Don Beebe flips open the mailbox at the end of his suburban Chicago driveway. There, amid the bills, magazines and circulars, is another batch of letters from strangers thanking him for an indelible moment from a quarter century ago. Not a day goes by when the former Buffalo Bills wide receiver isn’t reminded of the play he made that had no bearing whatsoever on the outcome of a blow-out loss but still resonates with people. And this time of year, when another Super Bowl is about to be played, the requests for autographs and media interviews tend to spike.
“It’s kind of mind-blowing, when you think about it,’’ Beebe says from his home in Aurora, Ill. “When I made the play, I’m thinking no big deal. Instead of losing 59-17 we lost 52-17. Who cares?”
As he discovered in the minutes, hours, days, weeks, months and years following that loss to the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXVII, it was a huge deal. Thousands cared.
By chasing down showboating Cowboys defensive end Leon Lett and preventing him from returning a fumble for a touchdown just as he was about to cross the goal line late in the fourth quarter of that rout, Beebe touched a chord with parents, coaches, teachers and kids. A seemingly meaningless play became life-altering—for Beebe, Lett and scores of people they didn’t know. And that never-give-up effort provided those Bills teams with a signature moment that is as defining as Scott Norwood’s “Wide Right.”
“I believe it touched people more than if I had caught the game-winning touchdown,’’ Beebe says. “I think most people can relate more to being behind in life, but still giving an effort, still getting up and going to work or school each day and trying to make something positive happen.”
He remembers being sky-high during pre-game warmups that Sunday at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif. The Bills had lost consecutive Super Bowls, but Beebe was firmly convinced the streak was about to end, and that he would have a hand in it. “I’m a faith-based person and I prayed that I would go out there and do something that would honor God and help me have an impact on people,’’ he recalls. “By the time I headed back to the locker room before pre-game introductions, I was sure I was going to score the game-winning touchdown. God obviously had other plans.”
Beebe did catch a 40-yard touchdown pass, but it was the 60-yard sprint he made after Lett picked up Frank Reich’s fumble that produced the moment that’s still inspiring others. “I thought nothing of it at the time,’’ he says. “You look at my face after I swatted the ball away and you see disgust and frustration because we’re getting killed.”
It wasn’t until he was in the morgue-like locker room after the loss that he began to realize that maybe his all-out hustle play hadn’t been in vain. “I was sitting in front of my locker and I’m ticked,’’ he says. “Out of the blue, (late-Bills owner) Ralph Wilson comes up to me, shakes my hand, looks me square in the eye and says, ‘Son, you showed me a lot today. That meant a lot to me that you represented the Buffalo Bills like that.’’’ Shortly after Wilson’s thank you, Beebe received another surprise when he was taken to a podium to speak to scores of reporters. “I’m thinking, ‘Why do they want me? I’m not a star,’’’ he says. “But there I was, answering questions for 10, 15 minutes about a play I thought hadn’t meant a lick.”
The impact really sunk in during the ensuing weeks and months when bundles of mail were dumped in front of his locker at One Bills Drive. “There were so many letters, I felt like Santa at Christmastime,’’ he says. “I had no idea how much that play had touched people.” One letter, in particular, still chokes him up. “A grateful father wrote and told me how he had never had much of a relationship with his 14-year-old son, and how they watched me come out of nowhere on their television screen and bat the ball away,’’ Beebe says. “The dad said the life lessons he was trying to impart to his son finally registered. His kid tells him: ‘So, Dad, is that what you mean about never giving up?’ From that point on, their relationship improved dramatically.’’
Beebe also received a box from a man who had been down on his luck, but won $40,000 when Lett didn’t score. The man used the money to start up his own hand-crafted golf club business. Inside, the box was a driver for Beebe.
Sadly, while the hustling Bill was celebrated, Lett was pilloried. The letters he received were venomous, many filled with racial epithets. A few anonymous writers even threatened to kill him. “I was dumbfounded and disgusted to hear that,’’ Beebe says. “I’ve gotten to know Leon through the years, and he’s a great guy. I’m sad he had to go through that, but he’s reached a point where he’s also using the play as a teachable lesson. I give him so much credit. A lot of guys in his shoes would never want to re-live that stuff and talk about it. But he’s using his story to help others persevere. It’s funny. The two of us are coming at this from opposite directions, but with similar goals.”
Four years after that 35-point loss, Beebe wound up winning a Super Bowl with the Green Bay Packers. Quarterback Brett Favre gave him the ball after the game ended. The keepsake is a reminder of Beebe’s happiest football moment, but not his finest one. His never-say-die play still is No. 1. It defines his career and is the centerpiece of motivational speeches the 56-year-old delivers to business and church groups around the country and to the football players he’s coached to two state championships in 14 seasons at Aurora Christian High School.
That Beebe would be involved in such a play is no surprise to those who know him. Like Rudy, the Notre Dame football player whose life was immortalized in a classic movie, Beebe had been sold short by college recruiters. He spent five years pounding nails for a construction company before giving college football and the NFL a shot. The speedy, 5-foot-11 receiver defied huge odds by playing nine seasons in the pros, catching 219 passes and scoring 25 touchdowns. But he’ll forever be remembered for a touchdown he denied. The meaning of that seemingly meaningless play endures all these Super Bowls later.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.