Legendary Insights — Carl Eller on Jim Marshall’s Wrong Way Run, 50 Years Later

Fifty years ago this week, on October 25, 1964, Jim Marshall of the Minnesota Vikings pulled one of the NFL’s ultimate blunders. He recovered a fumble, rumbled downfield, and crossed the goal line – for a safety. Many remember the play a farce at Marshall’s expense. But how justified is the amusement?

I discussed the play with Marshall’s Hall of Fame teammate, Carl Eller. I first, however, asked about a seldom known fact: Carl returned a fumble earlier that quarter for a touchdown. A surprised Eller said, “Most people remember the wrong way run by Jim Marshall during my rookie year, and a lot of people only remember that. What people don’t remember is that I returned a fumble for a touchdown right before that….John Brodie was the (49ers) quarterback. I think Jim (Marshall) hit him and the ball snapped out. I picked up the ball and ran for a 45-yard touchdown in Gale Sayers–like fashion. [Laughs.]”

Eller then recalled the infamous play, providing new perspective. “The Jim Marshall play was very similar, but Jim was coming from the other side. We reversed fields chasing a flat pass Brodie had thrown to Billy Kilmer. Marshall picked up the ball and kept running, not realizing he was going in the opposite direction. My thought was, ‘He’s going to have a longer touchdown than mine.’ I also didn’t realize he was running the wrong way at first.”

The play’s confusion led to Marshall running the wrong direction. NFL action drops like lightning, players exert an enormous amount of energy and often battle mental and physical exhaustion on top of opponents. Adding these elements together with Eller’s recollection adds sense to what many simply write off as a bonehead play.

In case you’re wondering, the Vikings held on for a 27-22 victory at San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium. Watching the play now, do you have a different view of the “Wrong Way Run?”

NOTE: All above quotes are from The Game before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL, published by the University of Nebraska Press. ORDER YOUR COPY TODAY!





This is the first in a four-part series.

Knowing how much I love history, my wife bought me a birthday card listing facts about the year I was born. I started wondering what was happening the last time teams won a championship. Let’s find out, and I hope you have as much fun reading this as I had researching.

We’ll start with the NFC East and NFC North Divisions. Some of the most decorated trophy rooms in football reside here, their championships might seem longer ago than one might think. As Bruce Springsteen says, “Glory Days – They’ll pass you by.”



DALLAS COWBOYS Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, and Company dominated, winning 3 out of 4 Super Bowls. For their last title, the Cowboys topped Carnell Lake (remember him?) and the rest of the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl 30.  That January of 1996. Bill Clinton’s first term in office. Hootie and the Blowfish had the number one song in the country. A stamp cost 32 cents. Keyshawn Johnson would be the first pick in the upcoming draft, with future Hall of Famer Jonathan Ogden going fourth overall. Yep, it’s been so long since the Cowboys won the Super Bowl, that a Hall of Famer’s been drafted since then. Maybe we shouldn’t mention that HOF Walter Jones was drafted the next year. Or that the Colts drafted Peyton Manning merely two years later. Then again, maybe that puts it all into perspective.


Above: Jerry Jones and Barry Switzer wrestling for the Lombardi Trophy.

NEW YORK GIANTS – Fairly recent for the Giants, of course, after winning in February 2012. What was going on? Tim Tebow’s overtime playoff touchdown pass against the Steelers was part of those same playoffs. The U.S. encountered several tragedies later in 2012, including the shootings at Sandy Hook and the movie theatre in Colorado. Superstorm Sandy ravaged the East Coast. While the Giants championship doesn’t seem so long ago, a lot’s happened since then.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES Norm Van Brocklin, old enough to play against Sammy Baugh, quarterbacked the Eagles to their last championship in 1960. He mentored a spritely, young Sonny Jurgensen that season. John Fitzgerald Kennedy won the country’s presidential race in 1960, and was simply “President-Elect” the day the Eagles beat Green Bay 17-13. Kennedy and then still-living presidential icon Herbert Hoover could have cut the rug to 1960 chart toppers by Elvis Presley (“Stuck On You” and “Are You Lonesome Tonight?”), Chubby Checker (“The Twist.”), and the Drifters (“Save the Last Dance for Me”). Quite the Inaugural Ball. And this was before handy dandy things like space travel, the Beatles, and handheld calculators. Mankind had merely just invented the Etch-A-Sketch when Ted Dean scored the winning touchdown and Chuck Bednarik made the game-saving tackle against the Packers. How on earth did they figure out Dean’s yard-per-carry without calculators?


Above: Kennedy and Hoover

WASHINGTON REDSKINS – The Redskins topped the Buffalo Bills in Super Bowl 26 on January 26, 1992. President George Bush Sr. telephoned Coach Joe Gibbs as players Mark Rypien, Charles Mann, Gerald Riggs, Jeff Bostic, Chip Lohmiller, and Ricky Sanders poured champagne over themselves. The Dow Jones topped out at just over 3,400 that year. Before we crowned the next Super Bowl winner, we’d all rushed out to see the following flicks: Wayne’s World, White Men Can’t Jump, Basic Instinct, A League of Their Own, and A Few Good Men. Good year for Hollywood as D.C. basked in the glow of winning, and we basked in the glow of VHS and the Popcorn Pumper – complete with that little compartment to melt butter in.




CHICAGO BEARS – They weren’t here to start no trouble, the 1985 Bears were just doing the Super Bowl Shuffle. Did the Washington roster bring back memories? Well, how about President Reagan’s congratulatory phone call getting passed around from Richard Dent to Dan Hampton to Walter Payton to Willie Gault? And of course,  “The Refrigerator” William Perry and shade-sporting, headband-touting Jim McMahon. You might remember McMahon getting fined for writing on those headbands. You might also remember that when the Bears won in January 1986, ancient Bear pioneers Bronko Nagurski and Red Grange were still alive to Shuffle to the champs’ theme song. They also could have shuffled to Bon Jovi’s “You Give Love a Bad Name,” Janet Jackson’s “Nasty,” and “Danger Zone” from the Top Gun soundtrack. Little did Bears fans know they were headed toward their own danger zone, still waiting for that next ring nearly 30 years later.

DETROIT LIONS – Think that’s long? The Lions had waited nearly 30 years for their next championship by the time Da Bears trounced the Patriots in Super Bowl 20, and are still waiting. Detroit last won in 1957, although they had a good run of success in the 50s – winning 3 titles. All that changed when they traded Bobby Layne to Pittsburgh. Layne defiantly cursed the franchise, stating the Lions would never win again. So far our money’s on Bobby. The Lions haven’t come close to a league title since they traded him in a simpler time when there were only 48 states. (The U.S. granted Alaska and Hawaii statehood in 1959.) One Michigan native just told me, “That’s why so many people follow college football there.”

GREEN BAY PACKERS – Doesn’t seem like too long ago that Aaron Rodgers, Clay Matthews, and A.J. Hawk ran off the field winners of Super Bowl 45. Still, they are 3 of only a handful of Packers remaining from the roster that hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy in February of 2011. Up-to-minute tech geeks posted on their iPhone 4, but couldn’t get the 4s with built-in Siri until the World Series rolled around. The Japan earthquake struck that year, and the Navy Seals struck down Osama Bin Laden. How sneaky is inflation? According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Inflation calculator, $100 in 2011 had the same buying power as $105 does today. Equivalent to one fewer latte or five fewer scratch-offs.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS – Famously lost four Super Bowls in the 1970s. Often overlooked is whom they lost to – the Steelers, Dolphins, Raiders, and Chiefs – the most powerful teams in those franchises’ histories, and some would argue some of the greatest teams ever assembled. The resilient Vikings never won an NFL title, with their last shot being Super Bowl 11, played on January 9, 1977. That team featured soon-to-be Hall of Famer Mick Tingelhoff, and current Hall of Famers Carl Eller, Paul Krause, and Fran Tarkenton. Tarkenton would later retire the game’s all-time leading passer. $100 in your pocket back in ’77 scored you $392.50 worth of today’s goods. That’s a lot of Lynyrd Skynyrd records, or a lot of tickets to a hip new movie named Star Wars. You might have also put that $100 toward a brand new Apple II computer or Atari 2600 – both were released in ’77. Postage stamps cost 13 cents, and a gallon of gas only 65 cents.


Having a little fun here with football, the cost of living, and history. It’s fun looking back and seeing what else was going on in the world when a particular team won. We’ll cover the rest of the NFC next week.

Classic NFL Games — The Hail Mary Game — Second Half

I earlier covered the first half of the 1975 NFC Divisional Playoff, a.k.a. the “Hail Mary Game.” This post covers the second half. I’ll write in present tense to give a sense of the game unfolding.


Both defenses dominated the first half, ending 7-0 in Minnesota’s favor. The second half starts with Fran Tarkenton hitting running back Ed Marinaro for 40 yards, to the Dallas 35.

This, however, isn’t Fran’s best game. He overthrows an open John Gilliam as the drive stalls. Fred Cox misses a 45-yard field goal by the size of the Gulf of Mexico — short, and very wide right.

The Vikings topped every defensive category in 1975, holding 4 opponents to under 200 yards. Lucky bounces can crack such a defense. The Cowboys get one as Doug Sutherland hits Roger Staubach mid-throw. Carl Eller tips the pass, but the Cowboys make the catch at midfield. A late hit from Wally Hilgenberg adds 15 yards. Billy Joe DuPree collects an 18-yard pass on the next play. Doug Dennison rushes to the Minnesota 8, and scores two plays later. The 9 play, 72-yard drive ties the game at 7.

Mel Renfro and rookie Randy White make outstanding plays on the ensuing drive. Minnesota’s punt gives Dallas good field position at the Cowboy 46.

A play-action pass puts Dallas at the Viking 41.  The Cowboys run their first razzle dazzle play, a reverse, to gain about 5. After a Staubach scramble, Dallas is left with 4th and inches.

Dennison picks up the first down. Robert Newhouse then grabs a pass at the Minnesota 17. The Cowboys appear to have a prepared play for a touchdown pass in the corner, but Fred McNeill’s pressure pushes Staubach outside. Staubach throws the ball away. On the next play, Preston Pearson makes a fine, leaping catch on the Minnesota 7. Dallas is left with another 4th and inches as the third quarter expires.


Tom Landry opts for the field goal. Toni Fritsch nails it; the Cowboys lead 10-7.

At this point, it appears the Cowboys are chipping away at the Vikings defense, although Minnesota’s pass rush still causes problems. Dallas’ defense continues to stymie Minnesota. Tarkenton is the Vikings’ rushing leader with 32 yards. Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Harvey Martin and the rest of the Cowboy line force hurries, and Fran overthrows open receivers.

Minnesota punts after a penalty negates a first down. Golden Richards fields it with room to run. Teammate Cliff Harris inadvertently backs into him, stopping the return. A shaken-up Richards misses a couple of plays.

On third down, Staubach throws a bomb to Richards, wide open. Richards drops it, the ball bouncing off his shoulder pad. The Cowboys lose a probable touchdown that would have put them up by 10. I’m left wondering if Richards’ injury on the punt return affected this play.

Minnesota’s offense looks lifeless with 10 minutes to go. Their only points have come on a 3-play, 4-yard drive. Suddenly, Tarkenton finds success hitting Marinaro and Foreman out of the backfield. Foreman fumbles near midfield, but the Vikings recover. An inside handoff to Foreman picks up good yardage, but Minnesota’s left with 3rd and inches.

The Vikings surprise Dallas. Tarkenton rolls right and tosses to a wide open Ed Marinaro for 6. Minnesota then steals a page out of the Cowboy playbook. From the Dallas 41, Brent McClanahan takes off on a reverse. Fran makes an excellent block on Mel Renfro, and McClanahan gets to the Dallas 16. Foreman runs right, to the 5. From out of nowhere, the Vikings offense fires on all cylinders.

McClanahan runs off tackle left, meeting both Cliff Harris and Lee Roy Jordan. McClanahan bounces back, sheds both of them, and scores. McClanahan’s tremendous second effort has put the Vikings up 14-10 with 5:11 left.

Fumbled shotgun snaps plague Dallas’ next possession. Alan Page and Jim Marshall add considerable pressure. Page even recovers a fumbled snap, but it’s negated by a delay of game penalty — a huge break for the Cowboys. On 3rd and 23, the Cowboys fumble the snap again, and have to punt.

Minnesota gets the ball at their 45 with 2:20 left. They can put the game away with a couple of first downs. On 3rd and 2, Tarkenton rolls right. Safety Charlie Waters makes a fantastic play, stuffing Fran and nearly causing a fumble. An excellent adjustment by the Cowboys, responding to Tarkenton’s 3rd-down rollout last possession. This play sets up Dallas’ chance to win. Tarkenton has stated it haunts him more than the famous game-winning touchdown.


Richards makes a fair catch at the Dallas 15, 1:51 left. Drew Pearson makes a 9-yard catch. Bobby Bryant breaks up a throw to Richards, leaving 3rd and 1.

Vintage Roger Staubach coming up: Eller powers his way to Staubach, pushing the offensive tackle backward. Eller almost gets a hand on the QB, but Staubach spins, sprints to a safe area, and hits Drew Pearson at the 31.

1:06 left: Another botched snap. Staubach slams the ball down in disgust. Page and Eller, like true Hall of Famers, power their way to Staubach and force an incompletion on 2nd and 17. The Vikings burst through again on 3rd down, causing another hurried incompletion. Kyle Davis replaces John Fitzgerald at center with 44 seconds left.

Staubauch has good protection on 4th and 17, finding Drew Pearson at the 50. Nate Wright hits Pearson as Pearson leaps and makes the catch out of bounds. The officials rule a completion and first down under the Force Out Rule, declaring Pearson’s feet would have landed in bounds untouched. The Vikings protest, pointing at the sideline and arguing Pearson couldn’t have landed his feet. Many Vikings fans remain more incensed by this play than what’s about to occur.

On second down, with :32 left, Staubach catches a low shotgun snap. He pump fakes to his left, drawing safety Paul Krause away from Drew Pearson. Staubach rears back and launches the ball Pearson’s way.

The pass sails almost 60 yards, although Pearson needs to reach back. He reels it in as Wright tumbles. Krause jumps over Wright as Pearson glides into the end zone. Kruase points at Pearson, claiming offensive pass interference. Pearson heaves the ball over the scoreboard. The officials rule touchdown and the extra point makes it 17-14, Dallas.

Minnesota gets penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct, and the Cowboys kickoff from the 50. McClanahan runs the ball out to the 15 with :18 left. Ed “Too Tall” Jones tackles Tarkenton near the goal line. Tarkenton starts yelling at multiple officials.

A fan tosses a whiskey bottle at one ref, hitting him squarely in the head. The game is stopped for several minutes before the bloodied official gets up. The Vikings run two more plays and Dallas wins, 17-10.


The controversy surrounding the winning touchdown began immediately. Did Drew Pearson commit pass interference? Were the Vikings robbed on the 4th and 17 play? My purpose isn’t to answer these questions.

Many fans, however, prefer games being decided by players rather than officials. Staubach outfoxed Krause after handling a tough snap. At almost 60 yards the pass might be the longest underthrown ball in history, but still remarkable. No disrespect to Nate Wright, but Pearson made both catches. He also made a fabulous adjustment on the scoring play. The Cowboys line provided adequate protection on both plays, despite Minnesota dominating most of the game upfront.

This incredible game was much more than two plays. It featured 9 Hall of Famers, including offensive lineman Ron Yary and Rayfield Wright. Many others were top players of the time: Mick Tingelhoff, Lee Roy Jordan, Too Tall Jones, Jim Marshall, Cliff Harris, Charlie Waters, Chuck Foreman, John Gilliam and Jeff Siemon are among the stars manning the field that day.

More plays favored the Cowboys by execution or luck. Many of their best plays were defensive gems by Charlie Waters, Lee Roy Jordan, Harvey Martin, Too Tall Jones, or Mel Renfro. They got lucky breaks when the fumble recovered by Page was negated and when the tipped pass in the third quarter landed in their hands. The Vikings two lucky breaks were the non-interference call on a first-half punt return and recovering Chuck Foreman’s fumble on their sparkling fourth-quarter drive. Overall, the Cowboy secondary outplayed Minnesota’s, and the Cowboy offense was better in the second half.

Nobody had seen a finish like this before. It founded Staubach’s comeback legacy and the two-minute drill. “That was about as exciting as you can get in football,” Lee Roy Jordan told The Game before the Money. “On the sidelines our jaws were hanging down thinking we were going to lose. Then we got the play that made us believe in winning games in the last two minutes.”

NOTE: Read Mick Tingelhoff’s and Lee Roy Jordan’s stories in The Game before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL.

Here’s a good look at the fourth quarter:

And for fun, here’s the NFL Today pregame show for the game, complete with Frank Sinatra:



Classic NFL Games — The Hail Mary Game — First Half

Tom Landry had a knack for finding himself in some of the most memorable games in NFL history. The Ice Bowl. Super Bowls 10 and 13. He even was an assistant with the Giants in “The Greatest Game Ever Played,” the 1958 NFL Championship. The most controversial, however, was the 1975 NFC Divisional Playoff. The reigning NFC champion Minnesota Vikings hosted wildcard contender Dallas in a game made famous by a 50-yard touchdown that Viking fans still protest. But the game was more than just one play. It was an exceptionally entertaining contest from start to finish.

I will break up my review of this game in two posts, one for each half. The writing will be in present tense to provide a sense of how the game unfolded.


The Cowboys find success running the ball on the opening drive. The drive, however, stalls at midfield and the Vikings start at their own 20 after a touchback.

The Vikings come out throwing, and Fran Tarkenton looks deep on the first play. Dallas safety Charlie Waters maintains good coverage despite Fran’s pump fake, and the ball falls incomplete. On third down, Fran gets flushed out of the pocket by Jethro Pugh and overthrows John Gilliam. A three-and-out for the Vikings.

The first potential break of the game comes when Alan Page forces Cowboy running back Robert Newhouse to fumble. Page clamors for the ball bouncing toward the Cowboys goal line with a sea of purple shirts giving chase. Jim Marshall swats at the ball and misses. Jeff Siemon has a chance to recover but muffs it. Bobby Bryant and Wally Hilgenberg both have chances but can’t cash in. Blaine Nye of the Cowboys ends up snatching the ball, swerving around potential disaster for Dallas.

Dallas also gets an opportunity for an early turnover when Tarkenton throws to tight end Stu Voigt. Voigt collides with Cowboy safety Cliff Harris, and Harris can’t hang on to an interception at the Vikings 30. Tarkenton then scrambles for 16 yards and a first down.

The first quarter comes to a scoreless close. Both defenses look remarkable. Page seems to line up in the Cowboys backfield, and Carl Eller records a sack for the Vikings. Lee Roy Jordan plugs up the Minnesota running game for the Cowboys.


Part of Minnesota’s game plan appears to focus on throwing deep to John Gilliam when Dallas cornerback Mark Washington is in man coverage. The Steelers will do similar with Lynn Swann in the upcoming Super Bowl. Tarkenton goes for the money on the first play of the second quarter. Washington knocks the ball away from Gilliam at the Dallas 20, preventing a probable touchdown. The Cowboys force a hurried throw on the next play. The Vikings line up in punt formation.

Here’s where things get real interesting. Cliff Harris fields the punt, but his back heel is out of bounds at the Cowboy 10. The Vikings, however, get flagged for center Mick Tingelhoff being downfield. Dallas accepts the penalty, figuring they’ll get better field postion on the re-kick. Their assumptions are wrong.

Harris signals for a fair catch, and Vikings rookie Autry Beamon plows into him before the ball arrives. The ball maybe hits Harris, and also maybe hits Cowboy Benny Barnes. There’s a lot of confusion as the ball bounces around, and Dallas rookie Pat Donovan grabs for it. He clearly touches it, and Fred McNeill recovers for Minnesota on the Dallas 4.

While watching this play, I thought the rules must have been different in 1975 and maybe one didn’t have to leave space for the return man to catch the ball. Announcer Gary Bender, however, later mentions the network getting calls asking why there wasn’t an interference penalty. Commentator Johnny Unitas says something akin to, “Sometimes things get missed.” Ironically, Harris signaled for the fair catch on the exact patch of field that Drew Pearson is about to stir eternal controversy.

Chuck Foreman takes it in for the Vikings on third down, and they take a 7-0 lead.

Doug Sutherland continues to pressure Staubach up the middle, forcing him to roll out. Eller records his third sack of the day as Roger keeps running his way. Still, the Cowboys drive to the Minnesota 30 before Toni Fritsch misses a field goal.

Dallas then gets its first real break: Mel Renfro picks off Tarkenton at the Minnesota 49. Eller stuffs Newhouse. Doug Dennison ends up getting stuffed by Alan Page on third and one.

Dallas goes for it on fourth down. Dennison bounces of Wally Hilgenberg on the line, then Hilgenberg tackles him outside for a loss. An outstanding play, although the Vikings can’t capitalize on their possession and punt again.

Dallas continues to have some success on offense. Minnesota starts to bend, but they don’t break. The Purple People Eaters pass rush keeps bringing the pressure and they ultimately either sack Staubach or force hasty throws out of bounds. Dallas might pick up a few first downs, but they soon wind up in third-and-long situations.

The first half ends with the Vikings leading 7-0.


Minus a three-play, four-yard drive, neither offense has scored. I think that’s a testament to both defenses. The defensive lines are dominating.

The entire front 7 for Minnesota is making plays. Their secondary, led by Paul Krause, is covering Dallas receivers well enough when Staubach extends plays scrambling. Unitas notes that Minnesota receivers run back to help Tarkenton when he scrambles, but the Cowboy receivers don’t turn to help Roger.

Dallas seems to be able to run the ball at times, but they keep meeting resistance on the pass. Lee Roy Jordan leads the Dallas defense and is having an outstanding game.