No single stroke of fate made the Washington Redskins' Barry Wilburn a starting NFL cornerback; it took a whole constellation of happenings. But in the end Wilburn was out there, by choice, in front of a television audience of 100 million people, scrambling to outrun a perfect pass thrown far overhead by John Elway on the Denver Broncos' first play of the 1988 Super Bowl in San Diego. Wilburn clawed desperately at Ricky Nattiel's ankles as the Bronco Amigo caught the pass and scored the game's first touchdown.
The world seemed to explode in Wilburn's ears as he looked up at the blue California sky above Jack Murphy Stadium. He was thinking, Why me?
All-Pro Darrell Green, the Redskins' other corner, came over to Wilburn as 200 million eyes watched Denver's wild celebration. "Forget it, Barry," said Green. "Don't worry about that. You know the rule."
Wilburn, 24, is sitting in the den of his new townhouse in quiet Sully Station, a subdivision in Centreville, Va. He hasn't had much sleep since the Super Bowl, which the Redskins won in style five days earlier. After his initial humiliation, Wilburn had intercepted two Elway passes, almost picked off a third and helped limit Denver's wide receivers to six catches for 145 yards, 56 of which came on that first pass.
"The rule is that anybody can be great when it's easy, when they're up, especially at this level of competition," Wilburn says. "But when you're down, that's when the great corner in you has to step up and say, 'Challenge me. Challenge me again.' "
What a difference a year makes. In July '87, Wilburn didn't even know for sure if he was going to be a Redskin. But in his den is one of the Timmie Awards given each year by the Touchdown Club of Washington, D.C.—Wilburn received his as the outstanding Redskin defensive player of 1987. Newspapers, magazines and the official Super Bowl XXII program are strewn over two couches and a director's chair. Inside a travel bag are two Wilson NFL footballs, the two Wilburn had intercepted from Elway. Wilburn sits in the middle of all this, focusing on the item that dominates the den. It is a color TV with a screen so big the action seems three-dimensional, and the picture so clear it seems deep enough to step into.
"Here it comes now," Wilburn says, with neither relish nor apprehension. He is watching himself play in the Super Bowl, via videotape.
On the screen Wilburn lines up in front of Nattiel, balanced on a wide base in his bump-and-run stance. Wilburn jams Nattiel to the outside as Elway fades into the pocket. The score is 28-10, Washington. The Redskins' quarterback, Doug Williams, has been hot. Less than three minutes remain before half-time. Elway launches another rocket. This time, the 6'4", 186-pound Wilburn has the 5'9" Nattiel covered stride for stride and pinned on the sideline, helpless. Wilburn leaps and extends, takes the ball at the peak of his jump and snatches it away. His technique is perfect, but the play isn't over. He begins to land on the sideline. Instinctively he pulls his right leg back from the boundary, not seeing where he is, yet knowing.
"Major league pick," says Wilburn. It was the kind of pick Wilburn specialized in last season, when his nine interceptions led the league. And although he was beaten early for a touchdown in each of the Redskins' three postseason wins, he came back each time and helped virtually shut down the opposition, intercepting three passes in all.
"You have to take the ball away," says Wilburn. "See, the [Dan] Marinos, Elways and [Jim] Kellys, they don't really care if you knock down a pass on second down. It has no real effect. They come back and hit you for 40 yards on third down. No doubt about it, you have to take it away to survive."