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Clint Longley: Thanksgiving’s Unlikeliest Hero

Posted on November 24, 2010 by Dean Hybl

In his NFL debut, Clint Longley led Dallas to a 24-23 victory over the Washington Redskins on Thanksgiving Day.

Professional football has a long and storied history as part of our American Thanksgiving tradition. Many of the greatest players and best teams in NFL history have made their mark on this holiday and thus created a special place for themselves in the memories of families across the country during this time of fellowship and giving thanks.

You can read about some of those memorable moments and games in a column I first published last year.

While many of the players who have performed well on Thanksgiving Day were familiar faces and established stars of the game, there also have been a number of players whose one shining moment as a professional football player occurred on the big stage of Turkey Day.

One such player was former Dallas Cowboys backup quarterback Jason Garrett. Until recently becoming interim head coach of the Cowboys, he was likely best remembered by most football fans for his nearly flawless performance in place of starting quarterback Troy Aikman on Thanksgiving Day in 1994.

In only his second career start, Garrett passed for 311 yards and two touchdowns to help Dallas defeat the Green Bay Packers  42-31.

However, while Garrett’s performance was impressive, it was arguably not the best or most memorable performance by a Dallas backup quarterback on Thanksgiving Day.

That honor would belong to a rookie quarterback from Abilene Christian who two decades before Garrett’s Thanksgiving performance made a lasting impression on the football world with a memorable Thanksgiving Day show of his own.

In the mid-1970s, the rivalry between the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins was emerging as one of the most interesting in all of professional sports.

Thanks to the contrast between Washington’s spirited head coach George Allen and the stoic leader of the Cowboys Tom Landry, the rivalry had gained steam and by 1974 was among the most anticipated battles on the NFL calendar.

When the two squads squared off on Thanksgiving Day in 1974 it provided a perfect venue for the renewal of this special rivalry. Playing on national television in an era before video games, multiplex theaters and cable television provided people with other entertainment options, the late afternoon battle between the Cowboys and Redskins was truly America’s afternoon dessert following the traditional Thanksgiving meal.

After a record eight straight playoff appearances, the Dallas Cowboys had struggled during the 1974 campaign. They opened the season with a 1-4 record and entered Thanksgiving Day with a 6-5 mark and clinging to very slim playoff hopes. With games remaining against Cleveland and Oakland, they were potentially looking at their first losing season since 1964.

Conversely, Washington was flying high with an 8-3 record that included a 28-21 win two weeks earlier over the Cowboys. They were battling the St. Louis Cardinals for the division lead and would clinch their fourth straight playoff bid with a victory.

The contrast between head coaches Tom Landry and George Allen fueled the rivalry between Dallas and Washington in the 1970s.

It looked early on like the Redskins would have little trouble sweeping their hated rivals and putting the final dagger in the Cowboys’ season.

In a stroke of irony, the player who was wielding the blade was former Cowboy running back Duane Thomas. A key starter on Cowboy teams that made back-to-back Super Bowl appearances and won Super Bowl VI, Thomas eventually became discontented and more than the Cowboys could handle. He was out of the NFL in 1972 and in 1973 joined the Redskins, though in nearly two seasons he had rarely displayed the greatness he had regularly shown in Dallas.

However, Thomas had seen extensive action in a win over Philadelphia the week before Thanksgiving and suddenly he found renewed energy back in Texas Stadium.

Dallas opened the scoring on a field goal by Efren Herrera following a fake punt, but Washington responded with a trio of Mark Moseley field goals to take a 9-3 halftime lead.

When Washington stretched their lead to 16-3 on a 9-yard touchdown pass from Billy Kilmer to Thomas early in the third quarter it didn’t look like it would be the Cowboys’ day.

Dallas starting quarterback Roger Staubach, who was battling the flu, was not playing at his typical Hall of Fame level and with leading rusher Calvin Hill out of the lineup the Cowboys’ offense was floundering.

Staubach was finally knocked out of the game with 10 minutes left in the third quarter on a hit by linebacker Dave Robinson after having completed only three of 11 passes for 32 yards and an interception.

With Staubach out of the game, the prospects seemed even worse for the Cowboys as into the game came a rookie quarterback making his NFL debut. The veteran Washington defense must have been licking their chops when they saw number 19 Clint Longley trot in from the sidelines.

Known as the “Mad Bomber” because he had hit the coaches’ tower with an errant pass during training camp, the gun-slinger from Wichita Falls, Texas surprisingly proved to be exactly the spark that the previously down-trodden Cowboy offense needed.

Longley marched Dallas right down the field and got the Cowboys back in the game when he hit Billy Joe DuPree for a 35-yard touchdown to make the score 16-10.

Proving the first drive to be no fluke, Longley drove Dallas back down the field later in the quarter and Walt Garrison scored on a 1-yard run to give the Cowboys a 17-16 lead.

However, Kilmer, Thomas and the Skins were not done as Washington regained the lead early in the fourth quarter as Thomas scored on a 19-yard run to give Washington a 23-17 lead.

The Redskins had a chance to tack on some additional points after recovering a fumble by Dallas running back Charley Young on the subsequent Cowboy possession. However, Ed “Too Tall” Jones blocked a 24-yard field goal to keep the margin at six points.

It again looked like Dallas was doomed when Drew Pearson fumbled the ball following a 20-yard completion with under three minutes remaining. However, Washington was unable to move the ball and gave Dallas one final shot.

With 1:45 remaining in the game and no timeouts, Longley took the field needing to drive Dallas the length of the field to win the game.

Though he had never been in such a high-pressure spot in the NFL, Longley showed remarkable poise as he connected with Bob Hayes on a fourth-and-six pass to keep the drive alive.

With only 35 seconds remaining, Pearson went deep on a post pattern and was able to break free from a pair of Washington defenders. Longley hit him in stride for a 50-yard bomb that proved to be the game winner.

For the day, Longley connected on 12 of 21 passes for 203 yards and two touchdowns to lift Dallas to an improbable 24-23 win and create his own bit of Thanksgiving lore.

It would prove to be the high-water mark of an otherwise pedestrian NFL career. The next season Longley saw action in four games, including starting the regular season finale against the New York Jets, as Dallas reached the Super Bowl.

When Dallas signed Danny White prior to the 1976 season Longley was relegated to third string and that didn’t sit well with the fiery Texan. He reportedly got into a fight with Roger Staubach following a locker room altercation during training camp.

Legend has it that later in camp Longley packed his bags and then walked down to the locker room and sucker-punched Staubach. Needless to say, that was the end of Longley’s tenure in Dallas.

He was traded to the San Diego Chargers where he spent the 1976 season. However, another future Hall of Famer in Dan Fouts was emerging as the star quarterback in San Diego and after one season Longley was out of the league.

Though his NFL career didn’t have a fairy tale ending, for one day Clint Longley was the toast of the NFL and will always be remembered for leading America’s Team to a memorable victory over their greatest rivals.

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