NEW ORLEANS — The game was six points, momentum had been tossed back and forth like a hand grenade, and here came the kickoff, out of the lights and into the waiting hands of Desmond Howard, who a few months ago was looking for a job and now was looking for a piece of history. There were 99 yards of field in front of him. Howard took off sprinting as if someone had shot a starter’s pistol. He went straight into the protective wedge of his Green Bay blockers, disappeared for a moment in all those bigger bodies, and by the time he emerged, a few blazing seconds later, only one Patriot had touched him, and that guy was flat on the turf. All that stood between Howard, his teammates and the ultimate glory for the city that adores them was green, green, green.
Pack it in.
Cheese for everybody.
“Did you ever imagine this?” someone asked Howard after the game was over, the Packers had won and Howard had another trophy to go with his Heisman, this time the Super Bowl most valuable player.
“No, I never imagined anything like this,” Howard said, laughing. “The furthest my dreams ever went was to be a professional football player.”
He was much more than that on Sunday night. He was the decisive weapon in a Super Bowl war that could only be decided with a very big boom. No matter how many comebacks the New England Patriots tried to mount in this most offensive of championships, Green Bay had an answer. Brett Favre’s throwing the longest touchdown pass in Super Bowl history. Mike Prior’s leaping to pick off a Drew Bledsoe pass deep in Green Bay territory. It was like those Whack-A-Mole games in the arcades. Whenever New England popped up, the Packers brought the hammer down. Over here. Whack! Over there. Whack!
And then, finally, the killer, Howard’s third-quarter miracle, which began with a sprint at the 1, ended with a moon walk in the end zone and goes into the books as the longest kick return in Super Bowl history, 99 yards. And Desmond can tell you every step.
Cheese for everybody.
Phone call for Desmond
“I always had confidence in myself,” said Howard, the former Michigan star, in the raucous locker room after the game. “No matter what happened to me, all the trials and tribulations, I never gave up on myself.”
Which is more than you can say for the Washington Redskins and the Jacksonville Jaguars, both of whom had Howard on their rosters and let him go. He was looking for a job when he joined Green Bay, and when he was injured in training camp, he was almost cut.
“That was the lowest point,” he said, “knowing what I could do and thinking
I might not get a chance to show it.
“But there’s an old expression: The cream always rises to the top.”
And every time Howard touched the ball, he seemed intent not only on rising but on turning himself into a human exclamation point. He returned New England’s first punt 32 yards, giving the Packers good field position on their first possession. And he came up yelling and pointing and nearly brawling with several Patriots players on their sideline.
He handled six punts, four kickoffs and a mouthful of trash talk. By the time the game was over, he had 244 yards — 90 on punt returns, 154 on kick returns — and the touchdown that shut the door. He became the first special teams player chosen as MVP.
And then the president called.
“Desmond has to take a call from the White House,” a spokesman said.
“He’ll be right back.”
Ah, well. The story speaks for itself. In many ways, Howard is a perfect fit for this Super Bowl, a comeback story. Hadn’t it been 30 years since Green Bay won the first Super Bowl, under Vince Lombardi, the man for whom the winner’s trophy is now named? The game has changed greatly since those days, from a $12 ticket to a $275 ticket, from an Up With People halftime to a
$1.2-million show with James Brown popping up on a hydraulic lift.
But a few things remain consistent. The Packers play football. Green Bay loves the Packers. And the fans there consider a championship their destiny.
Destiny came home Sunday night.
Cheese for everybody.
“First of all, I want to thank the fans of Green Bay,” said coach Mike Holmgren.
“I want to first thank the fans of Green Bay,” said Favre.
“This is for all the people in Green Bay,” said Sean Jones.
One after another, they paid credit to the fans. Tell me that isn’t great in this age of me-me-me sports. I don’t recall the Dallas Cowboys’ making their fans first on the thank-you list. I don’t remember the San Francisco 49ers’ making sure their fans were mentioned high in the story.
Then again, I guess, none of those teams is owned by the fans. The Packers are. That’s right. The residents of Green Bay own the team, butchers, doctors, storekeepers, you name it. They own stock in a franchise that does not distribute profits or dividends but instead puts everything back into the team. What a contrast this is to spotlight-hungry millionaires like Dallas’ Jerry Jones, or New England’s Bob Kraft, whose feud with Bill Parcells almost overshadowed the Patriots last week.
Wherever you go these days, sports are about money, money, big stadiums, new leases. And here is a team that is owned by the fans, that loves its archaic frozen tundra stadium, and never talks about selling, moving, or increasing the bottom line.
Did you know that if the Packers are ever sold, all the profits will go to an American Legion post in Green Bay?
Cheese for everybody.
A wild first half
OK. For those of you who are not Packers fans, but simply fans of the game, here’s the good news: This Super Bowl was not over by halftime. It actually featured two lead changes. It actually had you on the edge of your seat as late as third quarter. And if there were ever a first half with more highlight footage, I’d like to see it.
The Packers’ second play from scrimmage was a 54-yard touchdown bomb that floated from Favre into the open hands of Andre Rison. “That was all Brett,” Holmgren admitted. “He audibled the play I called when he saw the rush.”
The Packers’ second touchdown was an 81-yard footrace between Antonio Freeman and the Patriots’ Lawyer Milloy.
Drew Bledsoe threw 29 passes in the first half, including a 44-yard bomb. The Pack blew a 10-point lead, fell behind by four, then zoomed ahead to a 27-14 lead.
By the time halftime finally fell, there had been 44 passes, 400 passing yards, five touchdowns, two field goals, two interceptions, and at least 45,000 trips to the bathroom by fans who never expected 30 minutes of football
to take this long to play.
And then came the Blues Brothers.
New chapter in Green Bay
Which might be an appropriate cue to pay homage to the Patriots. No, they didn’t win. But they accounted for themselves nicely, and if not for Bledsoe’s interceptions, and the kickoff return by Howard, they might have pulled an unlikely upset. Don’t forget that losing by 14 points in the Super Bowl puts you in the “close game” category.
“I want to say it’s been an honor playing for Bill Parcells and he taught me a lot,” said Bledsoe. “He’s been a great coach for us.”
“Does that mean he’s not coming back?” someone asked.
“I didn’t say that,” Bledsoe said.
Wait. Let’s save that whole affair for some other day. This moment belongs to the Packers, a team that built itself carefully and steadily, with a good coach, a good GM, the right draft picks, free agents like Reggie White, trade acquisitions like Eugene Robinson, and an eye for castoffs such as Howard and Rison. These Packers paid their dues, they did it the right way, and it was most definitely their turn.
It might also have been their destiny. And here’s why I say that:
At 1 on Super Bowl morning, I was leaving a restaurant in the Garden District when a limousine pulled up. The door opened, but no one got out. Then I saw a leg trying to swing to the street. First try, no go. Second try, no go. Finally, on the third attempt, the wobbly foot met the pavement, then came the next, and finally, stepping out of the limo and stretching his long frame into the night was an old but legendary Green Bay figure.
Wasn’t it 30 years ago that McGee, a reserve tight end, went out partying the night before the very first Super Bowl, never figuring to play — then wound up the hero of the game, hangover and all? And here he was, out and about again, the night before the big game? Max McGee?
“I’m just a link in a very, very strong chain,” Desmond Howard said in the locker room when this was all over. Even he might not know how far back that chain really goes, back to Eau Claire, and Alice and Milwaukee and the frozen tundra and Hornung and Starr and Max McGee, who got out of that limo and smiled as if he’d never left the stage and he knew what was going to happen.
Green Bay wins.
Cheese for everybody.
Desmond Howard is the first special teams player to be the Super Bowl most valuable player, amassing 244 return yards. That tied the game record set in 1995 by San Diego’s Andre Coleman, all on kickoffs. The Desmond difference:
* He scored on a 99-yard kickoff return that gave Green Bay a 35-21 lead in the third quarter. It was the longest return in Super Bowl history, breaking the 98-yard kickoff-return scores by Miami’s Fulton Walker in 1983 and San Diego’s Coleman. Howard gained 154 yards on four returns.
* By halftime, Howard had broken the Super Bowl record for punt-return yardage with 75. He finished with 90 yards on six returns. San Francisco’s John Taylor
set the previous record with 56 yards in 1989. Howard’s 32-yard return preceded the game’s first touchdown, and his 34-yarder set up a field goal for a 20-14 lead.
* REMEMBER? Howard returned punts 71 (for a touchdown) and 46 yards (setting up the second TD) in the Packers’ 35-14 playoff win over the 49ers.