Sammy White, penitent receiver, squirmed in his three-point stance across the line of scrimmage from Detroit's Levi Johnson. He was mumbling to himself. It wouldn't have done any good to talk to Johnson. Cornerbacks are notoriously unsympathetic to suffering receivers.
"Please throw me the ball, Francis," Sammy White said, "just once more."
There are times when a man can't wait for the slow-grinding wheels of redemption.
Such a time arrived for the formerly unshackled spirit from Louisiana, 22, who with less than two minutes remaining in yesterday's 31-23 Viking victory stewed in a predicament that no young fella with a singing soul and restless feet would have imagined a year ago at Grambling.
The temperature was below freezing and the Minnesota night wind huffed in Sammy White's face. mama, he told himself, they better throw me the ball on the next play because I got troubles.
The 46,735 winterized howlers in teh Met Stadium grandstands constituted the least of said miseries. When a man blows a touchdown by hotdogging the ball over his head and fumbling it in the end zone, he quickly establishes a priority list of people who deserve or demand some immediate act of atonement.
Sammy's list began with Harry Peter Grant and moved methodically through such interested bodies as his mother and father in Monroe, La., his girl friend in the stands, his 42 teammates, his high school and college coaches and anybody else who was personally appalled by Sammy's boomerangeing playground stunt.
If anybody would ball him out, Sammy determined, Francis Tarkenton could. Francis was his patron, his counsellor and his refuge. These kindnesses Sammy repaid by catching Francis' passes with great productivity, which in Francis' mind always enhanced the virtues of any receiver especially a rookie.
The Lions blitzed their linebackers. Nobody was stunned. They had been doing it all day and Sammy never approved as joyously as he did at this very moment. It meant that one more time he would race one-on-one against the Lions'cornerback. he gave Johnson a shoulder and hip and then sprinted diagonally toward the goalposts. The Lions' blitzers raged futilely against Tarkenton's bodyguards. Francis lofted the ball deep. Like a deliquent waif seizing the bon-bon of forgiveness, Sammy glommed the ball and loped into the end zone to complete a 37-yard touchdown pass.
Sammy White did not hold the ball over his head. He did not fling the ball onto the Easter-tinted frozen dead grass. He did not hula the way that lucky dude did from Detroit, Lawrence Gaines. What he did was carry the ball with two hands THROUGH the end zone. He seriously considered carrying it two handed into the stadium wall and even through the wall. "If they let me," he said, "I would have carried that ball with two hands into the next county."
If pursued to its logical conclusion, such a course would have taken White into Anoka, presumably beyond the reach of cornerbacks. "I've never been to Anoka," Sammy said, when advised. "It sounds like a nice place. If they want me to carry the ball through Anoka, I'll do that, too."
Sammy may thus have set a speed record for rehabilitation. How are you going to keep a stern, judgmental face when a guy so ardently confesses error and vows reform. If you are willing to carry a football through the streets of Anoka, can anyone question the young man's conversion to orthodoxy.
Certainly not Tarkenton. Two minutes after it was over, they stormed into the Viking lockerroom. The $300,000-a-year quarterback grabbed a football, cleared away some chairs and -- mugging and screaming -- reenacted Sammy White's epic scene on the goal line. Faithfully he duplicated Sammy's stumble, prompted by Lem Barney's swipe at his shoe, and splattered the ball against the lockerroom wall. After which the $300,000-a-year quarterback shagged after it on hands and knees as the allegedly automoton pros of the Vikings yelled and applauded.
And then they gave the game ball to Sammy White. They did it for his team-record 210 yards in pass receptions, his seven catches, his two touchdowns and his goal line gaffe which, if he plays as long as Tarkenton, he will enver forget and never repeat.
An hour later he rang his parents in Monroe and was asked the question, generic among mothers from the sunrise of creation. She spoke it solicitiously, but with an edge of reproof.
"Son," she said, "did you learn anything today?"
His father, equally solicitous but somewhat more direct, said:
"Son, do you mind telling me what you were doing?"
Well, Sammy discounted Lem Barney after he beat him by 15 yards on the Tarkenton pass, of course, and despite all of the cool-dude codes of conduct in the Bud Grant playbooks, Sammy admitted he could not stifle his jubilation
"I felt so good," he said, "so happy. I wanted to dance and sing. I knew I was about to score so I just held the ball up. I wasn't going to spike it. The coach says that's showboating, and he's right, man. Then I felt myself tripped and the ball went into the end zone and the guy (Levi Johnson) beat me to it. I didn't want to go back to the bench. I figured something terrible was going to happen to me, like the man says I'm fired or something like that. But he gave me a talk about showboating and he said I'd get another chance."
Seldom has the football counterpart of Russian roulette been played more vividly or before a wider audience than that television multitude that watched this moonlit shootout. For four days Tarkenton had been pumping up the Viking offensive team, selling a reconstituted passing game to his confederates. The Detroit defense was going to send everybody but the son of Chief Pontiac at the Viking quarterback. They would blitz one linebacker, two or three; they would blitz safetymen and they would slant and loop their linemen. All right, the Vikings would go for the end zone every time they did. Tarkenton would throw bombs all day. No beanbag stuff this time. If the Lions blitzed, the Vikng backs would stay in to block. Tarkenton would launch Sammy and Ahmad Rashad one-on-oe against Barney and Johnson, two of the best defensive backs in football.
"They can't beat us if they blitz us," Tarkenton told the vikings all week. "If they want to play chicken with us in front of 50 million people, we'll play. If they give us the defense of the '60's, we'll give them the bombs of the '60s."
Every footbally tactician in the audience must have salivated at the sight, because it was football right off the clinic wall. Jimmy Carr's blitzing defense against the controlled mnd of one of the wisest and nerviest quarterbacks who ever faced a panting linebacker.
Neither backed off from the pre-game strategy. Leading or trailing, early or late, the Lions rushed their linebackers and a few times their safeties. And with his offensive line and blocking running backs delivering their finest protection of the season, Tarkenton stood up to the rush.
"I've never seen Tarkenton throw the ball better," Carr said later. "He called a great game. We didn't come with our full blitz a lot because we had to protect against Chuck Foreman on draws. But when we did come with everyone, Francis just took a couple of steps back and let go. And the ball always ywas right there in someone's hands. He was in complete control of the game. He ran the show. Like in the last five minutes, we had to get the ball back and couldn't because he wouldn't give it to us. He kept making third-down plays. That's where the game was won and lost."