You might not remember Nathan Poole.
That’s more than fair if you don’t. After all, the wide receiver only played parts of four seasons in the NFL. More importantly, Poole never played a game for the Green Bay Packers. Though the unheralded wideout has no direct connection to the team, he should absolutely be remembered as a Wisconsin sports hero. For one afternoon in late 2003, Poole did something on a football field in Arizona that saved a season for a team located 1,800 miles away. Before Sunday’s Green Bay-Arizona game, let’s take some time to remember the short-but-significant career of Nathan Poole.
After going undrafted in 2002, the Marshall University receiver wound up signing with the Arizona Cardinals prior to the ’02 season. Poole’s rookie campaign was fairly unspectacular, with the wideout posting just 13 catches for 108 yards and a single touchdown over the course of five games (one start). The following season saw the reserve receiver following a similar—if not even worse—trajectory. Through their first 15 games of the 2003 season, Arizona was 3-12, and Poole had eight receptions for 91 yards and no touchdowns. Thankfully, he saved his best work for that season’s finale.
The Cardinals had exactly nothing to play for in Week 17. But with the 9-6 Minnesota Vikings coming to town, the lackluster team that was relying on its backup quarterback and leftover parts to finish out its season could have a chance to play the role of spoiler. As that December 28 game was underway in Arizona, the Packers were hosting the Denver Broncos and playing for their playoff lives. Green Bay did their part to stay alive by drubbing the Broncos 31-3 to finish with a 10-6 record and a chance at the NFC North title and a playoff berth. However, Minnesota held the tiebreaker that would give them the division with a Week 17 victory. The Seahawks and Cowboys already clinched Wild Card spots, so the outcome of the Cardinals-Vikings game would decide whether Green Bay or Minnesota would make the playoffs.
Through 58 minutes, it seemed like Minnesota had it locked up. With two minutes left, the Vikings held a 17-6 lead. Directly following the two-minute warning, fill-in quarterback Josh McCown threw a two-yard touchdown to Steve Bush. The two-point conversion attempt failed, making the score 17-12. Before the play everyone remembers, Arizona first needed another miracle to occur. Cardinals kicker Neil Rackers came through with a successful onside kick, which was recovered by Damien Anderson on the Cardinals 39 yard line.
With 1:54 remaining, McCown and company had 61 yards to go and just one timeout. They managed to march down to the Vikings 9 before taking their final timeout with 31 seconds left. After two consecutive sacks in the subsequent plays, Arizona was forced back to Minnesota’s 28 and had to rush to the line on 4th and 25 to get one more shot at the end zone. With the game and both Minnesota and Green Bay’s playoff hopes hanging in the balance, the second-year quarterback decided to put the fate of two teams into the hands of an unlikely recipient. Enter Nathan Poole.
As time elapsed, McCown connected with Poole in the corner of the end zone, putting Arizona up 18-17 and ending Minnesota’s season. The Packers were the NFC North champs. The Vikings were done. The Cardinals were 4-12. The game-winning catch capped off the biggest game of Poole’s young career, as he finished with five receptions for 86 yards and a touchdown. As it turns out, that unforgettable touchdown (just the second of Poole’s career) would be his last.
The following season, Poole caught just five balls for a paltry 70 yards. He was released by the Cards following the 2004 season and wound up on the Saints a few weeks into the 2005 season. That November, Poole sustained a serious knee injury and his abbreviated Saints season ended with three catches for 63 yards. Despite trying to crack New Orleans’ roster the following year, Poole was released and was out of football. In the 36 games he suited up, the undrafted receiver managed a mere 34 catches for 418 yards, and two touchdowns. At the end of his brief time in the league, only one of those 34 receptions truly mattered.
Poole’s catch had an impact that went far beyond anything the second-year receiver could’ve ever imagined. In 2008, five years after the famous catch, the NFL eliminated the “force-out” rule that had permitted Poole’s touchdown (in which he only had one foot planted in bounds) to count. The Poole play was a major inspiration for the amendment. Just one week after the historic grab, though, Poole was given the key to the city of Green Bay and was invited to attend Green Bay’s playoff game against the Seahawks. Without Poole, that playoff game doesn’t happen in Green Bay. Without him, the game doesn’t go into overtime. Matt Hasselbeck don’t say “we want the ball and we’re gonna score.” Hasselbeck doesn’t throw an interception to Al Harris and give Green Bay one of the most memorable plays in franchise history. That amazing moment was set into motion seven days prior as a marginal Cardinals receiver was doing celebratory pushups in Arizona.
Unfortunately, that Packers win was immediately followed by the infamous “4th and 26” game against the Eagles that ultimately rendered the miracle catch on the other side of the country exactly two weeks earlier meaningless. Still, this unknown wide receiver got the opportunity to have the moment of a lifetime during in an otherwise insignificant game for a team seeking its fourth win. In doing so, Poole’s hands and…one nimble foot ended one team’s season, kept another team’s Super Bowl hopes alive, and indirectly set the scene for another unforgettable game-deciding event.
As the hapless Cardinals head to Lambeau Field this weekend to face the Packers in what looks to be a fairly meaningless game on paper, it’s important to remember Nathan Poole, and that even so-called “meaningless” games can produce memorable moments.