by | Jan 28, 1991 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

TAMPA, Fla. — All week long, they kept saying it’s only a game, a war is going on, football, even a Super Bowl, can’t mean much. It’s only a game. Except that Sunday night, with eight seconds left and a group of New York Giants on their knees, praying on the sideline, and a nervous Buffalo kicker named Scott Norwood out on the field, lining up the ball, and every fan in the stadium on his feet and every fan in his living room on the edge of his seat, breathing hard — well, suddenly, it was more than a game; it may have been the best Super Bowl ever.

“The whole time I was saying, ‘Miss it, please, miss it, please,’ ” Giants cornerback Everson Walls would say when this one was all over, when Norwood’s kick went just wide, and the Bills sunk to their knees and those praying Giants sprung to their feet in another wild dance, the sudden winners of the championship of professional football, 20-19, the closest Super Bowl in history. “Please, please, please . . .”

Please. That was about the margin of victory, wasn’t it? A please, a prayer, a whisper, an inch here or there. The best one ever? You might say that. Either team could have won. Either team would have deserved it. This was

fine, mistake- free football with drama dripping from every corner. It was better than Baltimore-Dallas 20 years ago, the previous closest Super Bowl. It was better than San Francisco-Cincinnati a couple years ago and was probably even better than Pittsburgh- Dallas in the ’70s, for that classic rivalry didn’t come down to the final eight seconds, a team asking its kicker to do something he had never done before, make a field goal fly at least 47 yards through the uprights.

“Please, please, please . . .”

Wasn’t this magnificent theatre? Jim Kelly, the Buffalo quarterback who’d waited his whole career for this chance, now pacing on the sideline like a caged cat, waiting for Norwood to seal his destiny. Kelly lumbered past defensive teammates Bruce Smith and Cornelius Bennett, exhausted, their chests heaving, they’d been on the field for what felt like a month. Now, they, too, could only watch.

And across the field, players such as Jeff Hostetler, Ottis Anderson, Dave Meggett and the rest of the low-profile Giants offense, these no-name guys who had kept the ball away from Buffalo for an incredible 40 1/2 minutes — why? because that was the only way to win this game — but here, as they watched Norwood, they worried that maybe eight seconds too many had been left on the table.

“On my wrist I have written ‘Just A Prayer,’ ” said linebacker Pepper Johnson, one of the kneeling Giants Sunday night, “that’s all we asked for,
‘just a prayer.’ And this time we were hoping Norwood would miss it. . . . “

On their knees, heads down, the crowd roaring.

Only a game, right? More than a game. Here was a clash of strategy, a battle of styles, a real showdown between flash and substance. It had terrific offense and crushing defense, it had running backs busting tackles and tight ends making big catches. It had a safety — a safety? — and a tipped pass that went for 61 yards. It had a starting quarterback, Hostetler, who, until last month, had been a career backup, and a defensive end who called himself “the best in the game.”

And for all these ingredients, this Super Bowl was won with the simplest of philosophies: You can’t be outscored if the other team doesn’t have the ball.

So the Giants kept it. Like kids in a school yard. Our ball. Nyah, nyah. They moved slowly on offense, and I mean slowly, stringing together drives that seemed to stretch from one coast of Florida to another. “If our offense is doing its job,” said Anderson, who would earn the MVP award for his 102 yards rushing, “then we’re keeping the Buffalo offense off the field.”

Indeed, for one incredible run — from late in the second quarter until late in the third quarter — New York kept Buffalo’s offense virtually inactive; counting halftime it was nearly an hour. There were all these third downs the Giants kept converting that drove the Bills crazy. Mark Ingram taking a pass and twisting, spinning, juking and spinning again. The chains moved. Howard Cross, a tight end — Howard Cross? — finding a seam and sucking in a pass. The chains moved. More time. More time. The Giants’ first drive in the third quarter took 9 1/2 minutes. Their drive to start the fourth quarter took 7 1/2 minutes. You could see Bills players such as Kelly and Thurman Thomas chomping at the bit, desperate to get back out there.

And yet, they showed great maturity. Remember that, unlike the Giants, the Bills have never been to a Super Bowl. You could expect jitters, mistakes, a collapse. Instead, when the Bills finally got the ball back with 2:16 left, trailing by one point with 90 yards to go for a touchdown, they simply shrugged and went to work.

They almost pulled it off.

“I just told my players we’ve gotta do it,” Bills coach Marv Levy said. And here came Kelly, who loves this kind of thing, and he began with a scramble, then another scramble, and then came Thomas, bursting left for 22 yards and Thomas bursting right for 11 yards. Here, in the final seconds, was the situation the Bills were made for with that no-huddle offense. Panic? Nerve City? No problem.

Finally, with nine seconds to go Kelly took the snap and threw the ball to the ground. It was on the New York 29. It meant a 47-yard field goal try, longer than Norwood’s personal best on grass. No time-outs left. Norwood trotted onto the field. On such decisions can a Super Bowl turn. A moment here for Norwood. The problem with games that come down to the last play is that someone is destined to be the goat. Norwood’s biggest concern, obviously, was that he had enough leg to make this kick. Turns out he got plenty of leg. But the ball never hooked. It went on a straight line just right of the goalpost, and as Giants cornerback Reyna Thompson, just a few feet from Norwood, began to leap up and down, Norwood began the longest walk of his life, back to the unhappy side of the field.

“I feel like I let a lot of people down,” he said. “You only get one opportunity to do something like this. Maybe I tried too hard to get the foot into it. I don’t know. I just feel like I let everyone down.”

In truth, he didn’t. Norwood’s mistake wasn’t the only one on the game. If anything lost this Super Bowl for the Bills, it was their inability to tackle on crucial plays. But then, there was also Hostetler’s falling in the end zone, which led to a safety. And there were even a few bad decisions by Anderson, the MVP. So no one was perfect, no one expected them to be. Norwood’s curse is simply this: He was the last guy on the stage.

But at that point, miss or make, it had been a terrific play, a Super Bowl in which, unlike previous blowouts, both teams felt the wrath of the other
(listen, for all that New York dominance, Buffalo still racked up 371 yards, just short of New York’s 386). In the end, as they say, it was a shame someone had to lose. But a disappointment? Not for the audience — particulary when the audience consisted of civilians in their living rooms and soldiers in a faraway desert.

Funny, isn’t it? When you realize it’s only a game, you realize how great a game it can be.


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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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