“All-pro cornerback Cornell Green made [Gary] Collins his personal project and played him like a Siamese twin. Collins caught one pass for three yards [for Cleveland]. Cornell caught one, too, and ran 60 yards for a touchdown with it.” — Star-Telegram game story, Dec. 25, 1967
Cowboys fans — 70,786 packed the Cotton Bowl — had much to cheer about that day 40 years ago.
Dallas notched its first playoff-game victory and Cornell Green completely took Collins out of the game.
(Dallas would advance to Green Bay a week later to play in the Ice Bowl, but that’s another story for another day.)
This first taste of postseason victory was warm and fuzzy for a 9-5 Cowboys team that had lost two of its last three regular-season games. Sound familiar?
But that Christmas Eve afternoon, a spotlight shone on the always congenial and often-overlooked Green, who couldn’t have done a better job on Collins if he had tied both his feet together and stuck a sock in his mouth.
Collins was quoted in Cleveland during the week: “I’ve never had any trouble beating Green,” then declared himself the Browns’ best chance of beating Dallas for the Eastern Conference championship.
The Cowboys were Century Division champs; the Browns (also 9-5) Capital Division champs, in what was a new four-division playoff format in the NFL.
(In 1966, the Cowboys met Green Bay in the NFL title game but neither team had to play a game to get into it.)
Cleveland was quite a formidable foe in 1967, although the Packers — winners of Super Bowl I — set the standard by which all NFL and AFL teams were being measured at the time.
Not even four decades later can this fact be distorted in Cowboys players’ minds.
“Beating Cleveland just wasn’t that big a deal because you still hadn’t gotten anywhere,” Green recalled. “There was nothing to holler about or jump up and down. You still had to play Green Bay.”
Star-Telegram readers were reminded when they got their paper on Christmas Day of the trash-talking Collins.
Green took the high road but added a wink.
“I try to stay out of that sort of thing,” Cornell told reporters after the game. “I’m not trying to start a feud. I’ll say what I have to say out there on the field.”
The Star-Telegram story continued: “Green then admitted that the [Collins] remark ‘gave me a little extra incentive’ and with a wide grin, he added, ‘Collins didn’t beat me today, though, did he?’.”
There is much less that Green remembers about those gameday comments and more about what Collins told him four weeks later at the 1968 Pro Bowl, where they were teammates on the losing East squad.
“Gary Collins made it a point to come up to me at the Pro Bowl and say that he never said that,” recalled Green, who lives with his wife, Betty, on the same Oak Cliff property they bought in the ’60s.
The Browns receiver said he had been misquoted.
“Collins told me, ‘Ain’t no way I’d ever say anything like that because you’re my only competition in the NFL. You’re the best defensive back in the NFL. No way I’d make you mad.’ I believed him.”
Cleveland guard Gene Hickerson corroborated Collins’ story, which helped Cornell make up his mind.
And, certainly, it was the Cowboys’ good fortune that Collins waited until after the 52-14 thumping Cleveland took to set the record straight.
There wasn’t 24/7 NFL coverage back then. But this matchup — 6-foot-5, 215-pound Collins vs. the 6-3, 205-pound Green — didn’t need a lot of hype.
Collins had the size/strength to run the hard post route at the goal line. Green had a nose for the football, although his teammates nicknamed him “Boards” for his notoriously bad hands.
Green laughs about it now.
“Jerry Tubbs [ex-Cowboys linebacker who later was an assistant coach under Tom Landry] counted up the balls I didn’t intercept one year that either hit me in the chest or were in my body range,” Green said.
“I intercepted seven; I dropped 15.”
Green finished his career with 36 INTs.
“He could’ve had 100,” said Gil Brandt, Cowboys’ longtime player-personnel man. “But let me tell you, Cornell was a ‘silent assassin’ for lack of a better phrase. He was big. He could run. And in that Christmas Eve against Cleveland, he didn’t allow Gary Collins any separation all day.”
Brandt signed Green out of Utah State. There, he was a standout basketball player who never played a down of college football.
“It just kills me that Cornell Green isn’t in the Ring of Honor,” Brandt said. “Seriously — if this guy doesn’t belong, I don’t know who does.”
Bob Lilly — Mr. Cowboy himself — calls Green “probably the most underrated player the Cowboys have ever had.”
For 13 NFL seasons – with no football background — Green never missed a game for the Cowboys. He made five Pro Bowls at two positions: cornerback and safety.
“I guess it defies odds,” said Green, 67. “But at the time, I didn’t think it was a big deal. Football is a sport. It’s got a ball in it, and I figured I could play anything with a ball.”
Then with the timing of a stand-up comic, Green quickly added, “Of course, I found out later I can’t play golf worth a damn.”
Sports run in the Green family. Cornell’s eldest brother, Pumpsie, was the first black player on the last MLB team (Boston Red Sox) to integrate. Another brother, Credell, was a record-setting running back at the University of Washington in the mid-’50s.
But Christmas Eve 1967 in Dallas was all Cowboys.
Wide receiver Bob Hayes finished the game with 285 yards on eight touches, including an 86-yard touchdown pass from Don Meredith and punt returns of 64 and 68 yards.
That day, Tom Landry praised a mistake-free Meredith (10 of 12 for 212 yards), who outdueled Frank Ryan (five sacks, one INT).
The lone pick was returned 60 yards for a third-quarter touchdown by the man they called “Boards.”
This one, he wouldn’t drop.
Gary Collins hadn’t set the record straight yet.
Next week One ex-Cowboy’s conference championship memory hits especially close to home for Wade Phillips. If the NFL had been using instant replay in January 1980, this flashback could’ve been a whole lot sweeter for Mike Renfro and the Phillips family.