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Flashback Friday: The Comeback

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TEMPE - The Cardinals NFL football franchise made their way to the desert in 1988. 

It didn’t take them long to put on a show that stands the test of time. 

In an early November Week 10 game at the club’s initial home Sun Devil Stadium, the then-Phoenix Cardinals would welcome a team that was not yet their rival, the San Francisco 49ers. 

That’s because the Birds played their first 14 Arizona seasons in the NFC East before the move to their current home in the NFC West (2002). 

Phoenix down 23-0 in the third quarter would rally to win the game 24-23 on a nine-yard touchdown pass from Neil Lomax to Roy Green with just three seconds to play. 

Credit the Birds defense for keeping the game in range. Phoenix turned the ball over three times in the first half but the defense limited San Francisco to three field goals.

Lomax was sacked seven times but managed to rally and throw for 323 yards and three touchdowns, two to Green including the game-winner.

To this day it is still the largest comeback in the club's Arizona franchise history.

It was a game that had so many interesting different footnotes: 

  • The Cardinals were actually a three-point favorite entering the game 
  • Steve Young started at quarterback for a semi-injured Joe Montana. Montana contends he was ready to play that day but head coach Bill Walsh opted instead to hand the keys to Young. 
  • The 49ers defense featured linebacker and Tucson prep legend Riki Gray, who by that time had switched back to his born name Riki Ellison 
  • The Cardinals defense featured linebacker and UA legend Ricky Hunley who had signed with Phoenix as a free agent after having help lead the Denver Broncos defense to a pair of Super Bowls. 
  • When 49ers linebacker Keenan Turner suffered a second quarter injury, he was replaced by a young rookie 3rd round pick out of Boston College named Bill Romanowski. Romanowski would go on to play 16 seasons and win four Super Bowls. 
  • You remember Jay Novacek, of the Cardinals? You probably don’t. Novacek played five uneventful seasons with the Birds. He left in 1990 and became a star with the Dallas Cowboys, winning three Super Bowls and playing in five Pro Bowls. He caught just one pass for nine yards in the historic comeback. 
  • Joe Bostic was a stalwart on the right side of the Cardinals offensive line for ten seasons, the first nine in St. Louis. He left this game with a knee injury on the Cardinals first scoring drive in the third quarter. It was the last play of his career. 

So essentially the Cardinals made this miraculous comeback without their best offensive lineman and with little contribution from a future Pro Bowl tight end. 

  • The game was played two days before the 1988 presidential election in which George H.W. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis to become the nation’s 41st president. 
  • Among the commercials that ran during the game:
    • Who knew the the hot guy could get the hot girl driving a Pontiac. 
    • Promos for a huge boxing match being held the next night between legend Sugar Ray Leonard and Donny Lalonde. Leonard came out of retirement and won the Monday night bout on a 9th round TKO to claim the WBC Light Heavyweight and Super Middleweight titles. 
  • The game was broadcast on CBS with announcers Tim Ryan (play-by-play) and Dan Jiggetts (color analist). The NFL Today studio crew featured Brent Musberger, Earl Cross and Dick Butkus

What happened after the Cardinals rallied to win? Phoenix won the next week to move to 7-4 and appeared to be on their way to a playoff spot. 

But the bottom fell out as the Birds lost their last five games. 

Joe Montana would return the starting lineup the next week for the 49ers, leading San Francisco to a third Super Bowl championship. 

Copyright 2020 News 4 Tucson. All rights reserved. 

David Kelly

David Kelly is the weekend sports anchor at KVOA in Tucson. He is a 28-year veteran of the sports broadcast business.

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