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Dec. 29, 1975: Pearson's ‘Hail Mary’ catch

Posted by: Ben Welter under Minnesota History, Sports Updated: January 14, 2010 - 11:31 PM
Did Drew Pearson push off Nate Wright before snaring the winning touchdown pass in the Vikings’ heartbreaking loss to Dallas in a 1975 divisional playoff game at Met Stadium? A Minneapolis Tribune account published the next day is clear: We wuz robbed.

Cowboys finish Vikings 17-14

Staff Writer
 
Because of one catch that possibly could be called a miracle and two calls that possibly could be called mistakes in judgment, the Dallas Cowboys, in the final 24 seconds of the game Sunday, knocked the Minnesota Vikings off Super Bowl Road by a score of 17-14.
 
Because of what they thought had been a comeback victory by Minnesota, the last-second loss left fans in a sudden state of sadness and shock. One fan was so perturbed or mentally deranged that he hit an official in the head with a whiskey bottle shortly before the game ended.
 
The near miracle was the completion of a desperation 50-yard pass to Drew Pearson for the clinching touchdown.
 
“Our only goal was to throw it and hope for a miracle,” said Cowboys Coach Tom Landry, who admitted he was “very, very depressed when the play started because we were trailing and to my way of thinking we had outplayed them the entire game.”
 
“I just threw it and prayed,” said Staubach. “I couldn’t see whether or not Drew had caught it. I didn’t know we had the touchdown until I saw the official raise his arms.
 
 
  Drew Pearson landed on his feet with the ball secured and trotted into the end zone. Nate Wright, who tangled with Pearson in the air, landed on his back. Future Hall of Fame safety Paul Krause, 22, arrived too late to help.
“I’ll admit that we were very lucky on that play. But on the other hand, that touchdown we gave the Vikings in the second quarter had to be some kind of a fluke. (It was set up when Minnesota’s Fred McNeill recovered a Vikings punt at the four-yard line after it hit the leg of Dallas’s Cliff Harris.)
 
“If you take away that touchdown by the Vikings and our so-called lucky catch, we still would have won by a field goal and I think we deserved to,” Staubach said. “I’m sure the statistics will bear me out.”
 
One of the possible miscalls came on the final touchdown play; the other preceded it in the Cowboys’ quick 85-yard drive to the touchdown.
 
On the first, Dallas stood on its own 25-yard line in a fourth-and-16 situation after Staubach had fallen on a low pass from center for a loss of six yards. Passing from the shotgun formation, which he used 12 times in the fourth quarter, Staubach hit Pearson, who made a jumping catch on the 50 yard-line near the sideline.
 
The official ruled that Vikings defender Nate Wright hit Pearson in mid-air and pushed him out of bounds. Vikings-oriented observers near the scene contended that it would have been impossible for Pearson to land in bounds whether he had been hit by Wright or not.
 
“I would have been in if I hadn’t been pushed,” said Pearson. “There’s no question about it.”
 
“It was a judgment call by the official,” said Vikings Coach Bud Grant. “Nate touched him and the official gave Pearson the benefit of the doubt.”
 
The call on the touchdown pass was definitely wrong, in the eyes of the Vikings.
 
Pearson streaked down the field in a pattern that started much the same way as the fourth-down pass had. He ran to the inside and then turned out. Both he and Wright went for the ball. Pearson came down with it and went in to score.
 
“It was a little bit short so I had come back a little and that gave me a chance to get away from Nate,” Pearson said. “The ball juggled around a little and I finally caught it between my elbow and my ribs. It was a lucky catch, but it was the most important catch of my career.
 
“It’s hard to say. I thought I might have gotten pass interference. It could have gone either way.”
 
Then there’s the Vikings’ version, which has it that Wright was in complete control of the situation until he was pushed down by Pearson just before Pearson went for the ball.
 
“From our side of the field,” said Grant, “there is now question that Nate was pushed. No question. He (Pearson) had nothing to lose. If they called a penalty on him, what had he lost? They would just line up and try another long pass. It was one chance in a hundred that he would get away with it, but it was the only chance he had.”
 
“I had a clear view,” said Vikings quarterback Fran Tarkenton. “The man pushed his arm down and pushed Nate down. It definitely should have been offensive pass interference.”
 
Wright left the Vikings dressing room without talking to reporters, but Terry Brown, another Vikings defensive back, said Wright told him: “I had it, then suddenly I was on the ground.” Added Brown, “I know Nate had it intercepted until he was interfered with by Pearson.”
 
 
  Fran Tarkenton headed to the locker room after the final gun. (Minneapolis Tribune photo by Richard Olsenius)
Running back Chuck Foreman also was close to the action. “I saw Nate ready to make an interception and the receiver pushed him,” said Foreman. “I’m not criticizing officials. I make mistakes just like they can, but that mistake was a very costly one for us. And I’m not taking anything away from the Cowboys.”
 
On the first-down pass Alan page was held and actually tackled. On the touchdown pass Mark Mullaney was held and tackled by Cowboys protecting Staubach. Both infractions went unnoticed, or at least uncalled.
 
“This has to rank as our second-best win ever,” said Landry. “Our Super Bowl victory, of course, is still the all-time most rewarding, but this will be another we’ll never forget.
 
“I’m very pleased with the way our offense worked for us. Especially, of course, Roger and Drew in those closing seconds. It was almost like waking up from what had turned into a bad dream. And what about the defense? Any team that can hold Minnesota to 14 points after practically giving them one touchdown has to have a great defensive unit.”
 
That defensive unit held the Vikings to 100 yards rushing and 15 yards passing [115 and 135 yards, respectively, according to the accompanying box score], with Tarkenton completing only 12 of 26 passes. The Vikings’ rushing was so unsuccessful that Tarkenton, with 32 yards, was second to Foreman, who had 56.
 
“We didn’t have any defensive tricks,” said Lee Roy Jordan, the Cowboys’ veteran middle linebacker. “Our line just kind of operates as a single unit. They filled up [the middle] and kept Foreman from ever really getting a good start.
 
“With them doing that our linebackers were able to fall back with the receivers and frustrate Tarkenton.”
 
And it must have been frustrating for Tarkenton. Four or five of his long passes to Jim Lash and John Gilliam were slightly overthrown and missed by just inches. Some were touchdown material.
 
After a scoreless first period in which the deepest penetration by either team was the Cowboys to the Minnesota 38, the Vikings took advantage of the Cowboys’ only serious mistake and scored.
 
After a Neil Clabo punt from the Dallas 42, the ball bounced around near the Dallas four-yard line. It hit Harris and an alert McNeill ran it in. It was ruled a free ball, however. The Vikings got the ball if not the touchdown, and Foreman scored three plays later.
 
Early in the third quarter, after Fred Cox was short on a 45-yard field-goal attempt, Dallas kept the ball until Doug Dennison crashed over the right side from four yards out and the score was 7-7.
 
 
  Ed (Too Tall) Jones proved to be quite a handful for Ron Yary and the Vikings' offensive line. (Minneapolis Star photo by Charles Bjorgen)
An impressive Vikings defense featuring outstanding play by Carl Eller in particular stopped a Cowboys drive that started in the third quarter and forced a Toni Fritsch field goal early in the fourth.
 
The score was 10-7 when the Vikings, in their only sustained drive of the day, marched 70 yards in 11 plays. Brent McClanahan bucked over on a second effort for a 1-yard touchdown.
 
Cox’s kick was good and the Vikings seemed to be the victors 14-10. The Vikings had the ball for only four more plays before Staubach and crew, with slightly less than two minutes left, began their final, fateful drive.
 
It was a great day for Staubach, who completed 17 of 29 passes for 246 yards. His leading receiver was Drew Pearson, who caught four for 91 yards. It was a neatly played game with only one interception and one fumble lost, both by Dallas.
 
“I guess I’ll quit football,” Tarkenton said, “but only until training camp starts.”
 
Epilogue: Tarkenton's father, the Rev. Dallas Tarkenton, 63, suffered a heart attack and died while watching the game on TV at his home in Georgia. Fran Tarkenton didn’t learn of his death until after the game, while watching television with friends in their motor home in the Met Stadium parking lot.

 

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