DALLAS - 1986 was the last full year before another players strike in the NFL, and the pangs of boycotting were felt across the NFC East as the Cowboys and Giants had key players who held out for more favorable contract adjustments.
The Giants and Cowboys would face one another on Sept. 8 on Monday Night Football. However, the two teams each battled internal strife even up to game day. Giants running back Joe Morris, who set the team record with 1,336 yards in '85, settled his contract dispute hours before the NFC East showdown.
The Cowboys waived Dennis Thurman, the namesake behind their playmaking secondary of "Thurman's Thieves," and also struggled with cornerback Everson Walls and safety Dextor Clinkscale walking out of practice and threatening to hold out respectively until more favorable contract adjustments were made.
Though speaking to the New York Times about teammate Morris, Giants center Bart Oates may as well have been talking about some Cowboys when he said, "If you can't get up for a Monday night game at Dallas, it's time to get out of the business."
Talent acquisition was always the business at Valley Ranch, the Cowboys' old world headquarters beginning in 1985. And the team felt they found a game-changing running back in the fifth round of the '85 draft in Herschel Walker. The front office's gamble that the USFL, the league for whom Walker played, would fold soon proved true. Dallas now added an explosive offensive weapon after coming off a season winning the NFC East.
"Herschel Walker was a phenomenal athlete and I many, many times have said the most fun I ever had, even though I was getting ready to basically end my career with that wrist injury," said Danny White, Cowboys quarterback from 1976-88.
"It was mostly due to Herschel," White said. "It was the same team we had in '85, and we won the division in '85. And then we added Herschel to that, and we were riding pretty high."
Dallas was trying to keep pace with their arch rivals in Washington and also stay ahead of the surging New York Giants, who were projected by many to win the NFC in 1986.
"I've learned to do a lot of things -- block, catch passes, whatever they ask me to do," Walker told the Associate Press in August of '86.
Team president and general manager Tex Schramm had doubts as to whether Walker would be in football shape when Sept. 8 rolled around. When the Monday night affair arrived, it was incumbent All-Pro running back Tony Dorsett who could not endure the season opener. Dorsett injured his ankle in the first quarter, though he did manage to score a 36-yard touchdown in the second quarter to give Dallas a 7-0 lead. The Super Bowl champion rusher was not available after halftime.
"When I saw Tony limping out, I said, 'Lord, help me,'" Walker told Sports Illustrated.
The Lord worked in mysterious ways. Inside their own 5-yard line, Oates and Giants quarterback Phil Simms botched a snap exchange. Hall-of-Fame defensive tackle Randy White scooped up the ball for the Cowboys at the 2-yard line. Two plays later, Walker showcased his remarkable athletic ability as he leaped over the crowded goal line four yards out on second-and-goal to give Dallas a 14-0 advantage.
Simms atoned for his joint error with two touchdowns to tie the game at 14-14 before halftime with 13-yard strike to receiver Bobby Johnson and a three-yard pass to Stacy Robinson. However, the Cowboys drove 54 yards in four plays to give kicker Rafael Septien a chance to nail a 35-yard field goal and give Dallas a 17-14 halftime lead.
The Giants responded after the break with Morris scoring a two-yard touchdown to take a 21-17 lead. Walker accidentally commenced the Giants scoring drive with a fumble, the biggest of his NFL rookie mistakes on the night. Morris, who almost couldn't get up for a Monday nighter in Dallas, finished the game with 87 yards on 20 carries.
Like their stoic coach in Tom Landry, the Cowboys kept their composure and took the lead with White throwing a one-yard touchdown pass to Thornton Chandler to take a 24-21 lead. Walker was instrumental going 10 yards on a reverse.
After New York regained the lead 28-24 after a 44-yard touchdown pass to Johnson from Simms, Dallas had 2:10 to drive 72 yards to score a touchdown as a field goal was not an option. The relative ease of the Cowboys drive took only six plays, thanks to Walker's 23-yard reception to the Giants' 49 and receiver Tony Hill's 35-yard catch that brought Dallas to the New York 16.
Facing a third-and-5 just 10 yards away from a 31-28 lead, the Cowboys lined up in shotgun formation with fullback Timmy Newsome flanking to the left of White as Walker was on the right. White called for the snap and gave the ball to Walker on an inside hand-off. The Dallas offensive line parted the sea of defenders and the former New Jersey General galloped 10 yards for a touchdown with 1:16 left in the game.
"They thought we would pass and we crossed them up," Landry told the Washington Post. "You have to do things like that against a good defense like the Giants'. That's one of Dorsett's favorite plays."
"We were getting tired then," offered Giants head coach Bill Parcells. "I wasn't happy with our stamina. We lost concentration. We got tired. We did all the things you do to get beat."
The Giants weren't able to get into field goal range to tie the game and go into overtime. Perhaps if Giants kicker Bob Thomas had successfully made a 36-yard field goal in the first quarter, the urgency on New York's part would be lessened. Instead, Simms heaved a desperation throw into a mob of Giants receivers and Cowboys defenders that ultimately fell incomplete.
"I hate him," Simms, who finished going 22/45 for 300 yards, three touchdowns and an interception, smilingly said of Walker after the game.
On Sunday afternoon in the year 2016, the Cowboys are hoping Eli Manning has identical sentiments for fourth overall pick Ezekiel Elliott, who makes his Dallas debut as the first rookie running back starter on Opening Day since Calvin Hill in 1969. Dallas is 8-0 against the Giants all-time on Opening Day and their side hopes the tradition continues.
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