Skip to main content

Super Bowl's best stories have risen from ranks of unexpected

Note: The following story can be found in the Super Bowl XLIII official game program.

Eli Manning and Joe Namath conjure dramatically different images. One is of a gangly, aw-shucks, baby-faced kid; the other is of a smooth, swaggering, in-your-face playboy.

But they do share something in common: Both will be remembered as the quintessential miracle-workers of New York sports.

Namath's Jets made history with their eye-popping win over the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. The 16-7 decision gave the fledgling American Football League the credibility it desperately craved in advance of its merger with the more established NFL.

Nearly four decades later, Manning's Giants altered history in the making by stunning the heavily-favored and undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Their last-minute 17-14 triumph derailed the Patriots' claim as the greatest team ever.

As if we ever needed a reminder, those results prove that nothing in the NFL is a certainty. Whether it's a massive upset, an unlikely hero, or a play for the ages (and last year's Giants-Patriots game featured all three), the Super Bowl has brought us a bounty of surprises through the years.

The Jets took center stage for the first shocker. After lopsided wins by the Green Bay Packers in the first two Super Bowls (beating the Chiefs and Raiders by a combined score of 68-24), the game desperately needed a spark. It got that with Namath's bold pregame proclamation, when he "guaranteed" a Jets victory over a veteran Colts team that went 13-1 during the regular season and had battered the Browns, 34-0, in the NFL Championship Game.

"That guarantee was probably one of the greatest things we could have done because the Colts were really (ticked) off," recalls John Schmidt, the center on that Jets team. "They wanted to kill Namath and kill us. They wanted to skin us alive, and that had to throw them off their game."

Of course, Namath needed to deliver on his promise. And deliver he did, reeling in MVP honors after a savvy 17-of-28, 206-yard passing performance. It wasn't all Namath, however. Matt Snell rushed for 121 yards and scored the Jets' lone touchdown, Jim Turner kicked three field goals, and a swarming New York defense picked off four Colts passes.

One year after that breakthrough, the Kansas City Chiefs pounded the Minnesota Vikings, 23-7, in Super Bowl IV, the final game played before the NFL-AFL merger. That victory carried an even higher level of satisfaction for AFL partisans, since the Vikings were supposed to be an original member of the upstart league before suddenly bolting to the NFL. Moreover, it ended any talk that the Jets' win was a fluke.

In 1978, the NFL expanded its playoffs to include five teams from each conference, rewarding the three division winners with first-round byes while pitting the two wild-card qualifiers against each other. That extra round usually proved fatal to a team's Super Bowl dreams. In the 12 years the format existed, only two wild-card teams reached the Super Bowl, and just one -- the 1980 Oakland Raiders -- won it.

The Raiders and Chargers both finished that season with 11-5 records, but San Diego was awarded the AFC West title via a tiebreaker. So the Raiders were sent the long route. After dispatching of the Houston Oilers in round one, they edged Cleveland, 14-12, in the divisional playoffs, securing the victory on Mike Davis' end zone interception in the final minute. They then won the AFC Championship Game in San Diego, striking for four first-half touchdowns and then holding on to take a 34-27 decision over their division rival.

Those unexpected road wins made a loose bunch even looser and that showed at Super Bowl XV in New Orleans, when the Raiders handily beat a Philadelphia Eagles team they had lost to during the regular season. Keying the 27-10 victory were quarterback Jim Plunkett and linebacker Rod Martin. Plunkett took over for an injured Dan Pastorini in the season's sixth week, and the former No. 1 overall pick resurrected his career by winning 13 of his 15 starts (including playoffs), capped by a 261-yard, three-touchdown effort in the Super Bowl that landed him the MVP trophy. Martin picked off Eagles QB Ron Jaworski three times, setting a Super Bowl record for interceptions that still stands.

While the 1990 Giants weren't a wild-card team, they weren't regarded as title material either. That was especially true after they lost starting QB Phil Simms to a late-season injury and then found themselves facing the two-time defending Super Bowl champion San Francisco 49ers.

Yet after upsetting the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game -- parlaying five Matt Bahr field goals into a 15-13 win -- they headed to Tampa Bay for Super Bowl XXV, where they beat the Buffalo Bills by stifling one of the game's great offenses.

Although the 20-19 outcome was ultimately decided by Scott Norwood's missed field goal, the Giants positioned themselves to win behind a brilliantly executed game plan that kept the ball away from Buffalo's no-huddle attack and prolific quarterback Jim Kelly. New York, with back-up signal-caller Jeff Hostetler running the show, maintained possession for better than 40 minutes, frustrating a Bills team that had piled up 51 points in its AFC Championship Game victory over the Raiders.

The Patriots pulled off a similar feat when they muffled "The Greatest Show on Turf" to stun the St. Louis Rams, 20-17, in Super Bowl XXXVI. That's when the world was introduced to the remarkable poise of Tom Brady, who was named the game's MVP after driving underdog New England to a game-winning field goal in the final 1:30 with no timeouts.

"I looked at it as a great opportunity," recalls Brady, a second-year quarterback at the time. "Would you rather be kneeling on the ball at the end of a 49-3 blowout? A lot of people might say, 'Yeah, sure.' But a two-minute drill is the true test of a team and the true test of the leadership on a team. Can you get the guys down the field in a short amount of time, and with the stakes at their highest?

"That's really what playing quarterback is all about."

Even when the Super Bowl-winning team isn't a surprise, some of its star performers are. That list of unlikely heroes dates back to Super Bowl I and Max McGee, whose career was winding down as a 34-year-old backup wide receiver for the Packers.

As long as starter Boyd Dowler was healthy, McGee -- who had caught only four passes in 14 regular-season games -- figured to see little or no action against the AFL champion Kansas City Chiefs. That's why he didn't feel at all guilty about sneaking out of his hotel room near midnight on the eve of the game and partying until the sun came up.

Upon returning to the hotel at 7:30 a.m., McGee was greeted in the lobby by several of his Packers teammates, many of whom were on their way to the Los Angeles Coliseum for the game. He headed quickly to his room while keeping a watchful eye out for head coach Vince Lombardi, a strict disciplinarian who had instituted a hefty $5,000 fine for curfew violations.

McGee avoided the fine. He also got away with leaving his helmet in the locker room during pregame warm-ups and with not stretching. Why stretch when you're not going to play?

Or so McGee thought.

On the Packers' first possession, Dowler suffered a separated shoulder. McGee's relaxing afternoon on the bench came to an immediate halt when Lombardi barked, "McGee! Get in the game!" With his helmet still in the locker room, McGee grabbed the closest one to him and headed for the huddle.

Shortly thereafter, he was headed to the end zone with a pass he caught -- with one hand and behind his back, no less -- from quarterback Bart Starr, who threw the ball behind him in order to avoid an interception. McGee had clear sailing to a 37-yard touchdown and a slice of history by scoring the first points in a Super Bowl.

In typical McGee fashion, he offered a humorous take on his spectacular play: "(When) you pay a quarterback $100,000 a year, you expect him to throw the ball a little better to a $25,000 end. I thought the ball was going to be intercepted. I was trying to knock it down … and it stuck to my hand."

Such was the theme for the rest of the game. McGee's hands were like magnets, catching the ball regardless of whatever forces tried to separate them from it. In the third quarter he caught another pass from Starr, took a hard hit, and juggled the ball before clutching it to his chest for a 13-yard touchdown. McGee finished with seven receptions for 138 yards and two scores as Green Bay pulled away for a 35-10 win.

It was an MVP-worthy performance, but that honor (along with the keys to a new Corvette) instead went to Starr.

In McGee's case, at least the Most Valuable Player was a member of the winning team. It was a different story in Super Bowl V, when Dallas Cowboys linebacker Chuck Howley was selected for the award despite the fact his team lost to the Baltimore Colts, 16-13.

"You never like to have something like that happen," says Howley, who spent 13 of his 15 pro seasons with the Cowboys. "When you lose the game of the year, it hurts. It's a team sport, (so) when you are the Most Valuable Player and you're from the losing team, it's hard to celebrate."

Dallas' defeat came in heartbreaking fashion. The Cowboys led by a touchdown with nine minutes left, then had the ball with two minutes remaining and the score tied, 13-13. That's when Colts linebacker Mike Curtis stepped in front of a Craig Morton pass, grabbed an interception, and raced to the Dallas 28-yard line. Three plays later, Jim O'Brien kicked a field goal to complete Baltimore's comeback.

The MVP award could have gone to O'Brien. Or maybe Curtis should have received it. Instead, voters on the media panel -- who the late Tex Schramm, the Cowboys' president and general manager at the time, joked had submitted their ballots before O'Brien's heroics -- determined that the honor belonged to a member of the losing team. It was a first, and hasn't happened since.

Howley also became the first defensive player to win the award after it had gone to three quarterbacks (Starr twice, Namath, and Kansas City's Len Dawson).

Truth be told, Howley was an outstanding selection, contributing two interceptions and being credited with three tackles. And although he might not have been in the mood to celebrate at the time, he has since come to understand that being Super Bowl MVP is a big deal and is proud to be a recipient.

"It's quite an honor," Howley says. "When you lose, it's even greater."

Howley's story does have a happy ending. One year later, in Super Bowl VI, he got a ring to go with his award, grabbing an interception in the Cowboys' 24-3 victory over the Miami Dolphins.

Doug Williams did even better -- getting a ring, the MVP award, and making history in his lone Super Bowl appearance. When he signed with the Washington Redskins in 1986, Williams was viewed as an insurance policy. The former first-round pick of the Buccaneers threw just one pass in his first season with Washington, and in 1987 played sporadically in relief of an often injured and occasionally ineffective Jay Schroeder. But after leading the Redskins to playoff wins over Chicago and Minnesota, head coach Joe Gibbs gave Williams the nod to start Super Bowl XXII.

That decision alone represented a breakthrough, as Williams became the first African-American quarterback ever to play in a Super Bowl. But on top of the history were heroics. Williams turned in one of the greatest and most courageous performances the game has seen, overcoming a knee injury and an aching mouth to throw four second-quarter touchdown passes in a 42-10 blowout of Denver.

The second-guessing had already begun by the time Williams suffered a hyperextension of his left knee with the Broncos holding a 10-0 first-quarter lead. As he sat on the ground, Williams -- who also was feeling the aftereffects of a four-hour root canal done the previous day -- told team trainers to leave him alone because he wanted to try to get up on his own.

"If I could (get up), I knew I was going to be able to finish the game," Williams says.

Sure enough, he pulled himself to his feet and walked off the field. When Washington got the ball back, Williams returned to the game and promptly connected with Ricky Sanders on an 80-yard touchdown pass. The Redskins proceeded to score on their next four possessions, three of which ended with Williams launching touchdown strikes, to build a huge halftime lead.

Williams didn't initially grasp the magnitude of his accomplishment. But as time passed and he spoke with countless people -- especially African Americans who told him what his performance meant to them -- he developed a much greater appreciation of the circumstances and of other black quarterbacks who came before him.

"I had to look back at a lot of guys," Williams says. "I thought about Joe Gilliam. I thought about James Harris. I thought about all of the guys who were playing or had played or weren't given the opportunity to play that position. I represented all of those guys."

In recent times, the list of unlikely Super Bowl heroes has grown. It includes Larry Brown, who became the first cornerback to win the MVP award after his two interceptions helped the Cowboys hold off the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XXX; Desmond Howard, who became the only special teams player to receive MVP honors after his 99-yard kickoff return for a score sparked the Packers past the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI; and free safety Dexter Jackson, whose two first-half pickoffs put the Buccaneers on track to shut down the Raiders' offensive juggernaut in Super Bowl XXXVII.

Howard's story has a unique riches-to-rags-to-riches component. A Heisman Trophy winner and the fourth overall pick in the 1992 NFL Draft, he had bounced around the league and was playing for his third team in three years. Some considered him fortunate to even have a roster spot in Green Bay.

But in one fleeting moment, he completely altered the momentum of the game, his touchdown coming on the heels of a score that had pulled New England within one point. Howard parlayed that performance into a four-year, $6 million free-agent contract from the Raiders.

Last year's Super Bowl MVP, Eli Manning, wasn't a huge surprise -- the quarterback of the winning team has received the honor 21 times -- but the circumstances behind the Giants' historic triumph over the Patriots were anything but ordinary.

New England had proven to be unstoppable throughout the 2007 season, winning with ease on most days and demonstrating the ability to pull out victories on the few occasions when games were close. After Randy Moss hauled in a touchdown to put his team ahead with less than three minutes to play, it appeared the Patriots -- zeroing in on an unprecedented 19-0 campaign -- were simply following the latter script.

Sabol's shot

David Tyree's catch as the greatest single play in 42 Super Bowls? Steve Sabol sure thinks so, even among the many great moments in the game's illustrious history. **More ...**

But the Giants weren't done, nor was third-string receiver David Tyree. Early in the fourth quarter, Tyree had a 5-yard TD reception that temporarily gave New York the lead. Now he was about to produce one of the most spectacular catches the Super Bowl has ever seen.

Barely a minute remained when the Giants faced a critical third-and-5 from their 44-yard line. Manning avoided an all-but-certain sack before heaving a pass down the middle of the field, where Tyree outjumped Patriots safety Rodney Harrison for the ball. As he was thrown to the ground, Tyree pressed the ball against his helmet and maintained possession for a 32-yard gain. The catch gave Tyree 43 receiving yards and a touchdown in the game (which, just like McGee, exceeded his production for the entire regular season).

"What it comes down to is making the play," explains Tyree. "Eli did an unbelievable job. I honestly don't know how he got out of (the sack). And when the ball is in the air, you have to go get it. That's the job."

Four plays later, Plaxico Burress' TD grab completed the upset.

"It's like we had an angel on our shoulder," says Giants receiver Steve Smith, who added a big catch of his own on that final drive.

The Giants' assistant coaches were a bit more emphatic.

"Eighteen-and-one!" several of them shouted as they sprinted through the press box to a waiting elevator moments after the 17-14 triumph. "We beat the unbeatable!"

Like so many other memorable moments and outcomes in Super Bowl history, it was made more special by the element of surprise.

This article has been reproduced in a new format and may be missing content or contain faulty links. Please use the Contact Us link in our site footer to report an issue.