It is Sunday afternoon and in 17 minutes the Washington Redskins will begin to create a 24-14 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals. It will be an upset and George Allen will say it is a sign of good things to come. Billy Kilmer will laugh and shout in outright joy. Dizzy and weak, Pat Fischer will force his aching body across the field to hug a friend who made a big play. Dennis Johnson will pray in thanksgiving and John Riggins will close his eyes in bliss. It is Sunday, 17 minutes to game time . . .
Little things can win games. You never know what might help. So Ken Houston, one of the league's best safetyman, is throwing a football to lineback Brad Dusek - throwing it on one bounce, simulating a wild fumble. With only 17 minutes until it's time, Houstin watches the Cardinals receivers warming up. Mel gray, the sprinter, goes deep and catches one, and houston turns away from the sight, ready for Mel Gray.
Harold McLinton, a linebacker, wraps tape around his shoes, securing the laces, and Riggins, a running back, sits on the bench with an oxgyen mask held against his face. Fischer, a cornerback, spreads a stickey goo on his socks and then touches it with his fingerstips. Ron Mcdole, 38, a defensive end in the pros for 17 years, spreads his feet and leans forward, stretching reluctant muscles. Kilmer throws a pass 60 yards in the air and it is caught and a small cheer goes up from the bleachers and behind him.
And now, halfway through the first quarter, Kilmer throws a touchdown pass, 12 yards to wide receiver Frank Grant. The Redskins have scored on their first possession, and Grant is jubilant, dancing in the end zone, while Kilmer moves to the sidelines, expressionless. He's been at it 16 years and he touches hands with men going in to kick the extra point, but Kilmer doesn't celebrate. It's early. He goes to the sidelines and paces, never stoping, never sitting down, just walking back and forth until it's time to work again.
The St. Louis quarterback, Jim Hart, is very good. But against the Redskins, he is getting nothing done. He completes only three of 12 passes the first half, and Johnson, a defensive end for the Redskins, struts triumphantly off the field late in the half. With both hands raised high, he urges the crowd to cheer the defense. Anger owns his face.
With a minute to go in the half, Fischer is hurt. He's had a bad back and now he's down on the field with three men tending to him. At last, he's up and walking, and at the sidelines players say, "Way to be tough, Mouse," "All right, Mouse," and Fischer walks past them, saying nothing.
In the third quarter, on its fourth play, St. Louis runs in Fischer's direction, testing the little man. The run is good for 12 yards and the Redskins replace Fischer was rookie Gerard Williams, folding chair, leaning forward, hanging his head. Fischer won't play again. He sits on a wooden.
Kilmer is magnificent. He can't run because his left foot doesn't work well. It flops loosely at the ankle, as if the connection is made with thread, not bone and sinew. But if a quarterback can't run, you want him to throw and have a brain and make other guys winners. Kilmer does all that, and now, the the third quarter, he completes four straight passes on third-and-long - lobbing two ever so softly, throwing line drives on the others, the last for 27 yards and a touchdown to jean Fugett.
This time Kilmer limps-trots off the field and is smiling and he slaps hands with the extra-point men. It's cool in the stadium now and Kilmer asks for a cape and then he runs the length of the bench to find Fugett. "Good job, Gino, good job," Kilmer says. Kilmer says it authoritatively, looking Fugett in the eye, just the two of them alone in a crowd of 55,000 people, and Fugett nods. Kilmer walks away.
It is a 14-0 late in the third quarter. Gray has caught a 30-yard pass from Hart - not in Houston's area - and St. Louis seems to have its offense working. But on third-and-10, Johnson eludes a block and sacks the quarterback. Out there in the middle of the field, Johnson celebrates by pounding a fist into the turf, rolling over and pounding the turf again. Back at the bench, proud of himself, he says, "Damn," and drops to one knee, and touches his forehead, and prays.
Now it's the fourth quarter, early, and Fischer gets off the chair. He's bent forward at the waist. The back must hurt. If football brings great rewards, it exacts great costs and Fischer, paying the cost takes an ammonia tablet from a trainer, goes back to his chair and sniffs the foul stuff. He flinches and buries his face in a towel.
Suddenly it's 14-7. Hart has passed seven yards to J.V. Cain, who makes a spectacular, one-handed catch for the touchdown. The Redskin' bench is silent. Silent except for the distinctive, high-pitched voice of Kilmer, who is saying, "Good return now, good return." He wants good field position on the Cardinals' kickoff. Winners think of the little things.
And with six minutes to play, Kilmer lobs a short pass to Riggins, who takes the ball at the line of scrimmage and runs 53 yards for a touchdown. The stadium is filled with a waterfall's roar and George Allen is doing a funny dance and throwing his cap against the ground and Riggins, back at the bench, walks around with his eyes closed, a beautific smile on his face.
Len Hauss, the center, runs up to Kilmer and says, "Who said you can't go along? seventy yards." It's a joke, of course, for Kilmer threw the ball maybe 10 yards, but it's one of those mock insults that winners love. And Kilmer, seeing Riggins walk by, shouts, "It's them fast backs," Riggins keeps smiling.
Five plays later, McDole, the old man defensive end, intercepts a Hart pass and runs - runs? at 38 and 265 pounds, McDole puts one foot ahead of the other as fast as he can, which may or may not be called running - he moves 15 yards.
Because it is a big play and because his teammates respect him, McDole is still on the ground, hugging the precious ball, when a celebration party begins. And out there, hobbling toward his buddy, is Fischer, and on the sidelines Kilmer is loving it. "That guy's got better hands than some of our ends," he says, loudly enough for my end to hear.
And with 2 1/2 minutes to play, Kilmer hugs Fischer and the quarterback sits down on the bench for the first time all day.