Date: September 23, 1967
Location: Legion Field
Opponent: No. 2 Alabama Crimson Tide
A few weeks ago we listed the criteria used by our committee when ranking the top 100 plays in Florida State football history. The first factor listed asked, “how significant was the play to the program—did it change the direction of FSU football?” Well, folks, this play, checks that box with a sharpie.
Despite what the vast majority of the college football world believes (and even many Seminole fans born after 1960), FSU football did not begin with Bobby Bowden. Now don’t get me wrong. Saint Bobby took over a downtrodden Florida State program and pushed it to a level of consistent winning never seen by any program in the country. But before the King of the Road walked the sidelines in Tallahassee, another visionary head coach gave Florida State its first taste of success on the big stage. In fact, he gave the legendary Bobby B his first experience of what FSU football was all about.
That man was Bill “Coach Pete” Peterson.
Peterson, who planted one of the greatest coaching trees in the history of the sport, led the Seminoles during the entire decade of the 1960s. During this time, he brought FSU up to the big time while running an innovative, wide-open offense that helped Seminole legends set records.
You’ll see a number of those legends grace this countdown, but our first pre-Bowden play on the list comes from a 6’1, 175 pound defensive back named Walt Sumner. And it occurred at the original epicenter of southern football, The Old Gray Lady herself, Legion Field.
Florida State entered the 1967 campaign with hopes of building upon their Sun Bowl berth the previous season and Peterson lined up a strong schedule for his independent squad. But after an abysmal opening blowout loss in the Astrodome against the high-flying Houston Cougars, there were plenty of skeptics as FSU traveled to face off against the mighty Crimson Tide.
Alabama entered the game on a 17 game winning streak. Bear Bryant’s men won the national title in 1965 with a 9-1-1 record (including a 21-0 win over FSU) and then finished 3rd in the 1966 season, despite an 11-0 campaign that culminated with a 34-7 thrashing of Nebraska in the Sugar Bowl. The Tide were captained by the great Ken Stabler. The Seminoles seemingly didn’t stand a chance.
To quote the iconic Lee Corso, “not so fast, my friend.”
After recovering an Alabama fumble on the opening possession, a Kim Hammond to Ron Sellers TD pass gave FSU a 7-0 lead. Meh. It was early. The home crowd wasn’t worried. Opening game sluggishness, right?
The Seminole defense came up strong again, forcing an Alabama three and out after Stabler was stopped short on a third down scramble. Steve Davis came onto punt for Bama and that’s when Sumner, a junior from Ocilla, Georgia, introduced himself to the Tide faithful.
Catching the punt at his own 25, Sumner patiently set up several key blocks as he ran to his left. Turning the corner, he exploded down the Alabama sideline and headed toward the endzone. No Tide defender had a chance at catching the speedster and in the blink of an eye the stunned crowd of more than 71,000 watched their team fall behind by two touchdowns.
Now, Alabama didn’t just fold up shop and head back to Tuscaloosa. This was a Bear Bryant led team, after all. In fact, ‘Bama would take a 15-14 lead at the end of the first quarter. But the bolt of lightning by Sumner had given the upstart Seminoles a potent weapon: belief. After allowing Houston to roll up a 33-0 lead just one week prior, Florida State proved to the Crimson Tide—and more importantly to themselves—that they were here to win.
The game turned into a back and forth affair that was one for the ages. Don’t believe me? Check out the post-game article by Bill McGrotha, courtesy of the tremendous archival website nolefan.org, where the legendary Tallahassee Democrat journalist called it, “beyond any question at all, one of the greatest football games ever played anywhere.”
Ultimately, after Ken Stabler appeared to put the Tide in front one last time, FSU ,arched 65 yards in 11 plays and tied the game at 37 after a Bill Moreman touchdown reception from Hammond with a little over a minute left. That would be how the game ended.
Despite the tie, FSU still snagged a piece of Legion Field sod for their burgeoning Sod Cemetery, a tradition started under Peterson five years earlier. The 37 points given up by ‘Bama equaled the total points they had allowed during the entire 1966 regular season. The Seminoles actually out-gained the second ranked Tide 407-287, including 13 receptions for 165 yards by Ron Sellers. But it was Sumner’s punt return that really set the tone.
After a terrific career that saw him snag 11 interceptions and return two punts for touchdowns, Sumner was selected by the Cleveland Browns in the 7th round of the 1969 NFL draft. He started 69 games for the Browns over six seasons, totaling 15 career interceptions, a figure that doesn’t include an 88 yard pick-six that put the icing on a 38-14 blowout over Dallas in the divisional round of the 1969 playoffs.