It’s a memory Jim Marshall has re-played over and over again. And every time he must shake his head and think to himself…Hell, I should’ve just fallen on the damn ball!
The date was October 25, 1964.
The place: San Francisco’s Kezar Stadium.
Marshall was playing defensive end for the Minnesota Vikings in a match-up against the 49ers. It was a position he’d hold down for a then-record 282 consecutive games when he walked off the field for the last time in 1979.
At some point in the contest the nimble lineman made one of his NFL record 30 fumble recoveries. Then disaster struck.
In the scramble for possession Marshall lost direction and sprinted 66 yards the wrong way, into his own end zone for a San Francisco score. It’s worth noting that later in the game it would be Marshall who’d cause the 49ers to cough-up it up again. This time, teammate Carl Eller seized the prize and ran it in for the game-winning TD.
Life can be strange.
While we applaud the heroic (Jessie Owens), admire the beautiful (Esther Williams) and reward the successful in sport (Halls of Fame), we’re also fascinated by the occasional calamity.
That’s why we gape at car wrecks and millions watched Americas Funniest Home Videos.
It’s not that we don’t feel sympathy for people like Jim Marshall. I suspect even Boston fans feel a measure of empathy for Bill Buckner. Ditto on Michigan and Chris Webber.
So, why do we take a modicum of pleasure in their pain? Maybe we’re just glad it’s not us.
Playing on that pleasure principle, NFL Films has been re-running Marshall’s wrong-way for over forty years (NBC must‘ve shown Buckner’s gaffe 10,000 times). It’s tattooed on the brain of every pro football fan over thirty and likely showcased in every version of NFL Films top selling video / DVD, Football Follies.
Having turned his mistake into an on-going national chuckle, another year will pass with no bust of Jim Marshall in Canton.
Saturday evening the League puts history front & center and announces the HOF Class of 2011 as selected from 17 finalists to be Cantonized in August (NFL Network, 7pm EST). Jim missed the cut…again. His lone appearance as a finalist: 2004.
Ed Sabol is a finalist this year (Films founder). Besides Pete Rozelle and Lamar Hunt, since 1965 no man has done more to popularize the game than Ed, with help from son Steve and, in the early days, the super-cool sounds of Sam Spence and powerful narration of John Facenda.
Unlike offensive players, the accomplishments of defenders are harder to quantify. Even the sack wasn’t an official NFL stat until 1982 (by unofficial count Jim has 130+).
As defensive captain, Marshall was a key component of those successful Norse teams which played in four Super Bowls and dominated the NFC throughout the 1970s.
Sure, Fran Tarkenton and Chuck Foreman were electric. But it’s that image of the Vikings’ daunting D-line, all bloodied, muddied and steam billowing from their helmets at the frozen Met that usually comes first to mind when the Purple People Eaters are discussed.
Marshall had held the NFL’s ironman record (302 in post) until broken in 2005 by Giants’ punter Jeff Feagles.
When asked in 2010 what impressed them most about Brett Favre’s record-laden career, the answer given confidently time and time again by sport analysts was the mettle, the resiliency, the determination that fueled his consecutive games streak.
Does being on four Super Bowl losers work against Marshall (and 6-time Pro Bowl center / teammate Mick Tingelhoff)? It doesn’t help. Though it hasn’t prevented induction of other Vikings from that era, most recently Bud Grant, Paul Krause and Carl Eller.
Like enshrinement, Pro Bowl selection / omission is a numbers game. Jim’s low PB total (2) might be explained by looking no further than the 2011 case of Green Bay QB Aaron Rodgers.
The best passer in the NFC, Rodgers was nonetheless left off the Pro Bowl roster. But you can’t argue with the selection of Michael Vick, Matt Ryan and Drew Brees. All were very deserving.
When you play in a golden age of defensive ends (Deacon Jones / Bob Lilly / Willie Davis / Claude Humphrey / Merlin Olsen / Bubba Smith) and your own D-line is star-studded (Alan Page / Carl Eller), one wrong-way run and you’ll find yourself a numbers-crunch victim nearly every year.
That’s the numbers game.
The only blunder I see when I think of Jim Marshall today is every selection day that passes without hearing his name read aloud for enshrinement.
Keys to Sport
About the Author
Written by Steven Keys
A native of the old Northwest Territory (IL), my wife and I have lived in four Midwestern states and Arizona. Today we live in Duluth, Georgia. I have a history / legal background.