DALLAS — Jethro Pugh has some advice for folks who consider it a cruel twist of fate that the first Super Bowl hosted by the Dallas Cowboys features the Green Bay Packers and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Get over it. He has, and if anyone deserves to hold a grudge, it’s him.
Big-game losses to the Packers and Steelers were agonizing bookends to Pugh’s career as a defensive tackle on the Cowboys. There were losses to Green Bay in the 1966 and ’67 NFL championship games, with trips to the first two Super Bowls on the line, and to the Steelers in the Super Bowls following the 1975 and ’78 seasons. He was the only Dallas player in uniform for all four of those games.
Those losses were excruciating for many reasons, from the high stakes to how close they all were — each decided in the final minutes, all by a touchdown or less. The most famous finish was in the “Ice Bowl,” the ’67 NFL championship, when Bart Starr scored on a fourth-down quarterback sneak in the final minute. It was especially tough on Pugh because he was the guy knocked out of the way to clear Starr’s path into the end zone.
The fallout was so harsh that Pugh asked coach Tom Landry for help.
Pugh wanted Landry to remind reporters and fans that other plays factored into the outcome, too. He also wanted it known that there was more to Starr’s touchdown than what was captured in still pictures, from his contention that Packers guard Jerry Kramer moved before the snap to how tough it was to get any traction on the frozen field.
“I said, ‘Coach, they won’t listen to me, but they’ll listen to you,”’ Pugh said. “He told me, ‘Jethro, this play is going to be part of NFL history. You just need to sort of put it behind you.”’
Pugh eventually did. Whenever it pops up now, “I don’t think nothing about it.”
But in the late 1960s and early ’70s, the Packers represented a hurdle the Cowboys couldn’t clear. A sign in the locker room read, “The Packers owe us blood, sweat, tears and money.” Folks around Dallas were so anti-Packers that former Green Bay star Herb Adderley stopped wearing his Super Bowl ring when he played for the Cowboys.
The feelings eased once Dallas broke through with its own Super Bowl title following the 1971 season. A few years later, the Steelers became public enemy No. 1 in Dallas.
It started in January 1976, when a “Dirty Dozen” of rookie contributors — including Randy White and Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson — and a “Hail Mary” got the Cowboys back to the Super Bowl , facing the reigning champion Steelers.
Dallas had an early lead when Lynn Swann turned things around with a diving, juggling catch over cornerback Mark Washington. The play remains among the greatest in NFL history, leaving Washingt on with the same helpless feeling Pugh had following the “Ice Bowl.” Pugh tried comforting his teammate with the same words of wisdom Landry had given him.
Three seasons later, the Cowboys were reigning Super Bowl champions when they met the Steelers again in a Super Bowl dripping with great story lines. It was a matchup of two-time champions battling to become the first three-time winner, spiced by Henderson claiming “Terry Bradshaw is so dumb he couldn’t spell cat if you spotted him the ‘c’ and the ‘a”’ and layered by the mutual dislike among fans that lingered from the first matchup.
Dallas trailed by a touchdown when tight end Jackie Smith dropped a wide-open pass in the end zone. Although Roger Staubach still blames himself for throwing the ball behind Smith, the ball hit him between the 8 and the 1 on his jersey. The Cowboys settled for a field goal — and wound up losing by four points.
It was the final game of Pugh’s career, and another chance to pass along Landry’s lesson.
“I told Jackie, ‘Look, I know the way you feel. And let me tell you something, it’s just the way it is,”’ Pugh said.
The Cowboys wouldn’t make it back to the Super Bowl until the 1990s. Led by Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irvin, Dallas settled some old scores on their way to winning three championships in four years. They turned away Brett Favre and Packers in the playoffs in 1993, ’94 and ’95, and their Super Bowl title following the ’95 season came against Pittsburgh; it’s still the only time the Steelers have lost a Super Bowl.
Staubach went 2-2 in Super Bowls, with both losses to Pittsburgh, each by four points. So he really savors that Super Bowl title.
“When people say I never beat the Steelers in the Super Bowl, I always say ‘we’ did — I wasn’t the quarterback, it was Aikman, but I’m still a Cowboy and we beat the Steelers,” Staubach said last week, laughing.
As long ago as it was that the Packers and Steelers tormented the Cowboys, the bitterness of those big-game losses lingers. The Dallas Morning News referenced it in a front-page headline Monday atop the story about these teams advancing to this game: “Nemesis Bowl,” it read.
Pugh actually is thrilled the Packers and Steelers made it because they have such large, loyal followings. He’s rooting for every flight into Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport next week t o be filled with people wearing Cheeseheads and waving Terrible Towels.
Why? Because as the owner of five DFW Airport gift shops, he hopes to sell them plenty of souvenirs on their way in and out of town.
It’s not as good as a Super Bowl ring, but it’s certainly a nice form of payback.