Here is Clint Longley, 22 years old, bold and scattered-looking in a boyish way, the nice kid from the next ranch down the road who has a peculiar twist for catching rattlesnakes and blasting away at stumps and bushes with his two six-guns. Clint is standing on the sideline at Texas Stadium, noting on a clipboard the play that the third-place Dallas Cowboys have just run in the third quarter this Thanksgiving Day afternoon against the second-place Washington Redskins. All of a sudden he hears a voice: "Longley, get your helmet."
For a moment Longley can't find his helmet. He hadn't figured he would need it. He is a rookie quarterback who would have been playing for Abilene Christian College instead of Dallas this fall if he hadn't decided to go ahead and graduate last summer. Longley looks up and sees Roger Staubach, the No. 1 quarterback, ambling off the field with glass eyeballs and a stoned frown. Staubach has been knocked goofy by a Redskin linebacker; he can walk, but he doesn't know where he is. Someone says to Longley, "Get 'em, Bomber."
A few weeks ago Craig Morton would have gone in to replace Staubach. But Morton told the Cowboys he was tired of playing behind Staubach and refused to report for work one day and eventually was traded to the New York Giants. So there is no quarterback left for Dallas but Longley, who got the nickname Mad Bomber in training camp when he threw a pass that clanged off an upper rung of Tom Landry's coaching tower.
This is exactly the situation the Redskins have been asking for. The Cowboys, struggling with bad luck much of the season, are all but out of the playoffs for the first time since 1966. What the Redskins need to do to clinch a playoff spot is hold on to a 16-3 lead; Dallas would be finished and the Redskins would be all but certain of being the NFC's wild-card selection. Washington Defensive Tackle Diron Talbert said earlier that he hoped Staubach would try to run with the ball so the Redskins could put him to sleep and then have fun with the rookie, who never had been in a regular-season league game.
The Mad Bomber comes in. Staubach slumps on the bench with a towel around his neck and a popper at his nose, wondering where everybody went. The Dallas offensive line is very solicitous of Longley, swearing to protect him and offering advice on how to call formations. Fullback Walt Garrison starts to repeat a play he has brought in from Landry. Halfway through this lengthy recitation, Longley says, "Save your breath, I know the play."
Sixty-three thousand people in the semiroofed stadium and millions on national TV are watching. Upstairs, Cowboy General Manager Tex Schramm has been talking about his team being in transition, the older players fading a bit, the younger ones moving up (more than half of the Cowboys have been in the league three years or less). "We're the team of tomorrow," Schramm says. Then he sees Staubach flattened. Schramm's face swells up as he forgets to exhale. "We'll have to be the team of tomorrow today," he says.
In less than nine minutes the Mad Bomber takes Dallas to two touchdowns, one of them a 35-yard pass to Billy Joe DuPree. The Cowboys are ahead, 17-16, as the fourth quarter begins. The stadium is rocking with emotion. Even the people in the private boxes are screaming, with cocktails and turkey sandwiches in their hands. As Morton came along to win crowd support away from Don Meredith, and as Staubach did the same thing to Morton, now it is Longley who is the darling. And the Cowboys have been tough, though cursed, in the fourth quarter all year. Up to this game, Dallas has outscored opponents 82-19 in the fourth quarter, but nine of the opposing points were late field goals that cost them three games.
The Redskins get the football and bust in for another touchdown and a 23-17 lead. And then they recover a Dallas fumble and have a mere 24-yard field goal to put the game away for good. One of the Cowboys' troubles this year has been the failure to make big plays—interceptions, fumble recoveries, breakaways. But Defensive End Ed (Too Tall) Jones, another rookie, now makes a very big play, stomping over Washington blockers to bat away the field-goal try. With five minutes to go, Dallas has the ball again. Center John Fitzgerald greets Longley in the huddle by saying, "Stay cool, Bomber, don't get rattled. We'll take it on in."
"We don't want to score yet," replies Longley. "There's too much time left."
Longley throws a pass to Drew Pearson, who fumbles to the Redskins. Eleven days earlier, when Washington beat Dallas 28-21, Pearson, the leading receiver in the NFC, watched with dismay as a fourth-down pass bounced off his arms in the end zone at the end of the game. Now this fumble depresses him immensely. "Don't get down," Bob Hayes tells him. "We're still in it."
The Dallas defense holds and makes the Redskins punt, and the Cowboys have the ball with 1:45 to play and no time-outs. Soon it becomes fourth and six at their 44. Now there is not too much time left.
But Longley throws a cool fourth-down pass to Hayes over the middle and Bob gets the first down at the 50. With 35 seconds left and the ball at midfield, Landry sends in a play that requires Pearson to run a down-and-in 20 yards deep. In the huddle Pearson suggests he fake instead, move inside and try to split the two defensive backs who will be covering him (Washington has seven defensive backs in the game for this play) and race for the end zone. "What have we got to lose?" says Longley.
The Dallas line keeps the Redskins off Longley for at least five seconds. The Mad Bomber pumps and throws—and there is Pearson at the four-yard line, reaching up to take the ball over his shoulder and going on in to score. On the sideline you can feel the stadium quake as the energy released by one huge, incredible cry rockets around the walls and soars through the hole in the roof. Efren Herrera, still another rookie, kicks the extra point, and Dallas leads, 24-23. Washington has one more chance with 28 seconds left, but the Cowboys grab a fumble and wait it out.
It is a nearly unbelievable ending. Normally, Texas Stadium is nearly empty four minutes after a game is over, but this time about 40,000 people just keep standing there. Longley runs back onto the field for a television interview, combing his hair with his hands. The touchdown pass is shown in replay on the TV sets in the private boxes, and the place comes apart again, with almost as big an explosion of noise and energy as followed the actual event.
By now, Staubach has been conscious for five minutes. "I was ready to go back in," he says, "but I didn't deserve to go back in. I loved seeing Longley do it."
In the locker room, the grinning Cowboys are talking about the Bomber. One tells of going on a quail hunt with Longley when he showed up with a shotgun and two pistols worn Hollywood gunslinger-style (he is kin to the notorious Texas gunfighter Wild Bill Longley, who was hanged in 1878) and blew holes in every cactus and fence post they passed. Another says, "The secret of the Bomber's success is an uncluttered mind."
Longley played junior high football in Dallas and high school ball in Littleton, Colo. and went to Abilene Christian without a scholarship. There he established several NAIA passing records before the Cowboys got him in a draft trade from Cincinnati. In the locker room he pulls on his boots and leather jacket. He has a very toothy smile, and there is no reason for him to keep it off his face. He has just packed away thrills enough to fill up most people forever.
"I wasn't nervous, there was no time for that, but I sure was excited," he says. "I tried to guess with them. I knew what I would do to a rookie quarterback if I was the Redskins. On that last pass, when the ball was halfway there, I saw Drew had got the defensive back turned around, and I knew we had a shot at it. Well, after all, this is what I've been training for."
The Cowboys still have a long way to go. They must play Cleveland and Oakland while the Redskins play Los Angeles and Chicago. It would take two wins by Dallas and two losses by Washington to put the Cowboys into the playoffs again. Still...Staubach no doubt will be the Dallas quarterback for the climactic games, and the Mad Bomber will be over there on the sidelines, noting the plays on his clipboard, wondering if it will happen to him again.
The big play: Longley to Pearson for a TD.
Triumphant Longley is mobbed by gleeful Rayfleld Wright (70) and other exuberant Cowboys.