It was going to be cold, this much everyone knew going in. We’re talking the coldest Thanksgiving on record, before or since, and likely forever and ever, in the Dallas-Fort Worth region. And that, in and of itself, would have made for a heck of a story. The Frigid Bowl on Turkey Day at Texas Stadium: 32 degrees for the 3 p.m. local time kickoff, 24 degrees and dropping by the second half.
However, the lack of Fahrenheit was the least of anyone’s worries. There was freezing rain, snow, sleet, ice pellets, little hail here and there. And, oh yeah, there was the field itself. No, scratch that. There was a slab of cement covered by a green carpet disguised as artificial turf. And two hours before kickoff, there was a tarp covering the aforementioned that was trapped beneath more ice and snow than just about anyone born and raised in Texas had ever seen.
This was the scene on the fourth Thursday in November 20 years ago. Yet here, at this time and place, one of the most memorable regular-season games in the history of the National Football League took place.
Don Shula and the Miami Dolphins came in at 8-2, although their All-Pro quarterback Dan Marino was out for the season, having torn his Achilles tendon in October. As for the defending Super Bowl champion Cowboys, they were 7-3 after a 0-2 start, caused in part by Emmitt Smith’s contract holdout.
Dallas was favored by 10 points.
Jimmy Johnson (Cowboys head coach): “I hate cold weather, absolutely hate it.”
Don Shula (Dolphins head coach): “We’ve got to play no matter what happens. We’ve got to handle it.”
Ed Hochuli (longtime NFL referee, then in his second season, calling his first Thanksgiving game): “How we receive advance weather reports during the week is quite different than it was 20 years ago, so I’m not sure how much advance warning we had. The officiating crew flew in Wednesday morning, and we had meetings that afternoon into the early evening. By that point, we knew it was going to be cold.
“We arrived at the stadium about an hour earlier than usual because of the weather, so around 11 a.m. We were expecting some issues. We talked with the folks on the field maintenance crew on procedures and clearing the snow and ice off the field, which was on-going all day.
“We did not expect snow when we left for Dallas. Officials have different kinds of shoes. We have a longer cleat for games with snow for better traction. And we wear a longer cleat for grass. But for artificial turf, some officials just wear a flat shoe, like a basketball sneaker for turf. We didn’t bring our longer cleats that day, and we were slipping and sliding. We couldn’t stop. You basically had to slide on the ice to eventually come to a stop.
“That is absolutely the worst traction I’ve ever had as an official in 25 years. We’ve been in worse snow, but with the shoes we had, and the old surface at Texas Stadium, it was basically a carpet. There was a lot of sliding around that day.”
Harvey Greene (Dolphins vice president, public relations): “We knew this was going to be a cold-weather game leaving Miami. We brought our cold-weather gear on the plane. What no one knew about was the precipitation. We didn’t even know that morning waking up in Dallas. I ran the local Turkey Trot that morning and the weather was fine. There were no issues. It was a bit cold, but that’s all. Then we left the hotel a little before noon and the bus ride was treacherous. I can tell you with certainty, even 20 years later, no one was expecting the weather issues waiting for us at the stadium.”
Rich Dalrymple (Cowboys vice president, public relations): “It was kind of cloudy, overcast and cold in the morning, but then a light snow started to come down and you just thought, ‘This is cute.’ Then it just didn’t stop. I had never seen anything like it. It just put a white blanket over Texas Stadium. It was really an odd sight.”
Darren Woodson (Cowboys strong safety): “I remember waking up the morning of the game and seeing it was cold, but no one was forecasting snow or ice. You know what was weird? I had always thought of Texas Stadium as a dome. It just felt that way, even with the hole in the roof. But when we walked onto the field, the whole field was covered with ice. I just didn’t think that could happen there. We were all kind of looking at each other like, ‘Is this for real?’”
Bruce Hardy (longtime Texas Stadium general manager): “We had borrowed these brand-new tarps from the Cotton Bowl on Wednesday because we knew weather was coming in. So we’re down on the field four or five hours before kickoff and it’s only ice. [Cowboys owner] Jerry [Jones] and Jimmy [Johnson] want to keep the cover on as long as possible so about two hours before the kickoff, about 1 p.m., we head onto the field.
“We couldn’t move the tarps. There was so much ice, heavy ice, that the tarp wouldn’t budge. I immediately panicked. We couldn’t, we wouldn’t forfeit a game. Luckily, Jerry and Jimmy were more focused on the football game. They didn’t realize what was going on. I was freaking out.
“All we had was this little trash pickup machine, just a little thing, but we used that and shoveled what we could. We were grabbing concession workers to push snow off, whatever we could think of. Finally, we were able to get the tarp off, but it was destroyed, ripped, torn. We had to buy the Cotton Bowl some new tarps, but I had never been so happy.”
While they were able to remove the tarp, the snow and ice kept falling, and by kickoff, the field was more or less a skating rink. Players and the officiating crew were slipping and falling every other play, making for a hybrid NFL football game meets Ice Follies. In the first quarter, Miami kicker Pete Stoyanovich slipped and fell on his you-know-what attempting a 44-yard field goal. There was simply no way to plant.
Still, there was some scoring, with Miami running back Keith Byars breaking loose down the right sideline in the first quarter for a franchise-tying best 77-yard touchdown run, the game’s first points.
Hochuli: “There’s this great shot of Mike Carey, who was then a side judge and, of course, is now one of our best referees, signaling touchdown as Byars scores while his feet are sliding out from under him. They used the footage in a movie at some point, but I forget which one. We always joke around about that one when we see each other. It wasn’t just him, though. We were all slipping and sliding.”
Emmitt Smith (Cowboys running back): “It was so bad that we might as well have worn ice skates.”
Daryl Johnston (Cowboys fullback): “It was hard to keep footing for both teams. It puts limitations on things you can do.”
Keith Byars (Dolphins running back): “Sunshine is nice but when the elements come into play, that’s when we find out which players can step up and play. I like the cold weather. It didn’t bother me one bit.
“The Dallas defense’s strength was their speed so we tried to come out and play physical, and just ram it down their throats. That way we were playing to our strength and their weakness.”
Michael Irvin (Cowboys wide receiver): “You had to run control routes because it was so sloppy that you couldn’t get any kind of traction. You couldn’t come out of cuts and couldn’t break hard.”
Eddie Murray (Cowboys kicker): “It’s the worst field I’ve ever seen [in 20 NFL seasons]. It was both icy and slushy.”
Cowboys rookie wide receiver Kevin Williams tied the game with a 4-yard touchdown catch from Troy Aikman in the second quarter and then shortly thereafter, with less than a minute remaining before the half, shocked the crowd and viewing audience with a 64-yard punt return for a score, untouched no less, which gave Dallas a 14-7 lead at the intermission. As he crossed the goal line, with Hochuli gingerly sprinting behind him, Williams slid on one knee through the end zone while cradling the ball.
Hochuli: “Someone sent me the picture of him sliding with me in the background signaling touchdown. He was No. 85, which is also my number. [Williams] signed the photo, too. It’s framed in my law office to this day.”
Kevin Williams (Cowboys wide receiver and punt returner): “A little change in direction can get a lot of guys sliding. I went left, picked up a good block and then I saw the hole.”
That would be the last of the touchdowns on this day, with the conditions worsening during halftime. Countless workers continued to sweep off the snow and ice with hopes of at least keeping the yard-markers visible. The second half was a mess. By game’s end, the two teams had combined for six turnovers and three missed field goals with neither punter able to average 35 yards per boot.
Dalrymple: “That was a very big game for us because Troy Aikman had missed the previous two games with a hamstring pull, we had lost at Atlanta the Sunday before, and the Giants were creeping back into the NFC East picture. Up in the press box, I remember thinking this was really cool, this is really neat, this is one of those games we’ll always remember and eventually we’re going to win. We were confident that we were going to win the game, especially with Marino not playing. Looking back, it was the elements that leveled the playing field that day.
Woodson: “You couldn’t find footing. That was the big thing. Everyone was talking about that on the sidelines, before and during the game. Our defensive backs coach at the time, Dave Campo, kept telling us there were no excuses. I was wearing my old Nikes with the rubber bottoms just like any other game. We had no idea how bad it was going to be. There was no grabbing, no traction.
“There was one play, think it was third-and-2. And Steve DeBerg is playing quarterback for them and he throws this short pass to Keith Byars. I saw that thing happening, I knew where the ball was going and on any other Sunday of my NFL career, I take that sucker to the house. I could not get there, I could not get my feet turning, and he caught the ball for the first down by a few inches. That play bothers me to this day, but there was nothing I could do.”
THE FIELD GOAL
The NFL first used instant replay in 1986, but it was voted out before the 1992 season, not to return until 1999. So for this game, the officiating crew was on its own.
Stoyanovich converted a pair of field goals, from 20 yards in the third and 31 yards in the fourth, to creep the Dolphins to within a point, 14-13. The Cowboys drove down the field shortly before the two-minute warning, but Murray missed wide right from 32 yards. By that point, the field was tenfold worse than at kickoff, and there was virtually no traction for Murray to plant.
Miami quickly picked up a few first downs, highlighted by a 14-yard catch by Byars with 15 seconds remaining. The Dolphins were out of timeouts, but he was able to run out of bounds to stop the clock. Stoyanovich would have a chance to win it, from about 41 yards out.
The remainder of the game is part of football lore, right there with the Heidi Game and the Immaculate Reception. First, the Cowboys won, even celebrated on the field and the sidelines, and then, well, they lost.
The kick was blocked by Jimmie Jones. With just a few more ticks of the clock, the game would have ended. All the Cowboys had to do was not touch the football, spinning there in the snow and the ice at the 7-yard line. There was nothing the Dolphins could do. Leon Lett, the incredibly shy and immensely talented defensive tackle, though, came sliding toward the ball, kicking it forward in the process, and the Dolphins recovered it at the 1-yard line with three seconds remaining. There was utter chaos.
MURRAY: “If I make my kick, we avoid all that mess at the end.”
Jimmie Jones (Cowboys defensive tackle): “We had ‘block right’ on and I was lined up one-on-one with their center. I just did a quick swim with him and I was able to get penetration and get my hands up [for the block]. I thought the game was over with. Everybody was celebrating.”
Leon Lett (Cowboys defensive tackle): “I knew the rule. I had blocked field goals in the past. It’s not like it was my first time on the field goal block team. Maybe it was that season, but not in my career. I have been trying to think back for, what, 20 years now, and I don’t know what happened. It was a brain freeze. I remember [safety] Thomas Everett returned a missed field goal earlier in the game. Maybe I thought of that, I don’t know. There are no excuses.”
Butch Davis (Cowboys defensive coordinator): “I thought the clock was going to run out. The ball was just spinning around in the snow.”
Woodson: “I’d never seen Leon play special teams. I honestly didn’t realize he was on the field until after the block. I remember being so confused, asking teammates, ‘Why was Leon on the field? What was he doing out there? He’s not on the field goal block team.
“There is no sound in football, any sport, like the thud of blocking a kick or punt. If I was sound asleep to this day and heard that noise, I would recognize it immediately. So Jimmie blocks the kick, and we’re all screaming ‘Peter! Peter!’ which is code for stay away, and we’re waving our arms. I was kind of running away from the ball, so I didn’t see any player running toward the ball. I was already kind of in a celebratory mood. I remember thinking, as I was coming toward the sidelines, ‘we’re going to be partying tonight.’”
Johnson: “Part of the mistake might have been [the coaches’] problem. Because it snowed, we decided to put him on our field goal block team before the game.
“Leon was not one of our main special teams players. I’m not even sure he ever worked with special teams previously, so he hadn’t gone through all the rules and regulations like somebody who was on all the special team units. We threw him into the mix because of the snow, thinking that with his size and power, he might be able to block one up the middle. It wasn’t Leon’s fault. We didn’t have him thoroughly prepared for the situation.”
Dalrymple: “I always go down to the field right before the game ends. I was down there with Jimmy when the blocked field goal happened, and he turned to me and said, ‘I didn’t see what happened. What the hell happened?’ I said to Jimmy, ‘I don’t know.’ There was all this mass confusion and running around. For those of us on the field, we really didn’t know what happened. We all thought the game was over. And the next thing you know, Miami is lining up to kick another field goal. It was total exhilaration to total frustration in about 30 seconds.”
Hochuli: “I didn’t see anything after the block. That’s common in terms of what our specific areas of responsibility are. My eyes are trained to be on the kicker, the holder, the snap, not where the ball landed downfield. So the crew came together, and there was a little input from everyone, and we put the pieces together. I have so much confidence in my crew. We have complete trust and confidence in each other. And we got the call right.
“The ball couldn’t be advanced because it was a kick. That’s why even though the Miami player [Jeff Dellenbach] slid into the end zone after he recovered the fumble, the ball was brought back to the spot he recovered it, at the 1-yard line.”
This time the field goal attempt was from just 19 yards and Stoyanovich split the uprights as time expired. The Dolphins prevailed, 16-14, in the most improbable of finishes.
Pete Stoyanovich (Dolphins kicker): “To be given the opportunity to be there again, it was just unbelievable. [The first one] was probably a combination of a low kick and not being far enough away from the line of scrimmage. It was an incredible turn of events.”
Shula: “They made the mistake of touching the football. Don’t ever give Stoyanovich two shots.”
Greene: “I was the closest person in the stadium, other than the players and officials, to the fumble, and never saw it. I was standing in the corner of the end zone near the tunnel to get to our locker room when Pete lined up for the first kick. After it was blocked, I turned around in disgust and started walking toward the tunnel.
“I was 10 yards from where Lett kicked the ball and never saw it because my back was to the field. By the time I heard the crowd roar and turned around, I saw Pete lining up for a second kick. I had no idea what happened or how we got to try the field goal again. When the game ended, I went up to Coach Shula – as I always did at the end of the game to give him some statistics – and asked him how we got the ball back. He looked at me like I had three eyes, asking him such a ridiculous question. I didn’t find out what happened until I got to the locker room and started asking around.”
Woodson: “In hindsight, I wish I was older and more mature. My responsibility as one of the two safeties was to tackle anyone who came close to the ball, even my own teammates. We practiced that all the time. After the game, I was really beating myself up for not doing that.
“As I reached the sideline, I heard something in the crowd, like a gasp and my teammates all looked scared. I turned around and had no idea what happened. They told us to go back out, and I’m like, ‘Are you serious?’ I lined up and jumped as high as I could, but the kick was good. It was the most deflating feeling I’ve ever experienced on a football field.”
Jason Garrett (then-Cowboys backup quarterback and current head coach): “It was an interesting play, no question about it. You can see why he might have done that. It was an effort play. It wasn’t a lazy play. Unfortunately, sometimes when you do that and you’re not fully versed on what the rule is, sometimes you make a mistake.”
The images remain as vivid today as they were on television screens around the country 20 years ago, from Jerry Jones raising his arms in victory on the sidelines to Lett sliding across the snow to the announcers stunning reaction, on both NBC and on the radio. The media coverage focused almost entirely on Lett, who had already earned national fame, or infamy, less than 10 months earlier in Super Bowl XXVII, when Buffalo’s Don Beebe knocked the ball loose as he was crossing the goal line with a fumble recovery, which would have given the Cowboys the single-game scoring record in Super Bowl history. However, the goof was considered funny, as Dallas easily won the game, 52-17. This time around, though, there was no humor in the gaffe, as innocent as it may have been.
Woodson: “The Super Bowl was funny. We were laughing and killing him at the same time, in a fun way, though. No one was upset, not even Jimmy. We were on Jimmie Jones just as much if not more than Leon because he could’ve easily blocked Beebe if he was paying attention. That wasn’t a big deal. It was confusing why it became this media story. We were winning by, what, 35 points? The Thanksgiving game was an entirely different story.
“Know what I remember most about the locker room after the game? Jimmy standing there and saying, ‘No one make the mistake of thinking one play cost us that game. There were a number of plays that cost us that game. Don’t look at this as being one play. Don’t think that for a second.’ He handled it perfectly. Absolutely perfectly.
“I went back to the trainers room and saw Leon there crying. This shy kid, one of the most likable people I’ve ever met in this world … it was heartbreaking. I told him he was ours, we all had his back and this game wasn’t a big deal anymore. It was behind us. Now we needed him for the next game.”
Lett: “I was the first one in the locker room. I just wanted off that field. I ran right in and went to the trainers room. I remember hearing helmets flying, hitting the wall, guys yelling in frustration. I lost the game. I was a mess.
“A few guys came into the trainers room to see me. I remember Nate [Newton] coming in, Michael [Irvin]. Then Jimmy walked in. I didn’t know what to do or say. I thought he was going to curse me out or cut me. He comes over to me, puts his hands on my shoulders and says in a soft voice, ‘don’t worry, Leon. You’re my boy and I’m sticking with you no matter what. As long as I have a job here, you have a job.’ Those words meant the world to me.”
Johnson: “I’ve never seen a game like that. It’s just crazy. That was the most disappointing loss I’ve ever been around.
“Leon was a tremendous talent, but because he was so quiet and introverted, people didn’t understand him or know him. He had the misfortune of a couple of crucial errors, but he really was an outstanding player and a good person.”
Shula: “I’ve been around a lot of football games but I never saw a game end like that before. There have been a lot of [wins], but that one is special.”
Jerry Jones (Cowboys owner, to The Dallas Morning News the day after Thanksgiving 1993): “Every team in the National Football League would like to have him playing defensive tackle, none more than the Dallas Cowboys. It’s unfortunate that two of the most visible plays could in any way influence opinions of Leon Lett. If I could do it this morning, I’d add three more years to the three-year contract he already has with this team. That’s the kind of confidence I have in him.”
Jerry Jones (present day): “I vividly remember the moments after that game. Leon was so emotional, and I wanted to reach out to him. No one felt worse than Leon. That team was so special. I think everyone understood that, and supported him. I made sure he knew how Jimmy and I felt about him. Also, we both stressed to him that there’s never one play that totally makes a difference in a football game. Never.”
Dalrymple: “All I remember about after the game was Leon in the training room, and he was despondent. Jimmy went in there and put his arm around him and talked. I didn’t even ask him about talking to the press. I just told everyone that, ‘look, he’s painfully shy, and he’s not talking.’ And to their credit, the media was pretty understanding that this was an unusual circumstance, and they gave him a pass for not talking about it.”
Lett: “Rich did a great job just taking that off my mind. He said, ‘Leon, don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of the media.’ There was no way I could talk, or even begin to explain what happened.”
Hochuli: “It’s one of the most memorable games of my career, without question. Looking back, I’m exceptionally appreciative to have called that game. It was the most interesting, and at the same time, one of the most enjoyable games I’ve done. You know what, though? I felt bad for Leon. The kid was just trying to make a play. He was hustling. I felt horribly for all the bad press he received for that.
“The memories are still pretty vivid even 20 years later. Green Bay is equipped to remove that kind of snow and ice. Dallas isn’t. I remember this little trash tractor cruising around the field barely removing any snow. It was a pretty bizarre scene.”
Greene: “It took us an extra hour to get from the stadium to the airport. Of course, the airport is maybe a 10-minute ride? It’s right there. Few scary moments on the ride, but we were pretty upbeat and pretty emotional. We were 9-2 and thinking we were headed for the Super Bowl.
“We didn’t win another game that season. Lost our last five and didn’t make the playoffs. And, of course, the Cowboys didn’t lose another game and repeated as Super Bowl champs.”
The loss on Thanksgiving would be the last of Johnson’s five-year run with the Cowboys, which culminated with a second straight Lombardi Trophy, Dallas defeating Buffalo, 30-13, in Super Bowl XXVIII. The biggest play of that game was a 48-yard fumble return by safety James Washington, which tied the score at 13-13 early in the third quarter. That fumble was caused by Lett. The following season, Lett was named to the first of his two Pro Bowls.
For the past three years, Lett has served as the assistant defensive line coach for the Cowboys.
Lett: “It took me a while. Probably 12 years ago I was visiting with my family on Thanksgiving, and I was sitting there getting ready to watch the game, and they started showing the play. I got so aggravated that I jumped in the car for a nice long drive. Didn’t see any of the game.
“At the end of the drive, I was thinking the best way to deal with it, to truly deal with it, is to embrace it. To talk about it when people come up to talk about it and not get all defensive. You meet people, and they hear my name and they’re like ‘You’re that guy.’ At first that really bothered me, but as I moved on, I said, ‘you know what? I’ll use it to meet people and strike up a conversation.’
“I’ll be honest with you, the Thanksgiving game was incredibly painful up until we won the Super Bowl. It felt like I was going to cost the team back-to-back championships.
“One of my toughest deals as a Cowboys fan growing up was ‘The Catch.” I wanted to destroy something in my house that day. I was 12 years old. So I get it.”
Woodson: “I’ve seen the play a number of times since. It doesn’t make me upset. I’m numb to it really. It was one game in a season we won the Super Bowl.
“You hear so much about the offense on those Super Bowl teams, and deservedly so, but I think we were closer as a unit on defense. We were so tight. We did everything together. And after that loss, we were immediately back on the same page. That wasn’t going to weigh us down.
“We were going to rally behind Leon, and you know what? ‘The Big Cat’ was a better football player after that. He came back so vengeful after that Thanksgiving game. He played so angry. He was as dominant a force on the defensive line that I ever saw play. And it wasn’t even close, either. He could rush the passer, play the run, and he is so much smarter than he was given credit for.
“He never talked off the field, but wow, he was a nasty, trash-talking, intense football player on that field. There also wasn’t a guy on that team, or any team Leon ever played for, who didn’t like him. I love the guy ’til death. He’s like family.”
Dalrymple: “The team was honestly more concerned with Leon’s well-being and how can something this high-profile happen to this guy twice in less than year. Everyone, from Jerry to Jimmy to his teammates, were more concerned about whether he was going to be OK rather than we lost a football game. We knew we could come back and win more games. Everyone in the locker room loved him, and that’s what they did, won the next five games and three more in the playoffs.
“You kind of look back and think, yeah, that team was talented and knew they could overcome that loss because they needed to. But they also wanted to take care of their friend. Leon is that kind of person.”
Lett: “I didn’t realize it was 20 years until ESPN called wanting to talk, probably because for me, it’s been an anniversary every single year on Thanksgiving. That will never change.
“It’s been a great coaching tool for me, just dealing with the players now. In the preseason, we had a guy kind of botch a fumble recovery. Funny thing was, he was one of the guys who was here for 10 seconds and said, ‘Hey, I saw you on TV.’
“My initial reaction was to go up and give him crap, but I said, ‘that’s a tough deal, you’re going to work on it and don’t harp on it.’ Everybody was kind of laughing at him and giving him a hard time. I’ve been there. The sooner you move on from it, the better it is.
“Maybe it can be one of those life lessons for people, I don’t know. But I’m still here. We all make mistakes, I just make mine with the whole world watching.”