Nearly 30 years later, Jimmie Johnson still feels a little cold when thinking about the blunder during a Thanksgiving blizzard that cost the Dallas Cowboys the game.
Yes, that was Cowboys defensive lineman Leon Lett sliding down an icy field at Texas Stadium trying to recover a blocked field goal in the dying seconds against the Miami Dolphins.
No, the 6-foot-6-inch Lett had no business trying to win the football back after teammate Jimmy Jones’ 41-yard attempt effectively sealed a 14-13 win for the Cowboys.
After Lett turned and raced more than 20 yards to spoil the play by connecting with the football, the Dolphins recovered at the 1-yard line to allow Pete Stojanovic a second chance, chip field goal that lifted Miami to a 16-14 victory November 25, 1993.
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Talk about a wild ending.
“It was crazy,” Johnson reflected this week to USA TODAY Sports. “How often does it snow like that in Dallas on Thanksgiving? So Joe Avizzano[special teams coach]came to me because it snowed and we had an ice field and said, ‘What do you think of this idea: What if we take one of our top guys and put him in the middle? We might be able to block a low kick in the ice and snow.
“Well, Lyon had never been on special teams before. We put him in the lineup for the first time to block field goals. In some ways, I blame ourselves, the coach, for putting him in that unit because he hadn’t done it before. I don’t blame Lyon. I blame us as coaches.” .I have outdone myself with that.”
Everything works. As Johnson was sure to point out, the Turkey Day setback was the last time he ever lost a game as a Cowboys coach. Dallas ran the table after Thanksgiving and took the Super Bowl crown. The following spring, he dropped out amid an epic split with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones.
“I was just as devastated as I was after this Thanksgiving loss, and I miss what we did,” Johnson said. “It’s a great memory because that’s the last time I lost in Dallas.” “You know me: I’ll spin it on a positive note. I won every game after that.”
Johnson reflects on the loss of Thanksgiving Day and many other moments of his illustrious career in his recently released memoir, “Swagger,” written with Dave Hyde, award-winning columnist for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. He delves into his tenure with the Cowboys and his other NFL job coaching the Miami Dolphins, detailing his journey through the associate ranks that included the crowning achievement of winning a national championship at the University of Miami.
He talks about personal challenges that include a failed marriage and his son Chad’s battle against substance abuse.
“I was hesitant to write the book at first,” said Johnson, who worked for many years as a studio analyst on Fox NFL Sunday. “My good friend and agent, Nick Kristen, kept telling me, ‘You need to write a book and tell the real story. So, between Nick and Dave Hyde, they convinced me to do it. Once I got into it, I enjoyed it.
“Now some of the struggles and problems, like with my family, it was a little difficult to go through those stories, but that’s all there is to the book as well.”
Johnson, 79, was the first coach to win a college national championship and a Super Bowl championship (a distinction that has since been shared by Barry Switzer and Pete Carroll). He has been enshrined in both the College and Pro Football Halls of Fame… He lends a lot of material.
“A lot of people in Dallas take the Jerry Jones class,” he said. “Survivor fans want to go to the Survivor pages. (University of Miami) people go to UM materials. Football players—coaches, game directors—want to go to the talent assessment part. There is a little bit for everyone.”
There’s also a chapter where Johnson waxes into the NFL today. Which drives us: Given the physically demanding practices that were part of Johnson’s style — his fully lined practices, even late in the season, included grueling “middle drill” — how would he fare as an NFL coach in an era when contact practice has been reduced? Largely in the name of player safety?
“Obviously, it’s going to be very frustrating for me, because we have very physical teams and very physical practices,” Johnson said. “I have to adapt. But I think as long as the coach has credibility and respect from his players, and he works as hard, if not harder, they will understand that he is doing everything he can to make them better players and get them a better contract.”
Of course, with two Super Bowl rings and a national champion ring, Johnson sees he’s got the attention of his players.
“When you get rid of those rings,” he said, “it gives you credibility.”