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Didinger: Miracle Of The Meadowlands

Posted Oct 2, 2013

Eagles History

I’ve covered the Eagles in one form or another for 43 years so I’ve seen a lot of crazy things, but nothing compares to the Miracle of the Meadowlands. I’m referring to the original “miracle” that occurred November 19, 1978.

The term “Miracle of the Meadowlands” has been applied to other memorable Eagles-Giants games – Clyde Simmons’ blocked field goal (1988), Brian Westbrook’s punt return (2003), the DeSean Jackson walk-off punt return (2010) – but for many reasons, the original remains the best.

Start with the fact that when we arrived at Giants Stadium that day, we were informed that Eagles owner Leonard Tose was in a Houston hospital following open heart surgery. None of us had any idea Tose was ailing. The team kept it a closely guarded secret. Even the coaches and players were unaware until that morning.

Open heart surgery was a relatively new procedure, but Dr. Denton Cooley, one of the world’s foremost surgeons, performed the operation and we were assured Tose was fine. In fact, the 63-year-old owner would be listening to the game on a special radio hookup in his hospital room.

So that’s how the day started which, in itself, seemed like pretty big news. As it turned out, it was only setting the stage for the real drama.

The game itself was a clunker. The Giants were winning 17-12 late in the fourth quarter. The Eagles came into the game with a 6-5 record and hopes of making the playoffs for the first time under coach Dick Vermeil, but they played poorly on that gray, drizzly afternoon. When Ron Jaworski threw his third interception with four minutes to go, it appeared the game was over.

I packed my stuff and headed for the elevator. I planned to watch the last few minutes on the field then go to the locker room. I was standing behind the end zone watching as quarterback Joe Pisarcik dropped to one knee and the seconds ticked away. I was thinking, OK it’s a tough loss but at least we have a good story in Leonard Tose and his heart surgery.

Then it happened.

Pisarcik took the snap and instead of kneeling, he attempted a handoff to Larry Csonka. The ball hit Csonka in the hip and fell to the ground. It took a high hop off the artificial turf and Eagles cornerback Herman Edwards caught it in stride. He was running right toward me but it seemed like everything was in slow motion. I remember two things: the “Is-this-really-happening?” look on Edwards’ face and the stunned silence in the stadium.

The entire Eagles team poured off the bench and engulfed Edwards in the end zone – the players were so jubilant a few of them even hugged ME – but I kept watching the scoreboard. It wasn’t until I saw the numbers change that I thought, “Wow, they really did win.” If you ever heard Merrill Reese’s classic call – “I don't believe it, I do not believe it,” – you get some idea how it felt.

Miracle of the Meadowlands

In Houston, Tose was screaming while frantic doctors and nurses ran into the room. “I set off every buzzer in the place,” Tose said later. “They thought I was dying. They had no idea what was going on. They were saying, ‘Please, Mr. Tose, calm down.’”

Good luck with that, doc. Calm down? After that finish?

The locker room scene was surreal. There were no cell phones back then so general manager Jim Murray used a pay phone to call Tose’s hospital room.  When he had Tose on the line, he handed the phone to Vermeil. “How’s your heart now?” the coach asked.

Vermeil told Tose that he was sending him the game ball.

“We won this one for you, boss,” Vermeil said.

“You could’ve made it a little easier,” the owner replied.

It is still one of the strangest finishes in NFL history.  Why didn’t Pisarcik simply take a knee one more time? Why did he attempt a handoff? It made no sense.  But Bill Bergey, the great Eagles linebacker, credits teammate Frank LeMaster for making it happen.

“On the previous play, Frank shot through and hit Pisarcik when Joe went down to one knee,” Bergey said. “It was a frustration play on Frank’s part and it really ticked the Giants off. A fight started. Guys were pushing and shoving. I said to Frank, ‘What the heck are you doing? Let’s just get this over with and get outta here.’”

Bergey believes the Giants coaches were so angry about what they considered a cheap shot by LeMaster that they instructed Pisarcik to hand off to Csonka and let the bruising fullback give the Eagles a taste of their own medicine.

“When the Giants lined up for the next play, I heard them arguing,” Bergey said. “Guys were saying, ‘Joe, just fall on the damn ball.’ I thought, ‘What the heck is this all about?’ Then I saw Joe turn and hand off to Csonka. I think they were running Csonka at Frank as a payback for him hitting the quarterback.

“Joe never got the ball to Csonka. He dropped it. It hit the ground and bounced right to Herman. He took it in stride and headed for the end zone. I was so excited I almost jumped out of my shoes.”

The improbable victory sparked the Eagles to a 9-7 finish, their first winning season since 1966. It was the first of four consecutive playoff seasons for the team under Vermeil. Whenever the Eagles return to the Meadowlands – as they will Sunday albeit in a new stadium – I’m reminded of that game and what a watershed moment it was for the franchise.

“That was a turning pointfor our team,” said tackle Stan Walters. “Prior to that, we were losing games we should’ve won. That day we won a game we should’ve lost and, all of a sudden, we became a team that expected to win. Even if we were losing, we felt we’d find a way to win. We didn’t have that feeling before.”

That night the team celebrated at the South Jersey home of special teams captain Vince Papale. The party went into the wee hours and neighbors called police. “(The police) came to the door,” Papale said, “and saw it was an Eagles party. One guy said, ‘Hey, great game.’ I invited them in and they partied with us. We went all night.”

An award-winning writer and producer, Ray Didinger was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1995. He has also won six Emmy Awards for his work as a writer and producer at NFL Films. The five-time Pennsylvania Sportswriter of the Year is a writer and analyst for Comcast SportsNet. Didinger will provide Eagles fans a unique historical perspective on the team throughout the season for PhiladelphiaEagles.com. You can read all of his Eagles History pieces here.

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