Greatest play in Miami Dolphins history? It's a no-brainer


Hook-and-lateral from 1981 AFC playoff game against San Diego. The official scoring log says it all: "Nathan, 25 run after lateral from Harris, who caught 15 pass from Strock." (Photo courtesy the Miami Dolphins)

History started modestly. Quarterback Don Strock came to the sideline with six seconds left in the half searching for a play, a hope, any chance at all. The football was at the San Diego 40-yard line, so a field goal was out.

"What about the hook-and-lateral?" coach Don Shula said.

"Sure, why not?" Strock said.

Cue the orchestra there. Start the music. Here's where the moment began for the play that had everything. Romance. Relevance. Even skeptics in the huddle.

That explains why it's the best play in Dolphins history, going all the way back to the franchise's first play of 1966. Joe Auer returned that opening kickoff 95 yards for a touchdown. A dramatic slap to life, sure. But it ranks as the fourth-best play for the Dolphins, at least as I assembled the list.

To understand why the hook-and-lateral is the tops, go back to the moment. Go back to the playoff game of Jan. 2, 1982 on the Orange Bowl field. Go back to the first thought of the principals as it was presented to them.

"I thought, 'No way this works, but it's worth a shot,' " Strock said, who threw the ball.

"No chance,'" said Duriel Harris, who caught and lateraled it.

"It never even worked in practice," said Tony Nathan, who took the lateral for a touchdown.

Harris, in fact, was so sure it would not work that he had an alternative plan. Instead of pitching the ball to Nathan after the catch, Harris planned to turn upfield and run himself.

"I never told anyone this, but had that ball been thrown right between the numbers, I would've taken it myself and got as many yards as I could,"' Harris said. "I thought that had a better chance of [scoring] than what was called."

"I'm glad I'm hearing this now, all these years later," Nathan said.

The Dolphins play San Diego on Sunday, and there's no way to match that singular moment. No way to match the full game, either. The game added to the play. It was voted the NFL's Game of the 1980s by the Pro Football Hall of Fame. "Maybe the greatest game ever," Shula said.

It had everything. It had a monster comeback -- the Dolphins were down 24-0 in the first quarter. It had football greatness, as two quarterbacks threw for more than 400 yards for the first time in NFL history.

It had human error with four fumbles and three missed, easy field-goal attempts. It had overtime. It had two teams staggered by the effort, San Diego tight end Kellen Winslow was even helped off the field at the end by teammates, much to the rolling of eyes of Dolphins to this day. Could a tight end be that tired?

But the centerpiece was that iconic play. It even became part of a Dolphins ticket commercial a year ago. Strock was recognized by a kid who makes the common mistake of saying, "Oh, man, you did the hook-and-ladder play."

"Yeah, but it's the hook-and-lateral," Strock said.

In the playbook, it was the "87-circle-curl-lateral." One key, Strock said, was targeting the most aggressive San Diego cornerback. They needed him to rush up on the sucker pass and ignore the charging Nathan. So Strock came to the line and found Willie Buchanon.

"He was real aggressive," Harris said.

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