PLANO EAST VS. TYLER JOHN TYLER, NOVEMBER 26, 1994
It wasn’t the championship game, because that would’ve been too perfect, too unbelievable. Instead, the greatest high school football game of all time happened in the third round of the playoffs. November 26, 1994. The Plano East Panthers versus the Tyler John Tyler Lions at Texas Stadium.
But as the clock ticked down in the fourth quarter, the game wasn’t even living up to its billing as the Plano TeleCable Game of the Week. In the second half, a tight contest had turned into a blowout. With only three minutes to go in the fourth quarter, John Tyler was up 41-17. And then it blew back the other way. By the time the game ended, there would be 34 more points scored, on five touchdowns, including a game-winning 97-yard kickoff return with 24 seconds left.
The insanity on the field—three consecutive successful onside kicks!—made the game unforgettable. But the folksy commentary by the Plano East announcing team of Denny Garver and Eddy Clinton (and their special guest, Lake Highlands coach Mike Zoffuto) gave it a new life when the game eventually made its way to YouTube, their good-gosh-almighty giddiness during Plano East’s improbable comeback giving way to abject horror as a John Tyler player raced up the left sideline to the end zone. “I am sick,” Zoffuto says at the end of the clip, which has almost 2 million views. “I wanna throw up.”
The game landed Garver and Clinton on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno and earned the teams the Showstopper of the Year award at the 1995 ESPYs. Reality TV producers even tried to stage a rematch a couple of years ago. (They couldn’t find a major network to pick it up.) The amazing finish to the game has never really gone away, resurfacing at some point during every football season since.
“You never think that the game is going to be famous at the time of the game,” says Scott Phillips, then the Plano East coach, now a real estate agent selling ranch property in Junction, Texas. “You are just trying to win and move on toward a state championship.”
Twenty years later, a look back at the game, from those who were there.
Plano East was ranked No. 2 in the state before the matchup, and Tyler John Tyler was No. 3; both teams were 12-0. The game played out accordingly. Plano East kept the score close throughout, never down by more than a touchdown until early in the fourth quarter. Down 27-17, the Panthers were on the 10-yard line, poised to score.
Jeff Whitley, Plano East quarterback: They stripped the ball—I had a broken hand—and ran it all the way back for a touchdown. Then the next series, I dropped back to pass, they hit me, I fumble, and they run it back for another touchdown. I mean, I was just devastated.
Morris Anderson, John Tyler quarterback: Basically, the game was over. It was in our control. And all we had to do was finish it out.
Nico Hernandez, John Tyler kicker: We got a little overconfident. I think our coaches even came down from the press box.
Whitley: I was kind of pissed off, to be honest with you. Because I thought, “Why the hell am I going back in this game? Let the backup quarterback.” We thought it was over. Period. So, no, there was no big speech—if anything, it was the opposite. “Let’s just get this thing over with and done.”
Scott Phillips, Plano East coach: They put in their second team. It’s three minutes and three seconds to go in the game. They kick off to us, and they’d put in their second defense—and we scored in two plays.
Whitley: So we went down and scored—and still thought it was over.
Archie McAfee, Plano East principal: I was sitting up in the stands with my wife and our two daughters, and with about three minutes to go, I said, “I’m going to go down on the sideline and console the coaches and the team.” I always went to the dressing room after the game, but this time I decided to go to the sideline. On my way down to the sideline, I passed the athletic director from Tyler. He was sitting on the Plano East side. And as soon as we walked to the sideline, Plano East scored again and made it 41 to 23. He said to me, “Well, that will take some of the sting off the loss.”
After a two-point conversion failed, Terence Green lined up for an onside kick. The wide receiver had been pressed into duty after Plano East’s usual kicker had been booted off the team the week before.
Terence Green, Plano East kicker and wide receiver: That was literally my first time doing onside kicks. I did it with my toe. I toe-punched the ball. You don’t ever see someone toe-punching an onside kick, it’s always soccer style. But I was just thinking, “Hey, get this thing end over end, then change the speed up on them. See what we can do.” I was wanting to get that end over end, almost like a ground ball in baseball. A bad hop can pop up and hit you in the mouth.
Though inexperienced, Green managed three successful onside kicks in a row—each one leading to a Plano East touchdown.
Allen Wilson, John Tyler coach: Nobody panicked when they got the first onside kick, but by the second one, we seemed a little more concerned about what was happening out there. I think we got real relaxed on defense and gave them an opportunity to score in just two or three plays. At that point, the antenna started going up. The old mojo left our sideline and went over to the other sideline.
Phillips: When we got the second one, it made it 41-31. Then we had the ball and we’re down only by 10 with, like, a minute and 50, and at that point, I thought, “You know, we got a shot at this.” Their first team was back in the game by then. But the momentum had already shifted. And we were kind of in the zone.
Anderson: Because I was on the onside team, I just felt like the next one, I’m personally going to go get the ball. That obviously didn’t happen. After they recovered the second one, we started to think a little differently about it.
Green: I wanted to draw them to the ball, because they were anxious. The third one I did a little bit harder, put some gas on them. The change of speeds of the onsides helped. It threw them off a little bit, just enough for us to get the ball three times.
Whitley: I guess after the second onside kick, and then we score, then you start saying, “Lord, if we get this, then we’ll probably win this game.”
McAfee: [The Tyler athletic director] and I stood there and talked, and Plano East did the onside kick and got the ball, and he said, “Well, that’s really nice.” And they scored again. And then he said, “I’m leaving. I’m getting away from you. You’re bringing me bad luck.” And so he walked over to the other side, to the Tyler sideline, and, of course, Plano East gets the ball again, kicks onside, and scores again.
Hernandez: After that last touchdown, we were like, “Mannnn, we can’t go back to Tyler. They’re going to talk so bad about us blowing the lead. We can’t go back to Tyler.”
After a Whitley touchdown pass put Plano East up 44-41, Garver crowed on the TeleCable broadcast that it was “the greatest comeback of all time.” (It’s unclear which member of the broadcast team said, “I done wet my britches.”) For a moment, it seemed like Garver was correct. There were just 24 seconds left in the game.
Whitley: I just remember thinking that I have never seen—from the field looking up into the stands—people going that crazy. It was a surreal moment.
Hernandez: They were up by three. So I’m warming up to kick the field goal to tie the game. My nerves—I’d decide if we tied the game and went to overtime.
Wilson: As long as there’s time on the clock, we got an opportunity. My thought process was we just gotta put this thing in field goal range. Give ourselves an opportunity. As long as there was time, we felt like it was okay.
Anderson: We went to the sidelines and drew up an offensive play. Coach was thinking of splitting me outside, and he was just gonna throw it up, because he wanted a jump ball. That was what we were thinking about.
Whitley: Yes, of course I thought there was a chance Tyler would score again. Because they were good. They were real good. I didn’t think they’d run the kickoff back.
It’s doubtful anyone on either side expected that to happen. Roderick Dunn, John Tyler’s kick returner, had already mishandled two of Plano East’s onside kicks.
Darwin Brown, John Tyler safety: To be honest with you—to give you the real version—we were upset with Rod Dunn. He was a basketball guy. We were in basketball season when the playoffs were going on. We heard he was down in the gym, messing around in the gym. So we thought he was trying to get back to the gym. [Laughs.] We were just upset.
Green: Morris Anderson was a top-notch athlete, had a strong arm. They had athletes on the field. You squib the onside kick, then they’re right there by the 40 or 35. Something could happen. So I’m thinking, pin them down there. My legs still had the juice. I was exhausted, but I thought I could get it over the guy’s head.
Phillips: They were not in kickoff return formation. They were up there thinking we were going to kick onside again—why, I don’t know. We were ahead by three at that point.
Wilson: Hell, you got three—why not line up and go for number four?
Phillips: I had actually called a pooch kick, which, you know, lands around the 25. I had two assistant coaches say, “No, no, kick it deep. Keep ’em away from our goal line.” So I changed it.
Wilson: When they kicked it deep, I looked at the ball and said, “That’s going to go over his head.” And it could have. Rod could’ve just looked at it and let it go out the back of the end zone. But instead he goes back and fields it on the 3-yard line. The rest is history.
Jerrid Beal, John Tyler tight end: I was on the bench, looking away from the play, face in my hands, crying. Just thinking it was over. And all of a sudden, I just heard the few people sitting in our stands start getting antsy and cheering. I actually got up from my seat on the bench, walked up, and Rod Dunn ran right in front of me. And then I just immediately started running right behind him.
Green: By the time he hit, I guess, say, the 30, I was running sideways with a guy holding my jersey. He already had a wall. There wasn’t no way I was going to catch him.
Wilson: He came right in front of me. [John Tyler defensive end] David Warren was right on the sideline, and he was about 6-foot-5, and he was running with his arms flailing all over the place. My whole thought process was that David was going to knock his ass right out of bounds.
McAfee: [Phillips] and I have talked about that game a lot since it happened, and we both have the same feeling: that if that kid from Tyler had caught the ball and had been running down the Plano East sideline, one of us would have tried to tackle him. We were that fired up.
Phillips: It was sickening. You just get this hollow feeling, like somebody kicked you in the stomach.
Green: We didn’t deserve to lose like that.
Whitley: I told you how, after we took the lead, I’ve never seen a crowd go that crazy—and then I look over at their side, and I thought the same thing after they scored.
Wilson: We had total control of the ballgame, then all of a sudden we lost the game, then went back and won the game. But there were still 11 seconds left on the clock. Hell, they could go back and do the same thing.
But there would be no more comebacks.
Anderson: A lot of people don’t realize that the game didn’t end on that play. They threw one up, then the last play ended with me intercepting the ball. I ran down the sideline, threw the ball up.
Green: I just remember bawling my eyes out. There was no talk, just a lot of silence in the clubhouse. My dad was talking, telling me to hold my head up.
Wilson: We weren’t too excited, because we gave up something. You think you’re gonna go in there jumping and yelling, but we was up 41-17. It was like a loss, but you just happened to be on the right side.
McAfee: They never gave up. They could’ve gave up when they were down 41-17, but they never gave up. They did what they had to do to have a chance to win the game.
Hernandez: When we pulled up to the fieldhouse, it seemed like every fan from the stadium beat us back. It was like a big ol’ championship parade.
John Tyler coach Allen Wilson thinks the Plano East-John Tyler game has been remembered for so long because the winner went on to bring home the state title. “If you lose it, nobody’s talking about none of it,” he says.
Maybe Wilson is right. But people would probably still be talking about Plano East and John Tyler even if the latter had lost to Lake Highlands the next week. It seems like people will still be talking about that game as long as there is high school football.
Scott Phillips won two state championships—at Groveton and Waxahachie—before coming to Plano East. He beat Art Briles in an all-star game when the Baylor coach was still at Stephenville. Phillips says it’s not even close which game gets brought up the most.
Phillips: You win the state championship and they forget it. You kick deep and get beat and they don’t ever forget it. [Laughs.]
Whitley: I’ve been on a trip in Mexico and someone finds out about it, that I was the quarterback, and wants to talk about it.
Hernandez: This is the highlight of some of our lives. It’s a big accomplishment. Some people don’t accomplish things like this again.
Wilson: It still has about as much steam as it did 20 years ago. Everybody wants to talk about the game. I could be sitting in the crowd, and someone asks, “Where do you coach at?” Then they say, “Were you at that Plano East-John Tyler game?” Then they want to know about what happened. It still has a lot of positive traction. Then you see it on ESPN; they’ll show it. YouTube has captured it, and that just keeps it alive. It’s just one of those things. It won’t ever go away.
McAfee: It lives in the lives of the kids who were there, the fans who were there. They relive it, probably not every day but periodically. When they watch another team get down, they think, “Aha. Maybe this will be another Plano East-John Tyler comeback.” It gives people hope that things like this can happen.