Unlikely heroes have emerged in the history of Super Bowl

Bob Cohn
| Sunday, Feb. 5, 2012

Max McGee's eyes were bleary and his head fuzzy from a night (and morning) of serious imbibing when opportunity stared him in the face. But his hands remained strong. Grasping the moment, and several of Bart Starr's spirals, he scored the first Super Bowl touchdown and became the unlikeliest of heroes.

Many have since followed with stunning, surprising performances. The names of Timmy Smith, Larry Brown, Desmond Howard, David Tyree, Jack Squirek and others are etched in NFL lore. Unwittingly, McGee had sent a message to anyone who suits up for the big game: Regardless of your role or spot on the depth chart, you, too, can be a Super Bowl star. Just try to stay sober and make curfew.

"I think about it all time," former Giants special-teamer and back-up receiver Phil McConkey said of the big hand he lent to the 39-20 win over Denver in Super Bowl XXI. "Not that it defines who you are, but it's part of who you are the rest of your life."

That was certainly true for McGee. After his death in 2007 from falling off a roof, the headline in his hometown paper, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, read, "Max McGee of Super Bowl I Fame Dies at 75."

Once a top receiver, always a legendary carouser, McGee was nearing the end of a long, colorful career for the Packers in 1966. He caught just four passes for 91 yards during the regular season and expected to play little or not at all in the Super Bowl against Kansas City. What he did expect was to be fined. He partied hard in Los Angeles the preceding night (and morning), wobbling back to the team hotel many hours past curfew.

But after starter Boyd Dowler left with a separated his shoulder on the game's sixth play, Packers coach Vince Lombardi had no choice but to summon McGee, still hung over. In short order he caught a one-handed 37-yard touchdown pass from Starr and finished with seven catches for 138 yards and two touchdowns in the Packers' 35-10 victory. It was a standout effort on a team with nine future Hall of Famers, none named Max McGee.

"When it's third-and-10, you can take the milk drinkers and I'll take the whisky drinkers every time," he said afterward.

Great players make great plays. But several Super Bowl moments have belonged to the unsung and the unheralded, including perhaps a few milk-drinkers. All were prepared for anything even though their more celebrated teammates drew most of the attention amid the pre-game hype.

McConkey was a role player on a Giants team featuring quarterback Phil Simms, tight end Mark Bavaro, a strong running game and a ferocious linebacker corps led by Lawrence Taylor. Didn't matter. McConkey spent five years in the Navy after graduating from Annapolis and did not get his first shot at the NFL until he was 27, two years earlier. He would make the most of it, including waving a towel on the sideline for Giants fans at the game.

On the field, McConkey made big several plays that figured in 17 points - a 25-yard punt return that set up a field goal, a 44-yard reception off a flea-flicker from Simms to the 1 and a six-yard touchdown catch that first bounced off Bavaro's helmet.

It was quite a game for a skinny back-up who was cut during training camp, picked up by Green Bay and then re-acquired late in the season for "two clipboards and a tackling dummy," as Giants coach Bill Parcells liked to say. Or nearly the same thing, an 11th-round draft pick.

During that regular season, McConkey caught just 16 passes with one touchdown. But he averaged more than 17 yards a catch and ran back punts and kickoffs. "I made plays all year," he said, especially toward the end of the season and in the playoffs.

"You have to have supreme confidence in your ability and just yearn to make the play," he said. "I think many of us feel that way."

McConkey, who lives in San Diego and remains close to his Navy roots, said Parcells had the Giants operating with SEALS-like precision.

"I liken that to what we had," he said. "Every job on that team was important. As lowly as punt-catching was, I felt it was the most important job on the field. As important as Lawrence Taylor was, when everyone has a stake and everyone is dependent on everybody else, you don't want to let your teammates down."

Like McGee and McConkey, surprising Super Bowl stars often made game-wide contributions. Smith, an obscure Redskins' reserve, ran for 204 yards and two touchdowns against Denver in Super Bowl XXII. Then he became obscure again. No one expected Brown, a Cowboys cornerback and former 12th round draft pick, to win most valuable player honors after twice picking off the Steelers' Neil O'Donnell in Super Bowl XXX. The next season Brown signed a big contract with Oakland and became an afterthought.

Then there are the single, defining plays from unlikely sources, like David Tyree's helmet-catch three years ago when the Giants upset New England. The play remains an inspiration.

"(Tyree) showed that anybody can play that (hero) role, you just need the opportunity to do it," Giants special teamer Devin Thomas told reporters last week.

An anonymous Los Angeles Raiders' linebacker, Squirek got his opportunity and ended up on the cover of Sports Illustrated after he returned an interception for a touchdown just before halftime in Super Bowl XVIII to spark a 38-9 win over Washington. Howard, a bust as a highly-touted Redskins receiver, ran a kickoff back 99 yards for a touchdown to seal Green Bay's 35-21 win over the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI.

Jermaine Lewis also made his mark as return man. If the Ravens' 34-7 win over the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV had a turning point, Lewis provided it, returning a kickoff 84 yards for a touchdown immediately after Ron Dixon's touchdown return for the Giants made it a 17-7 game with an apparent shift in momentum.

Lewis was better known for returning punts, leading the league in 1997. This was just his second kickoff return of the season.

"I was really mad that Dixon took that return back before me," he said. "I wanted to be the star returner in the game. My boiling point hit the top and I just did what I did."

Dallas safety James Washington had lost his starting job early in the 1993 season. He still played a lot but his pride was wounded, and he and coach Jimmy Johnson had a sour relationship. But in Super Bowl XXVIII, with Buffalo using three and four wide-outs, Washington started and had a remarkable game — 11 tackles, a fumble return for a touchdown, an interception and a forced fumble in the Cowboys' 30-13 win.

"We always think about how we can get in the zone, and that was James Washington's day of being in the zone," he said. "It was unbelievable."

With an array of stars on offense, the 1999 St. Louis Rams were known as "The Greatest Show on Turf." But it was a solid, dependable linebacker named Mike Jones who saved Super Bowl XXXIV.

Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk and the other headline-grabbers would not have celebrated the franchise's one and only Super Bowl championship had Jones failed to tackle Titans receiver Kevin Dyson short of the goal line on the game's final play.

With six seconds left, the ball on the St. Louis 10 and the Rams ahead, 23-17, Titans quarterback Steve McNair hit a slanting Dyson at the five. He had the inside position and took two strides toward the goal line, but Jones grabbed Dyson around the legs and dragged him down at the 1 as time expired.

Jones at first was checking tight end Frank Wycheck, "but I had inside underneath coverage and I was looking at Kevin the whole time," he said. "And I didn't know until Kevin told me, he knew that I was going to be the guy coming after him."

It was supposed to be a mismatch, but Jones got his man.

Jones, who finished up with the Steelers in 2001 and now is the head football coach at Lincoln University, said he is proud of his long career but doesn't mind that he is most associated with a single play.

"I'll take it," he said. "You can be known for a lot worse than that. We won the Super Bowl and that's what people remember. It's an honor."

Kings for a day

A look at some of the unsung heroes of Super Bowl lore:

Max McGee, Green Bay Packers, Super Bowl I — Hung over reserve catches seven passes for 138 yards and two touchdowns in 35-10 win over K.C.

Jim O'Brien, Baltimore Colts, Super Bowl V — Rookie kicker's 32-yard field goal with five seconds left gives Colts 16-13 win over Cowboys.

Jack Squirek, L.A. Raiders, Super Bowl XVIII — Reserve linebacker's interception return for touchdown before halftime propels Raiders to lopsided win over Redskins.

Phil McConkey, New York Giants, Super Bowl XXI — Navy vet and role player contributes to 17 points to spur 39-20 win over Broncos.

Timmy Smith, Washington Redskins, Super Bowl XXII — Reserve running back shreds Denver for 204 yards and 2 TDs in 42-10 romp.

James Washington, Dallas Cowboys, Super Bowl XXVIII — Backup safety thrust into starting role has 11 tackles, an interception, a forced fumble and fumble return for a TD in 30-13 win over Buffalo.

Desmond Howard, Green Bay Packers, Super Bowl XXXI — Former receiver bust returns kickoff 99-yards in fourth quarter to seal the deal against New England.

Mike Jones, St. Louis Rams, Super Bowl XXXIV — Linebacker makes game-saving tackle as time expires to save 23-17 win over Titans.

David Tyree, New York Giants, Super Bowl XLII — 32-yard grab against helmet keeps game-winning drive alive in upset win over New England.

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