by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

MIAMI — Hours before the madness, before the screaming crowd, before the last-minute drive that would shower them all in history, Joe Montana had arrived at the stadium, opened his bag, and smiled. What was this? His wife had packed him a present. He lifted the red jersey out of the bag. It was the one he had worn four years ago — in his last Super Bowl.

“I knew what she meant,” the 32-year-old quarterback would say later. Be yourself. Do what you always do. Win.

He slipped it on.

It was a call to glory, for Montana, for all the San Francisco 49ers, as loud as a siren, as unmistakable as their signature. Do what you always do. Win. So it was that in the fourth quarter, with just minutes left, trailing by a field goal, the Miami moon looking down and 120 million viewers looking in, they reached down into their magic hat and pulled out . . . themselves.

And a come-from-behind 20-16 victory over Cincinnati in Super Bowl XXIII.

Here is how they did it: With Montana, Joe Cool, standing in the middle of the war, picking out his receivers, guiding the drive like destiny. With Roger Craig, the running back, cutting left and right, making the clutch catches in the flat. And with Jerry Rice, Hail Jerry, awaiting the drop of the ball into his arms, his fingers, his knees, as always, somehow, one miracle grab after another.

“We got the quarterback, we got the receivers, all we have to do is pass!” offensive lineman Guy McIntyre would later observe. And in the end, it would be that simple. Down the field they marched, the team of the ’80s, as if someone had reminded them that the decade was about up, that this was it, center stage, and all they did was move 92 yards in the final three minutes of the perhaps the greatest Super Bowl played, culminating with a bullet strike from Montana to the least of all expected receivers — John Taylor, a guy who sells cars in the off-season — with just 34 seconds left.

Touchdown. Victory. History.


“It took a totally team effort,” said Rice, who was named the MVP. And why correct his English? Totally team. Yeah. A team that has now won three Super Bowls in one decade. A quarterback that always gets the big one, the way Valentino always gets the girl. Just when you thought there was no way the Super Bowl could ever live up to its billing — well, did you watch? Then you know what we’re talking about. A wierd, wacky contest

“I guess on your way out, if you bought a ticket to this, you would say
‘At least I got my $100,000 worth,’ ” said Sam Wyche, the losing coach in a most gallant effort.

Indeed. For what a weird, wacky and ultimately wonderful contest! It was a game without a touchdown for the first 30 minutes. A game in which two players
(Tim Krumrie and Steve Wallace) were seriously injured within the first eight minutes of action. A game in which the biggest touchdowns would be scored by kick returners.

It was a game of strangled emotion, force butting heads with resistance, Cincinnati surges then dies, San Francisco surges then pulls back, then suddenly a flash of brilliance, and a fourth quarter that was played as if the fate of the world hung in the balance.

It was a game that featured the famed no-huddle offense of the Bengals, yet saw the 49ers forsake the huddle down the stretch. And how they did it! Montana, criticized earlier in the year, benched, told he was washed up, proving that when the big one is on the line, he’s the guy you want.

“Is this one sweeter than the rest?” he was asked in the locker room afterward, having now won all three of his Super Bowl appearances.

“Only because we were 6-5 at one point, and people were saying we couldn’t pass downfield anymore, and that Jerry wasn’t fast enough and that stuff,” he said.

In other words, yes.

And what of Jerry — Hail Jerry! — Rice? Wow! He caught 11 passes for 215 yards, enough work for two men. He caught them over his shoulder, on the edge of his fingertips, in his chest, in someone else’s chest. What a performance! Three catches in that final drive for eight, 17 and 27 yards, even though Cincinnati knew it was coming his way. All this from a guy who had an injured ankle and didn’t practice much of the week.

“MVP!” he hollered afterward, holding up the trophy. “Wow. This is something. I think I’ll retire.”

Just kidding, he said. The underdog bit back

Don’t retire, Jerry. Come back, and maybe we’ll get another one of these. Here was a game that was supposed to be one- sided, an exercise in 49er superiority. The AFC had lost the last four of these January extravaganzas, and people expected more of the same. “We’re just lucky to be here,” Wyche would say all week, playing up his underdog status.

And yet the Bengals — who were more known during the week as the team with the Ickey Shuffle and the quarterback named Boomer — played like champions down to the final moments. Remember, this is a team that came back from a 4-11 season last year and almost went all the way. “We were 34 seconds away,” said Wyche. “Thirty-four seconds. We’ll never forget this feeling.”

This was the kind of spirit the Bengals were operating under: Krumrie, their all-pro nose tackle, was wounded in the first quarter, broke two bones in his leg, had to be wheeled off the field. They wanted to fly him to a hospital to set the leg. No dice, he said. He was staying put. And when the Bengals came into the locker room at halftime, they found Krumrie, lying on the table, just waiting to urge them on.

They made the most with who they had. Stanford Jennings, a backup running back, returned a kick 93 yards for a go-ahead touchdown. Jim Breech, the shortest guy on the field, kicked three field goals, the last of which would give the Bengals the lead until the final minute. If their stars — Ickey Woods (79 yards rushing), Boomer Esiason (11-for-25 passing) and Eddie Brown
(four receptions for 44) did not give marquee-value performances, their “B” guys certainly did.

“After Jimmy made that last kick I figured it would be a sweet ride home,” said Esiason. But ultimately, the Bengal defense, which was crippled without Krumrie — who no doubt would have put pressure on Montana down that final stretch — could not hold back the sea that was the 49ers smelling glory.

So once again, in a San Francisco-Cincinnati Super Bowl, these were the signatures of victory: Montana scrambling, eyeing the field, finding the fullback or the halfback or the wide receiver or whoever was open and unexpected: Rice yanking in a pass over his shoulder, one-handed; Craig, a man who travels with his own medical staff, taking the licking and keeping on ticking, cuts and jukes and charges for precious yards, and Bill Walsh, the coach, in possibly his last game, walking off the field, looking like a history professor whose class had passed its final.

In the days and years to come, people will hail those final three minutes as perhaps the greatest clutch moments in a championship game. Good. Make it as big as you want. For here was the culmination of an exhausting seven days for the national heartbeat. Not only was this the week that George Bush was sworn into office; the week that Miami exploded again with racial violence, shooting and lootings and hatred and flames; the week that a crazed man went on a killing spree in a northern California school, killing five children — not only was all that taking place, but we were being asked to prepare for a 3-D halftime show, an animated commercial game between beer bottles, Spuds MacKenzie, Billy Joel, Burt Reynolds and a character named Elvis Presto.

This seemed the year that the Super Bowl finally outgorged itself in excess. So it needed a great game to justify its fatness. And here is what it got: perfect theater, last-second brilliance, catches and tackles and dives and leaps. A worthy challenger, fueled by belief and hunger, and a worthy champion, rediscovering its destiny behind the legs of Roger, the hands of Jerry, and the calm, cool arm of a guy wearing a very old uniform. Take a bow, 49ers. This one was really super. CUTLINE

San Francisco receiver Jerry Rice, right, eludes Cincinatti defender Lewis Billups on Sunday en route to a fourth-quarter touchdown.

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana had reason to smile Sunday. He won his third Super Bowl this decade after beating the Cincinatti Bengals 20-16 at Miami’s Joe Robbie Stadium.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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