Remembering sickbed glory on Thanksgiving Day ’74

Rarely does a Thanksgiving come and go that I am not reminded of Thanksgiving, 1974.

I was 23 and single at the time and living in Shreveport, where I worked for the Shreveport Journal, a splendid afternoon paper that competed with Shreveport’s morning paper, the Times. But I had been ordered by my doctor to return home for a few weeks to New Orleans, where I could be cared for and fed properly to recover and heal from mononucleosis and a mild case of hepatitis.

Home around Thanksgiving that year was more like a sick bay because my younger brother, Peter, at age 13, was in a makeshift downstairs bedroom, healing from a broken leg. I was quarantined in the upstairs “boys” bedroom. No visitors allowed. The doctor hadn’t prescribed any medicine for me but insisted I get plenty of rest and eat well. The second part was something mom took as her responsibility and did so above and beyond the call to duty.

The NFL football game on TV that Thanksgiving Day was between two bitter rivals, the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins, and my parents let me watch it on the portable, black-and-white TV that was usually in the kitchen. That was a great tonic for this lonely soul, especially since the game was a classic. The Cowboys rallied from a 16-3 deficit, but Captain Comeback, Roger Staubach, the veteran starting quarterback, didn’t direct the rally.

Dallas’ backup quarterback — baby-faced rookie Clint Longley – who had never played a down of professional football, came off the bench to deliver the game of his life, after taking over for an injured Staubach. He fired a 35-yard touchdown pass to future Louisiana Sports Hall of Famer Billy Joe Dupree. He engineered a 70-yard scoring drive capped by a 1-yard TD run by Walt Garrison. Finally, with 28 seconds left and no timeouts remaining, he connected with Drew Pearson for a 50-yard touchdown pass that gave the Cowboys a 24-23 victory.

My instinct, after such an epic contest, was to want to write about it, but I was away from the office, without my typewriter and without a telecopier to transmit it back to the Journal. My father, upon hearing of my plight, pointed to the bulky, black typewriter on the old-fashioned desk in the middle of the two beds.

“You want to write a column?” he asked. “Well, have at it.”

“It’s going to be too dated to use by the time I get back to Shreveport,” I said.

“Call your boss and see if he’ll take your column on the game, even if it’ll be late, and you could mail it,” he suggested.

I called Jerry Byrd, the legendary Journal sports editor at the time, and he heard me out.

“If it’s good enough,” he said with some of his usual stuttering, “it won’t matter if it’s a month late. Go ahead.”

Thus it is my column on that game, which was voted by ESPN in 2008 as the second best game in the history of Texas Stadium, ran in the Dec. 3, 1974 edition of the Shreveport Journal.

Some footnotes are necessary about Longley. In the 1976 Cowboys training camp, Longley, according to a book written by teammates Cliff Harris and Charlie Waters, sucker punched Staubach in the locker room, and another time, Longley challenged Staubach to a fight during practice. Staubach agreed but on a different field after practice, and there proceeded to “beat the hell out of him,” according to former personnel director Gil Brandt. Longley was quickly traded to the San Diego Chargers, where he flamed out quickly, and never played in the NFL again.

That trade to the Chargers, incidentally, got them a couple of guys they later traded to land the No. 2 pick in the ’77 draft, Heisman Trophy winning running back Tony Dorsett, who promptly led the Cowboys to the Super Bowl XII championship.

Longley did have a brief stint with the Toronto Argonauts in the CFL, and do you know where he finished his playing career? A bit ironically for this former Shreveport sports scribe, who wrote from his sickbed about Longley’s surprising Thanksgiving Day heroics, Longley closed his football career with the minor league Shreveport Steamer.