A Great Present

by Gary Stewart (Stevenson University)
A Great Present

Over the past 40 years I have grown up watching sports and watching sports change. History may very well remember this era as a time in which college basketball changed for the better.  After all -- changes in other sports are now widely accepted as being the correct moves. Baseball shuffled the deck and came up with three divisions in each league and added another Wild Card team. The NHL and the NBA reformatted and expanded to add more teams and of course we have watched as the college basketball landscape has completely changed in the past few years.

There is a majority which believes all three sports are better and more popular today because of those changes and I am sure that the NFL hierarchy would agree. But that doesn’t mean the game is better today. For me there was nothing quite like professional football in the 1970s.

Thirty-Five years ago today it was Christmas Eve 1977. I was a junior in high school, living in Pasadena, California. While many were out shopping for last-minute Christmas gifts, I spent that Saturday afternoon glued to my television for the AFC Divisional playoff game between the Baltimore Colts and the Oakland Raiders. 

This was when the game was played with a much different tone. Questionable tackles, late hits and things that would get you arrested in public were commonplace in the NFL. Yes this was football! And this was a Christmas I wouldn’t soon forget.  Thirty-Five years later it’s a “Ghost from Christmas Past.”

There was a lot of hype and build up for the game. The Raiders were the defending Super Bowl Champions, having dismantled the Minnesota Vikings just eleven months earlier in my home town at the Rose Bowl. The Baltimore Colts had been a good young team for a few years and many believe that 1977 was their year. 

The Colts were AFC East champions again and playing at home.  I remember the week leading up to the game most people outside of the state of California thought the Raiders had no chance.  But once the game began I remember thinking it was the Colts that had no chance. 

The Oakland defense dominated early and after Clarence Davis ran 30 yards for the game’s first score; the Raider defense forced a three-and-out.  Following a poor punt we had the ball at the Colts 39 yard line with all the momentum.   Then Kenny Stabler through a pass that was intercepted and returned for a touchdown.  What followed was one of the greatest games ever played.

Five years earlier the Raiders were involved in another famous or infamous game, depending on your point of view. The 1972 AFC Divisional playoff game between Oakland and Pittsburgh has gotten a lot of national attention lately, as it’s the 40th Anniversary of what Steeler fans call “The Immaculate Reception.” In Raider Nation we refer to it as the immaculate “Deception.” Two years later the Raiders were involved in another miraculous finish, but this time it was Oakland that prevailed. The 1974 AFC Divisional playoff between Oakland and Miami is affectionately known as “The Sea of Hands” game. That game was without question one of the great NFL games of all-time. And there were a lot of great games during the decade.

In the mid-1970s there was no parity. Salary caps didn’t exist. There were basically three tiers. You had teams like Oakland, Pittsburgh, Miami, Dallas, Washington and Minnesota that had Super Bowl caliber teams. Then there were teams like the 49ers, Bengals, Rams, Cardinals, Bills Patriots and Colts that were playoff teams and everybody else was pretty much no good. 

Back then if you had one of the top picks in the NFL Draft you were likely not going be very good anytime soon. The idea that you could have the NFL’s worst record one year and make the playoffs the next was absurd.  Certainly it couldn’t have been a lot of fun to be a fan of a team like the Saints.

You knew when the season began that the road to the Super Bowl, in the AFC, was going to go through Pittsburgh, Miami or Oakland.

NFL Playoff games during that era were simply ridiculous. Today it’s a pass-happy league. Back then fullbacks were focal points of offenses. Guys like Miami’s Larry Csonka and Oakland’s Marv Hubbard and Mark van Eeghen defined the game.  Players were built like wrecking balls and they played that way. Quarterbacks didn’t get sacked -- they got crushed.  And on Christmas Eve 1977, Baltimore QB Bert Jones got crushed repeatedly. 

Jones was on the verge of being one of the top QBs in the league and Baltimore’s defense was as good as anyone in the NFL.  Pittsburgh, which had blasted Baltimore in the playoffs in the previous two seasons, had been beaten by Denver in the other AFC playoff game so the road to the Super Bowl seemed paved for the Colts. All that stood in their way were the defending champs.

The game went back and forth. After the early 7-0 lead by Oakland, neither team led by more than four points. It was one of those games in which both sides had opportunities to extend a lead and take control of the game.  By the time the fourth quarter rolled around I wasn’t thinking about presents or Christmas Eve dinner.  I was completely wrapped up in the game.

Baltimore led by 31-28 with just over three-minutes remaining.  The defense forced a punt and the Raiders had one last shot.  By this point I was willing to give up presents under the tree for some late-game heroics in Baltimore. Three years earlier Fred Biletnikoff and Cliff Branch played big roles in keeping the game close and Kenny Stabler found Clarence Davis, amongst a “Sea of Hands” to beat Miami in the final seconds.

This time it wouldn’t be a “Sea of Hands” or another “Immaculate Deception.” With just over two minutes to go Stabler dropped back and through a pass that Raider Nation calls “Ghost to the Post.”

Thirty-five years later I still can’t believe the pass was completed.  When I see the replay now I still worry it’s going to be intercepted.  The ball seemed to just hang up there forever. Somehow it found its way, between two defenders, into the hands of Dave Casper -- The Ghost.

The 42-yard pass to future Hall of Fame TE set up the game tying field goal. And in the second overtime it was Casper again who would catch the game-winning touchdown.  Most people forget that Casper grabbed the game-winner. It was the post pattern and the over-the-shoulder grab, which helped send the game into overtime, which became his signature moment.

The catch and the win still rank as one of the great Christmas presents I ever received.  Unfortunately a week later, in the AFC Championship game in Denver, the Raiders were the victim of a questionable call and it was the Broncos who went to the Super Bowl.  Memo to Denver fans: Rob Lytle fumbled!

The disappointment of that loss soon faded as the Raiders would win another Super Bowl just three years later.

So while the NFL promotes the 40th Anniversary of the “Immaculate Reception” (Deception) I prefer to remember the 35th Anniversary of “Ghost to the Post” and the 1977 playoff win over the Colts.  That was a Christmas I won’t soon forget.

Happy Holidays everyone!

Gary Stewart is the Vice President of the National Association of Basketball Coaches, serving on the NABC Ethics Committee, Race & Reconcilation Committee, Board of Directors and NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Regional Advisory Committee. In April 2022 he will assume the role of President of the NABC.