Mike Nelms knew he had cost his team a touchdown, knew his fumble on the opening kickoff of the second half had helped Dallas get back into the game. He also knew he would get a chance to redeem himself some way, some time later.
It came the next time he touched the football. This time there would be no fumble, only a run for redemption--76 yards on a kickoff return that helped the Redskins take a 21-10 lead five plays later. The runback clearly played a vital role in the Redskins' 31-17 victory over the Cowboys.
"It's just a basic return right," Nelms said later, smoking a long cigar in his locker cubicle. "I have no idea who threw the blocks or what happened. I just knew I saw a hole open up out there and I went for the hole. Somebody came right across my face and got a big guy; that's what I remember.
"When it opened up, the only guy I had to worry about was (Rafael) Septien (the Cowboys' kicker). When he was taken out (by Wilbur Jackson), I had it. I got caught (by Dennis Thurman) because I had to slow down a little to get away from Septien, but as it turned out it didn't matter."
Five players later, John Riggins scored from the four and Mark Moseley's extra point gave the Redskins a 21-10 lead. Nelms' run had set up what proved to be the game-winning touchdown.
Things had not started well for Nelms in the first half. He had tried to head-fake a Cowboy on the opening kickoff of the second half, only to get hit and fumble. Michael Downs had a chance to get the ball for the Cowboys, but Nick Giaquinto recovered at the Washington seven.
"I got real lucky on that play," said Giaquinto. "It happened so quick. I had put a hit on a guy I was supposed to block, and then he got by me so I went back toward the ball and tried to get somebody else. I just saw the ball fly loose. A Dallas guy jumped on it, Pete Cronan jarred it loose and I just landed on the ball."
The Cowboys had to work a bit to get their touchdown. The Redskins could not get a first down after Giaquinto's recovery and Dallas took over on the Redskins' 38 after Jeff Hayes' short punt. They scored in six plays, cutting the Redskins' lead to 14-10, and all the while Nelms stood on the sideline, waiting for another chance.
"I didn't worry about the fumble," Nelms said. "I just went to the sidelines, said a few prayers that we'd get the ball back and everything would work out. It usually does. I just wanted another chance. All you can say to yourself is, 'Don't worry about it; you'll get another shot.' You just try to do a little better the next time.
"The whole kickoff team feels that way. Nah, there was no pep talk on the sideline. We didn't need that. We just all felt an obligation to make it happen the next time. The blocks were there; all I had to do was run behind them."
One of the key blocks was thrown by Jackson, the veteran fullback whose job is to hang upfield in case Nelms can find a crack. Jackson led Nelms up the right side and wiped out Septien, a block that meant another 25 yards on the return.
"I just saw their two outside guys get blocked and a big hole opened up," Jackson said. "I heard the crowd, and then I looked up and here came Mike. I just led him and he did the rest. Actually, I think Septien was falling down by the time I got to him. I didn't have to do much, but I got him out of the play, I guess."
Septien simply remembered looking up and seeing several extremely large bodies coming his way.
"I was a little surprised," he said. "I had gotten good height on the kickoff, but they had some excellent blocking. He (Nelms) had a guy right in front of him. I tried to tackle him and roll a little and I got blocked pretty good. I tried to slow him down, but I didn't do it very well. No question, the guy in front of him really did block me. I wasn't falling. I was knocked out of the play."
Septien had aroused a bit of passion in the Redskins this week by saying kicker Mark Moseley had been lucky during his NFL-record field goal streak of 23 straight. Asked yesterday if he paid for it out on the field, he said, "No, they didn't come after me.
"My conscience is clear. I know what I said. Before the game, I went up and told him (Moseley) good luck. I also told him I didn't say some of those things. We shook hands, and then I took off. He's a nice fellow. He's very good. That's a very good team."