Kenny Houston made a career out of tormenting the Dallas Cowboys.
Time after time in his eight seasons in D.C., the Hall of Fame safety produced monumental plays against the Redskins’ most despised rival.
One of them occurred 40 years ago. But it wasn’t just any play. No sir. This one stands as an epic moment in Redskins history.
On Oct. 8, 1973, Houston’s fourth-down tackle of Cowboys running back Walt Garrison at the goal line with seconds remaining prevented a touchdown and preserved a 14-7 Redskins win.
Anybody who was a Redskins fan at the time is likely to have a recollection of that iconic play.
“That was probably the defining play of my career,” Houston said. “There were other plays I thought were greater, like the back-to-back interceptions I returned for touchdowns in one game. But as far as one particular play that highlighted my career, that was it.
"Everywhere I go, people identify me with that play.”
At the time, Redskins fans were just becoming acquainted with Houston, who was in his 7th season but first in D.C.
Redskins coach George Allen, a master at spotting veteran talent, had traded five players to the Houston Oilers (now Tennessee Titans) for the 6-3, 200-pound safety, one of the best in the game.
That was mostly because of Allen. The coach whipped his troops into a fury by stressing his antipathy for the Cowboys and their pompous reputation.
The Cowboys accused Allen and his staff of spying on practices. There were charges of dirty play. The result was a mutual feeling of animosity.
The stage was set for a classic when the 3-0 Cowboys and 2-1 Redskins collided at RFK Stadium before a Monday night audience on Oct. 8, 1973.
At stake was first place in the NFC East.
The Cowboys, seeking revenge for a 26-3 loss to the Redskins in the 1972 NFC Championship game, took a 7-0 lead in the second quarter.
The Redskins tied it in the fourth period on quarterback Sonny Jurgensen’s 1-yard pass to receiver Charley Taylor and took a 14-7 lead when safety Brig Owens returned an interception 26 yards for a touchdown.
The Redskins seemed in control when Dallas punted with about two minutes left. But the ball took a funny bounce and hit a Redskins player.
Dallas recovered at Washington’s 31 and drove to the 4.
Quarterback Craig Morton threw three incompletions. When he hit Garrison on fourth down at the 1, virtually everyone among the 54,314 fans at RFK Stadium and the millions more watching on TV had to be thinking Dallas would pull within a point.
Houston thought otherwise. He read the play from his strong safety position, moved up and grabbed an airborne Garrison as the ball arrived.
Garrison tried squirming out of his grasp. But Houston pulled the powerful off-season rodeo cowboy away from the end zone to end the threat.
RFK went silent for a few seconds, then erupted into a deafening roar.
“I thought it was going to be an interception,” Houston said. “So I was going up to try to get in between Garrison and the ball, and I realized I couldn’t. Then he caught it, and I was in perfect position, with my momentum catching him in the air. He couldn’t get his feet on the ground.”
“After Garrison caught the ball, Kenny stuck him,” said Owens, who came over to help on the play. “He picked his feet up off the ground. That’s one of the classic ways you’re taught to tackle.”
The play solidified Houston’s spot as a cornerstone on the Redskins’ defense, a distinction he held through the 1970s.
He earned All-Pro or All-NFC honors each year from 1973 to 1979 and retired after the 1980 season having made seven Pro Bowls as a Redskin, tying him with cornerback Darrell Green for the second-most in team history.
He played in 12 Pro Bowls in his career.
A first-ballot inductee into the Hall of Fame in 1986, Houston was named in 1994 to the NFL’s 75th anniversary team as one of three greatest safeties to ever play the game, along with Larry Wilson and Ronnie Lott.
Those are lofty achievements to say the least. He’ll be most remembered, though, for the indelible play he made on a crisp, clear night in D.C. 40 years ago.
Mike Richman is the author of The Redskins Encyclopedia and the Washington Redskins Football Vault. His web site is redskinshistorian.com. Check out his Facebook Friend and Fan pages and follow him on Twitter.