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Super Bowl produces legends, and near misses too

| Monday, Feb. 8, 2010

MIAMI -- Jane Morrall answers the telephone in her Naples home. She will put her husband on the line, yes, but asks a caller to please be kind. Because the subject, well, it has never quite stopped hurting.

"Our kids were in junior high then, and they got teased so badly. It was horrible," she said. "It has left such a bad taste in our family's throat."

It happened 41 years ago.

That is how Super Bowls can imprint lives, changing and shaping them.

Earl Morrall, the old quarterback, would go on to win three Super Bowl rings, but it was being on the wrong side of Joe Namath's famous, indelible guarantee that one January in 1969 that stamped Morrall like a tattoo you can neither erase nor hide.

The official slogan of Sunday's 44th Super Bowl, Saints vs. Colts, the slogan embossed on the T-shirts, is: Own The Moment.

A heavy thing, that moment. Powerful.

That moment awaits Peyton Manning and Drew Brees on Sunday. Or maybe someone you barely have heard of.

Own the moment, and you might become a legend, your life redefined as the imprimatur of success.

See that moment slip, and you might become forever identified, fairly or not, with failure on the grandest stage.

Saints safety Darren Sharper said this week, "The team that wins this game will be immortalized. But the loser of this game will be forgotten."

It isn't quite like that for individuals who steer those Super Bowl results. The legends get immortalized, yes. But the goats -- they get remembered, too.

Morrall, 75 now, cannot help but hold onto some bitterness, even after four decades. After all, is it not accurate to say that "Broadway Joe" became the Super Bowl's all-time greatest legend at his expense?

"A lot of showboating," Morrall said when asked what he thought of that guarantee. "My reaction was he was just blowin' hot air. We weren't worried. But it was that one statement that made him. It shouldn't have happened, but it did."

He pauses.

"You look back even though that's where the ifs come in," he said. "Namath gave a guarantee in the wind, and the wind blew just right for him."

Fate is fickle

The Super Bowl is the biggest stage in American sport, and yet who it chooses to aggrandize or to penalize can seem so fickle.

A capricious wind.

Scott Norwood is 49 now, selling real estate in Virginia and, 19 years later, he is still the guy who missed that 47-yard field goal in Super Bowl XXV.

"No good! Wide right!" Al Michaels screamed on TV, and the Gatorade poured on Bill Parcells' head.

Before that game in Tampa, in practice, Norwood aimed at the right upright because the wind was curling the ball left. He did the same on the deciding kick. Only this time the cursed ball stayed right, passing the wrong side of the upright by two feet.

Jim Kelly had driven the Bills to the Giants' 30 with eight seconds left.

"I'm sure it will never get to the point," Norwood said after the game, "where I'll ever forget it."

Two feet. One good puff of that capricious wind is all it would have taken, and Norwood is forever Buffalo's folk hero.

Instead ...

"I was searching for words to buck him up," old coach Marv Levy recalls. "I didn't know what to say to him."

His teammates were supportive. At a consolation rally in Buffalo, 25,000 Bills fans cheered his name, chanted, "We love Scott!"

"I had done the best I could," the reclusive Norwood said once in a rare interview. "I could look myself in the mirror."

Yet the stigma on Norwood's name was real. The following season, his last, Norwood made five field goals in the playoffs. It didn't matter. The damage was done.

The historic symbol for Buffalo's 0-for-4 Super Bowl record was indelible. Three games had been lopsided. One rested with Norwood's right foot and a fickle breeze.

Gregg Williams is the Saints' defensive coordinator who made news promising his team would deliver "remember-me" hits upon Colts' quarterback Peyton Manning in Sunday's Super Bowl.

Excruciatingly close

Remembering is not always what Williams prefers, though. Sometimes forgetting is.

Ten years ago he was on Tennessee's staff in the Super Bowl that saw the Titans' Kevin Dyson stopped 1 yard short of the end zone in the dramatic closing seconds. Dyson stretched and reached, his body pleading for one last lunge.

"I've never seen that game or watched that game on TV. Every time it comes on I shut it off," Williams said this week, somberly. "I was there. I saw it. I felt it. I would like that to not happen again."

Dyson's chance to be a Super hero, a Nashville legend as much as any country music star, had fallen short by what in real life would be the distance of a casual step.

His team's dejection and frustration carried over, festering.

"Next year at training camp we had three practices the first week," Williams said, "and all three were fistfights, remembering that 1 yard short.

A year ago Larry Fitzgerald, winded, grinning, engulfed by a bedlam of noise, plopped onto the Cardinals' bench with 2:37 to play. He had just scored on a 64-yard touchdown catch near the end of a fabulous game by him. Arizona's unlikely victory would be one for the ages.

"Man, you a Super Bowl hero!" he heard a teammate call.

That was before Santonio Holmes' toes dragged millimeters inside the end-zone chalk line, and the Steelers had rewritten Fitzgerald's life story.

"I thought that hero's role was mine," Fitzgerald said this week. "But it belonged to somebody else."

Inches. Feet. Toes. Seconds. Puffs of wind.

Sometimes a player becomes a legend or goat in an instant, and sometimes not.

Legend of the Joes

Joe Montana to many is the ultimate Super Bowl legend and champion because of a body of work over years, but that all crystallized for him in Miami, Jan. 22, 1989.

Bengals up 16-13 with 3:20 to play. Montana and the 49ers, 92 yards away.

It took Montana 11 plays. Niners, 20-16. Final.

"That one ate me up for a long time," says ex-Bengals coach Sam Wyche.

Montana had become Joe Cool that night. Forever.

Same city, Miami. Ten years earlier, 1979. Cowboys tight end Jackie Smith drops a perfect touchdown pass in the end zone.

"Bless his heart, he's got to be the sickest man in America!" bugled CBS announcer Verne Lundquist.

There was plenty of time left in that eventual 35-31 Pittsburgh win. That drop alone did not spell Dallas' defeat. But it has in history's mind, in the remembering.

Joseph William Namath, Joe Willie to friends, is 66 now, and lives north of here in Tequesta with four dogs. Both his knees are artificial. His legend, that's real.

Forty-one years ago he owned New York. Sonny Werblin, the Jets' new owner, was from the entertainment business "and he believed in the star system," Namath said.

The image was largely manufactured. The mink coats Namath wore prior to that Super Bowl despite the Miami heat. The turquoise Cadillac he drove to the Miami Touchdown Club dinner that night.

What happened there to change football history was not manufactured.

The guarantee came late in the evening in a packed, smoky room. Namath had been knocking back Johnnie Walkers that night -- Red, on ice.

"I didn't plan it. I was responding to a guy in the back of the room," Namath said. "I'm at the podium, and some guy yells, 'Hey Namath, the Colts are gonna kick your ass!' We'd been hearing a lot of that. So I said, 'I've got news for you. We're gonna win the game. I guarantee it.' I was saying what I know. Wasn't looking to make a fuss."

Earl Morrall was there that night, being honored as well after having been the NFL MVP that season, but said now he doesn't recall the exchange.

"Maybe I just wasn't paying attention," he said.

Former Colt Bill Curry, now coach at Georgia State: "We carry it to this day. We had a chance to make history, and the only thing anybody knows is we lost to the Jets."

The Colts had been 18-point favorites, but their quarterback was so ineffective he was benched during that watershed Jets victory that led to the NFL-AFL merger.

Namath, instant folk hero, was voted that Super Bowl's MVP despite throwing zero touchdowns or attempting a single pass in the fourth quarter. He would later be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on the wing of that one boast fulfilled -- inducted despite throwing 47 more interception than touchdown passes.

What if that one guy hadn't yelled the taunt that led to Namath's guarantee?

What if the taunt hadn't been heard or had been ignored?

What if the Colts' veteran quarterback had played up to his MVP standards that day and rendered Joe Namath's guarantee the stuff of ridicule?

"Yeah, that's where the ifs come in," said Earl Morrall, 41 years later.

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