Arizona Cardinals Home: The official source of the latest Cardinals headlines, news, videos, photos, tickets, rosters and game day information

Presented by
Folktales: Miracle In The Desert
Nate Poole becomes unlikely hero in 2003 finale that impacted the playoffs, the draft, and Larry Fitzgerald
By Darren Urban Nov 01, 2022

The second season of Folktales continues this week, with "Miracle In The Desert" premiering on the Arizona Cardinals YouTube channel Wednesday at 8 a.m.

The chemistry, as much as a quarterback and wide receiver could create on the scout team with limited practice reps, was built on the basketball court.

Whenever they had the chance, Josh McCown and Nate Poole would head over to the Lifetime Fitness, make sure they were on the same team, and ball.

"It's going to sound bad coming from an NFL receiver," said Poole, the one-time Cardinals wide receiver, "but we played basketball probably more than we went out on the field and threw the football."

Because of the basketball, McCown said, "I felt like there was a connection for us."

Now, was that particular part of their history actually going through McCown's mind as the seconds ticked down in the 2003 season and the Cardinals quarterback scrambled to the right with one final attempt to beat the Vikings?

Probably not.

But that connection meant something as McCown let the ball go from 28 yards away, a dart that found Poole inbounds just enough for an improbable touchdown that knocked the Vikings out of the playoffs, knocked the Cardinals out of the No. 1 overall draft pick, and provided an emotional swan song for soon-to-be-fired coach Dave McGinnis. It also cleared the way for the Cardinals to draft Larry Fitzgerald.

"You would have thought we won the Super Bowl," McCown said. "It was an unbelievable moment."

Every team has a Nate Poole. They have more than one.

Poole, who had played at Marshall with another wide receiver named Randy Moss, originally signed with the Cardinals as an undrafted rookie in 2001. Over the next couple of years, he spent time on the practice squad and roster, always on the cusp of being cut.

"Every year I was with the Cardinals it was getting to training camp and you bust your butt trying to make the team," Poole said.

He had only 13 catches in 2002, and in 2003, the Cardinals added first-round pick Bryant Johnson and second-round pick Anquan Boldin to the roster. Boldin became a breakout star. Poole just kept trying to keep his job.

McCown had been a third-round pick in 2002 playing behind Jake Plummer, and in 2003 he was Jeff Blake's backup. But with Plummer gone, McCown thought there could be a chance he could play – and he did, getting the chance to start the last three games.

"The whole way we approached the year was different," McCown said. "Coming down the stretch I did feel more prepared to play at the end of that season."

That the two would figure into one of the most dramatic moments in Cardinals – and Vikings and Packers – history wouldn't have been guessed.

The Vikings just needed to win to capture their division title, the Packers right behind, and truthfully, that was exactly what was expected to happen. Moss was in his prime. The Minnesota defense had guys like defensive tackle Kevin Williams and former Cardinal Corey Chavous. The Cardinals had limped to the finish line of what had been a 3-12 season.

"People talk about players tanking seasons to get draft picks," said Damien Anderson, a running back on that team. "It's the last thing on their mind. They are thinking about job security."

McGinnis didn't have that. His tenure was coming to an end after the Vikings game, and it wasn't a surprise in the locker room.

Meanwhile, the Cardinals held the second overall draft pick, with the Chargers – who had the No. 1 pick but playing the equally woeful Raiders – needing to win and the Cardinals lose for Arizona to finish with the top pick and a shot at Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning.

The team had Boldin and running back Emmitt Smith had returned to the field after missing most of the year with injury. They had future Ring of Honor member Adrian Wilson in his third season. But not much else.

Not that it mattered to the team or McGinnis.

"That we're going to beat the Minnesota Vikings, realistically, I don't know if that was an easy sell for a coach," McCown said. "But he did a good job of framing that for us."

The Vikings may not have thought much of the Cardinals. But the underdogs were leading at halftime, 6-0, before the Vikings scored two touchdowns. The second came on the first possession of the fourth quarter for – as the game had been going – an insurmountable lead.

On the next play, McCown threw an interception, and the Vikings tacked on a field goal for an 11-point lead – not knowing then to regret not pushing in for a third TD.

"I mean, anything can happen against anybody, anytime," said long-time Vikings radio play-by-play man Paul Allen, then in only his second season. "And as we know, it did."

As the Cardinals took over with about seven minutes left in their season, the Chargers were headed toward beating the Raiders – meaning the Cardinals would have the No. 1 pick overall if their score also remained the same.

"I think at that point we were just waiting for the season to get over and deep down, hoping the Cardinals wouldn't win so they got the No. 1 pick," Cardinals play-by-play man Dave Pasch said.

But McCown engineered a time-sucking touchdown drive that he finished with a scrambling fourth-down touchdown pass to tight end Steve Bush. A two-point conversion failed, and the Cardinals trailed, 17-12, with 1:54 left.

The Cardinals marched out kicker Neil Rackers, signed midseason, who was one of the best in NFL history in creating recoverable onside kicks.

"We're about to bang heads for real, and luckily that day, I wasn't demolition, I was recovery," Anderson said.

Rackers' bouncing boot ricocheted off Vikings fullback Jim Kleinsasser and right into the right-place-right-time hands of Anderson. The Cardinals still had life.

"I don't think I played on a team that literally shut it down, like 'We're going to pack our bags, 1-2-3 Cancun,' " safety Adrian Wilson said.

The Cardinals got down to the Minnesota 13 with more than a minute left, jump-started by a 30-yard pass interference drawn by Bryant Johnson. The comeback, amazingly, seemed inevitable.

"It was like, 'Four shots from here, I like our chances,' " McCown said. "Then, as fate would have it, I think we were thinking degree of difficulty, like we could get more points if we just back it up a little bit."

After an Emmitt Smith four-yard run, McCown took a sack, and the Cardinals took their final timeout. And then he was sacked again, pushing the Cardinals back to the 26 and fourth down, and the clock was running. Smith was yelling at McCown to get up and get ready to run a play. It was the eighth time McCown was sacked in the game.

"It's chaos, right?" Poole said. "Definitely chaos and panic. Then you take a deep breath and the ball's gotta get snapped."

When McCown was installed as late-season starter, Blake gave him a piece of advice: Look for Boldin and tight end Freddie Jones. Those were his go-to guys. But as the Vikings pass rush once again split the Cardinals' line on the final play, McCown was forced right, and forced him to really one choice in the end zone – Poole.

"He's pointing to the right and inside," Poole said. "I know he's about to throw it over there. And the defender, he had no clue."

Poole snatched the ball on the sideline of the end zone. One foot came down, the other did not as he was pushed out of bounds by Vikings defensive back Brian Russell. In those days, the officials could deem a catch good if a receiver was pushed out, and that's exactly what happened, changing everything in a split-second miracle.

The Vikings were out of the playoffs, Allen screaming "NOOOOOOOOOOOO" as the play happened.

"It hits me so vividly because of how emotional it was at the moment," Allen said, noting that he heard later that Vikings owner Red McCombs hated the call.

Pasch was incredulous, thinking of the draft pick the Cardinals would not have. Minnesota native Larry Fitzgerald, about to enter the NFL draft, just knew his beloved Vikings – for whom he once was a ball boy – were done for the season.

"It was just being one of those days where like, it was after the sun fell out of the sky," Fitzgerald said. "It was a miserable day of existence."

The Packers, who hammered the Broncos at home that day, were in the playoffs when they thought it was impossible – the Lambeau Field crowd erupting as news of Poole's catch circulated the stadium.

In the locker room, the immediate jubilation turned quickly as McGinnis gave a poignant final speech. At one point, he turned to Poole, the emotions catching in his voice.

"I cut this man four times," McGinnis said. "I cut him four times. And every time he stood up in my office and hugged me and said, 'Mac, if you need me, I'll be back.' "

"I was like, you know, your last family hug," Poole recalled.

As bad as the season had gone, it was the perfect ending.

"It was a special moment for a team that didn't have a whole lot to play for," McCown said.

Poole got a phone call that week, saying it was Green Bay mayor Jim Schmitt. He hung up originally, thinking it was a teammate's prank. It was not. Schmitt extended an invitation for Poole and his wife to attend the Packers playoff game Poole had made possible, and in the process, get a key to the city.

"It was a great time," Poole said.

McCown got a gift basket of cheese from Wisconsin and received Christmas cards from Packers fans for years.

Poole – who had played the role of Randy Moss on the Cardinals' scout team in the week of practice leading into the game – got a chance to talk to his former teammate when Marshall had a reunion in 2006. Moss still was salty from the result but admitted to his friend if it had to happen, he was glad it was Poole.

"I felt that (game), I came up bigger than Randy," Poole said.

McCown didn't know what to think of his own future. McGinnis was fired the day after the game, and the uncertainty of a new coach weighed on him.

"You grow up fast in this business," McCown said. "You go, 'Wait, they're going to fire these coaches. Wait a minute, they could draft a new quarterback, and I was just the quarterback of the future two days ago.' "

Fortunately for McCown, the Cardinals hired Dennis Green, the one-time Vikings head coach who once in place had his sights set on drafting not Ben Roethlisberger or Philip Rivers at No. 3 but a big-time wide receiver in Larry Fitzgerald.

McCown acknowledges the Minnesota win and his showing, however brief, late in the season gave Green enough ammunition to go Fitz in the draft. (Fitzgerald said Green once told him Fitz would have been the No. 1 overall pick had the Cardinals drafted there, and not Manning.)

In the immediate aftermath of the season, however, Fitzgerald wasn't a Cardinal yet. He wasn't a Poole teammate yet. He was just a miserable Vikings fan.

"I did not like Nate Poole," Fitzgerald said with a smile. "That was a devastating game."

Fitzgerald was later drafted, and McCown was the quarterback to start the 2004 season – until he was benched, and the team ended up signing Kurt Warner in 2005. The Vikings, out of the playoffs at 9-7, made the postseason the next year with the best offense in the NFL despite an 8-8 record.

The sting of the last-second catch, however, still lingers.

"It was an amazing play," Allen said. "But like I've said about Nathan, and I'm not being disparaging here, that was his 15 minutes of fame."

Poole doesn't dispute that. Now an assistant coach at North Carolina A&T, there are times he'll call upon his stint in the NFL, and the catch he made to end the 2003 season.

"Making that catch," Poole said, "is always going to be the thing I tell people."

back to top