional football on Nov. 28, 2013. Let’s enjoy the games, let’s be thankful that the traditional afternoon games are played in domes so there are no worries about snow, and let’s remember the blood, sweat and tears it took many athletes over many generations to get us here.
Happy Thanksgiving, America.