Deep under the stack of sprawling bodies, a man squeezed a football and thought it was going to remain the property of the Dallas Cowboys. Dave Manders, to his everlasting regret, was soon to learn otherwise.
Manders has no reason to invent a story or perpetuate fabrication. This is what he has been saying since late that afternoon, Jan. 17, 1971, when the Colts, smiled on by fate, won their only Super Bowl as Jim O'Brien kicked a 32-yard field goal with time running out for a 16-13 victory.
The fumble play was pivotal. Instead of the Cowboys being at the Colts' 2-yard line, first-and-goal, and going in for another TC touchdown to extend their lead to 20-10, they relinquished the ball. Baltimore, as is said, escaped the bullet.
A score at that point, early in the third period, would have dictated an abrupt change in strategy and attitude. Dallas would have been fired with confidence and able to alter the pace, because the Colts weren't moving.
Duane Thomas, a powerful, straight-up runner, had a standout year for the Cowboys and, if memory serves correctly, made a second effort as he neared the Colts' end zone. It was then that he fumbled it away.
"The ball came right to me," Manders recalled in an interview. "I was all by myself in this little space. Nobody was even around me so there was no judgment call about whether one player had more of the ball than the other guy.
"Billy Ray Smith [Colts veteran defensive tackle] jumped on my back and started yelling, 'I've got the ball; I've got the ball.' Without hesitation, [official] Jack Fette turned and signaled, 'First down, Baltimore.'
"I handed Fette the ball. Craig Morton and I argued, but he told us, 'One more word and you two are out of the game.' "
Manders, then the Cowboys center, believes a 20-6 lead, since scoring was so limited, would have resulted in a Super Bowl triumph. This observer, a non-partisan, is in agreement with the theory.
But, in Super Bowl V, some extraordinary good things were happening to the Colts, almost as if a greater power wanted it to be that way. A John Unitas pass in the second period, before he suffered a rib injury, sailed high to Eddie Hinton.
The ball deflected off Hinton's hands and was literally finger-tipped by Cowboys defender Mel Renfro. It then went directly into the arms of a surprised John Mackey.
Mackey stormed the last 45 yards to put Baltimore on the Orange Bowl scoreboard. In the final minute, all tied at 13-13, another high pass, this one from Morton to Dan Reeves (new coach of the New York Giants), bounced off his hands for a Mike Curtis interception.
That put O'Brien in position to win with a pressurized kick from the 32. O'Brien and holder Earl Morrall jumped into the air and all Baltimore celebrated.
Now, back to the alleged Colts recovery that influenced the outcome and helped make Baltimore the winner and Dallas a loser.
Smith's con job on the official, screaming he had the ball when he didn't, qualifies as one of the most persuasive selling efforts in Super Bowl annals. The Colts, most emphatically, got a gift.
But, in an earlier year, 1965, they were blatantly wronged in a playoff against Green Bay. A Don Chandler field goal, decidedly wide of the right upright, was declared good. That led to Green Bay's going on to win in overtime and then to play for and win the NFL title.
So most things, in a mystical sense, have a way of evening up. Manders doesn't retrace the scenario for the purpose of offering an alibi. He's merely testifying as a witness who was under the pile holding a ball he believes to this minute rightfully belonged to Dallas.
This past summer, when Smith was in Baltimore for a Colts reunion, he was asked his version of the fumble. All of a sudden, he started making funny noises, tried to change the subject and, finally, began to laugh.
Now, 22 years later, Manders and the Cowboys still discuss the controversy. Billy Ray Smith had screamed the loudest and got the only man to listen who was important.
Certainly, it's all in the perspective. A sad and dismal day for Dallas, a glorious, yet tainted, one for Baltimore.
A player convinced an official of something that never happened and it makes for an eventful, intriguing chapter in Super Bowl history.