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Hall of Fame Class of 2021

Spagnola: My Favorite Cliff, Drew & Jimmy Stories


CANTON, Ohio – Walking through the halls of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, where all the stories of the NFL are stored into perpetuity, causes you to think back, remember some of the old days, the more obscure stories that you have either witnessed or been told.

Here is my recollection of a few, with former Cowboys head coach Jimmy Johnson and Ring of Honor greats Drew Pearson and Cliff Harris finally being enshrined this weekend into the Pro Football Hall of Game, where their stories find a rightful resting place.



There are so many memorable moments I remember, having covered every one of Jimmy's 88 games with the Dallas Cowboys, including those two Super Bowl victories, the time he walked out on one of his Tuesday press conferences at The Ranch, acting as if he was mad at a question, but really wanting to send a message to his players that he was steaming mad going into Wednesday's first practice of the week. Or how he and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, along with the coaching staff were celebrating their 1991 playoff-clinching victory over Philadelphia in the 15th game of the season on the charter flight back to Dallas. Or that time the day before a 1989 preseason game in San Diego while in a hotel elevator with family members when I introduced him to my wife and our 11-year-old daughter, he tells her, "Boy, your daddy sure is hard on me."

But this one is an all-timer. The year was 1991. The Cowboys were a surprising 6-4 going into a Sunday game against the Giants at Giants Stadium after five consecutive losing seasons, two of those in Johnson's first two seasons as Cowboys head coach. The Cowboys would lose their second consecutive game of a three-game road trip, 22-9, and Jimmy was hot – hot about the loss and hot about the officiating, his team now a precarious 6-5.

So in the postgame interview room, Jimmy took the attention off the loss and put in squarely on the NFL officiating crew. He felt the Cowboys got jobbed in the game, especially two calls, a holding call on linebacker Dixon Edwards when Giants QB Jeff Hostetler was running out of the pocket that set up a Giants touchdown and then an Emmitt Smith fumble when replay on the screen showed he had never caught the pass.

So we got this when Johnson was asked about a few of the calls:

"There's no way I can live with four or five of the worst calls I've seen in my life."

Next Jimmy was set up for one of the great lines in his coaching career when asked if this was the worst officiated game he had ever seen.

"The worst since I was 4 years old and my daddy said, 'Here's what you call a football,'"

You go, Jimmy.


We have heard, watched or seen in person Drew Pearson's playoff game-winning, 50-yard touchdown catch in the 17-14 victory over the Vikings in 1975 that became the famous "Hail Mary," helping to vault both quarterback Roger Staubach and now Drew into the Pro Football Hall of Fame and the Cowboys on their way to Super Bowl X.

But here are two off-shoots of that catch, told to me many years later by Drew. First, what he did after he scored the touchdown with 24 seconds left in the game at Metropolitan Stadium, mostly, because the night before the game he says he had this dream of catching the winning touchdown and then firing the ball into the stands, a move that came with a $150 fine.

"But I said heck with it, it's on national TV, playoffs, I'm throwing that ball," he says.

So he did, the former high school and Tulsa University quarterback heaving the ball up into what he thought was the stands in celebration.

"But it turned out there were no stands there," he says of just where he threw the ball. "It was a scoreboard and the parking lot (outside the stadium). So the ball ended up in the parking lot. Then I got mobbed afterwards."

The ball never to be found again.

"No one has ever said they have the ball," Drew claims.

Evidently someone does, unbeknownst what the actual ball from the infamous Hail Mary play would be worth, then and especially today.

Then this one. Drew likes to tell the story about when he was doing business up in Minnesota years later, flying into Minneapolis, hailing a cab, and the cab driver takes one look at him and says, "Are you Drew Pearson?"

And Drew says, "Yes sir."

The cabby shoots back, "I'm not taking you anywhere, take the next cab."

"Three cabs later I finally got a ride."

Ah, fan bitterness at its best.


A few years back, must have spent a couple hours interviewing Cliff Harris for a short documentary on his career, first at his home in the Dallas area and then in Arkadelphia, Ark., at Ouachita Baptist University, in the press box of Cliff Harris Stadium, built in 2014 and named after one of the school's greatest athletes. Coincidence or not the same season the Tigers go 10-0 during the regular season.

Oh the stories, and for long-lasting memories, in a walk-in closet lined with shelves at his home, Cliff has binders from each of the 10 seasons he played with the Cowboys, each binder with the game plans for every game that year, including the notes he would scribble during meetings. Amazing.

Just like his stories, especially this one.

The Cowboys (11-2) were set to play Washington (9-4) on Dec. 12, 1976, final game of the regular season. The Cowboys had the NFC East wrapped up. Washington needed to win its final four games of the season, concluding with one over the Cowboys to qualify as an NFC wildcard playoff team.

Two nights before the game quarterback Billy Kilmer is pulled over by police in Alexandria, Va., and charged with driving-under-the-influence of alcohol. Timing was pretty bad, and Kilmer was catching grief.

So Cliff tells the story of how early in the game, he walks up to the line of scrimmage, showing blitz, causing Kilmer to pause his cadence, and points out that "Billy is a great quarterback," before continuing to recount this tale.

"He looks at me and says, 'Come on Cliff, everyone is all over me for being pulled over, can you give me a break,'" Cliff remembers.

Startled, Harris says he loses concentration, and next thing he knows Kilmer resumes his snap count, the ball being snapped immediately, catching the Cowboys free safety totally off-guard. "I mean he was talking to me," says Harris.

The then Redskins would win the game, 27-14, at Texas Stadium to qualify for the playoffs in George Allen's next to final season as head coach.

Yep, if only the trenches could talk.

Which reminds me of what John Madden said during his 2006 Hall of Fame enshrinement speech.

"Here is the deal: I think over in the Hall of Fame, that during the day, the people go through, they look at everything. At night, there's a time when they all leave. All the fans and all the visitors leave the Hall of Fame. Then there's just the workers. Then the workers start to leave. It gets down to there's just one person. That person turns out the light, locks the door.

"I believe that the busts talk to each other. I can't wait for that conversation, I really can't. Vince Lombardi . . . Reggie (White), Walter Payton, all my ex-players. We'll be there forever and ever and ever talking about whatever. That's what I believe. That's what I think is going to happen, and no one's ever going to talk me out of that."

And now these three Cowboys will be able to speak up. Maybe even recount a few of these tales right here you're now privy to.