The Bonk That Redeemed A Playoff Humiliation
3:38 PM EST on February 8, 2022
Welcome to Infinite Replay, a recurring feature about the plays we can’t stop seeing over and over and over again.
The week before had been the greatest football game of my life. Of any Eagles fan’s life, I thought. The Eagles had been home underdogs to the Detroit Lions in the Wild Card round of the playoffs. They absolutely destroyed them, 58-37. The game was not even as close as that score, as the Eagles were up 51-7 before the Lions rallied for a few meaningless touchdowns. I was there, 12 years old, screaming at the top of my lungs. I was ready for the next week: a playoff showdown against the Dallas Cowboys.
The 1995 season started inauspiciously. The Eagles did not sell out their home opener. Late in the 21-6 loss to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Ricky Watters short-armed a pass across the middle. Asked afterward about the play, Watters replied: “Hey, I’m not going to trip up there and get knocked out. For who? For what?”
The game was no longer in doubt at the time. The Eagles were so unpopular at this moment that the season opener was literally not televised, so almost no one saw the play. It didn’t matter. Spurred on by local columnists like the Inquirer’s Bill Lyon—who wrote an embarrassing column saying that to make up for it, Watters “should put out about a four-concussion effort”—the Watters play became a cause célèbre. (It still is. When Aaron Rowand ran into a wall making a catch for the Phillies over a decade later, reporters recounted the story to him and asked him why he wasn’t a nogoodnik like Watters.)
Watters, who years later said he wished he hadn’t asked those two questions, didn’t put forth any four-concussion efforts that I know of. But he did make up for it. Watters rushed for 1,273 yards and 11 touchdowns that season. He had 1,707 yards from scrimmage—about 35 percent of the team’s offense. The QB job went from Randall Cunningham to Rodney Peete. Neither were very good. But Watters and the defense were good enough that the Eagles, who were outscored by 20 points, went 10-6 and hosted a home playoff game as the top Wild Card team.
I don’t really know how legendary that game is. It should be up there with the Super Bowl win. The Eagles were underdogs. Apparently spurred on by a Ray Rhodes speech comparing the Lions to a home invader, the Eagles outscored the Lions 31-0 in the second quarter. The half ended in a Peete to Rob Carpenter Hail Mary touchdown. The Lions’ Lomas Brown, who predicted the game would be over early, was right: He just had the wrong team that would put it away. My favorite play of the game was a Watters touchdown catch early in the third quarter. He sprinted away from the defender, caught an easy 45-yard touchdown, and then did a victory lap of Veterans Stadium to celebrate. The Eagles were for real. The game against the Cowboys next week was going to be a changing of the guard, I figured.
The Cowboys had already won two Super Bowls in the 1990s. They had all the stars—Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin—and had added Deion Sanders before the 1995 season. I was so angry! Now I had to hate this player I’d previously liked. Because I was not rooting for anyone on the Cowboys. They were the team I was most excited for the Eagles to play each season as a kid. They were the measuring stick. If the Eagles were decent that year, they might have a chance to knock off Dallas. In fact, they already had beaten them just a few weeks ago.
The Eagles and Cowboys had met in early December, and the Eagles won 20-17. But it was how the Eagles won that was most memorable: Tied at 17 late in the fourth quarter after a Gary Anderson field goal tied it, the Cowboys went for it on fourth-and-1 on their own 29 yard line. Emmitt Smith was stopped. But the refs ruled the whistle for the two-minute warning had already blown, and so the Cowboys got another chance on fourth down. They ran the same play, and the Eagles defense stopped Smith again. Due to a timeout called before the play, Anderson actually kicked the game-winning FG twice, too. It’s called the “Groundhog Day” game, after announcer Merrill Reese’s call of the play. (Get it? They had to do the same things over? Yeah, you get it.) The Daily News headline, mocking Barry Switzer for going for it, was “THANK YOU BARRY MUCH.” Sure, the win had been flukey. No matter. I was psyched for the playoff game.
The Eagles kept things close for a bit, but the offense couldn’t move the ball. It was 3-3 early in the second quarter. Then Deion Sanders scored on a 21-yard touchdown run. When the Cowboys got the ball back, they drove down the field. Emmitt Smith scored on a one-yard plunge. Peete got hurt. Cunningham, who’d missed practice all week due to the birth of his son, came in. He wasn’t any better. The Eagles just couldn’t move the ball. It was obvious the game was over. It was 23-3 in the fourth quarter.
Yeah, OK. There was still something there for me—something I had never forgotten. As Cowboys lineman Erik Williams tussled with Eagles defensive end William Fuller late in the fourth quarter, both players grabbed the other one’s face mask. And then Williams pulled off one of my favorite moments in football history.
So, yeah. Williams was known as a dirty player; during the broadcast of this game, which I rewatched, John Madden noted he might just punch you during or after a play. As you can see in this highlight, Williams and Fuller went at each other after the play, while the quinquagenarian lawyers that moonlight as football refs attempted to break them up. On the replay, you can see what led to it: Williams pulled down Fuller by the face mask. What led Williams to wind up, Three Stooges–style, and bonk Fuller on the helmet I cannot say. But it ruled. It was just so funny. Didn’t that hurt his hand more?
After the game, Fuller said Williams was playing dirty all game. “It's the same thing all the time,” Fuller said. “He goes hands to the face and I told him to block me like a man and he said he couldn’t because he had a bad knee and said that he would next year.” (Williams had missed most of the previous season after a car crash.) Despite Fuller’s protestations to the referee, the facemask foul and the unnecessary roughness penalties were the only ones he got all day.
The Eagles lost, 30-11. The Cowboys went on to win the Super Bowl. But at least I got this moment of hilarity I will never, ever forget.