|Ken Liberto headed for the end zone|
(NSU's Dick Concilio chasing him).
Maybe. But it wasn't Terry Bradshaw's greatest pass. Not even close. It was a lucky, freaky play.
Bradshaw's greatest pass didn't happen in the NFL. It happened at Louisiana Tech. It was a play that anyone who saw it, and still has their memory, won't forget.
Bradshaw to Ken Liberto, 82 yards, 25 seconds remaining when it started and 13 when it finished, the State Fair Game of 1968, State Fair Stadium in Shreveport.
Louisiana Tech went from certain defeat, down 39-35, to one miraculous 42-39 victory over the longtime arch-rival, Northwestern State. It was so stunning, so unbelievable.
Bradshaw threw 251 touchdown passes in the NFL, including 30 in the playoffs and nine in Super Bowls (five against the Cowboys). He quarterbacked four Super Bowl championship teams. The Immaculate Reception, in the 1972 playoffs, was the Steelers' first-ever playoff victory in the franchise's 40th season.
No NFL TD he ever threw -- except maybe the Immaculate one -- was more dramatic than the pass to Liberto.
It was the greatest play I've seen. But I'm prejudiced. The connection was two guys who I'd gone to school with -- junior high, high school, college -- for almost a decade. The receiver was one of my very best friends for 50 years, my ride to school for most of six years.
|This artist's conception of the State Fair Game scene and |
the Bradshaw-to-Liberto pass was done by Cora Lou
Robinson of Minden (who gave permission for its use here).
This would have been the week in Shreveport. The Louisiana State Fair just opened. Thus the timing of this blog.
It was always the Game of the Year for us, the one game each team badly wanted to win. The neutral site -- because both schools were about 70 miles from Shreveport -- played into it.
It didn't have major implications like Texas-OU or annual neutral-site games such as Florida-Georgia, Auburn-Alabama or Army-Navy, but it was our neighborhood rivalry, our bragging-rights game, an extra day off from school for the winner.
Tech and NSU were so alike. Each had enrollments of, say, 7,000 to 10,000 in the 1960s; each drew heavily from North Louisiana cities and from all over the state and into East Texas; each produced many of our teachers; each had its academic strengths -- NSU known for its nursing school, Tech for engineering ... and journalism (might not be true, but sounds good to me).
For the kids from Shreveport, coming back to town for this game was special, to come back to the stadium where most of our high school games had been played. We knew a lot of the Northwestern kids; they knew a lot of Tech kids.
And then there was the State Fair setting -- the crowded midway, the rides, the exhibits, the IMCA races at the racetrack, the corny dogs and cotton candy, assorted other foods, the smells (yuk, the barns with all the animals right next to the football stadium), the horrendous traffic and parking situation, the extra charge (or ticket) just to get into the Fairgrounds.
Each school chose a State Fair court of coeds; from the late 1950s to whenever, each school had a fireworks art display to light up near an end zone before the game began. At some point, they came up with a flag called "The Rag" that went to the winning school.
Tech-NSU was the State Fair Game 48 times, from 1937 through 1987 -- except for the World War II years (1943-45) when the teams played on one campus or the other. It was a rivalry, but mostly a one-sided one ... Tech had a 34-12-2 edge. Starting with that 1968 victory, Tech was 17-2-1 until the State Fair Game became history after the '87 season.
Tech went strictly Division I; Northwestern stayed in Division II. Tech simply outgrew the rivalry. They've played once since, a 38-28 Tech win in Ruston in 1994.
But going into the 1968 game, Northwestern had the edge -- a two-game winning streak in the rivalry. Its undefeated 1966 team, one of the Demons' greatest ever, beat us (Tech) 28-7; in 1967, NSU won 7-0 in a pretty dull game.
Tech's 1968 team was 2-2 coming to Shreveport on Oct. 19. We had won at Mississippi State to open the season; beating an SEC school was a big deal. But we had lost consecutively to McNeese State and Southwestern Louisiana (we were 0-4 against both in my years at Tech). We didn't know what kind of team we had.
We didn't know about our blond-haired quarterback with the big right arm. He showed flashes of greatness, then woeful inconsistency. We knew we had some great receivers -- Bradshaw's and our high school buddy, Tommy Spinks, and the tight end from Minden, Larry Brewer, and my man Liberto, on his way to Tech's first 1,000-yard receiving season.
Both Ken and Spinks were three- or four-sport athletes in high school. Spinks was always one of the most popular, friendliest kids in school. Bradshaw was what he is now, just a crazy, upbeat guy; always loose and kidding around. Ken was reserved in public, easy-going. But among friends, he was very funny, master of the one-liners. All of them were confident they could help win football games.
Liberto used to tell me and our mutual friend Jon Pat Stephenson -- yet another terrific all-around athlete out of Woodlawn -- that his dream was to just once win a football game by catching a long pass in the final seconds.
By halftime, Northwestern was well on its way to a third consecutive win against Tech (that had happened only once before). After we took a 7-0 lead, the Demons scored on a safety, then ran the ensuing kickoff back for a touchdown. At the half, it was 19-7 ... another disaster brewing for the Bulldogs.
The quarterbacks, Bradshaw (2 of 12) and NSU's Don Guidry (3 of 14), were awful in the first half. In the second half, both offenses were unstoppable.
Tech had 404 yards total offense in the second half, 523 for the game. NSU totaled 373 yards. It wound up as the wildest State Fair Game ever, the highest-scoring one ever. These days a 42-39 game is commonplace; in 1968, it was mind-boggling.
Tech scored the first two touchdowns of the second half to take a 21-19 lead. NSU took back the lead, then Tech did, then NSU did again. So that made five lead changes.
So the Demons had a 39-35 lead, with the ball, in the final minute. One first down would clinch their victory. And here's where Tech got a series of breaks.
-- Break No. 1: On a third-down run for an apparent first down, an NSU back was called for an aiding-the-runner penalty.
After another play, the Demons had to punt. Butch Daniel fair-caught the ball at the Tech 18 (I can see it in my mind because I watched that film a hundred times.) The clock showed 0:25. The NSU fans were chanting the all-too-familiar, "We wrecked Tech! We wrecked Tech!"
Butch Williams, from Minden, was playing right offensive tackle for Tech. "I remember standing on the sideline with Jesse [Carrigan] easing toward the dressing room when they punted," he said. "... I will never forget telling Jesse, 'Oh, well, I guess we have to go back out there."
-- Break No. 2: Northwestern's defense was only in a partial prevent defense. Who knows why? Its safeties and cornerbacks were too close to Tech's receivers when they easily could have given up some short passes.
Liberto was lined up wide right. He ran past the cornerback in front of him and Bradshaw, the pocket having formed perfect in front of him, stepped up between right guard and tackle, and let fly with one of his typical whip-like, high passes. It was right on target ... some 45 yards in the air.
-- Break No. 3: Northwestern safety Kenny Hrapmann, who had intercepted a pass earlier in the game, also broke to where Liberto was sprinting. But Hrapmann went for the ball ... and missed!
Liberto, right in front of the Northwestern bench on the west (home) side of the stadium, was in full stride just behind the two Demons near the NSU 40. As I remember, he pinned the ball to his chest, more than catching it in his hands ... and took off. He was in the clear.
Ken didn't have sprinter's speed, but he was plenty fast. No one was going to catch him.
One guy had a chance.
-- Break No. 4: The player chasing Liberto was a linebacker, Dick Concilio. He had an angle, and he made a desperate dive at about the Demons' 20 to try to tackle Ken. All he got was one shoe. Liberto went into the end zone wearing one shoe. How funny.
Bedlam on the Tech side of the stadium (although many Tech fans -- thinking this was a loss -- had left, headed for the Fair or trying to beat the traffic). Pandemonium. Sheer joy. Unbelievable elation. On the NSU side, sickness, shock. Disbelief.
In the press box, my calm reaction was to jump on the counter and on top of the stats book and sheets where I was keeping the game statistics. Jumping up and down on those stats I cared for so dearly. Paul Manasseh, in his one year as Tech's sports information director before moving to LSU for a long stay, suggested I get down and act more professionally. Right.
So I got down and pummeled O.K. "Buddy" Davis, fellow Tech journalism major and already sports editor of the Ruston Daily Leader (and he still is). And Buddy pummeled me.
Then I wrote this sweet line on my now-smugged scoring summary: LT--Liberto, 82 pass from Bradshaw (Golmon kick), 0:13.
When Liberto spotted Jon Pat Stephenson near the Tech dressing room after the game ended, he screamed, "I told you ... I told you," and then they hugged.
The next day, as usual, I rode back to Ruston with Liberto. We were both still just so elated; we never had a more fun ride than that one.
A year after the play, Liberto told a Shreveport sportswriter, "I was expecting them to be in a prevent defense. I thought everybody in the ballpark knew what we were going to do. But they were in their regular defense. When I saw that, I figured we had a 50-50 chance of completing the pass. It sure made my job easier."
"It taught me a very important lesson that I used many times in my future coaching life and even dealing with children as a principal and superintendent," Butch Williams said. "NEVER GIVE UP."
Jesse Carrigan was at left tackle on the play and remembers that, "They didn't have much of a rush; they were in a prevent ... and I pretty much watched Kenny go 'deep,' and [guard Glenn] Murphy and I served as cheerleaders when we saw him catch it."That pass, that game, I believe, turned Bradshaw's career for good. From that point, he was on his way to being the NFL's No. 1 draft pick by the Steelers a year later.
Liberto, after the '68 season, was drafted by the Steelers; Spinks (who wound up with most of Tech's single-season and career receiving records) and Brewer were drafted, too, a year later. But only Terry made it in the NFL.
That win turned the Tech program around, too. The '68 team won its last seven games in dominant fashion, didn't really come close to losing, and Tech won its next 11 games overall.
Concilio -- the Demon with the last chance -- and I became friends; his coaching career in Bossier Parish paralleled my sportswriting career in Shreveport-Bossier. In the mid-1980s, we didn't live far from each other in South Bossier; in 1985, when he was head coach at Bossier High, he wrote a "Coach's Corner" column for us at the Shreveport Journal. I edited it, but not a great deal; it was his voice, and it was well-done.
(And I never mentioned his attempted tackle on Liberto. Yeah, you believe that.)
Liberto and his family settled in Houston. The last time we visited, he looked good; the colon cancer he had been battling was dormant, and he was recovered from a severe heart attack. Spent an afternoon at his house and we laughed and reminisced. He was still a funny man, still the master of one-liners.
(Sadly, the colon cancer led to his death in November 2010).
On that day in Houston, he said when people learned that he had played wide receiver at Louisiana Tech and Terry Bradshaw had been his quarterback, they would ask, "How many passes did you catch?"
Ken's answer: "One."
One for 82 yards, with 13 seconds remaining. It has been 44 years since No. 44 scored that one glorious touchdown.