Monday, January 28, 2008

Pro Bowl at Tampa Stadium, 1/23/78

Long before the National Football League’s Pro Bowl became synonymous with leis and Hawaiian shirts, during the 1970s it was somewhat of a traveling showcase for the league. Between 1973 and 1978, six cities – Dallas, Kansas City, Miami, New Orleans, Seattle and Tampa – hosted the Pro Bowl.

The Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum played host to the game from 1951 to 1972, and again in 1979, before yielding to Hawaii’s Aloha Stadium in Honolulu, starting with the 1980 game. On Jan. 23, 1978, however, the game belonged to Tampa Stadium.

Pro Bowl could not have come to Tampa at a better time, from the perspective of local football fans. Just a month earlier, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had finally snapped their 26-game losing streak with two consecutive victories to end the 1977 season. Although no Buccaneers – not even standout defensive end Lee Roy Selmon – were selected to play in the Pro Bowl, at least Selmon was presented his Buccaneers team MVP award on the field prior to kickoff.

NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle came away impressed by the support local fans showed Selmon that day. “I was especially moved by the standing ovation given
Lee Roy Selmon in the pre-game ceremony,” Rozelle said. “I got the feeling of your fans’ feelings for the Bucs down here and how it must have been after those two (straight) wins.”

As if having the best players from the AFC and NFC playing at
Tampa Stadium wasn’t a big enough event, the game was broadcast nationwide on ABC and called by the renowned “Monday Night Football” crew of Frank Gifford, “Dandy” Don Meredith and Howard Cosell.

Gifford opened the telecast by commenting on the mild, 60-degree weather, calling it a “beautiful night, even for late January.” True to form, when the camera cut to a trenchcoat-clad Cosell, he proclaimed, “It is not a fine night, despite Frank’s protestations.”

The 50,000-plus fans in attendance likely disagreed with Cosell. The game featured the best of the best from each conference. The American Conference team included 11 future Hall of Famers –
Dave Casper, Joe DeLamielleure, Bob Griese, Jack Ham, Franco Harris, Mike Haynes, Jack Lambert, Jim Langer, Art Shell, Lynn Swann and Gene Upshaw. The National Conference team, no slouch in its own right, had eight players who went on to enshrinement in CantonDan Dierdorf, Ken Houston, Tom Mack, Walter Payton, Roger Wehrli, Randy White, Ron Yary and Jack Youngblood.

The AFC, hoping to avenge its conference’s defeat a week earlier in
Super Bowl XII, controlled the tempo for the majority of the first half. Baltimore Colts kicker Toni Linhart opened the scoring for the AFC with a 21-yard field goal to cap an 11-play, 75-yard drive led by Griese, the Dolphins’ quarterback. Ham, a linebacker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, ended the NFC’s best first-half chance for a touchdown early in the second quarter, intercepting a pass by Rams’ quarterback Pat Haden at the AFC’s 3-yard line.

Oakland Raiders southpaw signal-caller Ken Stabler relieved Griese and promptly led the AFC on a 14-play, 97-yard scoring drive. Stabler relied on tight end Dave Casper, running back Mark van Eeghen and wideout Cliff Branch to march nearly the full length of the field. Stabler ultimately found Branch on a 9-yard touchdown strike, and the extra point made the score 10-0.

Linhart capped the AFC’s scoring with a 38-yard field goal with just 3 seconds left before halftime, giving his team a 13-0 advantage.

Then Haden atoned for his second-quarter interception on the NFC’s first drive of the new half. Haden passed for 28 yards and went 4-for-4 on a 46-yard drive that culminated in a scoring pass to Terry Metcalf of the
St. Louis Cardinals on third and goal from the 4-yard line. The touchdown and extra point trimmed the AFC lead to 13-7. But Cardinals quarterback Jim Hart and Bears running back Payton ended up being the biggest keys to the NFC’s comeback.

Hart, who replaced injured Dallas Cowboys quarterback
Roger Staubach on the NFC roster, hoped to make up for his five-interception performance in the 1977 Pro Bowl, a 24-14 loss for the NFC. Payton, the reigning Pro Football Writer’s Association Player of the Year, simply did what he did best. Like so many times on the Tampa Stadium turf during his career, Payton put
on a show.

On the strength of a 5-for-6 passing effort and 39 yards through the air, Hart engineered a 12-play, 76-yard scoring drive over the fading AFC stars midway through the fourth quarter. The drive included two critical third-down completions from Hart to Cowboys tight end Billy Joe DuPree to keep the chains moving.

With the ball at the AFC 7-yard line, Payton rushed for 6 to set up a second-and-short situation. He took the next handoff from Hart and capped the drive with a 1-yard scoring plunge. The extra-point kick gave the NFC a 14-13 lead, but the AFC had one more opportunity to win the game.

Stabler once again connected with Branch and
Casper on receptions of 20 and 17 yards to move the ball into NFC territory. However, Cleveland Elam of the San Francisco 49ers made one of the biggest defensive plays of the game, sacking Stabler at the NFC 35-yard line. The 9-yard loss set up a 52-yard field-goal attempt by Linhart, who had been perfect on two first-half tries. But his potential game-winner fell short with 2:58 remaining and the NFC successfully ran out the clock to seal the victory.

For his 77-yard rushing effort and clinching touchdown, Payton was named the game’s most valuable player. Ever humble in victory, Payton credited his fellow NFC running backs – Chuck Foreman, Terry Metcalf and Lawrence McCutcheon – for his success. “What more could you ask than to play with guys like that,” he said. “They’re super players and they made it possible for me to win the MVP.”

While the contest 30 years ago remains the only
Pro Bowl played in Tampa, the NFL once again is looking at rotating the game on an annual basis. It’s possible the Pro Bowl would be played in the Super Bowl host city one week prior to the big game.

Discussions are under way for making the change as early as 2009, when the
Super Bowl will be played in – you guessed it – Raymond James Stadium. More Pro Bowl memories could very well be right around the corner here in Tampa.

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