He had intercepted two passes in his Redskins debut three weeks earlier, but Ken Houston still didn’t feel like he quite belonged in Washington when the archrival Dallas Cowboys came calling at RFK Stadium on Oct. 8, 1973. An all-star for Houston the previous five years, the strong safety had been acquired from the Oilers during the offseason in exchange for five backup players.
What made the deal even tougher for the 28-year-old to swallow was that Houston was home. He had grown up just two hours away in Lufkin, Tex. and had attended nearby Prairie View A&M. His wife’s family was in Houston. His offseason job was with the city’s parks and recreation department. Now suddenly he was headed halfway across the country to a team with established safeties in Roosevelt Taylor and Brig Owens.
“I had [dislocated] my toe the year before so it was hard to push off my right foot,” Houston recalled. “I had a good year [in 1972], but not like the year I had prior. When they told me I had been traded I was shocked. I turned and walked out of the building and drove over to the school where my wife was teaching. When I told her what had happened, she started crying.”
But Houston was excited to be leaving the 1-13 Oilers for the defending NFC champions.
“I was looking forward to playing for the ‘Over The Hill Gang’ because I had loved watching them play,’ but when I got there, I couldn’t start,” Houston said.
Washington coach George Allen made newcomers, no matter how decorated elsewhere, earn their spots. But during preseason, the aging Taylor broke an arm. Owens moved to free safety and Houston took over at strong safety. He would start every game there for the next six seasons and make the Pro Bowl every year.
However, the play that everyone remembers Houston making came in just his fourth Redskins game, 40 years ago tonight on “Monday Night Football.”
Dallas led 7-0 until Washington quarterback Sonny Jurgensen and receiver Charley Taylor – both now enshrined in the Hall of Fame along with Houston – combined on the game-tying touchdown pass with 3:39 remaining. Three plays later, Owens intercepted Craig Morton’s toss and returned it 26 yards for a 14-7 Redskins advantage.
The Cowboys still had time to mount a drive to force overtime. On fourth-and-goal from the Washington 6-yard line with time for one last play, defensive captain Chris Hanburger – another Hall of Famer – called a Combo-C coverage. Owens would take tight end Jean Fugett if he cut inside, leaving fullback Walt Garrison for Houston.
“When Fugett broke across the middle, Garrison was swinging to the right and I could see Morton getting ready to throw,” Houston recalled. “I thought I could step between Garrison and the ball. I was going for the ball, but when I realized that I couldn’t get there in time, I went for the tackle.”
And what a tackle. Garrison caught the pass just shy of the goal line, but Houston, a linebacker in college, refused to let him get any further. Garrison couldn’t get his right leg down because Houston had the offseason rodeo rider hog-tied.
“It was as quiet as it has ever been on a football field,” Houston said. “I remember yelling at Brig to come help me because Garrison was trying to lateral the ball [which he eventually did to no avail].”
Houston and the Redskins had held on for the victory thanks to the most famous tackle in franchise history.
“I felt like that play justified the trade and solidified my entire career with the Redskins,” Houston said. “I didn’t sleep that night because I was too excited. After that, things got easy for me. I kind of felt like I belonged.”
To this day, Houston says people still bring up the play quite often, not the nine interceptions he returned for touchdowns for the Oilers. Of course, none of those plays decided a memorable chapter of the NFL’s top rivalry of that era, Redskins vs. Cowboys, as the tackle did.
Funny thing is, as much as Houston and Garrison have been paired in football history like peanut butter and jelly ever since, they never spoke until last summer although both had been living in Texas all these years.
Houston moved home for good after his eighth and final season in Washington. He coached at two Houston high schools, at the University of Houston and with the Oilers for a decade before becoming a high school counselor, a position he still fills two days a week at age 68.
“Walt and I kept missing each other at events and I would tell other [ex-]Cowboys to tell him I said hello,” said Houston, whose 1980 retirement amazingly makes him the pure Hall of Fame safety who played most recently. “Last year, we were both at the Texas Hall of Fame dinner in Waco and as soon as I saw him, I went straight to his table. We talked about the play and we laughed. I got an autographed picture from him.”
And anyone who was a fan of the 1973 Redskins probably has a picture of Houston’s tackle in his or her mind to this day.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.