There'd been World War II and Korea, and we couldn't get out of Vietnam. There'd been Give 'em hell Harry and I like Ike, Kennedy, LBJ and Nixon's the one. There'd been Sinatra before Elvis, and Bogart before Marilyn. It had been a while, from 1945 to this last day of 1972, since the Washington Redskins had won any kind of football championship. Sammy Baugh was an old man on a ranch in Texas the morning of Dec. 31, 1972, when Billy Kilmer bought a newspaper.
It was, Kilmer remembers, 6 in the morning. "I was so keyed up I couldn't get much sleep the night before," he said. "So I got a paper. Tom Landry made a statement I'll never forget. He said the Cowboys would win because Roger Staubach was a better athlete than me. That ticked me off. It fueled in me, and it kept building up until game time."
A decade later, Kilmer's whiskey-river voice runs hot at the memory. Come Saturday, the Redskins and Cowboys will play again for the same National Conference championship that was at stake that morning in '72. The winner again goes to the Super Bowl. There's been Watergate and we finally got out of Vietnam. There's been Ford and Carter and Reagan, and there's been Obie Wan Kenobee and E.T. The Redskins haven't won a championship since '72.
That New Year's Eve began a rivalry made classic: Diron Talbert mouths off, Roger Staubach screams at the ceiling, George Allen sees spies, and pretty soon it's so hot (to quote ex-Cowboy Charlie Waters), "Somebody could be bombing the parking lot outside RFK and the fans wouldn't notice."
In '72, the Redskins beat Dallas, 26-3. Kilmer completed 14 of 18 passes for 194 yards and two touchdowns. His best receiver, Charley Taylor, caught seven of them for 146 yards and both touchdowns. They worked on Waters, the Dallas cornerback, and burned his backup when Waters broke an arm on a punt return.
The Redskins' defense was overwhelming. Linebacker Jack Pardee called signals that helped limit runners Calvin Hill and Walt Garrison to fewer than 25 yards each. Beforehand, defensive tackle Talbert said Dallas would make a mistake starting inexperienced Roger Staubach instead of veteran Craig Morton. After Staubach went nine for 20 passing, Talbert kept talking.
Billy Kilmer's story.
That morning in '72, Kilmer was a man driven. He nearly lost a leg in a car wreck in the mid-'60s. They booed him out of New Orleans in '70, and he took a job as Sonny Jurgensen's backup only because "George mesmerized me with his enthusiasm."
"For a guy supposed to be washed up in 1970, here I was with a chance to be the starting quarterback in the Super Bowl two years later," Kilmer said. Jurgensen was out with a torn Achilles' tendon, but Kilmer had gained Allen's favor, anyway, as a gut-fighting winner who fit his conservative ideas of offense.
All year, the Redskins had used Larry Brown, letting the league's MVP rack up yardage. "So I decided to go against our tendencies," Kilmer said. "I came out throwing."
A 51-yard pass to Taylor set up the first touchdown, a 15-yarder on "my favorite pattern, a quick post" to Taylor.
It was 10-3 in the third quarter when Waters was injured. Because all-pro Mel Renfro was the other corner, everyone attacked Waters. What Kilmer couldn't figure out, he says, is why Dallas didn't change defenses to give Waters help against Taylor.
With Waters out, third-year corner Mark Washington came in.
"First play, I told Charley, 'Just fly by him,' " Kilmer said. "I launched it. I thought I overthrew Charley, but he made a great catch. I threw it as far as I could, 55 yards in the air."
Touchdown, Redskins. It was 17-3, and the defense set up three more Curt Knight field goals, giving him kicks of 18, 39, 45 and 46 yards.
Charlie Waters' story.
Someone asked Waters to talk about that '72 game. "Oh, great," Waters said with a little groan.
"I was all over Taylor on that first touchdown, but he made a great catch," said Waters, who added that the Redskins' success helped cause Landry to change coverages from man-to-man to shifting defenses, with the strong safety helping out on receivers.
It was 10-3 when Waters and safety Cliff Harris went back for a punt.
Harris sees it yet. It has been 10 years. Some guys forget. Kilmer said he'd love to still be playing, but he can't, and so you have to not dwell on it. In 10 years, an athlete dying young might want to put the pain out of mind. For Waters, that moment is still real, still lovely in its pain, so real.
"It was a late afternoon game, and at RFK there's a kind of haze around the lights at that time of day. It was almost surrealistic, the haze and the noise. The agony we go through, playing in that stadium is one of the great things you get in return. You can't put a price on it. The crowd going wild, the nation's capital. Yeah, that punt, I can still see it."
He had spoken to Harris, or had Harris said it? "I forget, but one of us said--we were young stallions--'Let's go with it, no matter what. Let's see if we can spark the offense.' "
Stumbling, Waters put out his left arm. It was broken on the tackle.
Roger Staubach's story.
"I was a rusty quarterback that day. I'd had a shoulder separation that year and hadn't thrown 10 passes. All I'd played was the last quarter the week before. I wasn't a positive force. I didn't ever feel it was my team. It was the worst I ever felt.
"The Redskins' defense was overwhelming. Pardee called a great game, almost like he was in our huddle. Garrison and Hill had 200 yards before against the Redskins, but they got nothing. The Redskins shut down our running game, and our third-down passing game was confused.
"We tried a new concept, four wide receivers, and there was a lot of confusion. Now the Cowboys have a great third-down offense with the shotgun, but then we didn't. It was confusing for me as a quarterback as well as for the receivers.
"Afterward, Talbert made those statements that they won because I started at quarterback instead of Craig. Well, they beat us handily that day. But those statements were the beginning of the bitterness between us and the Redskins. They were a positive force for me the rest of my career. Whenever we had to beat the Redskins, we did, and I was the No. 1 Redskin guy, wanting to beat them. They only beat us once at Dallas in my career, and that was a game that didn't mean anything.
"Yeah, I screamed in my hotel room one time. Facetiously. 'We're gonna beat those (expletive deleted).' I did it loud enough for the guys in the next room to hear."
Jack Pardee's story.
"The key to stopping their running was we lined up a linebacker, me or our strong safety, Ken Houston, to make a quick force on the back running wide from the I-formation. The Cowboys gave us influence blocking the last time, and this time we didn't fall for it. You remember, too, that Lance Alworth got me with that crackback block the other game. So I was fired up for 'em."
Diron Talbert's story.
"It was a perfectly played game. George had written as a defensive goal on the blackboard, 'Make Calvin take himself out of the game.' It was a weakness. Sure enough, Mike Bass got him out of bounds and knocked him out. We figured he'd be demoralized because he knew the defense would be leveling him.
"But what I remember most is being penned in after the game by the 35,000 or 40,000 fans on the field. We ended the game at the far end and we damn near got trampled. I finally forced my way through and fell into the corridor and laid on the ground.
"So Roger's still hot at me, huh? Ain't that a big load of (expletive deleted)? Har-de-har-har."