Published: December 26, 2009
After almost 15 minutes of overtime, the score was still tied, the sky was dark, the air was cold, the artificial playing surface was covered with ice, sleet and snow and the players were wet,
Walter Payton and kicker Bob Thomas were teammates in Chicago. Thomas is now an Illinois Supreme Court justice.
“I didn’t really care who won,” Doug Plank said. “I just wanted to go to the locker room and get warm.”
But most Chicago Bears did care, and so did their legions of fans. Plank played safety for the Bears on that Sunday, Dec. 18, 1977, against the Giants in what was then a new Giants Stadium, open for a little more than a year.
With no timeouts left, Coach Jack Pardee sent the field-goal unit running across the slippery field but not before various teammates gave kicker Bob Thomas some peculiar encouragement through the single-bar face mask of his helmet.
“Bob Parsons grabbed me by the shoulder pads and picked me up and said, ‘If you don’t make this kick, I’ll break your neck,’ ” Thomas said of the Bears’ punter and special teams player. “So I said to him, ‘You obviously weren’t a psychology major at Penn State.’ ”
But after Thomas put that 28-yard attempt through the uprights for a 12-9 victory with 9 seconds left, the Bears hugged him and ran off the field. Had overtime ended with the score still 9-9, the game would have counted as a tie and the Bears would not have advanced to the postseason. So this was the kick that won the game that meant the playoffs for the team that Jack built.
That last sentence was essentially how I started my article that night for The Chicago Sun-Times, where I was a first-year beat reporter covering the Bears.
I now work for The New York Times, and I plan to cover the Giants’ final regular-season game at Giants Stadium on Sunday afternoon, against the Carolina Panthers. But nothing that happens on Sunday at the stadium is likely to rival my first impression and primary memory of the place.
With all the nostalgia now settling in on the doomed, 33-year-old edifice in the Meadowlands, little, if anything, has been noted about the Bears’ dramatic and consequential victory in 1977 that gave them a season-ending six-game winning streak and their first playoff berth in 14 seasons.
That is understandable, of course. The Bears won the game, not the Giants. Stadium memories are nurtured by the home-team fans and they want to recall the dramatic victories, not the frustrating defeats. Still, viewed outside a New York prism, the Bears’ overtime victory remains one of the most interesting games in the history of the stadium.
“People always come up to me and say, ‘Oh, I remember that game in the snow at Giants Stadium,’ ” Thomas said in a recent telephone interview. He is now a justice on the Illinois Supreme Court. When he made the winning kick, he was a law student at Loyola University of Chicago.
Thomas had made clutch kicks before. One, against Alabama, clinched the Sugar Bowl and the 1973 national championship for Notre Dame.
But against the Giants on that brutal day, he had made one field goal from 32 yards, hit the upright on another attempt, missed wide left in overtime after a bad snap and failed to take a subsequent kick after still another bad snap. Making matters worse, Thomas had an extra-point attempt blocked in the fourth quarter.
“A kicker has to plant that left foot and try and stay stable,” Thomas said. “It was really tough. The field was worse than snow and ice because some portions were solid ice and some portions were thin ice you could break as you stepped on it and there’d be freezing water underneath.”
Thomas’s roommate at the time was Plank. Because Thomas had played for Notre Dame and Plank for Ohio State, both were familiar with rough weather. But neither had experienced anything like this.
“It was the most uncomfortable day of my life,” Plank said.
A videotape of the end of the game, available on the Internet, shows Bears jumping up and down in the huddle, trying to keep warm on a white field.
Thomas recalled running backs Walter Payton and Roland Harper lying on their backs to make snow angels to clear the surface for Thomas to kick earlier in the game. Even that did not help much.
“It was not a soft, powdery kind of snow; that would have been fine,” Plank said. “This was the worst kind of cold. First, you got wet. Then the temperature dropped.”
And Parsons was not the only Bear angry about all the field-goal attempts that went awry. Plank said that before the final attempt, Don Rives, a linebacker, grabbed Thomas near his throat and said, “Don’t miss this or don’t come back.”
Plank added, “He wasn’t laughing; it wasn’t a joke.”
That the Bears still had a chance for the playoffs was semimiraculous in what was the last of the 14-game N.F.L. seasons. Six weeks before, they had fallen to 3-5 as the result of a 47-0 defeat at Houston. A rift developed between Pardee and the Bears’ general manager, Jim Finks.
Quarterback Bob Avellini, at a luncheon at Chicago’s Playboy Club, answered a guest’s question by saying he would pass more to Payton if Payton would learn his pass patterns.
Avellini did not enjoy reading my account of his words the next day in The Sun-Times. At practice, his hardest warmup tosses curiously landed near me on the sideline until a smiling Payton walked up, flipped me a football and said in his high-pitched voice, “Here, fight back!”
But the Bears got hot in the season’s second half. Payton gained a league-record 275 yards against Minnesota and challenged what was then the season rushing record of 2,003 yards held by O. J. Simpson.
“We rode Payton; he was an inspiration for us,” Thomas said. “Things just started to fall into place.”
It culminated in Giants Stadium, where Avellini and Payton harmonized on a 14-yard pass play that set up Thomas’s winning kick. On the tape of the CBS telecast, after the Bears danced off the field, the postgame wrapup featured a young Brent Musburger alongside Phyllis George, Irv Cross and Jimmy the Greek.
Before the telecast ended, a commercial presented the challenge of “Ford Pinto vs. Japan’s Best.” Such were the struggles of 1977. Payton died in 1999. Plank is now a Jets assistant.
Thomas ended his 12-year N.F.L. career with the Giants in 1986, but he never duplicated the drama of that overtime winner. He has served on the Illinois Supreme Court since 2000 and last year completed a term as chief justice.
“People don’t boo me anymore, at least not in front of me,” he said.
Reflecting on his kick in the snow, Thomas said: “That day was something else, I’ll tell you. It was hard to stand up. Has it really been 32 years? Hard to believe.”