Luis Zendejas was pissed. “If I could’ve stood on two legs, I would’ve decked him,” he said after the Eagles won in Dallas 27-0 on Thanksgiving 1989. Zendejas kicked for the Eagles earlier in the year but was cut and signed with the Cowboys. (“Luis Zendejas, I kick field goals/ Am I nervous, yeah, I suppose,” he sorta rapped in the “Buddy’s Watchin’ You” video in 1988.)
Zendejas and the target of his anger–Eagles coach Buddy Ryan—have been in the news a bit recently due to an NFL investigation of the Saints that produced 50,000 pages somehow: Former New Orleans defensive coordinator Gregg Williams offered players bounties to hurt guys like Kurt Warner and Brett Favre.
This is one case where things really were better in the old days. The Bounty Bowl scandal is infinitely better than the Saints scandal, with a charismatic, wisecracking Philadelphia hero and a whiny Dallas Cowboys kicker, coach and owner playing the villains. (Well, at least this is how we look at it in Philadelphia.) Yes, there were plenty of traditional sportswriter morality tales–“Even the World Wrestling Federation would have been embarrassed to promote Cowboys-Eagles II as entertainment,” Newsday’s Joe Gergen wrote–but the whole thing was much, much more fun.
During his only play on the field that Thanksgiving, Eagles linebacker Jesse Small cut through two Cowboys and hammered Zendejas to the ground. After the game Jimmy Johnson alleged Ryan placed a bounty on Zendejas ($200) and quarterback Troy Aikman ($500). It was dubbed the Bounty Bowl. “He put his big, fat rear end into the dressing room as fast as he could,” Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson complained after the game. “It’s stupid to have a coach like that in the NFL, the fat little guy,” Zendejas added.
“It’s like he called me fat,” Ryan retorted. “I resent that. I lost some weight, and I thought I was looking good.”
The Eagles and Cowboys would play again in a two weeks. Ryan staunchly denied any bounties were offered. “If you had a bounty, why would you put it on a kicker who’s been in a six-week slump?” he asked. “You want to keep him in the game.” Zendejas threatened to deck Ryan at the team’s rematch on December 10; Ryan said he’d be safe. “I’m just hoping he’s still with them when they get here,” he said. “I’ll make sure nobody hurts him. Like I said, I want him out there.”
What’s amazing is the Eagles were actually absolved of the bounty claim by the NFL the week of Bounty Bowl II. Zendejas said he had a tape of Eagles special teams coach Al Roberts asking him not to tell the NFL about the bounties. He threatened legal action if he didn’t agree with the NFL’s punishment to the Eagles. “The thing is, nobody on the Eagles was going to jeopardize his job by telling what really happened,” Zendejas said. “That’s the sad part.” Jimmy Johnson said “nothing has happened to change my belief about the incident.”
Although Ryan denied the bounties existed, rumors abounded. Ron Wolfley of the Cardinals said he heard there was a bounty on him in 1987. Then-Giants tight end Mark Bavaro said Andre Waters tried to take out his knee on Ryan’s orders. There were rumors of bounties on two players on the Bears, Mike Tomczak and Dennis McKinnon. Buddy even reportedly placed a bounty on Bears coach Mike Ditka, offering cash to any Eagles player who flattened him on the sideline. Eagles players deny these bounties exist today; Wes Hopkins says Small was not paid for his hit on Zendejas.
Bounty Bowl II ended up a circus. CBS even promoted the game as such, putting players on wanted posters and joking about it during the pregame show.
Jimmy Johnson was pelted by snowballs by rowdy Eagles fans, with Ed Rendell famously throwing one from the 700 Level on a dare. Fans also hit Cowboys punter Mike Saxon whenever he punted from his end zone. In the best part of the afternoon, two Eagles fans ran onto the field and attempted to get in the Eagles huddle before being tackled by security.
The Eagles had bounties for longer than Buddy, of course. Brian Baldinger told Newsday in 2008 the players would gather to watch film of the previous week’s game on Saturdays and hand out money. “We’d have a system where it’d be like $100 for a big hit, $200 if you knocked someone off their feet,” he said. But it was Buddy Ryan’s coyness (lying?) about the alleged bounties placed on the Cowboys that makes him beloved in this town despite winning 83 fewer regular season and 10 fewer playoff games than Andy Reid. Buddy made jokes about his weight; Reid does commercials for L.A. Weight Loss. Maybe that’s just a sign of the times, but there was something surreal and entertaining about those 1989 Cowboys-Eagles games.