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NFL One-Game Wonders: Not Necessarily a Hit


There are many who have worked for years to realize a life-long dream of playing in the NFL. What some don’t anticipate on the day of their first game is that it would also be their last. Here are some top examples of the league’s one-game wonders over the last 60 years.   

By: Craig Haley

Considering the results of Kendall Hinton’s emergency appearance as the Denver Broncos’ quarterback against the New Orleans Saints this past Sunday, he may never throw another pass in the NFL.

The practice squad wide receiver had more interceptions (2) than completions (1) in nine attempts – a 0.0 QB rating – after being pressed into his first career game when all four Broncos signal-callers were ineligible due to COVID-19 quarantine protocols. The Saints beat the Broncos, 31-3.

Hinton, though, surpassed 1,000 receiving yards in his final season at Wake Forest in 2019, so he may get another shot with the Broncos – catching passes instead of throwing them. But the mere thought of the Saints’ game being his only NFL appearance sheds light, even romanticism, on a list of the league’s one-game wonders, if you will.

Wide receiver Kendall Hinton had a rough spot-start at quarterback on Sunday. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

Think Moonlight Graham, who played once for the New York Giants baseball team in 1905 and was immortalized in the 1989 film “Field of Dreams,” if he wore a helmet and shoulder pads.

“Playing in the NFL was a dream of mine as a little kid, so being able to compete on that stage was quite a thrill even if it only lasted a quarter,” said one-game club member Craig Kupp, a quarterback who played in the fourth quarter of a Phoenix Cardinals loss at Washington in 1990. Today, he’s better known for being the father of Los Angeles Rams star wide receiver Cooper Kupp.

“I did get a lasting memento from the experience,” he added, “a half-inch scar after taking a chin shot from Jumpy Geathers’ helmet.”

Not surprisingly, some of the biggest skill-position performances since 1960 resulted from replacement players in one-game opportunities during the 1987 NFL strike. Buffalo Bills quarterback Brian McClure had the most attempts (38), completions (20) and passing yards (181) in – fittingly, for the strike – a 6-3 overtime win over the New York Giants on Oct. 18. Two weeks earlier, Vincent Alexander had the most rushing yards – 71 on 21 carries with a touchdown – in the Saints’ 37-10 rout of the Los Angeles Rams, while Steve Finch had the second-most receiving yards (54) when the Minnesota Vikings fell to Green Bay, 23-16.

Take away the 1987 season, and the correlation between some of the bigger one-shining moments since 1960 is they occurred late in a regular season, sometimes in the final game.

Former South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw started the Cleveland Browns’ 2014 finale against Baltimore when Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel were sidelined by injuries. Shaw completed 14-of-28 passes for 177 yards with one interception in a 20-10 loss. He suffered preseason injuries each of the next three years – in 2015 with the Browns and 2016 and ’17 with the Chicago Bears – and never played in a second regular-season game.

Running back Eric McCoo, who starred at Penn State, enjoyed his biggest professional day as the MVP of World Bowl XII in the defunct NFL Europa. He had been allocated to the Berlin Thunder by the Philadelphia Eagles and later played in the final game of their 2004 Super Bowl runner-up season. He had nine carries for 54 yards in the 38-10 loss to Cincinnati. Released prior to the 2005 season, McCoo was never signed by another team.

Bears wide receiver Randy Burks caught a 55-yard touchdown in a 34-7 win over Seattle on Dec. 5, 1976 – the most receiving yards for a one-game player. Martin Nance, who was once Ben Roethlisberger’s top target at Miami of Ohio, made the most of his only game with four receptions for 33 yards as the Vikings fell to St. Louis, 41-21, in their 2006 finale.

Cardale Jones throws a pass in his only regular-season appearance on Jan. 1, 2017, in East Rutherford, N.J. (AP Photo/Bill Kostroun)

Well-known college players are among those who went on to appear in only one NFL game. Former Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones was 6-of-11 for 96 yards and an interception in the fourth quarter of the Bills’ loss to the New York Jets in the 2016 finale. Former Florida quarterback Kerwin Bell, who had a long CFL career, but stints with four NFL teams, was basically perfect in one career game for the Indianapolis Colts on Dec. 5, 1996, completing all five of his passes for 75 yards and a touchdown in a blowout win over Philadelphia.

Getting back to Craig Kupp, he was the Giants’ fifth-round selection in 1990 out of Pacific Lutheran, but didn’t make the team and was signed shortly afterward by the Cardinals. He entered in the fourth quarter of their 34-0 loss to Washington in Week 3 – “to save the day,” he jokes – and was 3 for 7 for 23 yards. He split the 1991 season between the Cardinals and Dallas Cowboys but never played a second game. 

NFL one-game wonders are often a tormented footnote. Green Bay’s third-string quarterback Ingle Martin didn’t throw a pass is in his only game against Chicago at the end of the 2006 regular season. Instead, he kneeled down for 2- and 3-yard losses after replacing Brett Favre for the final plays. Yeah, ugh.

This season, rookie running back Adrian Killins Jr. appeared in the Eagles’ 25-20 win over San Francisco on Oct. 4, and his one carry was forgettable – a 12-yard loss. He’s since been waived and is hoping for another opportunity to redeem that moment.

Such is life for players who spend years rising from pee-wee football on up with an eye toward that first NFL game, only to learn later, it was their only one.


Research support provided by Evan Boyd.

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