The Dallas Cowboys were “America’s Team,” winning three Super Bowls in four years with a star-studded lineup of future Hall of Famers.
And the Arizona Cardinals were the “little brother” — one the Cowboys picked on repeatedly.
It was September 7, 1997, and the Cardinals were opening their 10th season in Arizona with a nationally televised Sunday night game against the Cowboys at Sun Devil Stadium. Dallas had won the previous 13 meetings between the then-NFC East rivals, and there was little reason to believe Arizona would turn the tide anytime soon.
But it did — and in a big way.
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The Cardinals shocked the Cowboys in overtime, winning 25-22 on a 20-yard field goal that bounced off the left upright before dropping through. In the process, Arizona awakened a success-starved fan base and gave rise to the Red Sea.
The franchise’s momentum-changing win and the “pandemonium” that followed are featured in the latest “Cardinals Folktales” documentary, “The Night the Goalposts Vanished.” The episode premiered on the Cardinals’ YouTube channel on September 22.
A ‘Ninth Home Game’ for Dallas
The Cardinals rarely were relevant in their first nine years in the Valley of the Sun after relocating from St. Louis. They had yet to post a winning season in Arizona, and fans were reluctant to abandon their NFL allegiances for a longtime loser.
The Cowboys, meanwhile, won three Super Bowls during that stretch, including a 27-17 victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XXX at Sun Devil Stadium on January 28, 1996.
And fans in Arizona loved the Cowboys.
“The big thing about the Cowboys is before the Cardinals came, they were the only game in town,” said Vince Tobin, Arizona’s coach from 1996-2000. “So when you played them, you had probably 80% Cowboy fans in the stands and 20% Cardinal fans.”
Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman even referred to visits to Sun Devil Stadium as a “ninth home game.”
“When they came here, they had a lot of fans — more fans than we had at our own stadium,” former Cardinals fullback Larry Centers said in the documentary.
“They were Dallas and we were the Cardinals,” added former Cardinals receiver Frank Sanders. “They were the big brother; we were the little brother. Dallas had dominated the NFC East for years. They were the Super Bowl champs. They had all the names and all the swag that goes along with it.”
Comeback Turns Blue Fans Red
It was a night of big plays for the Cardinals, who rallied from a 22-7 deficit in the third quarter to tie the game with 1:06 left in regulation.
Down by eight in the fourth quarter, Cardinals quarterback Kent Graham led an eight-play, 70-yard drive that was capped by a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Pat Carter to cut the Cowboys’ lead to 22-20. Graham then connected with receiver Rob Moore for the two-point conversion to even the score.
“All of a sudden, you look up (in the stands) and all of the Cowboys jerseys had been turned inside out and now they were Cardinals jerseys,” Arizona kicker Kevin Butler said on the “Cardinals Folktales” podcast. “The people were getting going.”
After the two teams traded fumbles in overtime, the Cardinals moved the ball to Dallas’ 3-yard line on a 29-yard catch and run by Centers. On first-and-goal from the 3, Tobin sent Butler onto the field for the potential game-winning, chip-shot field goal.
Butler’s kick veered left and hit the upright before bouncing through for the overtime win.
Centers described what happened next as “pure pandemonium.” Fans flooded onto the field, releasing nearly a decade worth of pent-up frustration by staging an impromptu party and makeshift parade.
The Cardinals had taken down the Cowboys, and the fans were about to do the same to the goal post.
“It hit the upright and went through,” Butler recalled, “and I just remember holding my head going, ‘Oh, gosh.’ If I didn’t make that, they might have carried me out of the stadium instead of the goal post.”
A Turning Point for the Cardinals
The fans not only toppled the goal post, but they hauled it out of Sun Devil Stadium.
“I enjoyed very much watching them do it,” Tobin said.
Fans carried the stadium souvenir down 5th Street before putting it down at the intersection of 5th and Mill Avenue. A few minutes later, the crowd was on the move again, parading the goal post along Mill Avenue until it reached what’s now Tempe Town Lake.
At the time, it was a dry riverbed, and fans determined it was the perfect spot to plant the goal post and continue the postgame party.
Sanders said the victory over the Cowboys and the celebration that followed were long overdue, and he enjoyed watching the fans release “all that built-up energy … and excitement.”
“It was a great moment,” he said.
It was also a turning point for the franchise, said former Cardinals quarterback Jake Plummer, who was a rookie that season. The following year, with Plummer at QB, the Cardinals posted their first winning season (9-7) in Arizona and made the playoffs for the first time since 1982.
“It swung the pendulum toward us where there were less Cowboy jerseys the next time we played in Sun Devil Stadium,” he said.