There was a time when Super Sunday offered a football game and little else. Super Bowl MVPs didn’t go to Disney World, overindulgent halftime shows were unthinkable, and only referees flipped the coin.
In those early, workmanlike days, it was only fitting a blue-collar guy from Wilmington’s Dunlinden Acres neighborhood would dominate a Super Bowl. That man was Dallas Cowboys defensive tackle and Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Randy White.
And dominate he did. By the time the Cowboys finished thrashing the Denver Broncos 27-10 in Super Bowl XII on Jan. 15, 1978—White’s 25th birthday—he had five tackles and a sack. That was good enough to be co-MVP with defensive end Harvey Martin. White and Martin were the first defensive players to win the award. They remain the only co-MVPs in Super Bowl history.
As the NFL celebrates 50 years of its championship game, Super Bowl XII will not be hailed as one of the more thrilling contests. It was a sloppy game with turnovers on both sides and, at one point, Dallas was up 20-3. Even the participants acknowledge the game wasn’t a classic.
“They have called it the worst Super Bowl in history because of the mistakes,” says Tom Glassic, a former Denver Broncos guard.
Yet Super Bowl XII is recalled with great fondness in Delaware because White, the son of a local butcher, played with a ferocity never before seen on football’s biggest stage. The game was a culmination of the lessons he learned on Evelyn Drive.
“If you start something, you finish it, and if you do something, you don’t half-ass it,” White says, recalling the lessons his father taught him.
Customers at Guy White’s butcher shop knew to check the local papers’ high school sports sections each morning to see if the store would be closing early that day. If any of Guy’s three children—Randy, Eric and Cindy—had a game, he would go. Even if it cost a little business.
Randy and Eric played baseball in the summer and football in the fall. During winter, their interests diverged as Randy turned his attention to basketball and Eric focused on wrestling. Not to be upstaged by her brothers, Cindy played field hockey.
Randy cites Guy as the biggest influence on his life. A former staff sergeant in the 101st Airborne Division, also known as the Screaming Eagles, Guy parachuted into the Battle of the Bulge during World War II. After the war, Guy returned to his hometown of Pine Grove, Pa., a hardscrabble coal mining community about 40 miles north of Harrisburg.
Work began drying up in Pine Grove, and Guy knew he needed to get out if he was going to give his family the life they deserved. He and his wife moved to Pittsburgh, where Guy learned to cut meat.
Guy’s wife soon became homesick for her family across the state. Not wanting to return to the coal mines of Pine Grove, they compromised and moved to Wilmington along with their young son, Randy.
Eric White keeps his brother’s sports memorabilia in his home. / Photo by Joe del Tufo
“We were a typical family, just like everyone else,” Eric says.
Randy cleaned hallways and classrooms after school at the age of 10 and, by 12, he would be laying bricks with an uncle. These experiences forged a work ethic that he never abandoned.
“There was a toughness about Randy the other players looked up to,” says Burton Lawless, who roomed with White as teammates on the Cowboys. “He would go full speed from when the ball was snapped until the whistle blew.”
That toughness extended to the entire White clan. During a late December game against the Redskins at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., a group of rowdy hometown fans began jawing at the Whites, decked out in full Cowboys gear. One drunken fan poured beer on a nine months pregnant Cindy, who, in turn, cupped the beer in her hand and flicked it back at her antagonist. A fist fight ensued, but a clear victor emerged.
“They took off,” Eric says. “They brought portable televisions to the game and left them in the seats.”
At Thomas McKean High School, which eventually named its football field after him, Randy played linebacker and fullback. His intensity is legendary. He once got into a fist fight with a rival John Dickinson High School player before a game.
Upon graduation in 1971, White went to the University of Maryland. He was recruited by University of Delaware football coach Tubby Raymond, but at that time Delaware didn’t offer full scholarships.
White joined a Maryland team ranked among the bottom 10 in the country and helped transform it into a Top 20 program by the time he left. Along the way, he picked up the Outland Trophy, Lombardi and UPI Lineman of the Year awards and was named All-American twice.
His parents still never missed a game.
The Baltimore Colts, coming off a 2-12 campaign in 1974, were expected to pick White first overall in the 1975 NFL draft. A last-minute trade with the Atlanta Falcons dropped the Colts to the third slot, and the Falcons used the top spot to select quarterback Steve Bartkowski. Dallas, with the second overall pick, pounced on White, taking him two spots ahead of Walter Payton, also to become a hall of fame inductee.
Upon arriving in Dallas, legendary Cowboys coach Tom Landry moved White from his college position of defensive tackle to middle linebacker. With veteran LeRoy Jordan set to retire, Landry thought White’s speed would be ideal for the position.
White’s first professional season ended with a heartbreaking 21-17 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl X. The Cowboys were up 10-7 in the fourth quarter when the Steelers scored 14 unanswered points to secure back-to-back Super Bowl victories.
A rookie, White didn’t start the game, but he did record two punishing sacks of Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw.
As if playing in the Super Bowl wasn’t memorable enough, White’s evening took a turn into the bizarre after the game. With the team bus full, White and Lawless were directed to the Florida State Police, which were transporting celebrities from the game, played in Miami, to local hotels.
White noticed a man with long, greasy hair and a shaggy beard sitting in the back seat. He looked at Lawless and said bluntly, “You sit next to that guy.”
As the cruiser headed downtown, White felt a tap on the back of his shoulder. He turned, annoyed, and saw the greasy-haired man extend his hand for a shake.
“Excuse me. Are you Randy White?” the suspicious-looking character asked. “I’m a big fan. My name is Willie Nelson.”
Nelson invited the two Cowboys to his Miami nightclub, where they sang with Jimmy Buffett and Waylon Jennings.
The next season ended in disappointment when the Cowboys were knocked out of the playoffs by the Minnesota Vikings. White continued adjusting to the linebacker position.
“I love Randy, but he was not a linebacker,” Lawless says. “He didn’t like watching his guy while someone else was making the play.”
In 1977, everything changed. The Cowboys drafted running back Tony Dorsett, a Heisman Trophy winner out of the University of Pittsburgh, and defensive coordinator Ernie Stautner moved White to his natural position, defensive tackle.
“When I moved to defensive tackle, it was like someone took the handcuffs off,” White says.
The Cowboys started the season with an eight-game winning streak, then finished the season 12-2. In the playoffs, the team crushed the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings by a combined score of 60-6.
Those victories set up a Super Bowl against a Broncos team that had made the playoffs for the first time in its 17-year history. The city of Denver was so excited for postseason football, it threw the Broncos a victory parade before the Super Bowl.
“We were just so glad to be in the Super Bowl that we were never really ready for the Cowboys,” Glassic says.
Glassic, who was matched up against White, missed the team bus to the stadium. A cop escorted him to the New Orleans Superdome, where the Super Bowl was scheduled to be played. Glassic started knocking on entrance doors to get inside the stadium. Finally, a security guard recognized the Broncos guard.
“Aren’t you the guy who is going up against Randy White today?” the guard asked
“Yep,” responded Glassic.
“Are you sure you want me to let you in?” the guard shot back.
White, meanwhile, engaged in his only pregame ritual. A nap.
The game got off to an inauspicious start for the Cowboys. On the first play from scrimmage, receiver Butch Johnson fumbled the handoff from quarterback Roger Staubach on a double reverse. Somehow, Johnson recovered, but Dallas, failing to advance past the 20-yard line, punted.
Former Cowboy Craig Morton started at quarterback for the Broncos. On the first possession, Denver entered Cowboys territory with a 20-yard pass to wide receiver Haven Moses.
Denver marched to the Dallas 35 with little resistance. The Cowboys were reeling. A touchdown was inevitable.
Then the kid from Dunlinden Acres took over. On the first down after the Moses catch, White tackled Broncos running back Otis Anderson for no gain. Anderson was double teamed on the second play, allowing defense end Ed “Too Tall” Jones to knock down Morton. White continued menacing the Broncos, sacking Morton on third down for an 11-yard loss. The drive ended with a punt.
The Cowboys offense struggled to find a rhythm, nearly turning the ball over again on its second possession.
White said the issues on the other side of the ball didn’t impact the defense, which gave up the eighth fewest yards in the league. The group was so punishing, it earned the nickname the Doomsday Defense.
“I probably wasn’t aware of what was going on with the offense,” White says. “All I worried about was the job I had to do when I got on the field.”
White and Martin continued to terrorize Morton. Facing a third and 20, the duo rushed the Broncos quarterback, forcing him to hurry his throw. That pass landed in the arms of Cowboys defensive back Randy Hughes at the Broncos’ 25-yard line. Five plays later, Dorsett scored the Cowboys’ first touchdown.
“If they double- or triple-teamed Randy, Harvey Martin or someone else would make the play,” Lawless says. “Even if Randy didn’t make the play, he helped someone else get to the ball. He was all over the field that day.”
Morton returned to the field, only to be intercepted again when linebacker Bob Breuning tipped a pass into the waiting arms of defensive back Aaron Kyle, who returned the ball 19 yards.
Staubach took over on Denver’s 35-yard line, but had to settle for a field goal, upping the Dallas lead to 10-0. Another field goal sent the Cowboys to the locker room with a halftime lead of 13-0.
The second quarter was a nightmare for Morton, who was sacked four times in the game. He threw two more interceptions, bringing his total to four. Morton had thrown only eight interceptions during the entire season.
“We knew Morton wasn’t mobile,” White says. “We were able to put pressure on him in the pocket and disrupt his timing. Putting the pass rush on him was one of our biggest priorities.”
Denver’s quarterback wasn’t alone. Three Broncos players fumbled in the second quarter, for a total of seven turnovers in the first half. The team committed another fumble in the third quarter.
“You only get 12 chances with the ball in a game,” Glassic says. “We gave them eight of ours.”
In the third quarter, the Broncos got on the scoreboard with a field goal. But after Morton nearly threw a fifth interception to the Cowboys’ Jones, he was pulled for backup quarterback Norris Weese.
Weese immediately led his team into the end zone, cutting the Cowboys’ lead to 20-10. In the fourth quarter, Weese fumbled the ball when sacked by Martin. Kyle recovered, and the Cowboys put the game away by scoring on the next play.
The clock ticked down to a final 27-10.
Sportswriters who worked the game wanted to name the entire Dallas defense MVP. The NFL denied the request. Any member of the Doomsday Defense could have been selected as the MVP, White says. “Ed had a great game,” he says. “Randy Hughes had [recovered] two turnovers in the first half. I was just fortunate they chose Harvey and I.”
Martin, who died in 2001 from pancreatic cancer, told White about the honor. A Sports Illustrated photographer captured Martin wrapping his arm around White, creating an iconic image that graced the magazine’s cover that week.
“Harvey was excited,” White says. “He understood what it meant. I didn’t think about it a whole lot.”
Glassic says it stung that the player he was matched up against was named co-MVP. He said it took him nearly 30 years to watch a tape of the game.
“I did OK, but OK wasn’t good enough against Randy White,” he says.
White and Martin were asked to appear as guests on “Good Morning America” the next day. As Martin chatted it up with the hosts, White slept in.
White and Martin were also flown to New York, where Ford Motor Co. gave each a brand new Thunderbird, as it did each year. A few months later, White drove the Thunderbird from Wilmington to Pine Grove to visit his grandparents. Near Pine Grove, a deer jumped out of the darkness and totaled the car. White chalked the accident up to bad luck. As the next Super Bowl neared, White received a call from Ford, asking him if he planned to return the car. White asked why. As it turned out, the Thunderbird was on loan for a year. White had to decide if he wanted to pay full value to keep the car or return it to Ford. “I ended up not keeping the car,” he says.
White stays active in football today. He now teaches the martial arts moves of his famous pass rush technique to NFL players, including Rams defensive tackle Michael Brockers and Seahawks center Patrick Lewis.
As time goes by, stories about White have become something of a legend in the Dallas area. A story about him smuggling a stray dog on the Cowboys plane after training camp is true, he says. The rumor that he once knocked out a drunk Charles Haley, a former Cowboys defense tackle, is not.
The story, according to a book about the Cowboys, is that Haley rode his Harley into White’s bar. White asked him to leave and when Haley refused, the older Cowboy laid him out with one punch. “That never happened,” White says emphatically.
White says that when Haley tried to leave the bar on his motorcycle, the situation did become a little tense. White and ex-Cowboys offensive lineman Mark Tuinei each grabbed Haley under an arm and carried him to a waiting car. White then hopped on the motorcycle with Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and drove around the bar.
The Super Bowl MVP award means more to White now than it did in 1978 because it is a symbol of what the Doomsday Defense accomplished that January evening. Dallas played in the Super Bowl the following year, but lost a 35-31 heartbreaker to Terry Bradshaw’s Steelers. The team made it to three more NFC championship games, but did not return to the Super Bowl until nearly four years after he retired.
“I share [the MVP award] with each and every teammate,” he says. “It’s just a reflection of that time. All the other honors, like the hall of fame, are great honors, but playing on a winning Super Bowl team is something no one can ever take away from you.”
White’s championship rings. / Photo by Joe del Tufo
Yet it is also bittersweet because the award reminds him of his good friend Martin, who died with much of his life ahead of him. The two became close, often spending the offseason hanging out at White’s farm just north of the Delaware state line, in Landenberg, Pa.
“When it gets around Super Bowl time, Harvey really comes to the forefront,” White says. “There is usually a reunion of all the MVPs, and I wish Harvey was there to share that with me.”
White follows the game closely, especially the defensive players. He is a big fan of J.J. Watt, a defensive end for the Houston Texans, whose style of play often draws comparisons to White’s.
Despite his passion for the modern game, White questions recent rule changes. The referees, he says, are preventing defensive lineman from playing the game like it was played in the past.
“I wouldn’t want to be a defensive lineman in the game today,” he says. “I would have had to change the way I played football.”
The rule changes, however, have not prevented him from appreciating the game.
“Football is still football,” he says. “It’s still about blocking and tackling.”