The Pittsburgh Steelers were fighting to remain in the NFL Eastern Conference race as they faced the Dallas Cowboys on December 8, 1963. Coached by Buddy Parker, the Steelers featured a capable offense led by strong-armed QB Ed Brown (pictured above) throwing primarily to split end Buddy Dial and flanker Gary Ballman and a running game led by FB John Henry Johnson. The defense was particularly strong at linebacker, where MLB Myron Pottios anchored a capable unit. Pittsburgh had gotten off to a 6-3-1 start but was coming off of two straight ties to be at 6-3-3 and in desperate need of a win to have any chance at finishing first in the conference.
Dallas was a struggling fourth-year expansion team under Head Coach Tom Landry. QB Don Meredith was still in the developmental stage, splitting time with veteran Eddie LeBaron, and other players who would be part of the team’s future success were on the roster. But at 3-9, the Cowboys were not yet a formidable NFL presence.
It was a clear but windy day at the Cotton Bowl with 24,136 fans in attendance. The Cowboys scored the first two times they had the ball. On their first series, QB Eddie LeBaron completed a pass to TE Pettis Norman for 32 yards to the Pittsburgh 45. While a holding penalty hindered the advance, Dallas came away with a 53-yard field goal by Sam Baker (pictured at left), taking advantage of the brisk wind at his back.
The Steelers responded with a promising drive but a fumble by Ed Brown was recovered by DE George Andrie at the Dallas 37. The Cowboys drove 63 yards in ten plays and Don Meredith ran the last two yards for a touchdown. LeBaron fumbled the snap on the extra point attempt, thus causing the kick to be aborted, but the home team was ahead by 9-0.
Four plays into the second quarter, Brown went long for Buddy Dial, who made a leaping catch along the right sideline and eluded two defenders to go the distance for a 55-yard touchdown. Lou Michaels converted and the Dallas lead was cut to 9-7.
Late in the period, the Steelers came through with consecutive long passes to score again. Brown threw to Gary Ballman for 32 yards and then hit TE Preston Carpenter in the right corner of the end zone for a 28-yard TD. Michaels added the point after and the visitors were up by 14-9. The Steelers got one more shot with time running down in the first half as Brown connected with Dial for 48 yards and, with two seconds remaining, that set up a 24-yard Michaels field goal that made the score 17-9 at halftime.
In the third quarter, the Cowboys got a break when a 15-yard face mask penalty on the Steelers moved them into scoring position. Baker was successful with a field goal from 46 yards to narrow the margin to 17-12. Later in the period, Dallas put together a 76-yard advance in eight plays. The biggest was a Meredith throw to Norman that gained 42 yards to the Pittsburgh five and, two plays later, it was Meredith again carrying around end for a four-yard touchdown. Baker converted and the Cowboys were back in front with a 19-17 lead. As the period was coming to a close, it appeared that the Steelers might score, but CB Don Bishop intercepted a Brown pass at the Dallas two to snuff out the threat.
In the fourth quarter, the Cowboys were called for having too many players on the field during a punt by the Steelers, but while the resulting five-yard pickup brought Michaels on to the field to try for a 49-yard field goal, the kick was blocked by Bishop, thus preserving the two-point Dallas lead.
Pittsburgh got the ball back following a punt by the Cowboys, but the situation looked bleak. With the game, and season, on the line, and backed up to his own 16 with four minutes left to play and facing fourth-and-14, Brown passed to end Red Mack (pictured at right) out of punt formation for a gain of 42 yards. Four plays later and facing fourth-and-one, Coach Parker gambled on passing up a field goal attempt and John Henry Johnson picked up the needed yardage. Finally, HB Theron Sapp, in for the injured Dick Hoak, broke away for a 24-yard touchdown with 1:53 remaining. Michaels added the field goal and, in a dramatic turn of events, the visitors were in front by five points.
The Cowboys went to the shotgun formation on the ensuing series but flanker Frank Clarke fumbled after catching a pass from Meredith at the Dallas 34 and SS Clendon Thomas recovered to nail down Pittsburgh’s 24-19 win.
The Steelers led in total yards (426 to 263) and first downs (19 to 15). Their attack was balanced, with 211 yards coming on the ground and 219 through the air. Pittsburgh turned the ball over twice, to one suffered by the Cowboys. The difference nearly came down to placekicking, as Lou Michaels was one of three on field goals with one blocked and Sam Baker was a perfect two-for-two from long distances.
Ed Brown completed just 8 of 18 passes, but they were good for 219 yards and two touchdowns along with one interception. Theron Sapp, picked up from the Eagles during the season, rushed for 119 yards on 20 carries that included the winning TD while John Henry Johnson contributed 68 yards on 21 attempts. Preston Carpenter had three catches for 42 yards and a touchdown and Buddy Dial caught two passes that were good for 103 yards and a score.
For the Cowboys, Don Meredith saw most of the action at quarterback and was five-of-10 for 105 yards with no TDs or interceptions, and he also ran the ball six times for 18 yards and two touchdowns. HB Amos Bullocks topped the runners with 85 yards on 24 attempts and FB Amos Marsh ran the ball 9 times for 48 yards and had a 35-yard catch. Pettis Norman led the club with two pass receptions for 74 yards.
“We knew it was more important than ever to win this one, but it seemed like we just couldn’t get going,” said Theron Sapp. “The turning point was that pass to Red Mack from punt formation. We found new life from that play.”
Pittsburgh’s win set up a showdown with the New York Giants the following week for the Eastern Conference Title. This was a controversial development because the ties, which were not counted in the won-lost percentage at that time, would potentially allow the 7-3-3 Steelers to finish ahead of the 10-3 Giants. However, it became a moot point when the Giants won handily and Pittsburgh dropped all the way to fourth place at 7-4-3. Dallas finished up fifth with a 4-10 record.
As for the two unlikely heroes in Pittsburgh’s dramatic win at Dallas, Theron Sapp’s 119-yard rushing performance was his career high in what was the most productive of seven NFL seasons. He gained a total of 431 yards in 10 games with the Steelers, giving him 452 on 104 carries on the year when combined with his time with the Eagles. In his remaining two seasons with Pittsburgh, he accumulated a total of just 69 rushing yards. Red Mack also had his best season in 1963, catching 25 passes for 618 yards and three touchdowns. He had caught eight passes apiece in each of his first two years with the Steelers in 1961 and ’62 and, in his remaining three seasons that included stints with Philadelphia, Green Bay, and Atlanta, had a total of 11 more pass receptions.