RIO RANCHO, N.M. — “The night before I had a dream: that I was the MVP, I made my classic end-zone diving touchdown catch; I get hoisted high by the linemen, like they always did … I got the ball in my hand and we had just won the game.”
Sunday’s Super Bowl 53 contest, a 13-3 win by the New England Patriots over the Los Angeles Rams, may be forgotten sooner than Super Bowl 14 for West Side resident Preston Dennard.
It’s been a long time since the “Los Angeles” Rams were in a Super Bowl (1980); the last time the Rams made it to the big game, in 2001, Kurt Warner was the quarterback and they were known as the St. Louis Rams. The franchise known as the Rams returned to its L.A. roots three years ago.
It’s been more than 39 years, but Preston Dennard remembers it clearly: Super Bowl XIV, when his Los Angeles Rams played the Pittsburgh Steelers back in January 1980.
Nobody, including Dennard, 63, and a longtime West Side resident, expected the Rams to get to the big game. The Steelers, with their vaunted “Iron Curtain defense,” were the front-runners from the AFC.
But there they were, despite an unimpressive 9-7 regular-season record that gave them the NFC West title and a first-round bye in the postseason.
After victories over the Dallas Cowboys (21-19) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (9-0) in the playoffs, the Rams were the NFC champs and Super Bowl-bound.
Dennard, an outstanding multi-sport athlete out of Marcos de Niza High School in Tempe, had caught the eye of the Rams when he was a receiver for the University of New Mexico. With the Lobos in 1974, he was the first UNM freshman to garner first team All-WAC honors. In 1975, he finished third in the nation in receiving; he was first-team all-league in 1976; and by his senior year, Dennard held every receiving record at UNM — 142 receptions for 2,257 yards, numbers that still rank high in the Lobo record book.
And here he was, less than two years out of UNM, playing in the sport’s biggest game.
LA Rams were pretty good back in the day
It wasn’t a big surprise, despite that lackluster record; from 1974-85, the L.A. Rams had been in the NFC championship game six times, although they had just that one championship, in 1979, to show for it; three times they’d lost to the Cowboys, twice they fell to Minnesota.
“What I remember leading up to it; in 1978 I was a rookie, caught about three balls and played special teams,” Dennard said. “My second year, the two starters went down early that year. I was the No. 6 depth-chart receiver and (receivers coach) Lionel Taylor moved me all the way up to X, and Billy Waddy took over at Z. That whole year was good – I had a great time.”
Maybe not a great time in the Rams’ first playoff game leading up to Super Bowl XIV.
Against the Cowboys in Texas Stadium, on the first offensive play of the second half and coming out of the backfield to catch a pass, he was hit in the helmet by Charlie Waters or Cliff Harris in the head.
“I caught the ball. The next thing I know, there’s 2:19 left in the game … I was on the sideline, sitting on the training table … I didn’t have a clue… I remember the guys in the locker room cheering – they were excited.” Dennard said that was probably his first concussion in the NFL.
In their next game, when the Rams faced Tampa Bay for the NFC championship, Dennard had a concussion-free game – “I had a hell of a game that game. They took away a touchdown from me (because of a penalty) … I caught some balls, set up our offense.
“Ron Smith, who was out of San Diego State, who I played against when I was at UNM, and I were the John Stallworth-Lynn Swann combination (of the Rams) – two second-year players getting ready to go to the Super Bowl.”
Until the 1979 season, that 9-7 mark was the worst record to get a team to the Super Bowl.
On to Pasadena
“The reality was we were competing game after game; that’s what our focus was, one game at a time,” Dennard said. “McFadden & Whitehead’s ‘Ain’t No Stopping Us Now’ was our theme song, rolling through the playoffs … I had the best practices I’d ever had in my life. I caught everything, I ran every play, I ran plays for the defense – I was just on Cloud Nine.
“We were staying at (a hotel in Costa Mesa). We took a bus the morning of the game and rode all the way to Pasadena. It was the first time I had seen the Rose Bowl and it was pretty, those roses on the stadium,” he said, even remembering his pre-game ritual of taking a lap around the field.
“I knew I was playing (Pittsburgh linebacker) Robin Cole: Two New Mexico boys and I was so excited to see Robin,” he said. “When Robin comes out for pregame I’m gonna get with him give him a hug, chatting and all that.”
It didn’t work out that way. The Rams were already warming up; the Steelers came out in single file, looking determined.
“I saw Robin in the back half of the line. We used to call him CC. I said, ‘CC,’ and gave him a high-five . He came by and he does this (makes a motion of a quick high-five). Oh, that ain’t real warm. He probably doesn’t know me today.”
Dennard said he’d been open throughout the game, but QB Vince Ferragamo wasn’t seeing him because Dennard’s position had him on the left end of the line and Ferragamo didn’t see receivers on his left that well. Taylor was yelling at halftime, Dennard recalled, telling the offensive coordinator No. 88 had been constantly open.
“I don’t know why they didn’t throw to me in the beginning,” recalling dropped passes by two of his teammates when Dennard had been wide open.
“I was open a lot in that game, but it was all for naught,” he lamented. “I was the one that led them in receptions the whole year – and in the playoffs.
“The night before I had a dream: that I was the MVP, I made my classic end-zone diving touchdown catch; I get hoisted high by the linemen, like they always did … I got the ball in my hand and we had just won the game. New Mexico kid, MVP, that whole deal – that was my dream right?
“Obviously, that didn’t come true,” he said, smiling at the memory. “Everybody (later) asked, ‘How was that game? You guys had that thing.’ I always answer them like this, ‘We won that thing for three and a half quarters of that game; it was the end of the game when Terry Bradshaw and Stallworth came back with two touchdowns.”
Indeed: Stallworth caught a 73-yard scoring pass that led to a 24-19 Steelers lead and after a Rams drive, in which Dennard caught two passes (another reception had been negated by penalty), ended in an interception, Stallworth hauled in another long pass to set up another scoring drive, capped by a 1-yard TD run by Franco Harris.
The Rams got the ball again, trailing by what turned out to be the final score (31-19), and turned the ball over on downs, and the Steelers ran out the clock.
Like the Rams’ first postseason game, Dennard wasn’t on the field at its end: he’d been tackled hard by future NFL Hall-of-Famer Mel Blount and was in agony from a rib injury.
“What a joy,” he says, despite the loss, knowing his proud parents had been in the stands. In the locker room following the loss, Dennard remembers his teammates “were more upset because we could have won the game.” Some were upset because of defensive lapses, enabling Stallworth to get free deep.
After the Steel Curtain closed
Still, “It was cool, man,” Dennard said, relishing those memories. “After that season, I got invited to the Super Team competition in Hawaii,” where the Rams beat the Steelers and the 1979 World Series champion Pittsburgh Pirates. (The made-for-TV competition featured events like kayaking, tugs-of-war and relay races, in which Dennard recalls beating Swann.)
At this time of the year, the NFL Network regularly runs half-hour specials on every Super Bowl; in the Super Bowl XIV show, Dennard can be seen in the early going throwing a block on a running play, and toward the end, a diving catch near the 40-yard-line.
The Rams of Los Angeles got within a win of the another Super Bowl, only to lose to their NFC West rival San Francisco in the 1989 NFC championship game.
Dennard 1979 season had been memorable: He played in 15 games, caught 43 passes and scored four TDs. His best season of his eight-year NFL career was in 1981, when he caught 49 passes and again had four TDs; in 1980, playing in all 16 games, he caught 36 passes and scored a career-high six touchdowns.
At the end of his career, spent in Buffalo in 1984 and then in Green Bay in 1985, he had amassed 30 TDs.
“My pride and joy was every TV game (in which his team was playing) – and there was a lot of them – I had great games,” Dennard said. “And every Cowboy game, as a starter, I had great games. I always competed against the best.”
Last season, the Rams honored Dennard, inducting him into the Rams Legends Club, honoring him with “a day” and showing his career highlights on the Jumbotron – and he chuckled as he recalled signing more autographs that day for the Raiders fans there to watch their team face the Rams.
Nearly 35 years after his NFL days ended, Dennard has remained close to football, serving a spell as an assistant at Cibola High School, where several of his five sons played; that quintet included PJ Dennard, a senior kicker for the Cougars last season. A nephew, Trevon Dennard, was on the Cleveland High roster as a sophomore quarterback this past season.
“All my boys were kickers,” Dennard noted.
He was the head coach of a Young America Football League Super Bowl championship team in the Senior Division. He leads free football clinics, featuring 7-on-7 competitions, every summer.
He says his “last hurrah” will be seeing an indoor training facility built on the West Side for youngsters to work out in – and the more multi-sport athletes, the better.
Dennard says he rarely watches regular-season NFL games, unless he can see Kansas City because his admiration for QB Patrick Mahomes: “He’s special,” he says. He’s going to be the Brady of the future.”
So Dennard ignores most of the regular season, waiting for the postseason.
“That’s when I know guys are playing at a level they need to,” he said.
If you’d like to contact Dennard — who would also be happy to see you a track & field or football surface through Sports Surfaces Distributing — about his football clinics, the recruiting profiles he prepares for potential college prospects, or the Rio Rancho youth track club he coaches, contact him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.