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McCown to Poole collage for oral history
McCown To Poole To Fitz: How Miracle Win Turned Into A Future Hall Of Famer
An oral history of crazy 2003 finale, the Cards' last game before Larry Fitzgerald
By Darren Urban Sep 09, 2020
Photographs By Photos by AP and Arizona Cardinals/Illustration by Sandy McAfee

As Larry Fitzgerald begins his 17th season in the NFL, it's hard to imagine the Cardinals without him on the roster.

It's also hard to forget the last Fitzgerald-less game.

It was Dec. 28, 2003. The Cardinals were finishing up an ugly year, heading into their finale at Sun Devil Stadium with the reality that a loss to the Minnesota Vikings – who could capture the NFC North title with a win – would give the Cards the No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 draft. The Cardinals had a fantastic rookie wide receiver named Anquan Boldin, and they had running back Emmitt Smith in the twilight of his career. But injuries had shredded the roster and second-year quarterback Josh McCown was starting only his third NFL game.

This is the story of that game, that play, and the aftermath that delivered Fitzgerald – the lifelong Vikings fan and one-time Vikings ballboy -- to the Cardinals.

THE SETUP

The 3-12 Cardinals stumbled into the finale with rumors swirling that head coach Dave McGinnis would be let go. Nothing had been announced. Young players dotted the lineup.

Dave McGinnis, Cardinals head coach: I knew I was gone. I told the team. I remember (center) Pete Kendall, 'Ah, hell no Mac.' I said, 'Look, it's the league. It's OK. But just because that's it, you guys will still have extended careers, I told them I'll still continue to be in the league, we just won't be together here.' We're all going out, this team won't be together next year – that never happens – and I won't be your head coach, but I would just like to go out because no one expects us to win this game, we're double-digit dogs to a playoff team. No one expects anything of us.

Josh McCown, quarterback: I wish I could say I was that aware, but I wasn't (that Cards could get the No. 1 pick). I remember talking to (QB coach) Geep (Chryst) afterwards, and him saying, 'You came on and these last few games, you've shown some growth and some steps forward, and hopefully they'll keep us. If that is something that means something to you, if anyone asks you, make sure you let them know.' And that was the first time I was like, 'Oh man, (the coaches) might not be back.'

Reggie Wells, rookie left tackle making his first NFL start: I wasn't someone who was going to come home (and tell my family) I might be starting. They still tell the story, they were at the concession stand (an open area by the players' tunnel) at the game and this is when we played at Sun Devil Stadium. They see (regular left tackle) L.J. (Shelton) walking by, and they were like 'Where you going, the game is about to start?' And he was like, 'Reg is about to start is what's going to happen.' My parents still tell the story about leaving the concession stand and rushing back to their seats.

Corey Chavous, Vikings Pro Bowl safety and former Cardinal: It wasn't really as good of a season as it seemed from the outside. On the first interception of the season I tore my MCL, so I had to sleep at the facility at night for like the first month of the season and get treatment all night long just to play every week. They thought I was going to miss a lot of time, and it was just difficult every week getting ready and just not being healthy. All season, it was more a journey for me individually. I wanted to fight through, I was a team captain and I felt like we had a good team. I enjoyed the team success early (6-0 start) and I think we peaked too early.

Paul Allen, Vikings play-by-play announcer: In my 18 years calling Vikings football, we have had some quite memorable seasons and it's for different reasons. For me, the 2003 season, my second season on the microphone, that is one – for many reasons – I will never forget. The team was 6-0, and it had a 'There ain't no stopping us now' feel to it. Then we started losing to some of the most nondescript teams and quarterbacks.

McCown: You've been around Mac. Anyone who has been around Mac, he can make any game feel like the Super Bowl.

The Cardinals didn't roll over. They led, 6-0, at halftime. Not only did they start McCown and Wells, they also gave more playing time to Poole, who had been cut and brought back to the Cards more times than he wanted to count.

Nate Poole, wide receiver: I was the backup to (rookies) Bryant Johnson and Anquan Boldin, whoever needed a blow. I was a heavy special teams guy. When coach told me 'Nate, you up until I tell you otherwise,' I actually thought my special teams role was going to slow down, but it didn't. It was more like, 'Dang, I get a chance to play? Are they going to trade Bryant?' Because I did start thinking like that. 'Could they get rid of Johnson?' Actually made me feel a little bit better. I mean, he's my man, but we all are looking to play.

Meanwhile, in Green Bay, the Packers were beating up the Broncos. The Packers not only needed a win to make the playoffs, but also for the Cardinals to upset the Vikings.

Mark Tauscher, Packers right tackle: Minnesota, we were obviously battling them for the better part of the second half of the season, and I don't think we anticipated Arizona beating Minnesota. I don't think we thought it was going to come to that. It was one of those things where it was algebra, calculus-type stuff (for the playoff scenarios). If we would've thought that all our hopes were on Arizona needing to beat Minnesota, I don't think we would've felt that confident.

THE ONSIDE KICK

The Vikings started to take control, eventually scoring 17 straight points as the clock bled down past the halfway point of the fourth quarter. Then McCown led the Cards on a nearly five-minute touchdown drive – Poole had a key 37-yard catch – that culminated in a chaotic, scrambling fourth-down two-yard scoring pass to tight end Steve Bush. The two-point conversion failed, meaning the Cards, down 17-12, needed an onside kick with only 1:54 left. Fortunately, the Cards had Neil Rackers, one of the best in the league at that sort of kick.

Wells: I could barely breathe out there. I hadn't played a full game since my last game in college. That also let me know, as a guy who might not be playing a lot, there is a certain amount you are losing (in conditioning) just not playing on Sundays. That drive of five minutes, I remember it now, but only in the sense that I couldn't (expletive) breathe out there.

McCown: It took a lot of clock, but it put a little bit of panic in them. You could see it as the drive went on, and once Bushy caught the touchdown, that's where the momentum really started to swing. You get a team panicking, worrying about losing – especially when they have so much on the line.

Quentin Harris, Cardinals safety: I was a hit guy. Actually, my helmet is at my Dad's house – there is a purple smear of paint from a (Vikings) helmet from the guy who went up … my helmet hit him and that's how the ball came out. It was 'Do your job.' I wasn't a ball guy. I was go-and-make-sure-I-take-out-their-ball guy. It was all dark and then it's a mass of people and scrambling. Then you can hear the crowd. I knew we got it.

As the ball went into the mess of bodies and Harris went diving in, the ball went off the hands of Vikings tight end Jim Kleinsasser and bounced right to Cardinals running back Damien Anderson.

Anderson: When I walked out there, I remember I felt good because we were kicking the ball and not receiving it – because I know what that feels like on that front line, because you're gonna get destroyed. Because it's gonna be physical, and hopefully you have a good mouthpiece and you've been lifting weights, because it's going to be an altercation between you and the kickoff team. I remember my eyes everywhere, head on a swivel and don't get blown up. The ball hits a couple guys and it's just laying there.

McGinnis: Those guys were playing their ass off the whole game. But you could feel the elevation of energy when we got it, on the sideline. Everyone was like, 'Hell yes.'

Taucher: We started pulling away from Denver, we had a long 98-yard run from Ahman Green and that kind of sealed the game, and the crowd goes crazy. Then you're on the sideline, and it was during a commercial break -- and you have to remember cell phones were not like they are now -- everybody was turning their heads and looking into the press box (at the TVs) and going crazy during a time where nothing was going on on the field. That's when we were all like, 'What the heck is going on?' And then word started traveling through.

Anderson: I kept the ball. I didn't have many of those moments. It was my Larry Fitzgerald moment. It's with my other couple, my Carolina game ball, a Seattle game ball that we had, just a couple signature wins throughout my short career, but it meant something to me. Those moments, anything you do, you want to be remembered for it and have something of a legacy.

MCCOWN TO POOLE

Momentum owned, it looked like the Cardinals might march right in for a win. Johnson drew a 30-yard pass interference call on the first play, and later, after an Emmitt Smith run, the Cardinals had a second down at the Minnesota 9-yard line with 39 seconds left. Then, disaster. McCown was sacked at the 17, and after the Cards called their final timeout, he was sacked yet again with McCown fumbling the ball. Luckily, Wells fell on it at the 28 after Lance Johnstone had beaten him on the rush.

McGinnis: We're running around, getting sacked, looking at fourth and a million. I told Josh, 'Do anything but take a sack. We're at the 9-yard line. If it's not there, throw it away. We have four downs.' When he took the first one, I was like (*sighs*). When he took the second one, I was like, '(Expletive) me.' And I love Josh McCown.

McCown: Yeah, exactly, and I wish I hadn't been in my third-ever game. You're looking for the perfect throw. And, I'd have to look at the tape, but maybe the second one, or the sack-fumble, felt like (the pass rush) happened pretty quick. Seemingly all hope was gone.

Wells, told McCown remembered the pass rush being quick, lets out a big laugh: Riiiiight. It was. He's not lying.

Allen: The Vikings have at least one timeout left, and I remember high atop Sun Devil Stadium, looking at the members of the Vikings defense and they had their hands on their knees and they were gasping for air. I know coaches hate taking timeouts on defense but I truly believe a timeout there to recalibrate would have been good.

McCown: I remember once we took the sack, I remember Emmitt yelling, 'Josh, get up, get up, get up. We've got to run a play.' I'm hopping up and trying to get everyone set and at that point, it's everybody in the end zone. Four verticals. After taking two sacks, I knew it was going to have to be, kinda, up and out and get out of the pocket. Don't hang around. I credit a lot of it to Emmitt for reminding me to get up.

McCown takes the snap with three seconds left on the clock – and the season -- and rolls right.

McCown, laughing: Nate and Anquan were the two main (targets) because I knew their ball skills. I played a ton of basketball with both of them, so I could feel them, know what I mean? That was definitely something, as I got out of the pocket, that I thought about.

Poole: In my head, I'm thinking, 'OK, he's going to Anquan.' We practiced that play all the time, scramble drill, get in the end zone. It just so happened he got flushed out to my side. I saw Josh escape out and I'm thinking, 'Ohhhh Lord.' The cornerback was inside of me, so when Josh pointed I was just trying to hold him off as long as I can so he wouldn't react to that ball. The whole time, I was like, 'Oh, I got him.' I didn't know the safety was coming. When Josh pointed I thought, 'Man, this is a layup. We do this all the time. This will be easy.' And the safety almost got over there.

Poole makes the catch, his back to the sideline, only getting one toe down before safety Brian Russell pushes him out. Allen, in his call, famously yells "NOOOOO! NOOOOOO!" Boldin runs in and takes down Poole by the neck in celebration.

A few years later the NFL changed the force-out rule to say a defender could shove a receiver out of bounds to prevent two feet in and the catch. But in 2003, officials could still deem a player forced out with the catch still counting, and Poole, who only got the one foot down, was judged that way.

Allen: It was at the end of a very emotional season, up and down. Calling Vikings football, this was my first play-by-play job at any level. I auditioned to get the job and I won. So here I am at the end of my second season, I'm still very raw, and obviously very emotional. Quite honestly, I don't think (owner Red McCombs) liked that call at the end of the season, for whatever reason.

McGinnis: I saw him catch it. But, and talking about the force-out rule, it would've been done today. I saw him catch it. I couldn't see his feet. When they fired it back up there (on the video screen) I went, 'He's got that foot in, that’s a force out. But, are they gonna call it?'

Wells, who started at guard on the 2008 Super Bowl team: I picture Nate's catch in my head, and for whatever reason, whether it is similar or not, to me it resembles the Steelers (expletive) catching it at the end of the Super Bowl. (chuckles)

Poole: Anquan, I didn't think he was gonna slam me. When I talk to him from time to time, I'm 'Dude, you still remember you slammed me.' He's like, 'Yeah, every year they show it on the top plays, they show it all the time.'

Allen: McCown rolls right, fires front right of the end zone, there's Nathan Poole, and Brian Russell shoves him out of bounds, and I don't believe that would've been a catch in this day and age. Through the grace of God, I recognized it was Nathan Poole, and that was it. We were dead.

Referee Tony Corrente went to review the play, but it was only to figure out if Poole had maintained possession. McCown followed Corrente to the replay hood, yelling "Come on, we need this one!"

McCown: I remember vividly. I was lobbying hard. In that moment, it was like, this is crazy. Without shoulder pads on and here in the air conditioning, I would never say I'd want to be given a call, but at the time, when you're out there in the middle of it and you friggin' fought your tail off with your guys, you're like, 'Dude, we want to win.' And it was the right call. Before. Before the rule change.

Fitzgerald, future Cardinals wide receiver: I am a die-hard Vikings fan still to this day. I pull for them when I'm not playing against them. I watched the whole game and remember Randy Moss making that sick one-handed catch and the one safety for the Cardinals getting knocked out twice by my boy Chris Walsh (a Vikings wide receiver). I was upset they were going to miss the playoffs.

Allen: I'm not pontificating, and I'm not playing this up for the sake of this story, I'm telling you right now, I've never called a game where more unique circumstances had to go one way for a team to win a game than that one to end 2003. Granted it's the end of a regular season eventually involving two non-playoff teams, but it's one of the most of the most distinct plays, honestly, in the history of the National Football League.

McCown: I took the ball, and I threw it up in the stands to my dad and my high school coach and my little brother, it was short. Someone else caught it. My high school coach and my brother go over and grab these dudes and they look at them like, 'We're not leaving here without that ball.' They gave them the ball. That was just as good of a story after the game as the throw itself. They were ready to throw down. It almost came to blows. There might have been some exchanged – the story gets better every time we get around Coach (Danny) Long – but that's for another time.

McGinnis: There were two receivers on the field from Marshall that day. They had Randy Moss. We had Nathan Poole.

THE AFTERMATH

As the Cardinals celebrated, Vikings were strewn across the field, exhausted and in disbelief they lost the game and their season was over, when they had just been thinking they were going to win the NFC North and go to the playoffs.

Chavous: (Cardinals defensive line coach) Mean Joe Greene came up to me after that game, I was really good friends with him, and he saw how disappointed I was, how distraught, and he was just like, 'A good team wouldn't have lost that game.'

Wells: I remember the frenzy going into that moment, but I wouldn't be able to write it down in book report. Or at least the details would be all over the place, like a Tarantino movie or something. In the aftermath, I still wasn't celebrating. Guys wanted to go out after the game. I wanted to go home and sleep and recover for a few days. What I was dealing with through much of the game was really just survival.

McGinnis: They were showing (the end) in Green Bay on the big board. We didn't know that. When I got in the locker room, (Packers coach) Mike Sherman and Mark Hatley, who was the GM at the time, they called me, 'You're a (expletive) king here in Green Bay.'

Chavous: I really enjoyed my time and loved the people in Arizona. It's where I was drafted and I have an affinity for the franchise. I actually grew up a big St. Louis Cardinals fan because of Neil Lomax and Roy Green, Wolf and Pat Tilley, J.T. Smith, I could go on and on. I knew about the history of the team before I even got there. (In 2003) I was still close with people that were there. It was a tough loss. That was the toughest loss, probably, of my entire career, man.

McGinnis, knowing it was his final game, gave an emotional speech in the locker room that was captured by NFL Films.

Anderson: You knew it was the end of his era. You knew change was coming. Him being emotional, he knew what it was and it didn't matter if we won that game or not. Being young, you think, if we come in and beat this team, it'll enable him to coach another year, because who wants turnover at any job. Many things can be said about why we didn't win … I just know he was a good person.

McGinnis, now the Titans' radio analyst after many years as an NFL assistant: I still to this day am very close with that team. (Center) Pete Kendall said it best, he was like, 'Mac, no matter what happens, this is one of the coolest experiences I've ever had.' … I wanted that moment for us. For that team.

Because of his heroics, Poole ultimately was invited to attend the Packers' playoff game the following week with his wife, getting a call from Green Bay's mayor directly. He was given a key to the city. He also shot a local TV commercial in Green Bay featuring him and Bears cornerback Charles Tillman, who himself had helped deal the Vikings a crucial loss by forcing a fumble by Randy Moss in a late-season game. Poole also has a few photo collages at his house, sent by grateful Green Bay fans.

Poole, now an assistant coach at Wingate University: I was one of those guys who was up and down, so why not? It was cool with the organization. And I had a blast.

McCown, who also got an invite to Green Bay: If I had gone, maybe I wouldn't have gotten all the cheese and all the stuff they sent us that year. That part was cool too.

Allen: It was the gift of negativity that kept on giving. Just when you think it was done, you read, oh great, someone called Nathan Poole is going to be in Green Bay getting a freaking key to the city because we just screwed up the final game of the season.

Chavous, on re-living the game: It's all good. I started the year off getting asked about the play against Michael Vick (for the ESPN 30 for 30), me and my teammate running into each other and he scored, so it's been one of those years.

Poole played two years in college with Moss at Marshall and attended a Marshall reunion that offseason.

Poole: There were like seven or eight guys who played in the league at that time. One guy says, 'Hey Nate – that was a heck of a catch to put Randy out of the playoffs.' … Before the game, (Randy and I) had met and we are talking future, not so much them beating us but more, 'Nate, what are they saying about your contract?' I told him I was day to day and I ball out when they put me in. He said, and if you know Randy you know what this is like, he said, 'Yeah, because you're not that good at receiver.' He got me. He was joking, but he got me. Then I got his ass after that game (chuckles). He was so mad. So mad.

THE ROAD THAT LED TO FITZ

Given circumstances, especially the eventual hiring of Dennis Green, it seems likely the Cardinals would've drafted Larry Fitzgerald in 2004 even if they had lost to the Vikings and had the No. 1 pick. Fitzgerald, in 2015, even joked he had been "mad" at McCown and Poole because they might've cost him that chance at history. Quarterbacks Eli Manning, Philip Rivers and Ben Roethlisberger were all in that draft. McCown, though, did produce a miracle.

McCown: Immediately I become Denny Green's best friend because I beat the team that fired him. It's kind of two-fold. I don't think it changes anything – I think he takes Larry Fitzgerald No. 1 if we had been No. 1. I do. Or trades back (for him). But coupled with that, it was easy for him. 'I'm going to promote the guy who just beat the team that fired me.' All those things played a part in (Fitz) for sure.

Harris, now the Cardinals' Director of Player Personnel: If Denny Green was still hired to be our coach, Fitz would've gone No. 1. That was happening. It's just two spots. Whatever the order, if he was there, (Fitz) would've been the choice. (Fitz) made a lot more than being a ballboy, so I'm sure he's not complaining (about not being No. 1). He’s buying franchises now.

Anderson: Fitz still being a Cardinal is a credit to his status and work ethic and also the state of the franchise. Once Denny came, it didn't matter if it were 1 or 3, I think Larry would've been the guy. Based on his production, based on his success, I think it was going to be the right decision. I think it worked out well for Larry and the Arizona Cardinals.

Fitzgerald: I had no idea about being drafted by the Cardinals (after the Poole catch). Dennis Green wasn't the head coach yet. I still had a (college) bowl game to play -- so many things going on at that point. I was still grieving my mother also. A whole lot going on.

McCown and Fitzgerald did play together in a bumpy 2004 season, until the Cardinals decided they needed a veteran quarterback and signed Kurt Warner the following offseason. McCown left after 2005, his pass to Poole the biggest moment of his tenure in Arizona.

McCown, just signed to the Eagles' practice squad as their 2020 emergency QB: It was crazy. That was the first time, for me as a young player, understanding the emotions that go into this game. I didn't know my career was about to continue on with no playoff appearances (chuckles), so I was just looking at (the Vikings) thinking, 'You guys will just get back there another time.' Seeing their faces knowing they just missed the playoffs and then for us, processing in the locker room when Coach Mac is probably talking to the team for the last time in that setting, that day was different from that standpoint. It probably shaped for me how I saw the game and the emotions of this game for the rest of my career.

Images from the Cardinals' 18-17 win over the Vikings on the final play of the 2003 season.

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