50 in 50: Al Harris takes the ball, and he's gonna score
With the sports world on hold, we present a countdown of the 50 greatest moments in Wisconsin sports history over the past 50 years. This is No. 41.
The city of Green Bay welcomed a special guest to town during the Packers' NFC playoff opener Jan. 4, 2004: Arizona Cardinals receiver Nathan Poole.
Fans welcomed Poole with cheers when he arrived at Austin Straubel airport, the Packers hosted his family at the game against Seattle and he even received a key to the city.
"I heard these fans were great, but this is unbelievable," Poole said. "I can't put what's happening to me into words."
Poole's Cardinals finished an unremarkable 4-12 that year, but they did win their last game, a stunner that gifted the Packers an NFC North title and extended their season. Poole's jaw-dropping 28-yard catch as time expired against the Minnesota Vikings one week earlier proved to be the winning points in an 18-17 victory that knocked Minnesota from a surefire playoff berth and gave the Packers the ticket instead.
Naturally, the Packers fans wanted to fete their temporary hero. Which means he had a great view for another chapter in what was a roller-coaster five weeks in the life of the Green Bay Packers. In the playoff opener, the Packers landed a 33-27 victory in overtime, and everyone heard those famous words uttered by Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck.
"We'll take the ball, and we're gonna score."
Al Harris to the house
They amounted to famous last words from the former Packers signal-caller, a delightful burst of exuberant hubris spoken into the referee's microphone after Seattle won the overtime coin toss.
"I don’t care too much. I don’t regret it," Hasselbeck said in a 2019 oral history by Jim Owczarski re-visiting that 2003 playoff game. "I don’t regret saying anything that I said. I obviously regret throwing an interception to end the game but the amount of friendly chatter like that between friends on the football field, that’s just sort of part of it."
Hasselbeck, who played for the Packers in 1999 and 2000, remained friends with former Packers teammates like quarterback Brett Favre and kicker Ryan Longwell. He'd come into his own under the tutelage of former Packers head coach Mike Holmgren, leading Seattle to a 10-6 record and earning a spot in the Pro Bowl.
Longwell's miss from 49 yards as time expired forced the game into overtime, and both teams went three-and-out on initial drives. A Seattle fumble inside its own 35 was overturned on replay, but the Seahawks still had to punt. On Seattle's second opportunity with the ball, Hasselbeck converted a first down but faced 3rd and 11 from the Seattle 45.
He tried to hit Alex Bannister on the left sideline. Harris jumped the pass.
"I was just praying that he would throw the ball, because I knew I was going to gamble on that play," Harris said of the audible he had sniffed out. "As a cornerback, you pray that they run that route, a hitch or a slant, something you can jump quick and get where you want to go."
Harris picked off the pass at the Packers' 48-yard line and ran the opposite way for a 52-yard score that ended the contest. He raised his left arm to the sky as he surged toward the finish line. The Packers were off to Philadelphia — facing Harris' old team, the Eagles — for the divisional round of the playoffs.
"I'm sure Matt will learn from today and he didn't play that bad," Favre said. "He played pretty damn good, but the next time he's in the playoffs, he will get better and better and better."
Favre threw the ball 38 times, completing 26 passes for 319 yards and two touchdowns. Ahman Green also had two rushing scores, including one with 2:48 to go that gave the Packers a 27-20 lead. On the same drive, Green also converted on a 4th-and-short play.
"That's 'G,'" fullback Nick Luchey said of Green. "He's not going to let one guy bring him down. He's hell one-on-one."
Shaun Alexander scored three times for the Seahawks, including the equalizer with 55 seconds left. Favre nearly led the Packers to a win in regulation thanks to a 27-yard completion to Javon Walker in the final minutes, but Longwell couldn't connect.
Hasselbeck finished 25 of 45 for 305 yards — and one interception.
"It hurts," Holmgren said. "I'll be honest with you, I'm dying inside. It hurts bad to lose this game today. The locker room is in bad shape right now because these guys really left it out there on the field."
4th and 26
But then, there's the postscript.
The following week came one of the most brutal losses in Packers history, yet another overtime playoff battle.
Green Bay appeared headed to the NFC Championship game, but Donovan McNabb connected on a 28-yard pass to Freddie Mitchell on 4th and 26 with 1:12 to go. It's a down and distance that has permanently been etched in Packers fans' collective memory, after David Akers tied the game with a field goal and won it in overtime.
The 2003 season had plenty of highlights, though, including the penultimate game of the regular season in Oakland that marked Favre's best game, a virtuoso effort in a 41-7 win one day after the death of his father, Irv.
How the moment lives on
Who hasn't uttered some variation of "We'll take the ball and we're gonna score?"
Harris finished with 14 career interceptions in Green Bay, with his career wrapping in 2010.
"You know what my top memory is? Having my name on the fence (on Lombardi Avenue)," Harris said last year. "That was the next year. Honestly, you don’t know how many times I used to drive by that. It was so neat. I used to tell guys, ‘Once you get your name on there, you’re famous.’"
Hasselbeck's career ended in 2015 before he became a television analyst, and he continues to look back on that moment with good humor anytime it's brought up. The game also seemed to kick off a rivalry with the Seahawks, including three additional playoff games (two Packers wins and one memorable loss) and a regular-season rivalry that featured the infamous "Fail Mary" of 2012.
The 2003 season perhaps ended with a thud, but it required some serious magic for the Packers to get that far. The Packers would continue to enjoy substantial success in the decade, even though Mike Sherman was fired after a 4-12 season in 2005, and the Packers also missed the playoffs in 2006 under first-year coach Mike McCarthy.
Walk off wonders
Some of these moments will be captured elsewhere on the 50 in 50, but the past 50 years have brought a number of thrilling finishes for Green Bay Packers fans.
Dec. 29, 2013: He's Got Cobb. Randall Cobb wound up wide open, and Aaron Rodgers found him for a fourth-down touchdown pass with 38 seconds left that gave the Packers a 33-28 win over the Bears in a winner-take-all battle for the NFC North title on the final day of the season.
Jan. 24, 2010: Schadenfavre. Packers fans were still smarting about Brett Favre's willful decision to play for the Minnesota Vikings, but with his team on the doorstep of the Super Bowl, he made one of the more memorable missteps of his career. Favre threw a pass intercepted by Tracy Porter in Saints territory with time winding down in the NFC Championship Game, and New Orleans went on to win the game in overtime, 31-28, then won the Super Bowl.
December 28, 2003: Poole party. Poole's grab wouldn't have counted today; he didn't get two feet down but was ruled to have been forced out of bounds in 2003 (today that's just good defense). His catch as time expired stunned the Minnesota Vikings, 18-17, and left Minnesota out of the playoffs. The Packers would have stayed home without the outcome.
November 6, 2000: He did WHAT? During a rainy Monday Night Football game, Antonio Freeman stumbled on a long third-down pass that was nearly intercepted by Minnesota's Cris Dishman, but the ball bounced off Freeman, who was on the ground, and was snagged by the Packers receiver before it hit the turf. He rose, ran to the end zone and gave the Packers a wild 26-20 win, prompting announcer Al Michaels to ask, "He did WHAT?"
Dec. 24, 1995: Yancey Thigpen drops it. The Pittsburgh Steelers appeared on their way to denying Green Bay its first divisional championship since 1982, but Yancey Thigpen straight-up dropped a touchdown pass from Neil O'Donnell on fourth down with 11 seconds left at Lambeau Field. Green Bay held on, 24-19.
Jan. 8, 1994: The Pack is back. Favre found Sterling Sharpe for a 40-yard bomb with 55 seconds left for a 28-24 win against the Lions in Detroit, marking Green Bay's first playoff win (and appearance) in 11 seasons.
Nov. 5, 1989: The Instant Replay Game. This featured a disputed fourth-down touchdown pass from Don Majkowski to Sterling Sharpe in the final seconds for a 14-13 win over the Chicago Bears. Even though referees initially ruled Majkowski was over the line of scrimmage, and both teams seem resigned to that ending, the call was overturned on instant replay. Replays seem ... pretty inconclusive, but oh well.
Sept. 7, 1980: Chester Marcol! Chester Marcol's attempted 25-yard field goal to win the season opener in overtime was blocked but deflected right back to the kicker, who ran it into the end zone for the only touchdown of the game. The Packers beat the Bears in a memorable chapter within the rivalry, 12-6.
Rules of the 50 in 50 series
- Moments are recorded over the 50-year window from 1970 to 2019 (sorry 2020, but you're disqualified)
- These are moments and not achievements, although that largely goes hand-in-hand.
- These are "greatest" 50 moments, so you won't see moments that are pivotal but ultimately heartbreaking (like the NFC Championship loss to Seattle, Kareem getting traded, etc.)
- You also won't see (many) moments that came to be recognized for their greatness later, such as the day the Bucks drafted Giannis Antetokounmpo or the day the Packers traded for Brett Favre.
- Moments considered include teams based in Wisconsin and Wisconsin athletes competing in individual sports or as part of national teams (such as the Olympics), or moments on Wisconsin soil.
- These are singular moments. You're supposed to remember where you were when they happened.