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RIGHT TOE OF ROOKIE

Posted Jan 29, 2013

On January 17, 1971, Super Bowl V came down to the final seconds and the Colts had a chance to win a world championship. On a roster replete with veterans, the outcome was decided by a rookie kicker.

INDIANAPOLIS – Super Bowl V was a chance for many famous Colts veterans to win a world championship.

 

The Colts were facing Dallas two years after falling to the New York Jets in Super Bowl III, and the memory was fresh for key stalwarts such as Bob Vogel, Bill Curry, John Mackey, Earl Morrall, Rick Volk, Jerry Logan, Bubba Smith, Billy Ray Smith, Mike Curtis and John Unitas.

 

All of those household names, and others, had played in Super Bowl III and had a chance to add a third world title to franchise lore.

 

After 51 minutes and 51 seconds were played, the opportunity to decide the game fell to a rookie – kicker Jim O’Brien, who was facing a 32-yard field goal.

 

O’Brien had made 19-of-34 attempts during the season.  He had missed earlier from 52 yards, and he had missed one-of-two extra points.

 

“I think I learned a lot on the first extra point that was blocked,” said O’Brien.  “I needed to really concentrate on what I was doing and not think about bad things that can happen to kickers.  I was really paying attention and having my head in the game.  I probably concentrated more on that kick than I did on any kick.”

 

From the middle of the field, O’Brien was true on the effort, deciding a game that never had more than a seven-point margin.  It came against another franchise that was seeking the pinnacle, too.  Tom Landry’s Cowboys had all-star names as well – Walt Garrison, Bob Hayes, Rayfield Wright, Duane Thomas, Jethro Pugh, George Andrie, Herb Adderley, Mel Renfro and Bob Lilly. 

 

Dallas was in its first Super Bowl after numerous playoff losses, and O’Brien’s kick caused Lilly to toss his helmet memorably in anger.

 

O’Brien had settled the matter for his team, earning a winning $15,000 share for each teammate and helping them partially recover from the championship setback two years earlier.

 

“I think there was more pressure on the older guys because they had more to atone for,” said O’Brien.  “The younger guys, we just wanted to win because it was the Super Bowl.  The older guys had an ulterior motive in that they wanted to win and atone for the other loss.  There was more pressure on them than us.”

 

The Colts had about 10 rookie and first-year players on the team.  There were 18 players with at least eight years league experience, including five with at least 10 years in the NFL.

 

The Colts had gone 11-2-1 under first-year Head Coach Don McCafferty in winning the AFC’s Eastern Division.  It was the league’s first playing season after the merger.  The Colts had been in the NFL for Super Bowl III.

 

It was a new era, and O’Brien felt it was a different time for the players on the roster.

 

“It was like two worlds that collided,” said O’Brien.  “We had nine rookies who made the team, and some of the guys were getting a little long in the tooth.  In Super Bowl III, they lost, so they had a real bad taste in their mouths from that.  The fact that it (Super Bowl V) came down to a rookie (was ironic).”

 

O’Brien was closer to the younger players than the established ones, though Curtis said it was a tight group overall.  The topic of a past Super setback was mentioned a bit.

 

“A couple of guys said something during the week,” said O’Brien.  “They addressed that they lost and they really wanted to win this time.  They mentioned it a few times during the week.”

 

The game was zany from the outset.  Dallas got two field goals, while the Colts committed two of the game’s 11 turnovers. 

 

The Colts scored on a 75-yard pass from Unitas to Mackey that was tipped twice (first by Eddie Hinton, then by Renfro), but O’Brien’s PAT was blocked.

 

Down 13-6, the Colts recovered a fumble at their goal-line early in the third quarter and after fumbling away the kickoff that opened the second half. 

 

A chance to tie the game in the fourth-quarter failed when an interrupted flea-flicker from the Dallas 30 ended up being a halfback pass from Sam Havrilak that was intended for Mackey, but Hinton caught the ball instead, then fumbled through the Dallas end zone.

 

The Colts tied the game midway through the final quarter after a takeaway, and O’Brien started thinking the next score could decide the game.  It could come down to him.

 

“Yeah, I thought about it,” said O’Brien.  “That’s what a kicker does.  You think, ‘It could come down to you.’  You try to keep your head in the game, keep focus and not thinking about extraneous things.”

 

The game’s 10th turnover came with one minute to go, and it was the pivotal play.  A second-and-35 pass from Craig Morton to Dan Reeves was intercepted at the Dallas 41 by Curtis, and he returned it 13 yards to set up O’Brien for the winner.

 

“The guys who I had a fairly good relationship said, ‘Put it through.’  The guys who I weren’t exactly friends with, they just left me alone.  It was the best of both worlds,” said O’Brien of what the sidelines were like as the game unfolded.  “I had positive reinforcement.  Dick Bielski was my coach.  He said, ‘Just pop it.’  Thirty-two yards, it’s not like it was the longest kick you’re ever going to have.  With that kind of yardage if you just hit it, you’re going to make it.  You just have to keep your head down and follow through.  I popped it through.”

 

As Super Bowls have been played since, climactic moments sometimes have not been as kind as they were for O’Brien.  It is something for which he is grateful.

 

“I’m very happy (about it),” said O’Brien.  “You never know what’s going to happen.  You also don’t think about what’s going to happen in that situation.  You practice for it to be successful, and you imagine yourself being successful.  When you get in the game, you put it on automatic and hope it is successful.  I was just fortunate to have the right kick at the right time.”

 

O’Brien was one of the last NFL kickers who also played another position (wide receiver), a trivia bit that he says, “It’s an honor.  I’ll take it.”  He played with the Colts until 1972, then spent one year with Detroit.  O’Brien had 14 career receptions for 291 yards and two scores.

 

O’Brien has been a project manager in the construction business for the last 30 years and lives in Thousand Oaks, Calif.  He remains in touch with Lynn Larson, Sam Havrilak, Tom Matte, Bielski, Volk and Norm Bulaich.

 

The play and the game itself are not obsessions.  It is a remembrance usually this time of year when interview requests surface. 

 

“I think about it when I see the games on,” said O’Brien.  “Of course when the Super Bowl itself is on, I think about it.  It’s not something I drawn on most of the time.  I’m busy with working and family, playing golf.  I’m busy, and there’s not a whole lot of time to think, ‘Gee, that was a swell moment.’ ”

 

The ring he won is not a usual accessory.

 

“I wear it during the Super Bowl because people like to see it, assuming if I remember to put it on,” said O’Brien.  “Sometimes when we’re going out I wear it, or to a charity golf event.  People like to see your ring.  We all cherish the ring.”

 

O’Brien says he is glad to have had so many healthy years after playing.  Many players never get the chance he had as a rookie, and he and the team seized the moment to win a title.

 

“We just kept going, kept persevering,” said O’Brien.  “We were lucky to get the last break with Mike Curtis intercepting the ball.”

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