• Sat. Sep 26th, 2020

Five decades of NFL Kickoff games


Sep 5, 2020

by Lawrence Vos (@F10YRetro)

Picture credit: Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

In the very early hours of September 11 2020 UK fans will witness the opening game of the 2020 NFL season, as the reigning champions, the Patrick Mahomes (left) led Kansas City Chiefs host the Deshaun Watson (right) led Houston Texans. 

The game will see the Texans become the 23rd team to take part in an official ‘Kickoff’ game, a tradition that dates back to 2002.

Created to boost the US economy following 9/11 (2001) the game features the Super Bowl Champion playing in a mouth-watering contest in front of a global audience. 

Vince Lombardi holders are 12-3 in the ‘Kickoff’ contest. 

2019 broke from this tradition to celebrate the 100th NFL season as the Bears and Packers combined for a hideous 10-3 snooze-fest.

Opening day games have seen some memorable games, outstanding performances and even drug-fuelled miracles. Lawrence Vos (@F10YRetro) takes you back through the past five decades of opening games. Fire up the DeLorean and make sure to reach 88mph.  

1970 Opening Day  

Back in 1970 the NFL had only just witnessed the merger of the AFL, and the start of the decade saw the introduction of the AFC and NFC conferences. This was the 51st season of NFL football and only 8 teams made the playoffs. 

The opening game of 1970 was unusual for a couple of reasons, firstly it was held on a Friday night, and second, the kickoff was at 11pm. The contest featured the St Louis Cardinals travelling to California to take on the Los Angeles Rams. The two teams had been butting heads since 1937 when they were the Chicago Cardinals and the Cleveland Rams.

The first player to score in the new NFL was Rams kicker David Ray, who converted a 27 yard field goal. The Cardinals replied right away courtesy of a Jim Bakken FG, before the Rams started to dominate.

Photo credit: Focus on Sport/Getty Images

L.A. QB Roman Gabriel (above) tossed two second quarter touchdown passes (one to Willie Ellison and one to Billy Truax) as the Rams took a 17-3 half-time lead. Gabriel was drafted 1st overall in the 1962 AFL draft and also 2nd in the NFL draft of the same season, opting to play for the Rams over the Raiders. Gabriel made three consecutive Pro Bowl appearances prior to the 1970 season, and went on to become the NFL Comeback Player of the Year in 1973.

The Rams exploded out the traps in the second half when Alvin Haymond returned a kickoff 98 yards for a score. Haymond went on to return kicks and punts for Washington in Super Bowl VII (1972). 

St Louis did mount a small comeback, Bakken converting his second FG and then TE Jackie Smith (who went on to be inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1994) caught a 59 yard bomb from Jim Hart. Hart was a Cardinals legend, who played from 1966 to 1983 for the Cards. Hart played 201 regular season games, but only made three playoff appearances. 

With the Cardinals trying to make a game of it the Rams decided to put the game away, a Ray FG was swiftly followed by Gabriel’s third TD pass – to WR Jack Snow who made 140 consecutive appearances for Los Angeles. 

Both the Rams and Cardinals finished the 1970 season with winning records but neither won their division, and the solitary Wild Card went to the 10-4 Detroit Lions. 

1980 Opening Day

The 61st NFL season saw 28 teams competing for 10 playoff places. Unlike a decade before there were multiple opening day games, 8 in fact played at 1pm EST on Sunday 7 September. 

Of the 8 games 5 were decided by 6 points or fewer. The Bears v Packers game went into overtime after a 4 field goal slugfest. The game ended in the fifth period with one of the most bizarre walk off touchdowns in league history. 

During overtime, and high on cocaine, Polish born Packers kicker Czeslaw (Chester) Bolesalw Marcol, known in Green Bay as the ‘Polish Prince’, attempted the game winning field goal. His attempt was blocked by the face cage of future Hall of Fame DT Alan Page. Fortune smiled upon the Prince as the ball rebounded right back into Marcol’s hands and he ran 25 yards to the end zone for the winning score. 

Photo credit: Sports Illustrated

Marcol, who was the 1972 NFC Rookie of the Year due to his 48 attempts, went on to be inducted into the Packers Hall of Fame, but that was no way near the full story of one of the most intriguing players in NFL history. 

Following his father’s suicide, Marcol’s mother packed up from a life in Eastern Europe to find a new life with members of the family that were farmers in Michigan. 

Czeslaw, unable to speak English and without any friends, the former Polish international junior soccer player gets to kick a round ball, almost breaking his PE teacher’s nose after taking a penalty in the school gym.

Bloodied and battered the PE teacher introduces Marcol to a leather American football, and Marcol immediately kicked up to 55 yard field goals despite never seeing an oval ball before. 

Marcol, who went on to kick in college, still holds the record for the longest field goal in Hillsdale College’s history, a 62 yard kick he made in 1969. He attempted a 77 yard FG in one game – the refs saying he missed it by just 3-5 yards.    

Just 31 days after his miracle overtime TD run Packers then head-coach Bart Starr cut Marcol. Publicly the reason was poor kickoff distance, privately it was extended alcohol and cocaine abuse.

Just 6 years later Marcol attempted suicide by drinking battery acid. He survived, and is still alive to this day. Packers fans from the 1970s still have very fond memories of the former cucumber picker. 

1990 Opening Day

1990 saw the re-introduction of bye weeks for the first time since 1966, and an increase from 10 to 12 playoff teams. The opening day saw five 1pm EST games, which included two shutout victories for the Bears (17-0 v Seahawks) and Washington (31-0 v Cardinals). 

The highest scorers in that early window were the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who put 38 points on the Detroit Lions. Barry Sanders, in his second season with the Lions, scored a first quarter TD to give Detroit a 14-7 lead, before Tampa scored three consecutive TDs, two from the fair hand of Vinny Testaverde.

Photo credit: Foxsports.com

Only one of the opening games was close, a rematch of Super Bowl IV (1969 season) between the Minnesota Vikings and the Kansas City Chiefs. The two starting QBs in the game, Wade Wilson (Vikings) and Steve DeBerg (Chiefs) ended up combining for over 50,000 passing yards before they left the field of play. 

KC took a very early 14 point lead thanks to DeBerg and his two touchdown passes to running backs Bill Jones and Todd McNair. The Vikings tied it all up before the end of the half, firstly through a Herschel Walker catch from Wade Wilson and then a TD catch from TE Steve Nelson (who ended up a Pro Bowler that season). 

Herschel Walker was part of arguably the biggest trade in NFL history, one that helped the Dallas Cowboys become the dominant team of the 1990s. The 1989 trade featured 6 players, 3 teams and 12 draft picks playing musical chairs. 

The Chiefs managed a half-time lead after Nick Lowery booted a 43 yard FG, but back came Minnesota when Walker caught his second TD pass of the game, giving the Vikings a 4 point lead. 

With the game on the line, up stepped the Nigerian Nightmare Chiefs running back Christian Okoye. After leading the NFL in rushing the previous year (1,480 yards) the most imposing looking back since Jim Brown got the ball at the 2 and rumbled in for the winning score. Okoye finished with 92 yards. 

The Vikings finished 6-10 in 1990 and the Chiefs 11-5, earning a Wild Card, where they went down to a spectacular 4th quarter comeback by some bloke called Dan Marino. 

2000 Opening Day

2000 represented the 81st season of NFL football, and took place on a Labor Day weekend.  

Technically only 2 games kicked off at exactly 1.00pm EST on September 3rd, the Bears at the Vikings and the Colts at the Chiefs.

Tied 14-14 at the end of the third period the Colts scored three times in the fourth quarter (two Mike Vanderjagt field goals were the bread in a scoring sandwich that was made extra tasty by a Jeff Burris 27 yard pick-six of a blue suede-shoed Elvis Grbac errant pass attempt.

The other game, between the Vikings and Bears was a classic, made memorable by a quarterback’s NFL debut in his second season as a pro, but not for the reason you may think.

With two of the greatest wide receivers in the rich history of the game, in the form of Randy Moss and Cris Carter, both of whom are now enshrined in Canton, the Vikings gave the reins to a fresh faced Daunte Culpepper to lead Minnesota to the promised land. 

Photo credit: Elsa/Getty Images

Culpepper failed to find his rhythm in the first half, managing to find only three field goal scoring drives. The cagey game saw both teams exchange three scores each in the first 30 minutes, the difference being the Bears first scoring drive being the only one that ended in a touchdown, an 18 yard pass from Cade McNown to TE John Allred. 

The TD catch was Allred’s second and last TD catch in his short career. Fun fact, Allred’s older sister is married to current 49ers GM John Lynch. 

McNown found Marcus Robinson early in the 3rd quarter for a 48 yard hook-up and an 11 point lead, before a dormant Culpepper was awoken with a proverbial flame-throwing machine gun, much like the Alien eggs were by Executive Officer Kane of the Nostramo.

In just over 15 minutes Culpepper ran for three touchdowns (1 yard, 7 yards and 4 yards) to give the Vikings a 10 point lead with under 5 minutes left. 

Inspired by the intestinal fortitude of Culpepper, Bears QB McNown ran in for a score himself, but it was too little too late as Minnesota hung on for a 30-27 home win. 

 Culpepper and the Vikings went all the way to the NFC Championship in 2000, getting face-hugged all over the field by the Giants in a 41-0 massacre. Daunte passed for 78 yards and three interceptions, and had just 10 yards on two runs. 

2010 Opening Day

2010 saw the 9th consecutive official ‘Opening Day’ game, a special Thursday night game that began in 2002 with a 49ers 16-13 win over the New York Giants, just under a year before the first anniversary of 9/11. 

Traditionally a tight affair, the opening day game, a showcase to the world of NFL football, saw lots of rust being shaken off from the shoulder pads of teams, one being the previous year’s Super Bowl winner.

In 2010 it was the reigning champions the New Orleans Saints hosting the Minnesota Vikings. 

The game started in jovial fashion for the home team as Drew Brees took the opening drive 77 yards for a 7-0 lead, airing it out to Devery Henderson for a 29 yard score. 

The Vikings took command of the second quarter, scoring on a Ryan Longwell field goal, before 41 year-old Brett Favre, in his second season in Minnesota, having spent 16 seasons at divisional rivals the Green Bay Packers, found TE Visanthe Shiancoe for a 20 yard TD with 34 seconds left. Longwell missed the EXP.

Photo credit: The Times of Northwest Indiana

Both defences played solid football in the second half, the Saints forcing an early Vikings punt. Brees again started the half with a TD scoring drive, this time the six point play going to Pierre Thomas, the first of only two scores in an injury riddled season for the RB.

The score, giving the Saints a 14-9 lead, was the final one of the game, as New Orleans forced three consecutive three-and-outs. With over 5 minutes left the Saints wore the Vikings defensive line down by keeping the ball for the remainder of the game, culminating in three Brees knees – well kneel downs. 

The Saints Super Bowl reign ended in ignominious fashion with a 41-36 loss to the Seattle Seahawks in an NFC Wild Card game, immortalised by Marshawn Lynch’s 67 yard winning TD run, better known as the ‘Beast Quake’. 

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