Snow makes for memorable 'slop fest' during 1 of the most famous bad-weather games in football history
Thanksgiving Day 1993. A record-breaking wintry mess in Dallas combined with a colossal "brain freeze" by a veteran player made for one wild game that lives in infamy nearly three decades later.
It’s hard for football fans to forget the snowy Thanksgiving Day game of 1993 in Dallas, Texas. AccuWeather’s Bill Wadell caught up with a former Cowboy who made his NFL appearance on the snow-covered field.
The 1993 Thanksgiving game between the Dallas Cowboys and the Miami Dolphins featured 15 Pro Bowlers, multiple future Hall of Famers and the eventual Super Bowl champ. However, the clash between two of the National Football League’s strongest teams has been forever remembered not because of any big play or flashy score, but because of a slippery, snow-laden pigskin and the infamous blunder it helped cause.
Games between Dallas and Miami don't usually have a weather element that factors into the result. But in 1993's clash, weather dictated the entire game.
The Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins meet on the icy field of Texas Stadium on Thanksgiving Day, Nov. 25, 1993 in Irving, Texas. (AP Photo/Glenn James)
The high temperature on that infamous Nov. 25 reached only 35 degrees Fahrenheit -- making it the coldest Thanksgiving Day in Dallas history, according to the National Weather Service (NWS). It's a record that still stands.
"Freezing rain and sleet fell during a subfreezing afternoon, amounting to 0.3" on the ground," the NWS said. "This was the first time that wintry precipitation was ever recorded on Thanksgiving. The low was 23°F and the high was only 35°F, making it the coldest Thanksgiving ever. Also, the annual Thanksgiving Day Dallas Cowboys football game (vs. Miami Dolphins) was the first time wintry precipitation fell during an NFL game in Dallas."
In the midst of a dynastic run, the Cowboys entered the contest with a 7-3 record after winning the Super Bowl the season before. With a legendary trio known as The Triplets -- quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith and wide receiver Michael Irvin -- the Cowboys had their eyes set on another Super Bowl.
A matchup with the 8-2 Dolphins presented an appetizing post-feast matchup between two of the NFL's top offenses, but instead of a high-scoring affair, fans got an entertaining slop-fest in the snow.
"I remember waking up the morning of the game and seeing it was cold, but no one was forecasting snow or ice," Cowboys safety Darren Woodson told DallasCowboys.com. "You know what was weird? I had always thought of Texas Stadium as a dome. It just felt that way, even with the hole in the roof. But when we walked onto the field, the whole field was covered with ice. I just didn’t think that could happen there. We were all kind of looking at each other like, ‘Is this for real?'"
Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson, who had previously coached at warm-weather locations like Oklahoma State University and the University of Miami, was certainly not a fan.
“I hate cold weather, absolutely hate it," he said.
Cowboys backup running back Lincoln Coleman, who was making his NFL debut in the game, told AccuWeather how difficult it was for players to get proper traction.
"My steps had to be measured, I couldn't break out into an open sprint because you can't grab anything with your turf shoes," he told AccuWeather National Reporter Bill Wadell. "It was something no one was prepared for. We didn't know it was going to sleet like that."
Lincoln Coleman, who played two seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, was the team's leading rusher on that frigid Thanksgiving Day.
Despite the difficulties with equipment, the Cowboys managed to hold a steady lead throughout the game, largely thanks to Coleman's team-high 57 rushing yards on 10 carries. The rookie outperformed future Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith, who rushed for 51 yards on 10 carries that day.
"I think for us as fans, we don’t want the weather to dictate how the game is going to, we want it to be pristine," Coleman said. "I’m right along with them. But as a football player, playing in inclement weather, it’s awesome."
All game, the Cowboys elite defense held the Dolphins offense down, intercepting Miami quarterback Steve DeBerg twice and holding Pro Bowl receiver Irving Fryar to just one catch. With only one touchdown allowed, Dallas entered the final minute of the fourth quarter just needing to hold off one last Miami drive to seal the game.
Throughout the contest, field goal kicking had been an adventure in misfortune. In the first quarter, All-Pro Miami kicker Pete Stoyanovich slipped on his backside while attempting a 44-yard kick to give Miami a lead. The painful miss earned him jeers from the crowd and announcing team alike.
"They even cleared a spot for him, but you can see his plant foot gave away immediately," commentator Bob Trumpy said on-air between laughs. "This is a good spot, but watch his left foot. It just slid right out from underneath him. Now it appears that field goals aren't going to work, at least from 44 yards."
Later in the game, with a little more than a minute to play, Cowboys kicker Eddie Murray pulled his only field goal attempt, a 32 yarder, wide right. A successful kick would have pushed the team's lead to 17-13, forcing the Dolphins to play for a touchdown on the final drive.
"It’s the worst field I’ve ever seen [in 20 NFL seasons]," Murray said. "It was both icy and slushy."
That miss breathed life into Miami's hopes.
The Dolphins began the final drive on the 20-yard line and took advantage of the deteriorated field conditions to complete quick passes. The Cowboys' defensive backs, utilizing a nickel defense, struggled to maintain their footing and contain the Miami passing game as the Dolphins quickly moved to midfield.
"You couldn’t find footing. That was the big thing," Woodson said. "I was wearing my old Nikes with the rubber bottoms just like any other game. We had no idea how bad it was going to be. There was no grabbing, no traction."
But immediately after converting a crucial 4th-and-1, an errant DeBerg screen pass was jumped by lineman Leon Lett, who nearly came away with the game-clinching interception. As Lett slid along the icy turf, he was slapping at the snow in frustration.
Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman (8) prepares to pass as Miami Dolphins defensive end Jeff Cross (91) moves in the second quarter, Thursday, Nov. 25, 1993 in Irving, Texas. Miami beat Dallas 16-14. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Little did he know what frustration was ahead.
A few more completions left the Dolphins at the 23-yard line, setting up a game-winning, 40-yard attempt for Stoyanovich.
"This has become a memorable Thanksgiving game," commentator Dick Enberg said as Stoyanovich lined up. It would soon move from memorable to immortal.
Stoyanovich managed to execute his plant foot and kick follow-through smoothly this time. But just a second after leaving his cleat, the ball was swatted by the massive, leaping, right hand of Dallas lineman Jimmie Jones. The blocked kick sent Texas Stadium into a frenzied celebration.
"We had ‘block right’ on and I was lined up one-on-one with their center," Jones said. "I just did a quick swim with him and I was able to get penetration and get my hands up [for the block]. I thought the game was over with. Everybody was celebrating."
As cameras swiveled to the joyous face of Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, Miami players circled around the snow-covered ball hopelessly. According to NFL rules, if no player touches the ball after a blocked kick, the play is officially ruled dead and the other team gains possession.
But as NBC cameras were capturing Aikman and Irvin embrace in celebration, fans at home saw Aikman's expression change to confusion, then disbelief. When contacted by AccuWeather, a representative for Aikman said the Hall of Fame quarterback was unavailable for comment about the infamous game.
In the endzone, Miami offensive lineman Jeff Dellenbach held the ball over his head.
Immediately, referee Ed Hochuli gathered his three fellow officials to discuss what happened. Replays soon showed Lett and his massive 290-pound frame come crashing through the circle of Dolphin players around the ball, slipping on the snowy surface and accidentally kicking the ball ahead and through the endzone.
"It's Leon Lett! No! ... Not Leon Lett, oh oh oh my," the commentators lamented for the blunder-prone lineman.
Just 10 months earlier, in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XXVII, Lett recovered a fumble and was mere feet away from scoring a touchdown when he held the ball out -- beginning his endzone celebration early -- as he approached the goal line. However, unbeknownst to Lett, Buffalo Bills wide receiver Don Beebe had chased him down from behind and knocked the ball out of Lett's outstretched hand just before the goal line, sending the ball through the endzone. The fumble resulted in a touchback and cost Lett his touchdown. While the blunder didn't impact the ending of the game, the error was a major embarrassment for Lett and is still well known today.
In this Jan. 31, 1993, file photo, Dallas Cowboys Leon Lett (78) begins to celebrate as he heads for the goal line after recovering a Buffalo Bills fumble during Super Bowl XXVII in Pasadena, Calif. Bills' Don Beebe, left, stripped the ball from Lett just before Lett crossed the line, turning the ball back over to Buffalo. The Cowboys defeated the Bills, 30-13. (AP Photo/Douglas C. Pizac)
Now, just months later, another Lett blunder gifted Miami another opportunity. Per NFL rules, Lett touching the ball at Cowboys 1-yard line gave the Dolphins a new set of downs and another attempt to win the game.
"I knew the rule. I had blocked field goals in the past," Lett recalled two decades later in an interview with the Cowboys. "It’s not like it was my first time on the field goal block team. Maybe it was that season, but not in my career. I have been trying to think back for, what, 20 years now, and I don’t know what happened. It was a brain freeze."
With a second try at the game-winning kick, Stoyanovich trotted back out on the field for a much more manageable 19-yard attempt. After spending a minute to clear away the snow for a new spot from which to kick, he drilled the football through the uprights to deliver one of the strangest comeback victories in football history.
Revisit some of the key plays from that 1993 Cowboys-Dolphins game:
"They made the mistake of touching the football. Don’t ever give Stoyanovich two shots," Miami coach Don Shula said after the game.
Shula, who won an NFL-record 347 games as a head coach, said he never "saw a game end like that before."
"To be given the opportunity to be there again, it was just unbelievable," Stoyanovich said, looking back on the improbable outcome. "[The first one] was probably a combination of a low kick and not being far enough away from the line of scrimmage. It was an incredible turn of events."
Dallas superfan Stoney Kersh, who operates Stoney's Dallas Cowboys Museum in Arlington, Texas, told AccuWeather that the shock of the final few plays was hard to fathom.
"We were all fired up," Kersh said about the initial blocked kick. "It went from 'Hell, yeah!' to 'Oh, no!' -- all about that quick. It went from we won to we lost -- that quick."
After a second error in front of a nationwide audience, Lett said it took him a long time to fully move past his blunder. Even 15 years later, a replay of the incident on Thanksgiving frustrated him enough to leave the house and take a long drive.
Miami Dolphins coach Don Shula gestures from the sidelines during a game against the Cowboys in Irving, Texas on Nov. 25, 1993. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
Thankfully for Lett, the shocking loss would prove to be the Cowboys' last defeat for a long time. Eight straight victories later, Dallas celebrated its second consecutive Super Bowl win. Lett later said the pain of the Thanksgiving blunder didn't begin to diminish until the team won the Super Bowl.
Immediately after the Thanksgiving game, his teammates and coaches worried about his wellbeing after two high-profile errors. The day after the game, Jones said he wished he could add three more years onto his contract to assure Lett of the confidence the team still had in him.
Looking back on the game, Lett told National Public Radio, that the game was one of the worst days of his career. Decades later, the play has been used by Lett as a teaching tool for the players he coaches and is remembered far less angrily by Dallas fans. His redemption story has helped him embrace the comical side of the error.
"Most of the time, when I get introduced to somebody, they recognize me because of one reason,” Lett told the Dallas Morning News in 2011. "I thought it was time to have some fun with it because I let it go a long time ago."
Additional reporting from Dallas by Bill Wadell.
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