In a 1989 Thanksgiving Classic, the Dallas Cowboys were getting outplayed in Texas Stadium. At halftime, they trailed the Philadelphia Eagles 10-0 as they had racked up only 91 total yards compared to the Eagles’ 161. Jimmy Johnson’s Cowboys, led by rookie Quarterback Troy Aikman, had to come back if they wanted to improve their 1-10 season with a win over their rivals. The Eagles, with Randall Cunningham at quarterback were looking for their eighth win of the season.
Judging by the fact that there was not much at stake, you could’ve guessed that this game was going to be easily forgotten. However, it found a way to become one of the most important games in the Cowboys-Eagles rivalry.
It all began with a hit on a kicker.
Former Pittsburgh Steelers Linebacker James Harrison made the news last week when he claimed to have received an envelope from Head Coach Mike Tomlin after his infamous hit on Cleveland Browns Wide Receiver Mohamed Massaquoi in 2010. Harrison’s comments began discussions on social media on what the NFL should do. After all, they punished the New Orleans Saints for Bountygate around the same time.
Harrison has since denied the allegations made against him, laughing off people that made comparisons of his comments to Bountygate on his Instagram account.
But as we remember Bountygate, it’s hard not to remember another “bounty” scandal in the NFL. It happened during the 1989 season, in a couple of games between the Cowboys and Eagles that will be remembered forever as “Bounty Bowl I” and “Bounty Bowl II.”
To start the second half, the Cowboys were set to kick the ball. It started off as a normal kickoff. After a return of 11 yards, the Eagles would start their drive about the 25-yard line. Things got interesting when the cameras turned to a stunned Luis Zendejas, the Dallas Cowboys kicker.
“I think he got knocked down!” John Madden said on the CBS broadcast.
Zendejas, walking toward the Eagles sideline, exchanged a few heated words with his opponents. Linebacker Jessie Small had tackled him hard in the play. The hit took place very far from the actual play. By then, the game had already featured a few skirmishes on the field.
But the hit on Zendejas is the reason we remember that 1989 game, and for good reason.
Luis Zendejas was born in Mexico City and his family moved to California when he was eight years old. In High School, Zendejas developed playing soccer and football before receiving a scholarship from Arizona State, where he became a starter at kicker as a freshman. In his junior season, Zendejas earned All-American honors. He’s currently in the Arizona State Hall of Fame.
He was drafted by the Arizona Outlaws from the USFL in 1985. He played with the Cowboys to begin his NFL career but spent most of the 1988 season with the Eagles. A year later, Zendejas was released by Philadelphia in late October and returned to the Cowboys in time for the Thanksgiving game.
This is where things get interesting. Zendejas claimed that he had received two warnings that the Eagles were going after him. The first occurred during the week when Eagles Special Teams Coach Al Roberts contacted Zendejas to warn him. The second one came from Punter John Teltscik just before the game.
Allegedly, Head Coach Buddy Ryan had put out a $200 bounty on Zendejas and a $500 one on Troy Aikman. After the game, it led to one of Jimmy Johnson’s most famous quotes:
“I have absolutely no respect for the way they played the game, I would have said something to Buddy, but he wouldn’t stand on the field long enough. He put his big, fat rear end into the dressing room.” Jimmy Johnson
Ryan claimed that the allegations were ridiculous. But Zendejas insisted, going as far as saying that during his time in Philly, he had witnessed players getting paid for hitting rivals.
The NFL launched an investigation that found the Eagles innocent of all charges but questions remain to this date. The one that stands out the most might be, “Why the heck would Jessie Small have leveled Zendejas that far away from the play?”
Small ignored other Cowboys players on his way to the kicker. Did they consider Zendejas to be a threat in the tackling game? Of course not,
This set the stage for Bounty Bowl II, this time at Philadelphia. In that game, tempers were flaring as the game was heavily advertised with wanted posters by CBS. But most of the action took place in the stands.
Fans targeted players such as Cowboys Punter Mike Saxson, officials, and coaches. Even announcers Verne Lundquist and Terry Bradshaw were targeted by the fans, who had plenty of snowballs to throw thanks to the weather.
Things got so intense that the Eagles didn’t even sell beer in their last home game. Jimmy Johnson was escorted off the field by Philadelphia Police once the game ended. The scoreboard read 20-10, Eagles.
The Cowboys season ended with a devastating 1-15 record in Aikman’s rookie season. The Eagles went to the playoffs with an 11-5 campaign and lost in the Wild Card round to the Los Angeles Rams.
On paper, the Cowboys-Eagles series from 1989 might seem irrelevant. But in reality, it’s one of the rivalry’s greatest moments and one of the reasons fans from both teams wake up excited when Dallas and Philadelphia play a football game twice a year.