As the calendar has moved us into 2022, those who enjoy the history and nostalgia of the National Football League are entering into something of a golden age. This calendar year is a numerologist’s delight, which some of the most iconic 0-year anniversaries in NFL history being celebrated throughout January and February.
The first of the great anniversaries actually came on Christmas Day in 2021, with the 50th anniversary of the first Christmas Day game ever played in the NFL, a double-overtime, AFC Divisional Round playoff classic won by the Miami Dolphins over the Kansas City Chiefs.
The Dolphins played in another of these epic games 40 years ago, on Jan. 2, 1982, against the San Diego Chargers on a steamy night in the Orange Bowl.
Known as “The Epic in Miami,” this game also ventured deep into overtime before the Chargers escaped with a 41-38 victory. But this game is best remembered for a Dolphins score that occurred on the last play of the first half, a play made by the losing team, but one that has stood the test of time as one of the greatest plays in NFL history.
The ‘Air Coryell’ Chargers left the Dolphins stunned with an early 24-0 lead
The San Diego Chargers were at the height of their vast offensive power in 1981. Designed by offensive innovator Don Coryell and executed by Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Fouts, the Chargers’ “Air Coryell” offense racked up points and yards at will, with receivers Charlie Joiner, Wes Chandler, and tight end Kellen Winslow helping the Chargers lead the league in scoring, passing yards, and total yards.
And though Don Shula’s Dolphins excelled on defense, when the teams met at the Orange Bowl in the AFC Divisional Playoffs on Jan. 2, 1982, the Dolphins had no answer for the Chargers’ wave of scoring.
After Chandler returned a punt for a touchdown and a quick 10-0 Chargers lead, San Diego converted a pair of Miami turnovers into two more touchdowns and a 24-0 first-quarter lead.
No team in NFL Playoff history had overcome a 24-point deficit to win. But with veteran backup quarterback Don Strock replacing the struggling David Woodley, the Dolphins cut into the lead, then stunned the Orange Bowl with a final play of the half that would go down in history as the greatest play in Dolphins history.
The Hook-and-Lateral goes from the schoolyard to the house as Miami storms back
Miami trailed 24-10 with six seconds left in the half and had the ball on the San Diego 40-yard line. Back in an era where kickers did not routinely attempt field goals beyond 50 yards, the Dolphins elected to go for it on the final play. But no one, certainly not the Chargers, was ready for the play that legendary head coach Don Shula sent in.
The play call, at first, seemed a little perplexing for the moment. Strock, who was picking the Chargers defense apart in the second quarter, threw a 15-yard pass to wide receiver Duriel Harris, who caught the ball toward the middle of the field at the 25-yard line, on a “hook” pattern. The Chargers’ secondary raced toward Harris to down him for what appeared to be the end of the half.
But in the same motion that Harris turned and caught the hook, he lurched forward and lateraled the ball to running back Tony Nathan, who had been trailing the play and was at full speed as he gathered the lateral and streaked past the stunned and flat-footed Chargers defenders swarming around Harris.
“WHAT A PLAY! WHAT A PLAY!” shrieked NBC play-by-play announcer Don Criqui as Nathan raced into the end zone, the ball held high above his head as if to confirm that, yes, he really did have it and the “hook-and-lateral,” as Miami’s players called it, had worked to perfection.
The Orange Bowl erupted in such a roar of shock and awe that it was hard to remember that the Chargers still had a 24-17 halftime lead.
Too much Kellen Winslow and the Chargers go from the heater to the freezer
Decades later, Dolphins fans would vote the Hook-and-Lateral the greatest play in Dolphins’ history – a history that includes two Super Bowl titles and a perfect 17-0 season. This play was not part of any of that. They didn’t even win the game. But the timing, the trickery, everything about it lives on in the hearts and minds of Dolphins fans to this day.
But despite the Dolphins eventually erasing the entire 24-point deficit and taking a late 38-31 lead, Fouts would engineer a clutch, game-tying drive to send the game to overtime.
It was in those final minutes and the nearly 14 minutes of overtime that Winslow upstaged the trick play, catching passes, blocking field goals, and continuously collapsing on the field, dehydrated and exhausted on an unusually warm January night in Miami.
Finally, with just over a minute left in the first overtime, Rolf Benirschke kicked the winning field goal for Miami and two teammates helped carry Winslow off the field in an iconic image.
And San Diego’s reward for playing 74 minutes in heat and humidity? A date with Cincinnati for the AFC Championship in what became known as “The Freezer Bowl” because of -59 wind chills at Riverfront Stadium. The Chargers could not handle the extreme climate shift, losing 27-7.