The Greatest NFL Game. Period.
The Chargers-Dolphins AFC playoff game in 1982, a nail-biting, brain-draining slugfest, is recalled by a professional witness
As sports columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, I was seated in a press box at the Orange Bowl on the evening of January 2, 1982, and thus witness to perhaps the most extraordinary professional football game ever—the now-legendary AFC playoff contest between the Miami Dolphins and the San Diego Chargers. One month later, I joined the staff of the San Diego Tribune and over the ensuing two decades would witness, and comment on, dozens of games involving the Chargers. None approached the quality of what I had witnessed on the floor of that South Florida stadium.
To say I was dazzled by my first closeup of the Air Coryell offense would be understatement. Retrieved from a yellowed clip of my report is the comment: “The Chargers score touchdowns as routinely as an allergic Kansan sneezes during wheat harvest.”
And of the game: “If on most ‘given Sundays’ descriptions like ‘great’ and ‘super’ are standard, where does one go for words when given Sunday actually comes along? What adjectives do we assign to men who performed at such a level through four hours of heat, pressure and fickle bounces?”
Says Dan Fouts, the quarterback who put the air into the attack widely known as Air Coryell, a tribute to the coach who implemented it, “The back-and-forth of that game was both physically and mentally draining. The effort given by people on both sides of the field was amazing. There’s a famous picture of [tight end] Kellen Winslow being helped from the field by teammates due to exhaustion. But it could have been anyone who played that day.”
The game ultimately had more twists than a back road through the Rocky Mountains, but the early moments were all interstate for the Chargers. With the remarkable Fouts performing his usual surgery on an enemy secondary, San Diego darted to a 17-0 lead, then used a 56-yard punt return by Wes Chandler to increase it to 24-0.
“I was standing alongside [wide receiver] Charlie Joiner when Chandler scored,” Fouts recalls. “Charlie turned to me and said, ‘This is a Don Shula team, and it’s not gonna be this easy.’”
The wisdom of that comment soon was manifest. Miami’s Hall of Fame coach Shula replaced starting quarterback David Whitley with veteran Don Strock, who immediately began doing an impersonation of his San Diego counterpart. With six seconds remaining in the first half, Strock tossed to receiver Duriel Harris, who pitched to Tony Nathan on a perfectly executed hook-and-ladder. When Nathan cruised into the end zone 25 yards later, the lead had been trimmed to 24-17.
“I think our guys already had been counting their playoff money, which meant a lot back then,” says Rolf Benirschke, the place-kicker who would provide the final points in the Chargers’ 41-38 victory. “When Nathan scored, it was so loud in that place you could yell at the guy next to you and not be heard. You could physically feel the reversal of momentum.
“There was a very tense atmosphere in the locker room at halftime. Guys were sitting around, just stunned, when Dan Fouts finally walked in, threw his helmet across the floor and began screaming. He was livid, using every curse word you’ve ever heard. ‘We are not going to lose this game,’ he said.
“Winslow was outstanding that night, received much of the attention and credit afterwards,” says Benirschke. “But I’m here to tell you, Fouts was the presence who kept us going through all of the give-and-take of the second half. The fire in his eyes had a contagious quality.”
Early in the third quarter, the Dolphins tied the score at 24-24 on an 18-yard pass from Strock to Joe Rose. A 25-yard completion by Fouts to Winslow restored the Chargers’ advantage, briefly. Strock and tight end Bruce Hardy combined on a 50-yard touchdown to force another deadlock.
Miami then took the lead at 38-31 when, following an interception by Lyle Blackwood, Nathan swept 12 yards into the end zone on the first play of the fourth quarter. The Dolphins seemed poised to deliver a game-clinching touchdown during a seven-minute drive shortly thereafter, but running back Andrea Franklin fumbled at the San Diego 29, and the Chargers recovered.
Fouts responded by completing six of seven passes on a push that reached the Miami 9-yard line with 58 seconds remaining. “I had Kellen open on the next down,” Fouts recalls, “but he couldn’t reach my throw. James Brooks, who was behind Kellen in the end zone, made an unbelievable catch of a ball that wasn’t even meant for him.
“At the Pro Bowl a couple of weeks later, Shula came up to me, didn’t say hello, just said, ‘You over-threw Winslow, didn’t you?’
“I laughed and said, ‘Nah, it was intended for Brooks.’”
With the score tied at 38, back came Miami—to eventually position kicker Uwe von Schamann for a 43-yard field goal attempt with four seconds on the clock. It was blocked—by Winslow, inserted in the special-teams alignment for precisely that purpose.
As overtime began its run, Fouts engineered a 79-yard drive to the Miami 10. On second down, coach Don Coryell summoned the field goal unit. “We hadn’t expected it that quickly,” Benirschke recalls. “We didn’t have the usual linemen on the field. I should have called time out, but didn’t.” The 24-yard kick sailed wide.
Back came Miami, again, this time to the Chargers’ 27, from which von Schamann attempted to launch a 34-yard field goal attempt—but it didn’t launch. “I think his foot hit the ground,” Benirschke says.
“Whatever, he kicked it into his linemen.”
Four Fouts completions on the ensuing possession delivered the position from which Benirschke struck a 29-yard kick that split the uprights and ended a game later voted the greatest played in the NFL during the 1980s.
“I remember thinking on the flight home that I’d twice been beneficiary of an amazing second chance,” says Benirschke, who’d made a remarkable recovery from a life-threatening disease to rejoin the San Diego varsity. “I was supposed to die, and didn’t. I was supposed to be the goat of that game, and wasn’t.”
Heroes abounded. Fouts passed for 433 yards, Strock 403. Winslow caught 13 passes for 166 yards.
Fouts, who since retirement has worked as a highly regarded analyst for major-network broadcasts of college and NFL telecasts, was asked recently if during all of his experience—on the field and in the booth—he has ever seen a game comparable to the one of January 2, 1982.“Well, I’ve been involved with some memorable ones,” Fouts says, his voice trailing off for a few seconds. Then, emphatically: “No.”