Leon Lett. Nice name. It has a bit of a ring to it. However, unless you are a true NFL football fan, it’s probably not a name that rings a bell for you. So let me fill you in on Leon.
Leon played in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys from 1991 to 2000 and the Denver Broncos in 2001. Leon was a great defensive tackle and the anchor of an even greater defensive line that helped the Cowboys win three Super Bowls during Leon’s career (1993, 1994, 1996). He even made All Pro (league all-star for his position). The first time in 1994 and the second time during the 1996 season.
Unfortunately, for most NFL fans, these are not the memories of Leon left over from his great career. Instead, two memories of spectacular failure stand out. In fact, ESPN television rated two of his plays in the top three of their "25 Biggest Sports Blunders." NFL fans ranked his two blunders as numbers one and three, while a panel of sports experts rated them number two and three.
The first blunder occurred during Super Bowl XXVII against the Buffalo Bills. The fans rated it number one. The experts rated it number two. Leon recovered a Bills fumble late in the game. As he scooped up the ball and started his rumble to the end-zone, there were no Buffalo Bills even near him. He was on his way to a sure touchdown. Any touchdown for a defensive lineman is a career highlight...let alone a touchdown in a Super Bowl. Leon must have had great visions of seeing his running form all over the evening sports reports. He approached the end-zone with such ease that he slowed down and stretched out his arms. That’s when everything went wrong. The fumble rumble turned into failure because the Buffalo Bills’ Don Beebe came racing from behind to slap the ball out of Leon’s right hand absolutely micro-seconds before Leon crossed the goal line. The ball bounced through the end-zone resulting in a touchback that cost Leon his touchdown, his glory, and his moment of fame. Instead, he ran into the end-zone and NFL history with a moment of infamy. Failure.
So, okay, what did it matter. The Cowboys had an overwhelming 52—17 lead and they went on the win the game easily. Well, beyond the personal embarrassment for Leon, the blunder prevented the Cowboys from gaining the record for most points scored in a Super Bowl.
Perhaps sadder yet is how that one instant of bravado overshadowed the rest of Leon’s game. Like the All Pro everyone knew him to be, Leon sacked the Bills quarterback and forced two fumbles — one of which led to a Dallas touchdown. Yet, all we remember is his moment of failure. Too sad. Too bad. And not over.
Just 10 months later in the next season, Leon gave us another. This one directly cost the Cowboys a game. The blooper (ranked number three on both the fans and experts list) occurred while the Cowboys were leading the Miami Dolphins 14-13 with just seconds left on the clock. The Dolphins attempted a 41-yard field-goal. If they made it the game would be theirs. Miss it, Dallas would retain the lead and gain the victory. The Dolphins center snapped the ball. The holder lined it up. The place-kicker took his two steps and swept his foot. The contact was solid, however a Cowboy player slipped through the line to block the kick. The ball should have fell silent and dead effectively ending the play and the Dolphins chances for victory. Leon’s teammates jumped and shouted in celebration, but not Leon. Leon committed yet another bonehead football no-no. He attempted to recover the football as though it had been fumbled. In his attempt, he knocked it away from himself and, since he had touched it, put the ball back into play. The Dolphins recovered the ball on the one yard line. They kicked again. This time the ball sailed through the goal-posts. Miami 16. Dallas 14. Miami, winners. Dallas, losers. Everyone else—safe. Leon—the scapegoat, the failure...King of the Bloopers.
And, like before, this third greatest sports blooper overshadowed his greatness. The rest of the season was fantastic. Leon anchored the defensive line once again. The Cowboys went on to another victory in Super Bowl XXVIII. During this second of Leon’s three Super Bowl victories, Leon forced a fumble from the Buffalo Bill’s running back, Thurman Thomas, while the Cowboys trailed 13-6. James Washington, the Cowboys safety, recovered the ball and took it 46 yards for a touchdown. The touchdown brought the Cowboys even with the Bills and turned the momentum to their advantage. The Cowboys went on to win 30-13.
For Leon, the late-night and Saturday afternoon highlights never recall those great moments... only the bloopers...two of the top three greatest sports failures of all time according to both fans and experts. Not the victories. Not the success. Not the high-fives. Not the cheers. Just the jeers. Just the agony of personal defeat. Just the lonely specter of personal failure.
One can only wonder how bad Leon must have felt. How he might still feel.
I’ve been there. You probably have too.
Like death and taxes, failure is one of those things in life we all have in common. We may not have our failures splashed on TV screens, but we sure do know how Leon feels. Failure hurts. Failure brings misery. And, its brother, sorrow, is sure to arrive as well.
The question to follow is this: whatcha gonna do about it?
Ricki Lee Brooks
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