Super Bowl XX was memorable for many reasons, including that William “Refrigerator” Perry, an overweight defensive tackle, was allowed to score a meaningless late touchdown instead of the late, great Walter Payton, who was playing in his only Super Bowl.
Someday, this Mississippian might forgive Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka for that decision. Not this day. Not this year. Probably not this lifetime.
But Super Bowl XX, in which the Chicago Bears shattered the New England Patriots 46-10, was memorable for another puzzling call that involved another Mississippian. Last week, on the day Leslie Frazier entered the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame, he remembered the call.
First, some background: Frazier, a soft-spoken gentleman from Columbus and Alcorn State, was a star cornerback on what many consider the best defense in football history. Buddy Ryan’s famous “46 defense” depended on his cornerbacks’ ability to cover the opponents’ wide receivers man-to-man without help from safeties or linebackers. Ryan’s corners were on an island. They got no help. Frazier needed none.
He had led the Bears that season with six interceptions. After being an undrafted free agent out of Alcorn, he was becoming an NFL superstar in his fifth year. He was in the last year of his contract. He was about to make some real money.
Back to the fateful play: The Bears were making short work of the out-manned Patriots. Midway through the second quarter the only question was not about who would win but whether the Patriots quarterbacks would survive. It was ugly
The Bears led the Patriots 20-3. The rout was on. The Bears had just forced another Patriots punt. And then, inexplicably — and to Ryan’s everlasting chagrin — the Bears called for a reverse on the punt return.
Special teams coach Steve Kazor called it. Ditka signed off on it. The play called for the regular punt returner, Keith Ortega, to reverse the ball to Frazier. It was a complete and utter disaster. First, Ortega called for a fair catch, which he wasn’t supposed to do. Then, Ortega took off running to his right and handed the ball to Frazier running the other way.
“We had practiced the play every week all season long,” Frazier said. “I kept telling the coaches, if you ever call it, I’m gonna score. I was so excited they had finally called it.”
The Patriots were not fooled. There was little running room. When Frazier planted his left leg to cut up field, his left knee just pretty much exploded. He went down, the ball came out and the Patriots recovered.
Frazier stayed down for a long time while trainers worked on his knee. Teammates Mike Singletary and Gary Fencik knelt beside him and tried to encourage him.
On the sidelines, Ryan fumed.
“I damned near killed the special teams coach,” he later said.
Frazier said every time he sees Kazor, Kazor apologizes for the call.
“Don’t apologize to me,” Frazier says he tells him. “I wanted you to call it.”
The team doctor warned Frazier that he believed Frazier had suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
“I just didn’t believe it,” Frazier said. “I thought I would be back in that game. I had no idea it was that bad.”
It wasn’t just bad. It was career-ending. It wouldn’t be now. It was in 1986.
Frazier had surgery the next week. He rehabbed it for 18 months, tried to come back but just couldn’t pass the physical.
He was 27 years old, out of a job.
Said Frazier, “God had a different plan for me.”
Frazier had never thought about coaching before, but little Trinity College, an NAIA school near Chicago, was launching a football program and offered the head coaching job to Frazier. He took it and spent nine successful seasons there, winning two league championships. From there, he moved to the University of Illinois as an assistant coach and then into the NFL ranks.
He has coached in Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Indianapolis (he was the assistant head coach when the 2006 Colts beat the Bears in the Super Bowl), Minnesota (where he was for three seasons the head coach), Tampa Bay and Baltimore. Now, he’s the defensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills, still using, he says, the lessons he learned when he played for the legendary Marino Casem at Alcorn.
Casem, 83, was in Jackson for Frazier’s induction into the MSHOF. No, Casem said, he has not been surprised by Frazier’s success in the NFL
Of Frazier, Casem said, “He’s smart, he’s hard-working, he’s just a solid guy.”
And he is now, as is Casem, a Hall of Famer.
Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is email@example.com.