Chandler's admission helps take sting out of 31-year-old bad call

November 03, 1996|By John Steadman

What showed on the scoreboard was three more hard-earned -- yet highly debatable -- points for the Green Bay Packers. A tie at 10-10. Then came overtime, sudden death and ultimately the most devastating defeat the Baltimore Colts ever absorbed. A title was to be decided because of the questionable validity of a field goal. Was it in or out? Good or bad?

It became, without a doubt, the most talked-about incident in Baltimore sports history, setting off repercussions that resulted in the National Football League changing the rules, an admission of guilt, and unfortunately, depriving the Colts of at least an otherwise well-deserved championship opportunity.

When the play is discussed, even now, more than 30 years later, it's still referred to as "The Kick." And, in truth, the clouds of controversy never lifted -- until now.

Instead of the Packers playing (and beating) the Cleveland Browns for the 1965 championship, it would have been the Colts, and rightly so, providing the challenge. Don Chandler, the man who kicked the ball, a true Southern gentleman from Oklahoma, always well-regarded by teammates and rivals, is willing to set the record straight from the basis of his perspective.

It's an unbiased report. And it's not as if snap judgment is involved or he hasn't had time to reflect. It happened 31 years ago, the day after Christmas, in Green Bay, at Lambeau Field before God and 50,484 witnesses. "When I looked up," said Chandler, "the ball was definitely outside the post."

So the key witness, for the opposition, is in accord with how the Colts' players viewed the kick that sailed high and wide and kept the Packers in the game, with only 1: 58 to go, and provided them the chance to play in the cold and mud of Cleveland Stadium a week later -- when Chandler helped beat the Browns with three field goals, none of which was even remotely questionable.

Against the Colts, the Packers were the beneficiaries of a call, dubious at best, that influenced the outcome of a game and qualified the winner for what was then known as the world championship -- which is what the NFL's grand finale was called until the euphemistic tag of Super Bowl came along.

The Colts were wronged, unintentionally, of course, by one of the most competent officials the league ever employed, Jim Tunney. But for three decades the controversy has ensued and now Chandler, in an interview from his home in Tulsa, believes the Packers got all the best of the decision.

What added to the emotional charge of the Colts-Packers playoff for the Western Division championship, after both teams had ended the league's regular schedule with identical records of 10 wins, three losses and a tie, was the way America's football audience rallied to the plight of the Colts.

This was a team that had lost not one quarterback but had the entire position depleted. First it was John Unitas because of a leg injury; then Gary Cuozzo with a shoulder separation. It meant that coach Don Shula had to scramble for some kind of a replacement. He realized Tom Matte, a spirited halfback, had once handled the split-T at Ohio State and that offered a remote alternative.

Matte, with only three days to practice for the role and wearing a wristband with a ready-list of plays attached, had given a remarkable performance against the Los Angeles Rams to clinch a tie for the Colts with the Packers. It was an afternoon when he rationed his passes and concentrated on holding the ball. Matte ran 16 times for 99 yards and, on one occasion, was hit so hard the face mask was torn from his helmet.

Now, a week later, it's in Green Bay, still with Matte quarterbacking, and the Colts are leading 10-7 with less than two minutes on the clock. Chandler lines up to kick from the 22-yard line, endeavoring to gain a tie and force overtime.

Bart Starr, who had been injured early in the game, was still able to hold for field-goal attempts and extra points. Chandler swung his right leg. The ball was high -- and slicing.

Underneath the goal post, Tunney raised his arms. It was 10-10. But Lou Michaels and Fred Miller, on the field-goal defending unit, were livid. They led the debate, screaming the kick had gone wide of the 10-foot-high upright. But it also was above the top of the post, meaning Tunney had to visualize an imaginary vertical line extending upward. A difficult call.

Chandler, as he followed through, saw the ball carry wide of the target. Instantly, he twisted his head in obvious disappointment, much the way a golfer looks when he misses a short putt. The reaction conveyed the impression the kicker knew he had failed. But the official, standing under the middle of the crossbar, ruled it was good. Charge human error. Twice.

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