50 Most Memorable Super Bowl Moments, No. 17: Jackie Smith's drop
As the NFL approaches its highly anticipated golden anniversary Super Bowl, Yahoo Sports takes a look back at some of the most memorable moments in the game's history.
In our rankings, the moments go beyond the great scores and plays. We also take a look at entertainment performances, scandals/controversies and other events associated with corresponding Super Bowls.
Here's a look at moment No. 17:
'Sickest man in America'
Jackie Smith played in an era when tight ends were, in actuality, a third offensive tackle. Smith was, true to the requirements of his position at the time, an outstanding blocker.
His Pro Football Hall of Fame biography refers to him as " … a punishing blocker … "
Smith, though, was no one-dimensional player. When he retired in 1979, following 15 seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals and one fateful campaign with the Dallas Cowboys, his 480 catches were the most ever by a tight end.
He was in great pain after the 1977 season and thought seriously of retirement. A Cardinals team doctor told him the neck injury he'd suffered in 1976 and which bothered him throughout 1977 was significant.
Play another year, he was told, and you risk paralysis.
Training camp for the 1978 season began and Smith was at home in New Mexico with his son. There were a few nibbles, but he had pretty much decided that he was going to pack it in.
But then, one day, Tom Landry called him. The Cowboys' coach needed a tight end after Jay Saldi broke an arm. Though Smith was as good a tight end as there was in the game, he had his reservations.
"I was worried when I first came to the Cowboys," Smith told the Miami News in 1979. "I didn't know if I could get in shape. I didn't know how I'd be accepted. I was thinking I might have overloaded myself."
Smith, though, desperately sought a ring. And so he was willing to do whatever Landry asked to help the Cowboys win.
More Most Memorable Super Bowl Moments:
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• NEXT (Jan. 15): No. 16
And win the Cowboys did. The reigning champions, they went 12-4 in the 1978 regular season and then ousted Atlanta (27-20) and the Los Angeles Rams (28-0) to reach Super Bowl XIII.
There, they'd meet the Pittsburgh Steelers, who had won Super Bowls IX and X and closed as 3 ½ point favorites in the game.
Pittsburgh led 21-14 at the half on the strength of two touchdown catches by John Stallworth and another by Rocky Bleier.
Dallas forced Pittsburgh to punt midway through the third quarter and took over the ball on the Steelers 42-yard line with 7:31 left in the third.
Five runs, and an eight-yard swing pass to Preston Pearson put the ball on the Steelers 10.
Facing a third-and-3 from the 10, Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach recognized the Steelers' great run defense and went with a play-action pass.
Smith had been little factor in the game up to that point. He had no catches, nor had he been targeted. He didn't catch a pass in the regular season for the Cowboys, though he'd gotten three in the playoffs. Still, it had been a successful year for Smith, who'd appeared in 12 of the Cowboys' 14 regular season games.
Dallas relied on his blocking to set up its running game, led by the great Tony Dorsett, and he was particularly effective. He was so good in a late-season win over Philadelphia that his teammates awarded him a game ball.
As the Cowboys were poised to tie the Steelers, Staubach had Smith line up to the right. Staubach made a play fake to Scott Laidlaw, and Smith broke wide open as the Steel Curtain clearly was fooled by the call.
The pass was ever so slightly behind Smith, who went down in an attempt to make certain he caught the potential game-tying pass.
Staubach conceded it wasn't his best throw.
"I saw him open and I took something off it," Staubach told the Miami News of that play. "I didn't want to drill it through his hands. The ball was low. It could have been better."
It was good enough, though, for Smith to catch and leave the Cowboys an extra point away from tying the game with 2:41 remaining in the third quarter.
As Smith went down, the ball slipped through the hands, hitting the 1 on the front of his familiar No. 81 jersey.
Broadcaster Verne Lundquist, calling the game on the Cowboys' radio network, said memorably: "Bless his heart, he's going to be the sickest man in America," as the ball careened away to the ground as Dallas was forced to settle for a Rafael Septien field goal.
Smith was besieged by reporters when the game ended with the Steelers having won, 35-31, those four points lost when Smith dropped the ball the difference in the game.
He said he didn't remember the last few inches as the ball came to him with no Steelers around.
"I was wide open and I just missed," he told the Miami News. "It was a little behind me, but not enough that I should have missed the ball. Hell, the coverage had left. I tried to get down. I was trying to be overcautious. On a play like that, you want to get it in your hands and pull it close to your body. My left foot got stuck and my hip went out from under me."
And with it, so did Smith's hopes of winning a Super Bowl ring. After the game, he retired for good, a Hall of Famer but never a world champion.