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Years After Carrying Kellen Winslow Off, Another Tight End Carried the Chargers to a Win Over the Undefeated Dolphins

Updated: May 8



You know the picture.


You've seen it a thousand times. Battered, bloodied, exhausted, tight end Kellen Winslow being carried off the field by teammates Billy Shields and Eric Sievers.


Coaches talk in clichés about leaving it all on the field. The image is the embodiment of that. Try giving an AI image generator this prompt and see if it could ever top the Winslow photo.


He had played through back spasms, dehydration, and a Miami Dolphins secondary desperately trying to knock him out of the game to stop the embarrassment of being used as props in some Hollywood-produced-commercial-for-a-sporting-goods-store. The 41-38 Chargers victory over the Dolphins on January 2, 1982 is less remembered for who won than for how valiantly both teams wanted to win.


Winslow played through stifling humidity with a pinched nerve in his left shoulder and cramps in his back and legs. After 73 minutes and 53 seconds of a playoff overtime thriller, his lip was cut so deep that it required stitches and his eye was swollen, but Winslow had done plenty of damage too: 13 catches for 166 yards, a touchdown, and a blocked field goal.


Add two pairs of broken shoulder pads to his stat line. Winslow literally left it all out on the field. More importantly, his team won.


The performance was so inspirational that if you saw the game in 1982 and your wife was pregnant you turned to her and said, "What do you think about naming the baby Kellen?"*


“My recollection of that game is that we had players who continued to help Winslow get up off the field when he was down and tired and didn’t have enough strength to get up. We were helping him up, and he would turn around and make a big play again." said Dolphins coach Don Shula. “I was trying to get them to let him get up by himself.”


Behind Winslow, Sievers, and Shields and out of the frame, defensive tackle Louie Kelcher (6'-5", 291 pounds) and guard "Big" Ed White (6'-1", 270) were still laying on the field near the last line of scrimmage.


The fans left. The players left. The photographers soon followed them out. When Kelcher and White realized that nobody was coming back to scrape them off of the Orange Bowl turf they called one last audible.


"Louie, you know we are gonna have to get up and walk," said White. "They don't carry fat guys off the field."


 

"Well, I remember Don Coryell didn't know who in the heck I was the first time I met him."

If you did not grow up in San Diego where Eric Sievers was a minor celebrity, or were an NFL junkie in the eighties who fastidiously followed the sport, you might not recognize his name.


As a reliable blocking and receiving tight end for the Chargers from 1981 to 1987, Sievers played a supporting role for those dynamic Air Coryell's offenses. While Winslow was catching touchdowns, going to Pro Bowls, and moonlighting as a musician  his teammates did more of the dirty work.


"When I got drafted by the team, I was wondering why the heck they drafted me," Sievers told Todd Tobias in his book Bombs Away: Air Coryell and the San Diego Chargers. "because they were a passing team and I was a blocking end."


If Winslow was their pop star, you could say that Sievers was an unsung end amongst the position group trio which included himself, Winslow and Pete Holohan.


"They were three tremendous players," said Al Saunders, a former positions coach and eventually the head coach who supplanted Don Coryell. "Probably both (Winslow and Holohan would say Eric meant as much to their success and careers as did Dan Fouts, Charlie Joiner, Wes Chandler, and Chuck Muncie. He was a constant professional and a gifted athlete."


Fouts would be the first person to tell you how invaluable the guys who played the supporting roles were; how their hard work, attention to detail and preparation for games made all the highlight throws possible.


"Pete Holohan and Eric Sievers. . . they were selfless people who would do anything to make the catch, do anything to make the play." -Dan Fouts

6-4, 236lb tight end Eric Sievers from the University of Maryland was chosen in the 4th round (107 overall) of the 1981 NFL Draft.

Sievers joined the Air Coryell Chargers mid-flight. The team was loaded with skill-position players and coming off of an appearance in the AFC Championship game. Drafted for his blocking skills at Maryland, Sievers was the first person to admit how little he knew about running patterns and catching passes.


"I learned how to block but didn't learn a darn thing about the passing game," said Sievers. "Then I get drafted by the most prolific passing team."


Coryell knew that Sievers could play though and quickly integrated him into the offense lining him up both as an in-line tight end and as a lead blocker in the backfield.


Never prolific, he accumulated 214 total receptions for 2,485 total yards, averaging 11.6 yards per and scored 16 touchdowns across 122 total regular season games (51 starts).**


In his rookie season with the Chargers, he was named All-Rookie at tight end, catching 22 passes and 3 touchdowns, but he knew his place in the pecking order was behind both Winslow and Holohan.


His place was arm-in-arm with Billy Shields helping to carry Winslow off the field after his own legs abandoned him.


 

The epic in Miami shattered ten NFL playoff records in metrics that the league could count, but they couldn't track the heart-stopping swings, in both directions, of either teams' fortunes which pitched wildly from elation to attrition, from quarter to quarter, moment to moment.


You could say that the playoff game played in the Orange Bowl in January, 1982 was perfect.


For 11 straight games in 1984 these Dolphins, too, were perfect—the NFL's best start since 1972. Naturally, comparisons were being made. Were these Dolphins, with a baby-faced flamethrower named Dan Marino playing quarterback, as good as those Dolphins with Bob Griese, Larry Csonka and Paul Warfield?


In his second season with Miami Dan Marino rewrote the record books and took the Dolphins to the Super Bowl.

Riding a sixteen game wining streak overall, Marino was in the midst of a fever dream heater that was so ahead of its time that the passing records he set in his second pro season would stand as an outlier for twenty years.


D​an Marino throwing for 48 touchdowns and five thousand yards in '84 was such a statistical anomaly that it should have launched a cottage industry of internet conspiracies ranging from the Rothschilds bought the officiating crews to Stanley Kubrick faked the entire Dolphins season.


This incarnation of the Dolphins not only led the league in scoring (32.7), but also boasted the second-best defense in points allowed (14.9) to that point. Though the Dolphins would not win the Super Bowl, by midseason the talk surrounding their success wasn't framed just around whether they would go undefeated and join the '72 Dolphins team, it was wondered if they might be the greatest team to ever play.


Three years after the epic in Miami Don Shula brought his latest perfect team to San Diego to face Don Coryell. Many of the faces were the same—plus Marino—but the Chargers were missing some key components; most glaring of which was Kellen Winslow who had suffered a gruesome career-threatening knee injury the month before.


The Chargers came into the game at 5-6 and virtually eliminated from postseason play, but also knowing that the new owner had threatened to fire Coryell if the team finished with another losing record (6-10 in 1983).


Eager to give Miami their first loss, the Chargers would be getting some reinforcements. Sievers and Holohan had also missed time in the weeks following the hit that mangled Winslow's knee. Once a strength of the team, the decimated tight end room in October contributed to the offense's struggles.


In Siever's first game back after arthroscopic knee surgery** Fouts seemed determined to replicate Winslow's production from the epic playoff game three years earlier.


The first pass he threw Sievers way was knocked loose by a linebacker who threw his shoulder into the tight end's hip as the ball arrived; but Fouts wouldn't let that deter him. Resolved to exploit the Dolphins linebackers underneath with screens and short seam patterns, Fouts was just warming up.


After dodging two bullets—the Dolphins white hot offense turned it over twice inside ten-yard-line in the first quarter!—the Chargers got on track. On third-and-goal, 3 yards from the end zone, Fouts backpedaled to the 12 and threw a laser to Sievers between linebacker Earnest Rhone and safety Lyle Blackwood, capping a 10 play, 93-yard drive. 7-0 Chargers.


In San Diego by now Sievers had grown from a reticent athlete into a community activist. Shy by nature, Sievers learned to be more outgoing during his Chargers years; the result of speaking engagements to youth and civic groups.


". . .the sport was a great tool in kind of enabling you to get out in public," Seivers told Tobias in the book. "I think what it did was it forced me to see the opportunity to go out and talk to kids and develop myself as a person."



 He founded the Sievers Receivers food drive which helped the St. Vincent de Paul Center feed the hungry and homeless.


Sievers involvement in the community was its own reward—as his NFL United Way commercials paid notice. In addition to helping out with the food drive, Sievers pledged $25 for every catch he made and $50 for every touchdown catch.


Against the Dolphins in '84 Fouts targeted his blocking tight end 15 times. Five days away from Thanksgiving, the team seemed dead-set that the food bank was stocked for Christmas too!


Marino answered immediately by finding Mark Clayton from 12-yards away to tie it. The Dolphins, who had no trouble moving the ball up and down the field against a Chargers defense ranked dead last against the pass, scored three touchdowns in the second quarter alone.


A one-yard dive by Pete Johnson on the following drive made it 14-7 Dolphins. Johnson, who had begun the season in San Diego as part of Coryell's "Elephant Backfield"—pairing the 6'0", 250 pound back with Chuck Muncie (6'3", 230 lbs.)—had eaten his way out of town by ballooning to 270. Ironically, Johnson wasn't even the first elephant that the Chargers tried to unload on the '84 Dolphins.

The "Elephant Backfield" of Chuck Muncie (46) and Pete Johnson (42) was short-lived.

A Muncie trade was voided after he failed a drug test in September. A few weeks later the teams agreed to trade Johnson for a second round pick in 1985.


The fact that the Chargers' front office could flip a 30-year-old running back who was two buffet visits away from three bills into a second round pick should tell you everything you need to know about how differently the league viewed positional value back then.


The Chargers tied the game at 14 on a 4-yard touchdown pass to the ageless Charlie Joiner. Sievers might have scored again himself had he not run up the back of "Big" Ed White who was ahead of him blocking on a 18 yard throwback screen.


Marino hit Woody Bennett out of the backfield for a 4 yard touchdown pass to regain the lead—capping a 298 yard half in which they never punted.


After running back Pete Johnson scored on a three-yard dive, the Chargers trailed by two touchdowns going into the fourth quarter.


Johnson, now slimmed down to 247, splashed down in the end zone.


You can imagine the collective groan inside Jack Murphy Stadium—even if you can't hear them on the broadcast. Dolphins 28. Chargers 14.


There was something arrogant, even irreverent, about the way Miami was torching the league that season. And for three quarters the Chargers were just the latest team being chucked into the wood chipper.


After threatening to rain all afternoon the gray skies over Mission Valley finally made good on their promise. But with another quarter to play the Air Coryell Chargers reminded everyone that they too could light up the scoreboard—even if the typically gorgeous San Diego weather refused to cooperate.


Rain, sleet, or snow, Fouts continued to sling it. A dig route to Joiner converted a third-and-long kick-starting a drive. Sievers found space on the left side for an 11 yard catch to convert another new set of downs; his cleats sliding out from underneath him as he tried to brake and turn back up field.


On the broadcast, NBC's Merlin Olsen almost groans lamenting how much torque Sievers is putting on his knee weeks removed from another surgery.



Fouts, who was setting then club records with 37 completions and 56 attempts, whistled a pass to Charlie Joiner in the end zone from 19 yards away to close the gap to 28-21.


After forcing Miami to punt for just the second time all day, Fouts led a 19-play 91 yard drive that ate up 10 minutes of clock and featured five more clutch catches from Sievers. Fouts punctuated the drive with his fourth touchdown pass, a 3-yarder to Sievers with 51 seconds to play.


Left uncovered by the Dolphins (again), Sievers doesn’t bother to spike the ball before being swarmed by teammates. He flips it, underhand, as if issuing a challenge to the writers who will describe it in the press box: Exaltation is not the word. Perhaps Bemused is.



On this day, playing the role of Fouts' most sure-handed receiver had to be a bit of a fantasy fulfilled for Sievers.


“I stepped in as a role player, a guy who learned the routes and knew how to run them against different defenses,” said Sievers, “but actually, I’ve even developed a knack for catching the ball."


“I don’t put myself in the same category of ability as Pete Holohan, but as far as confidence in myself to catch the ball (goes), I feel I can make any catch they need me to make.”


Broadcast cameras cut from Don Coryell alternating between leaning over his thighs, his hands on his knees to watch the field, to pacing with his arms tensed out away from his waist—an image one former player likened to holding two porcupines under his arms—to Coach Shula who stood stoically; his perfect tan barely concealing a protracted disapproval.


Just like the playoff game in 1982, Miami would get the ball back with time left in regulation to break the tie.


The Dolphins' wunderkind Marino, who completed 28 of 41 passes for 337 yards and 2 touchdowns, moved Miami within striking distance of victory in the closing seconds but Uwe Von Schaumann's 44- yard field-goal attempt was wide to the left. Deja vu.***


"I've been missing a little to the right, a little to the left." said Von Schamann. "They should give us more points for hitting the uprights. I can hit them every time."


Speaking of targets, the one painted on the back of the undefeated Dolphins was growing larger and larger as the game wore on, much to the delight of the rain-soaked crowd.


The Chargers won the coin toss and began overtime at their 31-yard line after a 25-yard kickoff return by Lionel James. Recognizing a Dolphins blitz, Fouts threw hot to Sievers who took the short pass 14 yards to midfield.


After a barrage of sweeps off right tackle and a Holohan catch for 15 yards the Chargers were in field goal range. Sievers, who rarely came off the field (and played on all of the special teams packages) repeatedly sealed off the edge with seasoned blocks no matter who lined up across him. It will not make the box score, but it matters.


"I played with the best players back then, I blocked and pass blocked," said Sievers who, remarkably, never gave up a sack while pass blocking. "I knew what my role was."


On 3rd-and-10 the Chargers planned to run the ball to the left so that kicker Rolf Benirschke could attempt the game-winner from the hash mark he preferred—on a wet field.


What followed should not have even happened.


The 11th round pick out of Mississippi, rookie Buford McGee was only in the lineup because Ernest Jackson (already battling with a broken hand) had been hurt at the end of a run in overtime when his ankle was clipped. McGee, who later admitted he was scared when his number was called, was probably not as scared as play caller Ernie Zampese was—whose brain cramped and called "Jab 80 Log," a sweep right.


"I know in my mind I was calling the play left to put it on the left hash mark for a field goal," said Zampese. "But it came out of my mouth 80 instead of 90. I blew the fucking play."


As Zampese heard the call going into the huddle he began shouting, "NO, NO, NO!" It was probably the best mistake Zampese ever made.


By the time McGee hit the goal line the Chargers coaches were shouting something else. "YES, YES, YES!"


Fouts called it one of the finest runs he had ever seen. McGee bounced off right tackle and raced 25 yards for a touchdown 3 minutes 17 seconds into overtime as the Chargers ended Miami's perfect season.****



Sievers played six more seasons and even enjoyed a career renaissance in his final seasons; leading a Patriots team bereft of weapons in receptions. At 32, a guy whose neck and shoulders wouldn't allow him to block, and who, allegedly never could catch, posted career marks in receptions (54) and yards (615).


“Heck, I’m not even the starting tight end here,” said Sievers, referring to the fact that Lin Dawson started. “I’ve always been a guy who fills a role, and that’s what made me feel so good about this year. I wouldn’t care if I had only caught 15 balls this year, at least I would know they were counting on me. That’s probably been the biggest boost to my confidence. I have the confidence I can still play football, and that was something I lost during the last couple of years.”


Throughout his entire football career at all levels, Sievers was driven to perform out of the fear of letting his coaches down. It was insecurity that pushed him to play through pain; to sacrifice his body so that other players could catch touchdowns.


". . .I look back on it and I think I played every year or every day as though I was never any good," said Sievers. "I never felt that I was good enough to be there, but, again, how did I get as far as I did?"

Sievers died on April 10 after a six-year struggle with bladder cancer. He is survived by his wife, Dee Dee and their sons Tim and Christopher. Eric Sievers was 66.


If he battled cancer with the same pugnacity as he did opponents when he was a star football player in high school, then at the University of Maryland, then as a tight end for the Chargers then you know that Sievers gave no quarter.


Sievers later remarked how quiet the Orange Bowl was when the epic playoff game finally ended and the home team Dolphins had fallen. It was a moment that proved as indelible for him as it was to so many of us.


"We (Winslow and Sievers) had both been on the field goal team. So there he was, laying behind me. I helped him off and, lucky me, I'm immortalized by helping him," recalled Sievers.


He should be immortalized for more than that.

 

*When Rick Reilly interviewed Winslow about the game in 1999 for Sports Illustrated he told him that he was the inspiration for naming his first son Kellen. Winslow asked the writer for a picture of the kid, as he always does when he hears about someone named after him.

Reilly produced a picture which Winslow placed into a shoebox like a peculiar hobbyist. Some people collect sportscards.

"How many do you have?" Reilly asked.

"A hundred and twenty-nine."


**Sievers struggled with injuries throughout his playing career, making it quite remarkable that he played as long as he did in the NFL. He underwent eight knee surgeries and 17 surgeries altogether throughout his football career.


***Von Schaumann missing a game-winning kick against the Chargers might sound familiar. He missed twice in the overtime playoff game in January, 1982.


****By losing to the Chargers, the 1984 Miami Dolphins abdicated immortality and once again assured their 1972 counterparts of their place in the history books as the only perfect team in NFL history. Do surviving members of the '72 team still pop champagne when the last undefeated team loses a game if the last undefeated team is the Dolphins?

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Guest
May 09
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

All-time great article Dominic!

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Guest
May 08
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

My ai image has winslow decapitated at the knee.


G gruesome ... ..


Also -- a midget is helping carry him off the field. ... Helmetless/faceless midget...



Great story about Sievers. It's almost like AI knows he's the nameless, faceless nfl hero. Came up big when they finally called his # ... .

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Guest
May 08
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

The Sievers story is a great story. Good to see him memorialized in the article. Eight knee surgeries. ...


Those guys were warriors.

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After they stapled his LCL to his quad and reset his shattered leg he wasn’t the same player.

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Guest
May 06
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

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These guys look like they should be wearing leather helmets

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