On New Year’s Eve 1972, Washington Redskins special teams stars Rusty Tillman and Bob Brunet walked into Duke Zeibert’s, the city’s legendary restaurant and gathering place, and were greeted like conquering heroes.
“The whole place gave us a standing ovation,” Tillman, who passed away in 2021, told me in an interview for my book, “Hail Victory: an Oral History of The Washington Redskins.”
They were conquering heroes. They had vanquished the hated Dallas Cowboys, 26-3, just a few blocks away at RFK Stadium in the NFC Championship Game, sending the Redskins to their first Super Bowl.
On Sunday at Ghost Town Field, you’ll be treated to another botched promotional campaign by the Washington Commanders, this one to allegedly honor the “Hogs” — five of whom, including Joe Jacoby and John Riggins — are boycotting the event and threatening to sue the team over the trademark rights of the nickname.
What you likely won’t hear is any mention or celebration about one of the greatest days in Washington sports history that took place 50 years ago Saturday — that NFC championship win over the Cowboys, coming 30 years after the Redskins last won a title game in Washington, a 14-6 NFL title victory over the Chicago Bears.
The NFC title game victory before a sold-out crowd of 53,129 jacked-up Redskins fans had come after decades of losing and mediocrity for the organization — five winning seasons since their last appearance in a league title game in 1945 — and was the culmination of the long-awaited resurgence of this franchise, starting with the arrival of Vince Lombardi in 1969 and, after his death, the arrival of George Allen in 1971.
It would be the best moment for Allen and his Over The Hill Gang era.
It was a 3 p.m. New Year’s Eve start time and was not broadcast on local television, with the league’s blackout rule in effect at that time. The closest it could be seen locally was WMAR-TV Channel 2 in Baltimore. Game time temperature was 49 degrees.
Billy Kilmer would complete 14 of 18 passes for 194 yards, two touchdowns and no interception. Washington, a three-point favorite, led 10-3 at halftime and broke the game open in the fourth quarter with 16 points. Curt Knight had four field goals and Charley Taylor caught Kilmer’s two touchdown passes. Larry Brown carried the ball 30 times for 88 yards.
Taylor had seven catches for 146 yards.
“The 26-3 game over Dallas was one of my finest games as a football player,” Taylor, who passed away in February, told me. “Everything was so easy for me on that day, it all came so smooth.”
The Redskins’ pass rush sacked Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach six times and held him to 9 of 20 completions for just 98 yards passing. They held Dallas to just eight first downs in the game.
“It was pretty close to perfect,” George Allen said.
Center Len Hauss, who passed away in 2021, described to me one play in particular that was perfection.
“We had worked on a play, a little thing where one of the Dallas safeties would blitz and all our blocking had to be slide blocking,” he said. “We had to slide block, and so often you practice things like that and never use it. But we were in the 30-yard area and a play is called and Kilmer is at quarterback. He thinks the safeties are going to blitz, and he calls the audible for that play.
“I call the line blocking, and I notice the same thing he did, and we call the slide play,” Hauss said. “All of our blockers slide to the right, they blitz their safety to the right. Billy dumps the ball over, and we get a touchdown, and it was one of the easiest things you ever saw. It was one of those instances where everything you worked on happened, and it happened just like it was supposed to, like it was drawn on paper and run 1,000 times in practice. Billy makes a good throw, and the entire line blocks the right people. It turns out to be a good play and a touchdown.”
It was nearly perfect. It was memorable. And it is worth celebrating 50 years later, as it was that night in the nation’s capital.
“I remember the electricity in the stadium, the excitement of the crowd,” punter Mike Bragg told me. “People stormed the field after the game. I didn’t think I was going to be able to get back to the locker room. Later that night, it was still New Year’s Eve, so everyone was out on the town, and people were sending bottles over to our table. It was a great time.”
Washington would go on to lose in the Super Bowl 14-7 to the Miami Dolphins two weeks later in a game that was far from perfect. But the glow of what happened at RFK Stadium that New Year’s Eve still shines today, perhaps greater than ever in the darkness that has consumed this football team for the past two decades.
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