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Dec. 14, 1980: Ahmad Rashad's 'miracle catch' at Met Stadium

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
Staff Writer

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.

 
  The fans who streamed out of Met Stadium with the Vikings trailing Cleveland by eight points with less than five minutes to go missed this scene: Ahmad Rashad stepping backward into the end zone for the winning touchdown. (Star Tribune photo by William Seaman)

Jan. 22, 1922: An organ grinder's despair

Bylines were rare in Twin Cities newspapers of the 1920s. Women’s bylines were rarer still. And any woman who specialized in first-person feature stories – as the Minneapolis Tribune’s Lorena A. Hickok did – was likely to be referred to as a “girl reporter” in the accompanying headlines.
 
 
  Lorena A. Hickok
Hickok, a native of East Troy, Wis., wrote scores of stories for the Tribune in the early 1920s. She endured a lot of hokey first-person assignments – or maybe she gravitated toward them. She allowed herself to be hypnotized by a vaudevillian performer. She filled in for a department store Santa. And she covered a “secret” Gophers football practice, using her professed ignorance of the game to get a foot in the door at a “rehearsal” before a big game with the Badgers. But she also scored entertaining and insightful interviews with polar explorer Roald Amundsen and pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff. Her writing shows wit and sensitivity and a flair for the dramatic – although the story below might seem a bit purple to the modern reader.
 
Hickok went on to write for the Associated Press, covering the Lindbergh kidnapping and Franklin Roosevelt’s run for president in 1932. During that assignment, “Hick” hit it off with Eleanor Roosevelt, and the two developed a close friendship that lasted until Roosevelt’s death in 1962. The intimate letters they exchanged over the years have prompted much speculation about the depth of their relationship. But historians remain divided on whether the two were romantically involved.
 

Hurdy Gurdy Man, Already Deep
in Despair, Told Wife Is Dying

 
Grief Over Demise of Pet
Monkey Accentuated By
Greater Tragedy.
 
By Lorena A. Hickok
 
Jenny, Carmen Biondi’s performing monkey, is dead.
 
Wherefore the heart of Carmen Biondi, the old hurdy gurdy man, is heavy with grief and impotent despair.
 
And from her bed in the General hospital yesterday, Rafella Biondi, Carmen’s wife, swore eternal vengeance upon the villains who abducted Jenny from her master’s home, tied her up in a cold wood shed, and let her die there – of cold and hunger.
 
Carmen was not doing any cursing yesterday, however. He had no heart for revenge. For another tragedy reared its grizzly head above Carmen’s black horizon and threatened to crush him with a sorrow that would make him forget even the loss of his pet.
 
Told Wife Is Dying.
 
When Carmen went to the hospital yesterday morning to see his wife, he was told that she was dying – that she would never return alive to the little tar-paper shack out at 648 Johnson street northeast, where drying herbs and red peppers hang in bundles from the ceiling, and where she used to sing the long winter evenings through while Carmen ground the music of sunny Italy out of his old hand-organ.
 
From her death-bed, Rafella Biondi directed that a reward of $10 be offered to anybody who caught the suspected abductors of Jenny trespassing on Carmen’s property again.
 
She instructed Carmen to pay this reward out of “monkey money” deposited in the St. Anthony Falls bank – money earned by Carmen and his pets in happier days gone by and turned over to her.
 
Pet Disappears From Home.
 
Jenny disappeared from her cage the afternoon of January 10, while her master was down at the hospital visiting his wife. Yesterday he said her body had been found, stiff and cold, in a woodshed. Her kidnapers, Carmen said, had tied her there and let her die of hunger and exposure.
 
For more than 20 years Carmen has gone with his organ on summer Sunday afternoons to the Minneapolis parks and to the summer homes at Lake Minnetonka to play for the children. Often in those happy days he was accompanied by Rafella, who used to laugh delightedly at the antics of the “lit-tla ones.”
 
That was his play, however – he called it his “idle work.” He earned his living mainly by working in the city sewer department. Last summer he found that the work was getting pretty heavy for him – he will be 60 years old on his next birthday.
 
So he sent to Brazil for Jenny, a ring-tail monkey, and Mike, her mate. For six months he had been training them to dance and bow and pass the little tin cup, while he ground the “Marsellaise” and haunting melodies from “Il Trovatore” and “La Traviata” out of his old hand-organ.
 
Mike Not Himself Since.
 
And then Jenny disappeared. Mike has never been himself, Carmen says, since they took Jenny away. He refuses to eat, and shows no inclination whatever to try his stunts – nor has Carmen the heart to make him try. They spend much of their time huddled together on the edge of the tumbled bed in Carmen’s shack – discussing, in musical Italian and shrill monkey jargon, the fate of Jenny and the fate they wish would befall Jenny’s abductors.
 
Carmen came from the hospital to tell me about it yesterday.
 
“I finda my monk,” he said, when I went out to talk to him. “Dead. She die in da shed. Hungry. Cold. Breaks my heart.
 
“And my Rafella – she die, too. Never getta well. Never come home again. I play no more. I sella my organ.”
 
Carmen pulled out a little blue paper – a perpetual pass into the ward where his wife is. He pointed to it and said:
 
“Put in a paper, please – nobody can see my Rafella. Too sick, now. Nobody see her – only me.”
 
He stood silent for a long time, gazing at the floor. His eyelids, I noticed them, were red and swollen. I said nothing – there wasn’t anything to say. At length he looked up, held out his hand, and said brokenly:
 
“Good-bye, lady. I go home. Tella Mike. Gooda-bye.” 
 
An organ grinder and his monkey in about 1923: What ever happened to this form of street entertainment? (Photo courtesy mnhs.org)