Dallas Cowboys tight end Jackie Smith (81) misses a sure touchdown and falls to the ground and stiffens his body in disappointment in the end zone during Super Bowl XIII action against Pittsburgh Steelers in Miami, Fla., Jan. 22, 1979. The catch would have tied the game in the third quarter. The Steelers won, 35-31. (AP Photo/Miami Herald)
Photo: Anonymous/Miami Herald
Photo: Anonymous/Miami Herald

Priceless Super Bowl moments: A rare drop at the wrong time

Among the thousands of images left behind by America’s biggest sporting event, a few live on as indelible. During this week leading up to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta, we look back daily on a select precious moment and appreciate the story behind it. Sixth in a seven-part series.

The Jackie Smith file is filled with exceptionalism. The kind that lands a person in Canton, wrapped in a gold blazer.

Back when Cardinals also played football in St. Louis, Smith was regarded as the finest pass-catching tight end of the time, a guy who racked up thousands more receiving yards than his contemporaries. Tough and durable, he missed all of five games in the first 12 years of his career (1963-74).

Also, at career’s end, with another team, in his final game on a stage that had eluded him in his prime, he was the subject of one photo that was sad and singular and something of an illusion all at the same time. Behold the sight of a living football player seemingly in rigor. Behold the small death of the dropped pass.

More on the series

» 1967 Super Bowl: A cigarette and a Fresca 
» 1998 Super Bowl: John Elway goes helicopter 
» 2008 Super Bowl: The helmet catch 
» 1973 Super Bowl: Who stole my watch?
» 1969 Super Bowl: The poolside guarantee 

Upon mishandling an end zone pass in Super Bowl XIII, a play most label as the most infamous drop in Super Bowl history, a vertical Smith, arms rigid, empty hands in front of him, went straight as a plank. Caught in still motion, his reaction had the feel of magic, as he looked to be almost levitating off the ground at an angle. Or was it an out-of-body experience while still in the body? 

The then 38-year-old Smith had been lured out of a comfortable retirement by the Dallas Cowboys and had been gifted something he could never hope for in St. Louis – his first and only Super Bowl appearance. Only to have it all tarred by one moment.

On third-and-3 from the Pittsburgh Steelers’10-yard line, the Cowboys trailing 21-14 late in the third quarter, Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach spotted Smith wide open in the middle of the end zone. Roger “The Dodger” threw low and behind Smith, whose feet slipped out from beneath him. Still, as he was falling, the ball hit him in the hands, right between the 8 and the 1 on the front of his jersey. And the ball didn’t stick.

“Oh, bless his heart,” Verne Lundquist, working the Cowboys radio broadcast at the time, famously said at the time. “He’s got to be the sickest man in America.”

Dallas settled for the field goal, and of course, it had to end that four points were the difference between the Steelers and the Cowboys (Pittsburgh wins its third Super Bowl, 35-31). Never mind that in this game, like most others, there were a host of possible outcome-changing moments. If Staubach doesn’t throw a first half interception on the Steelers end of the field … if Randy White holds onto a fourth-quarter fumble recovery … if the Cowboys D doesn’t let Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw go off for 318 yards and four passing touchdowns. 

But the autopsy of Super Bowl XIII always seemed come down to: If Jackie Smith had only caught the ball. 

The recovery time for such a wound was long and hard.

As Smith’s friend from St. Louis days, former Cardinals lineman Dan Dierdorf told Sports Illustrated in 2016, “I don’t think I saw Jackie for two or three years after that game; he just disappeared. That catch came really close to ruining his entire life.”

In that same extraordinary SI piece, in which Smith talked at length on a subject he had largely tried to avoid, he bared deep thoughts on how much one play in a lifetime of plays can matter. 

He told SI: “It made me think about how fragile all of this is – fame, notoriety. How much work it takes to get there and how little work it is to take it all away. It can be taken away with something as frivolous as missing a (expletive) pass.”

But that story also ended happily for the now 78-year-old Hall of Famer, who had realized much success in real life pursuits back in St. Louis.

“Family is what matters,” he said at the close, “not football. Not some drop. I’m still the luckiest guy in the world.”

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