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Longest Fumble Return in NFL History

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The Raiders Jack Tatum and the Cardinals Aeneas Williams co-own the NFL record with 104 yards. George Halas previously owned the record.

The Oakland Raiders traveled to Green Bay’s Lambeau Field for a Week 2 matchup during the 1972 NFL season. The Raiders lost their season opener to the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Packers won their opener at Cleveland.

The Packers took a 7-3 lead in the first several minutes of the game and looked to expand their lead before the first quarter ended. Green Bay had the ball near the Raider goal line. Little did the Packers know they were on the doorstep of history.

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PHOTO: Jack Tatum played college football at Ohio State.

Green Bay called an option. The read option worked its way into NFL playbooks in modern times but the option was a highly unusual play to call in 1970s NFL football.

Packer quarterback Scott Hunter took the snap and ran to his right. He turned toward the goal line but Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano blocked his path. Hunter pitched the ball toward Packers running back MacArthur Lane. The ball slipped through Lane’s hands and bounced into the end zone.

Oakland Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum ran towards the ball, scooped it up in stride, and turned upfield. He dashed 104 yards down the sideline for a touchdown.

The play shifted the momentum of the game. What looked to be a 14-3 Packers lead all of a sudden changed to a 10-7 Raider advantage. Jack Tatum’s touchdown also turned out to be the difference in a 20-14 Raider victory.

LISTEN: A review of the 1972 Oakland Raiders season

Both the 1972 Green Bay Packers and the 1972 Oakland Raiders made the NFL playoffs. The Packers fell to eventual NFC Champion Washington Redskins in the 1972 NFC Divisional Playoffs. The 1972 Raiders lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the 1972 AFC Divisional Playoffs, a game that ended with the famous Immaculate Reception.

JACK TATUM FUMBLE RETURN RECORD

Jack Tatum set a record for the longest fumble recovery for a touchdown in NFL history with his 104-yard touchdown return on September 24, 1972. He broke the record previously held by the Chicago Bears George Halas. Halas set the record for the longest fumble return in pro football history with a 98-yard return in 1923. That record was believed to be the longest standing NFL record (at 49 years) until Tatum’s return broke it. Through the 2020 regular season, Tatum’s record has stood for 48 years.

AENEAS WILLIAMS FUMBLE RETURN

Aeneas Williams of the Arizona Cardinals tied the NFL record for longest fumble return against Washington in 2000. Williams’ 104-yard return for a touchdown helped lift the Arizona Cardinals to a 1-point upset win.

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PHOTO: Aeneas Williams is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame

MORE TO BOTH 104-YARD FUMBLE RETURNS

The Cardinal’s official stats originally credited Williams with a 103-yard return. The league office changed the official stat to 104 yards after a review of the video. Seymour Siwoff, the NFL’s chief statistician at the time, said that it was not unusual for official stats to be amended after watching replays.

Tatum’s record also gained attention after replay review, although NFL referees weren’t allowed to use replay to review calls in 1972. Several Packers claimed that Lane never had control and muffed the ball. Therefore, the fumble return couldn’t be advanced, per NFL rules. Raiders defensive back George Atkinson seemed to concur when he told the Santa Cruz Sentinel that Lane never gained control of the ball. The paper quoted him as saying, “He never did (have control). He was bobbling it and I strip-tackled him.”

I guess one could say, “After further review, the record on the field stands!”

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Looking for a great NFL history book? Check out The Game Before the Money: Voices of the Men Who Built the NFL available at — Amazon.comBarnes and NobleUniversity of Nebraska Press

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