For days, the American Football Conference wild-card game had been proclaimed as the Showdown at Bruised Rib, or something to that effect: a confrontation of battle-scarred quarterbacks whose injury reports read like the list of characters in a Russian novel.
Bob Griese of the Miami Dolphins had a gimpy left knee and assorted aches and pains, but was most concerned about his rib cage, a portion of which had been turned a nasty shade of purple by the New England Patriots in last Monday night's regular season finale. Griese did not work out a minute all week, finding it painful just to take a deep breath, never mind throwing a football.
His Houston Oiler counterpart, Dan Pastorini, had precisely the same amount of time on the practice field. He was sidelined with a right side that felt as if he had fallen out of a window on it-badly sprained knee, less severely inflamed ankle and elbow-plus the three cracked ribs that had put him in the hospital following a bruising Dec. 3 game against the Pittsburg Steelers.
Pastorini was not given medical clearance to play until Thursday afternoon, after being put to sleep with anesthesia and fitted with a knee brace in a Houston hospital on Wednesday.
Griese-the scholarly looking, bespectacled 33-year-old tower of calm reason by whose standard leadership qualities in quarterbacks are measured-had the sort of game you might logically expect of an outpatient who probably should have spent Christmas Eve in an infirmary. He completed only 11 of 28 passes for 114 yards and had two intercepted-the second at a most inopportune time, on the first play from scrimmage after Houston had gone ahead, 10-7, on a field goal with 7:25 left in the game.
And what of Pastorini? All that Houston's suddenly dandy Dan did was have his sharpest day passing in eight years as a pro, in the biggest game his team has played since 1969.
With Miami's vaunted defense keying in the first half on the Oilers' running attack, which wears jersey no. 34 and is named Earl Campbell, pastorini started to throw and throw and throw.
By halftime, he had completed 16 of 21 passes for 261 yards and one touchdown a 12-yarder to fullback TimWilson, who stood in the end zone, jumping up and down and montioning for the ball for the longest time before moving laterally a couple of yards, away from a defender, so that Pastorini could zip it to him.
On that 71-yard scoring drive, late in the first quarter, Pastorini passed on six of the last seven downs, for 67 yards. Campbell, the National Football League's leading rusher and rookie of the year, had netted seven yards on six carries at that point, so Pastorini decided it was time for an aerial circus.
The effectiveness of his passing meant that the Miami linebackers could no longer only have eyes for Campbell, and so the Oilers finally got their infantry moving in the second half. Pastorini finished the game with a spectacular 20 completions in 29 attempts for 306 yards in a 17-9 victory he described as "so much sweeter because our team has been criticized a lot and i've been at the center of that."
Not bad a guy wearing a specially-constructed knee brace, elastic supports on his ankle and elbow, and a space-age vest worthy of the Superman movie to protect his battered ribs.
It was this contraption-an adaption of a military bulletproof vest; ingeniously fitted with air bags-that kept Pastorini from feeling any pain the few times that Houston's crack No-Name offensive line let the Dolphins close enough to him to deliver potentially damaging jolts.
he lightweight plastic vest, which weighs only six ounces, was the design of a Houston inventor and entrepreneur named Byron Donzis, whose firm developed it for the U.S. Army but is coming out with a whole line of athletic protective gear-helmets, pads, the works-next spring.
"I was in the hospital, my ribs aching, after the Pittsburg game," Pastorini recalled today in the jubilant Oiler locker room. "This guy walked into my room carrying this funny looking black jacket. I didn't know what to expect. He put the thing on and said, 'I want to show you something.' The guy with him had a baseball bat and bashed him five times in the side as hard as he could. He didn't flinch.
"I sat up in bed and said, 'I want one of those."
Donzis-who looks and talks like an inventor, a kind of Waldo Binney with gray beard-was in the locker room, accepting congratulations for the equipment.
"I've been a Oiler fan for a number of years, but I was never involved much until today," he said with a touch of Walter Mitty awe. "I just read in the paper about Pastorini being in the hospital and called up the team doctor to tell about our vest.
"It was designed to go under a military flak jacket. It uses air cushions and plastic armor to spread out shock, to prevent guys being killed by the impact of a bullet that doesn't penetrate the vest."
Of course the vest, the knee brace, and all the other padding and supports wouldn't have meant a thing if the oft-maligned Pastorini hadn't kept putting the ball right in the solarplexus of his receivers.
Having boldly decided that the route to success was through the air space above the Orange bowl, rather than over the natural grass on whic Campbell was having so much trouble with his footing, he hit tight end Mike Barber for 112 yards on four catches, wide receiver Ken Burrough for 103 yards on six, and various other receiving when he needed them.
If they're going to take the running game away from me, they've got to leave something else open, so we started going with the play-action passes," Pastorini said. ThDolphins stopped Campbell-who had burned them for 199 yards in 28 carries five weeks ago, including an 81-yard sprint for the winning touchdown in a memorable 35-30 Monday night thriller-but Pastorini proved conclusively that the Oilers have more than one gusher.
Campbell, who got some room when Miami had to back off and defend against the pass in the second half, wound up with 84 yards on 26 carries, Wilson with 76 yards on 14 carries.
And Poastorini-who played a mechanically brilliant game, despite some dubious play-calling when the Oilers were bereft of timeouts in a frazzled "two-minute drill" that left them on the Miami six-yard line when the first half ended-wound up with the kind of respect he has craved, but not earned, in seasons past.