By Mark Maske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 1, 2009
TAMPA -- Most longtime Washington Redskins followers have the image either framed on a wall if not burned forever into their memories: Running back John Riggins took a fourth-and-one handoff, raced through an attempted tackle by Miami Dolphins defensive back Don McNeal and dashed 43 yards to the end zone for the go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter of a victory in Super Bowl XVII.
Riggins knows what the moment meant.
"Clearly," he said here this week, "that changed my life."
The Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals will play in Super Bowl XLIII on Sunday before a crowd of more than 72,000 at Raymond James Stadium and a nationwide television audience of about 100 million. NBC, which is broadcasting the game, sold 30-second ad spots during its telecast for a record $3 million each, even amid an economic crisis.
The stakes are high in many ways.
Super Bowl Sunday is a day of myth-making. It is a day when reputations are made and broken, when lasting images are created.
"There's no other way around it," Riggins said as he sat in a room at the Tampa Convention Center last week. "If something else happens in that situation, say you don't make the yardage and they take over, they win the game, you become an afterthought because there's nothing really worse . . . than being the team that loses.
"I would guess if Don McNeal had been able to come up and stick his helmet in my chest and drive me backwards and make the stop, I'd be the one that would be the afterthought, I guess. That's the nature of a sport, the moment that something happens that perhaps changes the outcome of a game. You're either the hero, or you're the goat."
Riggins defended McNeal, saying McNeal didn't have a clean shot at him and other defenders could have made the play. He's not calling McNeal the goat of that game, he added. But that doesn't change the image captured in the photographs, and in the mind's eye.
In Detroit three years ago, when the Steelers won their fifth Super Bowl title, the focal point was running back Jerome Bettis, who was playing his final NFL game.
"It is enormous," Bettis said this week. "To get the brunt of the Super Bowl attention pointed at you, it's a lot of heat. Win, lose or draw, it changes your life. For a lot of people in the country, it's the one time they pay attention to sports and the coverage of sports, the one time they watch it on TV or read the stories or watch the interviews. If you're the focal point in this game, everyone will remember you. Sometimes it's not for the right reason, but they will remember you."
The Buffalo Bills reached four straight Super Bowls in the early 1990s, a remarkable achievement. But they lost all four. So they are remembered by many for those losses, not as teams that came close to being one of the all-time dynasties.
"I don't know which one of those they remember," said Marv Levy, who coached those Bills teams. "Maybe some focus on one aspect of it, and some focus on the other aspect. When you lose it, yes, you have a period of mourning. You beat your mattress at night. You've got to get over it. Let it last 10 days. Then recognize the good. Then do something about it. Go back to work. Achieve something else.
"So I'll remember the good. I'm glad we made it. There's one way I can guarantee you'll never lose a Super Bowl game: Don't go to it."
Former Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway had the same stigma as a Super Bowl loser until finishing his career with consecutive triumphs in the big game. Doug Williams will be forever remembered as the first African American quarterback to win a Super Bowl, and Tony Dungy as the first African American coach to win one.
There are one-hit wonders like former Redskins running back and Super Bowl hero Timmy Smith, and all-time blunders like former Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman Leon Lett losing a fumble and a touchdown because he showboated in a blowout victory over the Bills and had the ball stripped by Don Beebe.
Would Joe Namath remain such a legendary figure to this day without his prescient victory guarantee before Super Bowl III?
Last year was the Super Bowl of New York Giants quarterback Eli Manning proving his championship mettle and the New England Patriots failing to complete a perfect season. But it also was the Super Bowl of David Tyree, a little-known wide receiver for the Giants who made a play for the ages by trapping the ball against the top of his helmet for a catch that set up the game-winning touchdown.
Tyree, to that point, was known mostly for his ability to play on special teams, racing downfield to make tackles on punts and kickoffs, not for his pass-catching contributions on offense. This season, he didn't even play because of injuries. But he always will have a place in NFL lore, thanks to that catch. He wrote a book; not many wide receivers with 54 regular season catches on their NFL résumés get to be authors.
For Tyree, his greatest moment professionally came at a time of personal grief. Late in the 2007 regular season, he was pulled out of a team meeting and told his mother had died of a heart attack. The two events will be forever linked in his memories.
"There was a lot of trial there," Tyree said this week. "It couldn't have ended up better for me in terms of what happened on the football field. But you miss those moments with your mother. That's who you want to share it with."
He was back in the Super Bowl environment this week, leaving behind the snow in New Jersey to travel Wednesday to Tampa. He spent part of his day Thursday speaking emotionally of his mother at an event promoting heart health for women, then made the rounds on radio row at the Super Bowl media center. All anyone wanted to talk about was his catch.
"It wasn't me that changed," Tyree said. "It's how people perceived me. I still take it all in. It's a very humbling experience. It was such a big thing in the NFL and in the history of the NFL, if you listen to the way people talked about it. I'm just trying to be a good steward of it. It's a blessing that was given to me.
"I want to go forth and do greater things in my life. But as far as the way people remember me, I'm sure it's gonna be for a ball stuck to my head."
This Super Bowl could produce an unlikely hero to stand alongside Smith and Tyree. But if the memories that it generates come from a more likely source, the leading candidates include Larry Fitzgerald and the Pittsburgh defense.
"If you watched last year's game, you saw what was called the greatest play in the history of 42 Super Bowls," said Warren Sapp, a former Super Bowl-winning defensive tackle while with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "Watch the game this year, and you might see a better one. There's always something. It's the Super Bowl."
Fitzgerald, the Cardinals' dynamic wide receiver, couldn't be covered during the NFC playoffs. He ran away from defenders to get open and catch passes from quarterback Kurt Warner at a dizzying rate. And when he didn't get open, he simply outmaneuvered or outjumped those trying to cover him and caught passes anyway.
If the Steelers don't figure out something the Atlanta Falcons, Carolina Panthers and Philadelphia Eagles couldn't, Fitzgerald could become the modern-day version of Lynn Swann or Jerry Rice as an eye-catching Super Bowl pass-catcher.
Former NFL cornerback Deion Sanders said it's "way too premature" to begin to think of Fitzgerald, who's completing his fifth pro season, as an all-time great at the position. But it's not too soon, Sanders said, to put him alongside, or even ahead of, some of those usually mentioned as being among the current group of top wide receivers -- Terrell Owens, Chad Johnson and Randy Moss.
"He's not a celebratory guy, which I have a problem with," Sanders said, "but I like him. . . . We'll be having that conversation with him ranked amongst the league. In the past it's been guys like T.O., Chad. It's been Moss and so on. Now you start to mention him in that top five."
Steve Mariucci, the former coach of the San Francisco 49ers and Detroit Lions, said it's reasonable to believe Fitzgerald eventually will be vying for a place in history.
"If he stays healthy and continues to play for eight or 10 years, yeah, why not?" Mariucci said. "Because he's got it. He's got it. He's just starting to show everybody right now."
The Steelers led the NFL in total defense during the regular season. If the Pittsburgh defense finishes with a dominating performance in a Super Bowl win, would that put it in the conversation about the great, memorable Super Bowl-winning defenses like those of the old Steelers, the Chicago Bears in the 1985 season and the Baltimore Ravens in 2000?
Sanders said no.
"I don't think [it's] on that level," Sanders said. "It's the same guys. You see [safety] Troy Polamalu. You see [linebacker James] Harrison. You see those guys make plays. When you think about some of those prolific defenses, you had a collection of guys. Not the same two guys. You had everybody dominating, making plays. I think their weakness is probably outside, on their corners. But this defense is good. They are really good, and they are gonna have something to say about this game tremendously."
Sapp had a different view.
"I think all champions are remembered in the same way," Sapp said, "as a defense that won a championship. . . . They're a great defense going into the Super Bowl. You win it, you go with us, Baltimore, 'Steel Curtain,' all those. You lose it, you go with 'Orange Crush,' the 'Purple People Eaters,' the 'Fearsome Foursome,' the great ones that didn't win it."
Or perhaps the lasting image of this game could be of Warner or of the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger, one of whom will become a two-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback. It could be of the Cardinals becoming one of the most improbable champions in the history of sports, or of the Steelers winning one for the other thumb and becoming six-time Super Bowl victors.
It all depends on what happens on this one evening with so much of the country watching.