Prime time football. Playoff implications. Two rivals going against each other. The stage was set for the New England Patriots and the Miami Dolphins to deliver a memorable Monday Night game on December 8, 1980. Memorable it was indeed, if for all the wrong reasons.
The game at Miami’s Orange Bowl started with the Patriots taking a 6-0 lead on two John Smith field goals. The home team, however, tied the contest in the third period with Uwe von Schamann making a pair of kicks as well.
The defensive affair did not see its first touchdown until the fourth quarter, when New England quarterback Matt Cavanaugh hit Russ Francis from 38 yards against double coverage. An 8-yard pass from David Woodley to Nat Moore eventually tied the contest at 13, though. Still, the Patriots were in a position to win the game when Smith took the field again to attempt a 36-yard field goal with three seconds left in regulation.
“Timeout is called with three seconds remaining. John Smith is on the line,” said ABC’s Frank Gifford ahead of the final kick.
When the ball eventually did leave Smith’s foot, though, and was blocked by Miami to force overtime, it did no longer matter. The players sure cared, and so did most of the people in the stadium, but the television audience had just learned some breaking news from Gifford’s partner, Howard Cosell.
“Remember, this is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses,” Gifford said. “An unspeakable tragedy confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City: John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City — the most famous, perhaps, of all the Beatles — shot twice in the back; rushed to Roosevelt Hospital; dead on arrival. Hard to go back to the game after that news flash, which, in duty bound, we have to take.”
On the football field, the game went on uninterrupted. It went to overtime, and Uwe von Schamann’s third field goal gave the Dolphins the lead. Both teams would end up missing the playoffs. However, the importance of that event paled in comparison to what had happened in New York, even though it took until after the game for players to also hear about John Lennon’s murder.
“I was upset and mad because we didn’t make the kick, and I was also thinking, ‘What the heck happened up front with our offensive line?’” Smith told ESPN about the game back in 2010. “The press was talking about two things: the fact that we’d lost the game and we had a lead in the fourth quarter, and then it changed to John Lennon. It put things in perspective.”
Born in the United Kingdom nine years after Lennon, Smith was a first-hand witness to the Beatles’ rise to stardom and a fan of the group in school.
“My high school period was the middle 60s, and the Beatles were the number one group in Europe, and they were the love of England,” he told ESPN. “Everybody had Beatles records. We all grew the Beatles haircuts.”
Like Lennon he later arrived in the United States, joining the Patriots in 1974. He went on to appear in 118 regular season and playoff games for the team but none of them quite like the one that took place 40 years ago today. Smith, a rather obscure figure in New England’s football history, and Lennon, one of the most popular songwriters the world has ever seen, will therefore be forever linked in a macabre way.
“It’s amazing I was associated with his death, growing up a Beatles fan and being the only Englishman in pro football,” he said. “It’s amazing how things happen in this world.”