TAMPA -- Would Jeff Hostetler get up? Or would they have to bring in the stretcher for him and the New York Giants hopes too? That question ran through almost every mind at Tampa Stadium Sunday night. Not once or twice, but at least five times.
Buffalo defensive back Kirby Jackson got a sprinting, blitzing start and put the Giants quarterback on dream street in the very first quarter. Then 270-pound Leon Seals joined the ugly party, landing on the helmet of the career backup quarterback who had, until this sublimely brutal contest, stepped under center in an NFL game only 10 games in seven seasons.
Later, Bruce Smith, the most ferocious defender in the NFL this season, introduced himself to Hostetler in the end zone for a safety that might have crushed the will of the staunchest veteran quarterback.
But every time it looked as if the Bills had bent Hostetler, broken him or knocked him unconscious, he got back up. Slowly, to be sure. With his eyes bleary and his knees wobbly. Several times it seemed that his teammates asked him if he knew where he was and whether he could keep going.
Yet in the end Hostetler was not only standing, but basking in the afterglow of one of the most heroic performances in Super Bowl history. No one who had done so little over so many years had ever been asked to do so much on such a stage -- and accomplished it under such a bludgeoning.
In a team effort that Giants Coach Bill Parcells described as "valiant," Hostetler was the bravest warrior. His statistics in the Giants' 20-19 victory were not that exceptional by NFL standards -- 20 of 32 for 222 yards and one lovely 14-yard touchdown pass to Stephen Baker in the back corner of the end zone with 25 seconds left in the first half. The other time the Giants were Super Bowl champions, five seasons ago, Phil Simms completed 22 of 25 passes for 268 yards and three touchdowns.
But that performance by Simms will be retold by football fans only a fraction of the times that Hostetler's hobbling, hard-nosed leadership will be cited as emblematic of the essence of this sport.
"I got a big headache," said Hostetler, looking exactly like what he is -- a farmer's son with sharp features and an incredible will who fought his way up from the rough-and-tumble life around Conemaugh Township High in Davidsville, Pa.
The Bills could only shake their heads and wonder how hard Hostetler's five brothers, two of whom played linebacker for Penn State, must have hit him in his youth to condition him for such punishment. "That's the mark of a good quarterback," said Bills linebacker Darryl Talley. "He gets back up off the turf after you knock him down."
This game, in which the lead changed hands four times, had an incredible ending -- with the 47-yard field goal attempt of Buffalo's Scott Norwood flirting with the right goal post, then missing. However, this game had only one true turning point. And Hostetler was the fulcrum.
After Smith's safety put the Bills ahead 12-3, the Giants looked like a team that might not only be beaten but might even be routed. Parcells had blown a fuse screaming at his defense. The Giants' offense had come to a halt after an opening field goal drive. And, most important, Hostetler looked far more like a TKO victim than a champion.
Then, in the last four minutes of the first half, as he drove his team 87 yards in 10 plays, and in the first 10 minutes of the second half, as he commanded a 14-play, 75-yard touchdown drive, Hostetler wrote his page in Giants history.
Once in each drive, he lay on the ground as if he would never rise again. And each time, like some ridiculous "Rocky" movie, the Hoss got up and kicked the mules who had been battering him.
Naked boot legs were his specialty, as he flipped the ball to Mark Bavaro or Mark Ingram or Howard Cross -- usually with the terrifying Smith charging at him, a split second too late.
In one crucial juncture of almost 15 minutes, as the Giants turned that 12-3 deficit into a 17-12 lead, New York ran 24 of 25 offensive plays. All the Bills got to do was kill the clock to end the first half between Hostetler's drives.
As if that weren't enough, Hostetler had one last fourth-quarter drive in his guts. He marched the Giants 74 yards to the Bills 3-yard line and left Matt Bahr with a game-winning field goal attempt so short that it was little more than an extra point.
On that march, Hostetler was knocked silly twice more. First, little Jeff Wright, who weighs 270 pounds, dealt him a delivery sack that had the pro-Giants crowd groaning in empathy. Then, on the next play -- third and seven -- Hostetler stepped up in the pocket, into the face of a blitz, and rifled a 16-yard gain to Bavaro a split second before being clobbered heels over helmet once more.
Hostetler, who is as modest as he is intelligent, praised his teammates, like old Ottis Anderson, who gained 102 yards and an MVP trophy. "We did a good job of pounding and pounding and pounding."
True as that may be, it was Hostetler who performed -- as he has for a month since Simms's injury -- better than anyone expected. How do you sit on the bench for almost all of seven years, waiting for a turn that may never come, then render a three-game playoff performance so flawless?
It helps if you were valedictorian of your high school class and a candidate for a Rhodes scholarship after you graduated Phi Beta Kappa from West Virginia. The truth about Hostetler is that he knows a quarterback can almost singlehandedly prevent turnovers if he can do two things: make intelligent decisions at the last second, and absorb an awful amount of punishment rather than throw the ball up for grabs.
Sometimes, sports can be so good that you wish nobody had to lose. "If we played tomorrow, they'd probably win, 20-19," said Parcells, generously.
But on second thought, if no one had lost this game, then Hostetler's courage -- and his team's tenacious victory -- would not be quite so excellent.
"I don't know who it was," Hostetler said of a lineman during the game, "but I told him, 'Hey, this is great, isn't it?'
"And it was."