It has been called the “most famous play in college football history.” Surely, it was the most bizarre tackle in all of football history, an official “non-tackle” that interrupted an official 95-yard touchdown run that ended 42 yards away from the goal line. Dubbed ‘the 12th man tackle,” it occurred on a big football stage, a New Year’s Day bowl game, and continued on a television stage, when two days later, both the runner and the tackler were together again on the vastly popular Ed Sullivan variety show.
The play happened live on television, and I was watching television. But I did not see it, and I can never forget “not” seeing it. And there was no instant replay in 1954. I was watching another channel, another big bowl game. There were black-and-white moving picture cameras, so I saw it on film eventually, but I cannot remember when. Now, it is on YouTube.
It was an era in which television did not dictate the time of kickoff. Day games kicked off in the early afternoon. I was age eight and a big college fan. New Year’s Day was the climax of the season. There were only four major bowl games, all on January 1, and three of them were played at the same time – one on each of the three television networks. No one had more than one TV.
The Orange Bowl, in the eastern time zone (Miami), probably started an hour before the Sugar Bowl in New Orleans and the Cotton Bowl in Dallas. NBC had a doubleheader, going from Dallas to Pasadena, Calif., for the Rose Bowl.
My aunt and uncle came to our Houston, Tex., house for a midday meal and some serious football viewing. Raised in Oklahoma, Uncle Bud was most interested in No. 5-ranked Oklahoma (Big Seven champion) playing already-crowned 1953 national champion Maryland (Atlantic Coast Conference) in the Orange Bowl. The national champion was decided before bowl games until 1968.
My mother, although also a native Sooner, adopted Houston hometown Rice Institute (now Rice University) as her favorite team. Her Owls, after sharing the Southwest Conference championship (with arch-rival Texas), were playing Alabama in the Cotton Bowl.
So as you may surmise, we were switching channels to keep up with both games. And while we were tuned in to the Orange Bowl contest, we missed the “most famous play” in the Cotton Bowl.
All-American Rice running back Dicky Moegle (pronounced MAY-gle) ran through the Crimson Tide all afternoon. But leading only 7-6, the Owls were pinned back on their own five-yard line when Moegle broke free again and was racing down the sideline past midfield in front of the Alabama bench.
Tide fullback Tommy Lewis, without the benefit of a helmet, came off the sideline to tackle Moegle and then scrambled back to hide on the bench. The referee awarded Moegle a 95-yard touchdown, using the palpably unfair act rule, which covers situations when a flagrant rule violation prevents a player from scoring by awarding the score anyway. The Owls took a 14-6 lead and went on to top the Tide, 28-6.
Moegle finished with three touchdowns. Taking only 11 handoffs, the 195-pound speedster averaged 24.1 yards per carry while amassing 265 rushing yards. That yardage in 1954 remained a Cotton Bowl record for 54 years.
The next season, the future College Football Hall of Fame member was a consensus All-American while rushing for 905 yards and leading the nation in punt returns. Playing defense as well as offense, he set 26 school records. Moegle played in the 1955 Pro Bowl during a seven-year professional career with San Francisco, Pittsburgh and Dallas.
Lewis, a captain of that 1953 Crimson Tide team, had scored the first TD to put Alabama ahead 6-0. After college and duty in the army, Lewis played in the Canadian Football League. Another Bama defender on that play was future NFL Hall of Famer Bart Starr, who was playing both offense and defense.
My family missed “the play of the day,” and I was rooting for Alabama. But Mother was happy with the Rice win, and Uncle Bud and I enjoyed the 7-0 Oklahoma victory in the Orange Bowl.