Instant replay breaks Smith's, Eagles' hearts Once-in-a-lifetime play is called back

January 06, 1991|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Correspondent

PHILADELPHIA -- It was a once-in-a-lifetime defensive play, so perfect and pure that all Ben Smith could do once he reached the end zone was stand and rejoice as the crowd at Veterans Stadium shrieked.

"You run that far, you go that fast, you can't believe the feeling," Smith said. "And then, they take it away."

An official, sitting in the press box, looking at television monitors, reversing the fortunes of a player, devastating a team.

Smith's fumble return of 94 yards for a touchdown in the closing minute of the first half was erased, and the Philadelphia Eagles never recovered in their 20-6 playoff loss to the Washington Redskins yesterday.

"I never thought they'd call it back," Smith said. "But then, the guys are standing around. You hear things. And it's gone. Gone. Unbelievable. The man fumbled the ball."

Smith was standing in front of his locker, replaying the perfect defensive play. It happened with 48 seconds left in the first half. Redskins up, 7-6, driving for another score.

Quarterback Mark Rypien tossed a pass to running back Earnest Byner, who charged 11 yards right at Smith. The Eagles rookie flipped Byner at Philadelphia 6. The ball popped free, Smith picked it up and raced the other way, past the breathless Posse, past the oversized Hogs and a tumbling quarterback, all the way to the end zone.

Bedlam. Fans roared. The Eagles pummeled Smith. Redskins littered the field, dazed and confused.

Back at the Eagles' 6, Byner was on his knees, helmet off, searching for a lost contact lens, hoping for a reversal.

"I was wondering whether they were going to say I was down," Byner said. "I got my contact back in time to see the replays. You are never confident that the official will see it your way."

The field officials ruled the play a touchdown. More cheering. But an uneasiness was settling into the stadium. This was a touchdown headed for a replay.

"I couldn't see what happened," Eagles coach Buddy Ryan said. "There was someone in front of me. That's exactly what we needed -- a defensive touchdown to get things going. But I couldn't make a judgment."

Upstairs in the press box, replay official George Sladky was reviewing the play. One minute. Two minutes.

"You knew whatever the outcome, it would be a big play," Redskins coach Joe Gibbs said.

"It was going to be monumental, either way, a big swing," Eagles safety Wes Hopkins said.

Reversal: The ground, not Smith, caused the fumble.

"What I look for on that play is whether the ground caused the fumble and whether contact was made before he hit the ground," Sladky said. "And we had a good end-zone television shot that clearly showed that he [Byner] was contacted and came down with control, and the ground caused the fumble."

Instead of Eagles touchdown, it was first-and-goal Redskins at the 6. Philadelphia's defense held out for a 20-yard field goal by Chip Lohmiller with seven seconds remaining, but the damage was done. A 10-point turnaround left the Redskins on top, 10-6.

The Eagles were outraged.

"I don't know if it is the color of our jerseys or our bad-boy image; the referees jerk us around," safety Andre Waters said. "Players sweat year-round and work year-round, and guys with part-time jobs determine our fate. It's not fair."

But it was done. What occurred live can be erased on tape.

"The play doesn't mean anything now," Smith said. "It didn't transpire. It wasn't real."

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