Monday marks the 40th anniversary of the Miracle of the Meadowlands. It is hard to believe it has been that long because the memory is still so vivid in my mind. I can hardly remember what I had for breakfast today, but I can walk you through that day minute by minute, play by play, all of it.
We all know how it ended – Herman Edwards scooping up the Joe Pisarcik fumble and running it in for the game-winning touchdown – but equally memorable was how the day began. For me, it was walking into Giants Stadium that morning and finding a press release saying Eagles owner Leonard Tose was in a Houston hospital following open-heart surgery. My jaw dropped.
The Eagles managed to keep the surgery a secret which was a hard thing to do with the local press buzzing around every day. Even the players and some coaches were unaware. The owner's office was dark but that wasn't unusual. We figured he was off sunning himself in Acapulco. No one knew he was undergoing major heart surgery.
"You know Leonard," said Jim Murray, who was general manager at the time. "He knew he had this (heart) problem so he said, 'Get me the best guy.' We found Doctor (Denton) Cooley who really pioneered the (bypass). We said, 'He's in Houston.' Leonard said, 'Fine, we'll go to Houston.' So we did.
"Leonard didn't want it to turn it into a 'Let's win one for the owner' kind of thing. It was a big game. We had a chance to make the playoffs for the first time in almost 20 years. Leonard's attitude was the coaches and players have enough on their minds; they don't need to be thinking about me, so we kept it quiet."
Of course, Tose insisted on following the action so he had a special radio hooked up to his hospital suite in Houston piping in Merrill Reese's play by play. Late in the fourth quarter, quarterback Ron Jaworski threw his third interception of the day and with the Eagles trailing 17-12, it appeared the game was over. They had no timeouts left, so the Giants could just fall on the ball and run out the clock.
Sam Procopio, the team's director of marketing, was with Tose. "It was probably the most depressed I've ever seen him," Procopio said. "He kept saying, 'I really thought we were gonna do it. I thought this was the year.' A doctor took me aside and said, 'You know, this isn't good for him. He just came through a serious operation.' At one point, I said, 'Do you want me to turn it off, boss?' He said, 'No, you never know what might happen.'"
The owner's words proved prophetic as Pisarcik's attempted handoff to Larry Csonka fell to the artificial turf and took one sweet hop into the arms of Edwards, the Eagles' cornerback, who carried it to the end zone for the touchdown. A certain defeat turned into an improbable 19-17 Eagles victory. As the players celebrated at Giants Stadium, Tose was celebrating in his hospital suite.
"Leonard was screaming and yelling and all these buzzers started going off," Procopio said. "Doctors and nurses came running from all over to see what was going on. They thought he was dying. Here was Leonard, hooked up to all these machines screaming, 'We won, we won.' I said, 'Boss, your heart.' He said, 'My heart never felt better.'"
I was one of the few reporters who actually saw the play unfold. I had gone down to the field early so I was standing right behind the end zone where Edwards scored. Ed Mahan, the Eagles' photographer, who shot the famous photo sequence, was to my right. Phil Tuckett, the NFL Films cameraman, was to my left. They captured the whole thing. I was frantically jotting down notes as the entire Eagles team piled on Edwards to celebrate.
Most of the writers covering the game were in the elevator coming down from the press box when the play happened. The last thing most of them saw on their way out of the box was the TV monitor with the credits rolling over a shot of the Giants taking a knee. They assumed that's how the game ended. I was on my way to the locker room when the elevator doors opened and the reporters filed out.
"The Eagles won the game," I said.
They thought I was kidding until the Eagles coaches and players started coming through the tunnel whooping and hollering. Then they frantically began asking, "What happened?" Forty years later, I'm still not sure. I've seen a lot of crazy finishes but nothing like the Miracle of the Meadowlands.
"I remember standing on the field thinking, 'How am I going to explain this (loss) to Leonard?" Murray said. "Then all of a sudden here's Herman Edwards running toward me with the football and I'm thinking, 'Is this a dream?' This was the miracle, no doubt about it."
It was a watershed victory because it lifted the Eagles' record to 7-5 and enabled them to finish the regular season at 9-7, their first winning season since 1966. It also changed the mindset of a team that had been down for so long it had forgotten how to win close games. Tackle Stan Walters said it was a turning point for the franchise. "All of a sudden we became a team that expected to win," he said.
The Eagles made the playoffs that season and each of the three seasons that followed. Coach Dick Vermeil's program, which led to an appearance in Super Bowl XV, took a huge step forward that blustery November day in the Meadowlands.
I vividly recall the scene in the Eagles' locker room. There was a pay phone – remember those? – on the wall and Murray placed a call to Tose's hospital room while the celebration was going on. The players stood in line, waiting to wish the owner well. When Vermeil took the phone, he asked the heart patient a question.
"What did that do to your new valve?" Vermeil said.
Forty years ago. It seems like only yesterday.
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 NBC Sports Philadelphia. Didinger will provide Eagles fans a unique historical perspective on the team throughout the year for PhiladelphiaEagles.com. You can read all of his Eagles History columns here. He is also the author of The Eagles Encyclopedia: Champions Edition which is in bookstores now.