The Super Bowl turns 50 on Sunday, a golden anniversary that nudged me to reflect on what I consider the most memorable moments from the first 49 editions.
Any list of this type comes with inherent biases. Mine are shaped by growing up in the Bay Area (Peninsula side) in the 1980s during the height of the San Francisco 49ers dynasty.
1. Montana to Taylor
This was the moment that cemented Joe Montana’s legend. With the 49ers trailing the Cincinnati Bengals 16-13 in the final minutes of Super Bowl XXIII, Montana coolly directed an 11-play, 92-yard drive capped by a 10-yard touchdown pass to a slanting John Taylor with 34 seconds remaining.
The play was designed to go to Roger Craig, but the versatile halfback lined up on the wrong side of the formation. And star receiver Jerry Rice (whose 215 receiving yards remain a Super Bowl record) was well covered. Which allowed Taylor to break free in the back of the end zone, where Montana hit him in perfect stride for the go-ahead score.
Joe Montana is not human.
Bengals receiver Cris Collinsworth after Super Bowl XXIII
“Joe Montana is not human,” Bengals receiver (and current NBC analyst) Cris Collinsworth said after the game. “I don’t want to call him a god, but he’s something in between.”
2. Tyree’s helmet catch
Eight years later, we’re still in disbelief. Did David Tyree have Stickum on the side of his helmet? How else did he trap the football against his noggin for a 32-yard gain on third down, extending the New York Giants’ winning drive in Super Bowl XLII?
Eli Manning’s throw, coming after the lead-footed quarterback barely evaded a fierce rush, was just as remarkable. So is the fact that Tyree, the Giants’ No. 4 receiver, never caught another NFL pass. And, oh yeah, the play spoiled the New England Patriots’ bid for a perfect 19-0 season.
“I was in utter shock,” said Patriots safety James Sanders, the former Fresno State standout. So were we all.
3. The Longest Yard
Trailing the St. Louis Rams 23-16 with six seconds remaining in Super Bowl XXXIV, the Tennessee Titans were 10 yards from the end zone. Time for one last play.
Titans quarterback Steve McNair dropped back and found Kevin Dyson running a slant pattern. Dyson made the catch at the 2, then absorbed a solid hit by linebacker Mike Jones.
As Dyson fell backward to the turf, he stretched out his right arm with the ball hoping to break the plane of the goal line. His reach came up one yard short in what has to be the most dramatic final play in Super Bowl history.
4. Elway goes airborne
After losing his first three career appearances, John Elway desperately wanted to win Super Bowl XXXII. How desperately? Enough to send himself hurtling in the air during a late third-quarter scramble.
On third and six from the Green Bay 12, Elway darted from the pocket and leaped at the first-down marker while being met by two defenders who sent him spinning like a helicopter. The 37-year-old slammed into the turf, bounded to his feet and pumped his fist.
Elway’s aerial inspired the Broncos to a 31-24 upset, the first of Denver’s back-to-back championships.
5. Swann the acrobat
The term “circus catch” had to be invented to describe the juggling, acrobatic grab made by Pittsburgh Steelers receiver Lynn Swann while stumbling over Dallas Cowboys defensive back Mark Washington in Super Bowl X.
The term “circus catch” had to be invented to describe the juggling, acrobatic grab made by Lynn Swann in Super Bowl X.
After initially bobbling the ball, which Washington also tipped, Swann never lost his concentration and somehow kept his eyes on the fluttering ball while tumbling to the turf for a 53-yard gain. The Steelers went on to a 21-17 victory.
6. Butler did it
Just when it seemed as if the Seattle Seahawks would become the first team since New England in the 2003-04 seasons to repeat, Patriots rookie cornerback Malcolm Butler stepped in front of a Russell Wilson pass at the goal line to preserve a 28-24 victory in Super Bowl XLIX.
Butler’s interception is only part of the story. For the past 12 months, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has gotten skewered for not having Wilson hand off to “Beast Mode” back Marshawn Lynch at the 1.
7. Vinatieri kicks a winner
No kicker in NFL history booted more clutch field goals than Adam Vinatieri, a five-time Super Bowl participant and four-time champion with the Patriots and Indianapolis Colts.
The first time will always be most special. With seven seconds left in Super Bowl XXXVI and the score 17-17, Vinatieri converted a 48-yard field goal that gave the Patriots the first championship in their 42-year history. The following year, he provided the encore.
8. Riggins runs roughshod
The Washington Redskins trailed the Miami Dolphins 17-13 in the fourth quarter of Super Bowl XVII when coach Joe Gibbs called “70 Chip,” a handoff to bruising fullback John Riggins.
Running behind an offensive line known as “The Hogs,” Riggins plowed through Don McNeal’s tackle attempt and rumbled 43 yards down the left sideline for what became the winning touchdown in Washington’s 27-17 victory. Riggins’ 38 rushing attempts remain a Super Bowl record.
9. Namath’s guarantee
The best moment of Super Bowl III took place poolside at a Miami hotel three days before kickoff when Joe Namath assured reporters the 18-point underdog New York Jets would upset the mighty Baltimore Colts.
We’re going to win the game. I guarantee it.
Jets quarterback Joe Namath before Super Bowl III
“We’re going to win the game,” Namath said. “I guarantee it.”
Guarantees haven’t been the same since. The Jets prevailed 16-7, and Namath ran off the field, index finger wagging above his head.
10. Two words: Wide right
If Scott Norwood’s 47-yard field-goal attempt in the waning seconds of Super Bowl XXV had just been a few feet to the left, the Buffalo Bills wouldn’t be remembered as four-time losers.
But the kick that was supposed to hook kept going straight. I can still picture Giants coach Bill Parcells erupting in celebration while Norwood walked off the field alone, single-bar face mask drooped to his chin.
Just for fun, here are Nos. 11 to 20 in list form:
11. Marcus Allen’s 74-yard touchdown gallop in Super Bowl XVIII.
12. Santonio Holmes’ tippy-toed touchdown catch in Super Bowl XLIII.
13. Roger Craig high-steps his way into the end zone in Super Bowl XIX.
14. New Orleans’ surprise onside kick in Super Bowl XLIV.
15. Terry Bradshaw’s 73-yard bomb to John Stallworth in Super Bowl XIV.
16. The 49ers’ goal-line stand against Cincinnati in Super Bowl XVI.
17. Whitney Houston’s stirring national anthem before Super Bowl XXV.
18. “Refrigerator” Perry slams into the end zone in Super Bowl XX.
19. Kicker Garo Yepremian’s … uh, “pass” in Super Bowl VII.
20. Desmond Howard’s 99-yard kickoff return in Super Bowl XXXI.