The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is counting down the Top 10 moments in Atlanta Falcons history during the franchise’s 50th anniversary season. No. 6 takes us to the 1983 season, when Atlanta dialed up a miraculous last second victory over the San Francisco 49ers. Steve Bartkowski found Billy “White Shoes” Johnson on the game-winning Hail Mary that is known simply as “Big Ben II.”
Date: Nov. 20, 1983
What a Play: If there were a conclusive list of the Top 5 Hail Mary’s in NFL history, the Falcons would have two of them. Coming five seasons after the original Big Ben Right in New Orleans, Big Ben II was another desperation heave that this time stunned the Bill Walsh-led San Francisco 49ers 28-24 on a last second 47-yard touchdown from Bartkowski to Billy “White Shoes” Johnson. The play was deemed Big Ben II by the local media. With two seconds on the clock, Bartkowski launched a deep ball into a crowd of receivers and defenders down the left sideline. Johnson slipped and slid as Bartkowski’s heave reached the pile of bodies and he hopped back up to secure the catch at the 7-yard line. After catching the ball, Johnson curled backwards towards the middle of the field to give himself momentum and he spiraled his way through a wall of 49ers. Johnson started to go down at the 2 but as he was falling stretched his right arm out over the goal line. It took a few seconds but the referee finally signaled a touchdown and Johnson went into his very familiar “White Shoes’’ dance.
Slip and Slide: Johnson was supposed to have been among the receivers jumping for the ball despite his 5-foot-9 frame. No one caught the ball, but someone tipped it and as it jostled around, Keena Turner, the 49ers’ linebacker, tried to knock it to the ground and Johnson popped back up and caught it.
Johnson after the game on the play: “Watching the ball come down, I tried to pull up, and when I leaned back, I slipped. I just lost my feet. I remember thinking, ‘Oh, God, I’m out of the play.’ But then I got up, I saw the ball richochet. When it hit my hands, I was sort of in shock.”
Never say never: “I don’t know how I got my hands on the ball,” Johnson said. “This is a perfect example of how you can never give up. You have got to go out and think you’re going to be successful on every play.’’
Beating the best: Bartkowski was also the hero as he outplayed Joe Montana that day. Bartkowski threw for 301 yards and two touchdowns. White Shoes caught six balls for 104 yards to go with the 47-yard touchdown.
What the AJC wrote on the game: Time froze, and an unearthly silence fell over Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium. As Billy Johnson rose from the ground, the twice-batted football popped from the jumble of humanity and into his hands.
He circled back . . . outrunning one tackler, skipping away from a second and falling through a third. As Johnson landed, the freeze-frame moment exploded into pinwheels of color and emotion. For the second time in one season, Billy ‘White Shoes’ Johnson worked a miracle for the Atlanta Falcons.
To the lost-causes-saved honor roll that lists Big Ben, Big Ben II, the Immaculate Reception and the Hail Mary, the Rocket play must now be added. It entails nothing more than three receivers streaking downfield, carrying the last hopes of a dying team. This time, Billy Johnson became the Rocket Man, and he touched down in the right spot even if that may have been short of the goal.
Johnson played the role with no time and seemingly no luck remaining for the Falcons. Johnson’s fodder-for-memories 47-yard touchdown reception-fantasy gave the Falcons (5-7) a most unlikely 28-24 victory over the San Francisco 49ers (7-5) before 32,782 disbelieving witnesses Sunday. They were no more stunned by this truly bizarre development than the protagonist.
‘This is the second time this team has come back from the dead, ‘ said Johnson, referring to the 27-21 win against the Jets that he also engineered. ‘It just goes to show . . . I don’t know what it goes to show. It’s just fortune, the hand of God.
‘We deserved to have this win, no matter how we won it. Winning is so nice. It erases a lot of doubts.’
There were doubts that Johnson had scored. The officials took all deliberate speed in making the call, and 49ers defensive back Ronnie Lott complained that ‘they just gave him the touchdown because he had made the catch. It was a terrible call, ridiculous. He made the catch and reached in.’
For the Falcons, much larger doubts crept into their consciousness. The questions of a trying season crept back near the finish.
With 1:10 remaining in the game and the Falcons leading 21-17, San Francisco quarterback Joe Montana ducked a modest pass rush and headed toward the goal. He dodged two tacklers and snuck into the near corner of the end zone for an 11-yard touchdown run, repeating an act that has played often this season.
Previously, the Falcons lost four straight after leading in the fourth quarter. That they had gallantly recovered from a 14-0 deficit just eight seconds into the second quarter, that they came overcame a 17-14 San Francisco lead on Gerald Riggs’ 40-yard touchdown run early in the fourth quarter threatened to become forgotten under the rubble of another collapse.
‘We’ve been paying the fiddler all season, ‘ said offensive lineman R.C. Thielemann. ‘This time we got a chance to dance.’
The last waltz began for the Falcons at their 23. Foretelling the future, Johnson caught a 17-yard pass on a third-and-10 play from the Falcons’ 33. With two seconds remaining, Johnson remained utmost in the Falcons’ thoughts.
‘We thought about just throwing the ball over the middle to Billy and letting him try to make something happen, ‘ Falcons coach Dan Henning said. ‘We decided to throw it toward the end zone and take a chance.
‘It’s a low-percentage play. All you’re doing is going for a jump ball.’
To get that jump ball, the Falcons flanked receivers Stacey Bailey, Floyd Hodge and Johnson on their left in the Rocket formation and told quarterback Steve Bartkowski to hang it high against San Francisco’s ‘May Day’ defense. According to the play’s loose assignments, two of the receivers are to leap for the toss and the other is to wait for the rebound.
Only the wet grass kept the play alive. With both Bailey and Hodge set to make their jumps along with three 49ers, Johnson slipped before he could join the scrum. By the time he recovered, San Francisco linebacker Keena Turner had swatted the ball downward, only to have it glance off Hodge’s left shoulder and toward the risen Johnson at the 7-yard line.
‘It was a good thing I fell, ‘ Johnson said. ‘I got up and was just trying to find the ball. I went to the right because there was more room that way.
‘All this stuff, though, you don’t think about it. I knew I was real close (to the end zone). It was in sight. When you’re that close, you have to get it.’
By swinging toward the right, Johnson retreated to the 10 but left Bobby Leopold flat-footed. Carlton Williamson dove from the side and touched Johnson, but not hard enough to slow him. Lott came next, but Johnson veered from him and hopped through the prone Eric Wright. The questioned decision followed. ‘I knew I had broken the plane (of the end zone), ‘ Johnson said. ‘It was close, but I can live with it.’
So can the Falcons. In a difficult time, their faith was firmed up by the Rocket Man.
Catch a new Top 10 play in Falcons history every week through the end of the season.
No. 10: Too Legit to Quit; First playoff win on the road
No. 9: Claude Humphrey gets call to Canton
No. 8: Playoff win in the ‘Frozen Tundra’
No. 7: Matt Ryan’s first NFL pass
No. 6: Hail Mary pass known as’Big Ben II’