Archdeacon: Choked, duped and brought to tears

Credit: Miami Herald

Credit: Miami Herald

Stories from the Super Bowl

His hair was wild, like a thatch of wind-blown straw.

His eyes flashed sudden maniacal frenzy and his mouth – missing three front teeth – was bared in that famed, fanged snarl.

As for those powerful, scarred hands – the ones he used to pick up and body slam the taunting Dallas Cowboy Cliff Harris in Super Bowl X – they were around my neck.

This is the 49th year I’ve written about the NFL and next Sunday – when I cover the Cincinnati Bengals and Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium outside L.A. – I’ll be covering my 30th Super Bowl.

When it comes to the NFL’s big game, I’ve got a few stories:

I’ve been spit on by a Super Bowl quarterback and kissed on the cheek by a former quarterback wearing high heels and fake eyelashes. I was shot at while hiding behind a burned-out car and ended up in tears watching a fallen legend depart the Super Bowl dressing room.

But if I had to pick one indelible moment, it would be the first time I met Steelers All-Pro linebacker Jack Lambert up close.

Real close.

It was 1979 and I was a young sportswriter for the Miami News. It was my first Super Bowl and I was assigned to cover the Pittsburgh Steelers before their Super Bowl XIII rematch with the Dallas Cowboys in Miami’s Orange Bowl.

I knew Steelers defensive tackle Gary Dunn, who had grown up in Miami and played for the Hurricanes, and he told me to meet him a blue-collar bar we both knew.

Over beers, I mentioned I wanted to talk to Lambert – I’d already spoke to his mom back in Ohio – so Dunn pulled out a sheet with hotel room assignments and said Lambert was still back in his room.

Back then Super Bowl security was nothing like it is now. I went straight to Lambert’s room and knocked on the door. When there was no answer, I pounded harder and suddenly the door flew open and there was the guy of whom Mean Joe Greene once said: “He’s so mean, he don’t even like himself.”

And he was ticked. He’d been sleeping.

“What the hell you want?” he growled.

As I started to explain, he said: “Beat it!” and started to shut the door.

Wide-eyed with possibility, but blind to consequence, I jammed my boot in the path of the door.

Again the door flew open and this time Lambert clamped a vise grip on my neck.

Once I gulped some air, I managed: “Your mom says ‘Hi!’”

Tough guys have a soft spot for Mom and his grip loosened and his glare faded.

Soon we were sitting in his room talking about our small-town Ohio roots, his grandfather who’d been a boxer and about the time as a kid when he ran after Jim Brown’s green Cadillac until the Browns’ running back stopped and gave him an autograph and a wink.

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

Another close call

Another close call came a decade later: before Super Bowl XXIII when the San Francisco 49ers edged the Bengals, 20-16, at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami.

Six days before the game – on the evening of Dr. Martin Luther King’s holiday – a police car was chasing a motorcyclist said to be driving erratically in Overtown, the predominately black neighborhood just north of downtown.

As the cycle – with 24-year-old Clement Boyd driving and Allen Blanchard on the back – came down NW 3rd Ave., another cop who had made a different traffic stop around the corner, stepped onto the street and shot Lloyd in the head.

Lloyd fell dead in front of a green and orange painted bar. The cycle careened into a car and Blanchard suffered severe head injuries. He died a day later.

Three days of rioting followed in Overtown and Liberty City. Several people were shot, hundreds were arrested and businesses were looted and burned.

But the NFL only wanted to focus on the parties and the game that would make it billions.

Commissioner Pete Rozele said: “One big plus was that it happened early in the week.”

An NFL administrator suggested food left over from the league’s gala parties could be dropped off in Overtown.

The story needed more than table scrap treatment, so my late friend Shelby Strother, the Detroit News columnist, and I slipped around police barricades in Overtown and headed to the spot where Lloyd was killed.

In front of the bar, I talked to a guy whose right eye was battered. He claimed “A (white) cop hit me with a nightstick.”

As we spoke, a police cruiser came down the street. The two cops wore riot helmets and had their pump shot guns jutting out the window.

After the car passed, someone began shooting toward the bar. We huddled behind a torched car until the gunfire ceased and we could scramble down an alley to safety.

Right then I wished Rozelle was running alongside me, his dismissiveness being put to the test.

Bear hunter

One other Super Bowl story with Shelby stands out.

It happened at Media Day before Super Bowl XX when the New York Giants overwhelmed the Denver Broncos at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.

We were headed to one of those cattle-call press conferences where 1,500 media types – many crammed into busses – converge on the stadium where one team’s players and coaches are stationed around the field and in the stands.

I was assigned to write about Denver quarterback John Elway, but as we were riding over, Shelby quietly told me an amazing tale involving Tony Lilly, the Broncos’ tough-as-nail defensive back.

“None of the guys know this,” Shelby said. “Tony was hunting and stepped in a bear trap. As he lay there writhing in pain, he pried open the trap and pulled out his mangled leg.”

“Talk about tough! He wrapped his T-shirt around the wound, limped through the woods and got a bear.”

When the gates opened, I sprinted right past Elway, who soon would be surrounded by more than 200 media types, went straight to Lilly and gushed:

“Tony, tell me about your hunting trip. The one where you stepped in the bear trap, pried your leg out and still shot the bear!”

The other writers – and especially Lilly – looked at me like I was a lunatic.

I pressed on, thinking Lilly was just being modest, until he held up his hands and said:

“Stop! I don’t know what you’re talking about! I don’t even hunt!”

As I slumped away in embarrassment, I noticed Shelby in the distance, doubled over in laughter.

Tobacco juice

Another story that didn’t turn out as planned happened at Media Day before Chicago Bears walloped New England in Super Bowl XX at the Superdome in New Orleans.

This time I rushed to Bears quarterback Jim McMahon, who was sitting in a lawn chair on the field. I was one of the first there and knelt in front of him as the media scrum pushed in behind me. I put one had on the ground to brace myself.

McMahon was in a lousy mood. He was squabbling with Coach Mike Ditka and Bears’ brass who had not allowed his Japanese acupuncturist on the team plane. He was facing protests in New Orleans after it was falsely reported he had used a derogatory term to describe the city’s women. A day later he mooned a media helicopter that passed over the Bears’ practice.

He called the press “idiots” and on this day when someone ticked him off, he leaned forward, took aim my hand and spit a brown stream of his tobacco juice on it.

Again blind to consequence, I promptly wiped my hand off on his white uniform pants. He kicked at me. Security came and let’s just say I didn’t get my McMahon interview either.

Credit: Anonymous

Credit: Anonymous

Super Bowl party

Sometimes the best stories come when you can break away from the media pack. Like the night I sat there talking to a pair of stars wearing their pads and spikes as they got ready for the big game. One had been a former high school quarterback.

But he wasn’t playing in the NFL title game. He and D’va Rober were discussing the Super Bowl party they and the other drag performers at the Mulberry Café on Miami Beach were having that Sunday.

“Honey, don’t fool yourself and just think of us in terms of a girl,” said Rober, a 28-year-old Texan, “Oh no, we’re all just loaded with testosterone.”

I was invited to their party, but I had to decline. After all, there was the Super Bowl XXIX between San Francisco and San Diego.

Penny Sometimes told me I’d miss out. She was making potato salad. And the campy Shelly Novak was bringing some stories, like the time she performed a sing-a-long at a Viva Las Vegas party put on by Mary Anne Stephens, the wife of Super Bowl legend, Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula.

She once told Tropic Magazine that everybody but one person cheered and applauded afterward:

“What a face that Shula made! He looked like he needed a big dose of Correctal.”

Unforgettable

From all this, don’t think the game doesn’t matter to me. It’s given me some of my best stories.

One I’ll never forget also came at Super Bowl XIII, which featured 25 future Hall of Famers.

One was veteran Dallas tight end Jackie Smith.

He had played the previous 15 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals, but on the advice of his doctor – who said his nagging neck injury could bring paralysis – he had retired.

A five-time Pro Bowl selection, he had caught more passes (480) and had more receiving yards (7,918) than any tight end in NFL history.

He was on a Boy Scout camping trip in New Mexico with his teenage son, Darrell, when the Cowboys called and convinced him to come replace Jay Saldi, who had broken his arm.

He joined the team in October and was used as a blocking tight end until the playoffs when he had his first three catches, including one for a touchdown in a win over Atlanta.

Then with 2:30 left in the third quarter of the Super Bowl, the Cowboys – who were trailing by 7 -- had a third down at the Steelers’ 10.

Smith – a month shy of 39, the oldest man on the field – managed to slip into the end zone and was all alone when Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach saw him and lofted a soft pass that was a little low.

As Smith tried to stop to make the catch, his feet came out from under him and the ball hit his hip pad and fell into the painted grass of the end zone.

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

The Cowboys kicked a field goal and lost by four points.

I spent nearly an hour in the postgame dressing room talking with Smith and his son. Mostly, I just watched the heart-wrenching scene.

The story I wrote for the next day’s paper recently was reprinted by Deadspin, but had a new headline: “The Aftermath of the Worst Drop in Super Bowl History.”

I remember Smith returning from the shower and, before he even could dress, a swarm of press surrounded him and stripped him even further.

In the jostling, one writer went tumbling, his black, felt tip pen making a mark down Smith’s back.

With one media wave continually replacing another, the questions never stopped:

“Why did you drop it?”

“Is this the biggest disappointment of your career?”

“Do you feel you cost Dallas the game?”

“Could you tell us about it again?”

Across the room Staubach shared the blame, but Smith bore the brunt of the questions and he answered everything:

“I was wide open. I just missed it. It was a little behind me, but not enough that I should have missed the ball. Hell, the coverage had left.

“I tried to get down…My left foot got stuck and my hips went out from under me.”

His voice became a half whisper: “I don’t remember the ball… the last few inches. I promise you, I don’t remember.”

As he pulled on his brown pants and fancy-tooled boots, the crow’s feet around his eyes made him looked tired.

Undecided before the game, he said he’d now made a decision about next year: “I don’t want to try it again. You have a lot of good times and a lot of bad. I hope it won’t haunt me, but it probably will…All these years, all the wait, and this is what they’ll remember.”

He finally excused himself, picked up his belongings and tapped his son, quietly saying: “Let’s go.”

Before he got out the door, a radio broadcaster shoved a microphone in his face and blurted:

“I hate to bring this up, Jackie – you’ve probably answered it already – but why did you drop that pass?”

Smith sighed.

His son’s eyes glistened. So did mine.

About the Author