TEMPE, Ariz. — Finally, something easy was coming Larry Brown’s way: the football. It spun in a nice tight spiral, as if tossed in a practice drill. Brown opened his arms, made the catch, and ran. Past the 30. Past the 20. Past the 10. Never mind that the ball had been thrown by the opposing quarterback, Pittsburgh’s Neil O’Donnell. Never mind that there was no Steeler in sight. Never mind that this seemed to be a deja-vu bonehead play by the Pittsburgh offense, Brown’s second interception in this Super Bowl and the second one he’d made by just standing there like a spectator.
Never mind. Brown didn’t care. He’s had a tough-enough year, a tough-enough career. He came back from the death of a child this season, and the haunting memories of a poor performance in last year’s NFC championship. He’d been a 12th- round draft pick, a low man on the totem pole, and he’d worked his way up, only to spend much of this season as the “other” defensive back on the Cowboys, the one who never gets mentioned thanks to Deion Sanders.
After all that, does it matter that his interceptions Sunday were like reaching into a beehive and not getting stung?
Take the honey and run. This was a Super Bowl that had potential to be a great game, maybe even an upset, a long- awaited AFC victory. But at two crucial moments the skies seemed to open, and a blinding light shot down and hit O’Donnell right between the eyes.
And Brown right in the hands.
The first bolt came in the third quarter, with the Steelers trailing by six points and moving steadily downfield. On third and 10, O’Donnell picked up a blitz, threw toward the sideline — and there was nobody there! Nobody, except Brown, the skinny, 26-year-old cornerback, who took the ball and raced 44 yards. Two plays later, the Cowboys scored a touchdown.
“A miscommunication,” said a grim Bill Cowher, the Steelers’ coach, after the game.
“A good read on my part,” said Brown.
The second interception did even more damage. It came with less than five minutes to go in the game, and Pittsburgh within three points and driving. The fans were on the Steelers’ side. They smelled an upset. They rose and waved their terrible yellow towels. And once again, O’Donnell dropped back, picked up a blitz and threw quickly — and again, no one was there!
Who went 33 yards.
Two plays later, the Cowboys scored, and that was the end of Super Bowl XXX.
Take the honey and run.
Right place, right time
“This thing is heavy!” Brown yelled, holding the Super Bowl trophy in the Cowboys’ locker room after the win, their third title in the last four years. That was only one trophy he would hold. The other was the MVP award, which he earned thanks to being the right man in the right place at the right time.
“Is this especially sweet, since you’re somewhat overlooked?” he was asked.
“Aw, we’ve got so many stars on this team. I just wanted to play hard. I knew they were going to be going away from my boy Deion. So I knew I would be the key.”
Well. Perhaps. But Brown, only 5-feet-11 and 186 pounds, became the first defensive player to win the Super Bowl MVP award since Richard Dent did it with the Bears 10 years ago, and he certainly didn’t know they would throw right at him. But give Brown and the rest of the Dallas defense credit. They rattled O’Donnell into bad decisions. And whether it was his receivers’ fault or his, we may never know.
“I’m not going to get into that,” O’Donnell said after the 27-17 defeat.
“We’re a team; we’ve been a team all year.”
“I ran my route and when I looked up, the ball was intercepted and going the other way,” said Kordell Stewart, who was one of the intended receivers on the first pick. “I don’t think about whose fault it was. At that point, we’re just trying to tackle the guy.”
In O’Donnell’s defense, he has one of the lowest interception rates in the history of NFL quarterbacks. But that’s during the regular season. The Super Bowl is nothing if not a changer of fortunes. And for a long time — at least until he gets back to another Super Bowl — O’Donnell is going to be known as the guy who threw two crucial passes right into the arms of a defender.
And Brown will be known as the man who caught them.
Take the honey and run. A tumultuous season
Now before we bemoan the fact that the Cowboys are once again dancing on top of the world — and nobody is safe when that happens — let us recognize a nice story when we see it. Brown had suffered enormous criticism in Dallas after a bad game against the 49ers’ Jerry Rice in last season’s NFC championship. Then, earlier this season, he lost a baby son, Kristopher, who was born 14 weeks prematurely. The child struggled for weeks before dying. Brown and his wife, Cheryl, had hoped the boy would make it, because they had a daughter, Kristen, who had also been born prematurely and survived.
It was not to be. Brown buried his child, then rejoined the team — “As a release more than anything,” he said — and played the rest of the year with the sadness weighing on him like a helmet.
“I just thank God,” he said in the locker room. “This year was tough, but with this team and the players and the way they supported me . . . I’ve just got to give them credit.”
Meanwhile, across the room, his teammates were doing the same.
“To go through what he went through,” said Troy Aikman, “I don’t know how many of us could do it. I’m so happy for him winning this award. For everything he’s endured, there’s no better ending.”
As for the Cowboys? Well. They are back as champions of the football world
— despite a year that seemed more like a TV miniseries. There were injuries, infighting, personality clashes, another loss to San Francisco, the arrival of Deion, the retirement then un-retirement of Charles Haley, the fourth- and-one botch job that haunted Barry Switzer, Jerry Jones’ getting sued by the league, Jones’ suing the league, Aikman’s complaining, Michael Irvin’s cursing.
In other words, a typical Cowboys mess.
“In many ways, this game reminded me of our season,” said Jones, the outspoken owner, and he was right. Trouble here, trouble there, and then, like a bad TV show, an unexpected happy ending.
Take the honey and run. The Cowboys own three of the last four Super Bowls, and one day, someone will figure out how the AFC can win one of these things. For the moment, this one will be remembered by the easiest of passes going to a guy who hasn’t had many easy moments. And a heavy trophy that, in his hands, suddenly felt a little lighter.