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The Greatest
Michael Silver
February 07, 2000
Kurt Warner was his usual stellar self as the Rams hung on to beat the Titans in the best Super Bowl ever
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February 07, 2000

The Greatest

Kurt Warner was his usual stellar self as the Rams hung on to beat the Titans in the best Super Bowl ever

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At that point the Titans looked fresh and energized, while the Rams were breathing more heavily than a bunch of construction workers watching Ashley Judd walk past. Said Mike White, St. Louis's assistant head coach, "[The Titans have] had so much success in the fourth quarter all year, and they just turned it up. People have been calling them a team of destiny, and it was like they just believed it was their time."

The quarterback of destiny, however, had the final say. With the Rams taking over on their own 27, offensive coordinator Mike Martz called 999 H-Balloon, a play in which Holt lines up wide to the left and three wideouts start from the right: Inside man Proehl runs a post, and slot man Az-Zahir Hakim and outside man Bruce (six catches, 162 yards) join Holt in running go routes. When Warner saw that Bruce would be single-covered by cornerback Denard Walker, he knew where he wanted to go. But Kearse's vicious rush caused the quarterback to release early, and the ball was underthrown. "I was thinking, I hope Ike comes back for it, because it's not far enough," Warner said later. That's exactly what Bruce did, turning to catch the ball at the Tennessee 43, then freezing several defenders, cutting to the middle and outracing everyone to the end zone.

The race wasn't over, though, and Warner watched in wonder as McNair nearly willed the Titans to a tying touchdown. With 22 seconds remaining and the ball on the St. Louis 26, McNair produced one of the most scintillating efforts in Super Bowl history, scrambling more than 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage and bulling free of would-be sacks by defensive linemen Kevin Carter and Jay Williams before releasing a perfect pass to Dyson at the Rams' 10. Tennessee called its final timeout with six seconds remaining, and the season came down to one precious play.

The Titans sent tight end Frank Wycheck into the end zone, hoping to draw several defenders to the area and hit Dyson on an underneath slant with room to run. Dyson, whose kickoff return off a Wycheck lateral had given Tennessee a stunning wild-card victory over the Buffalo Bills, had another Music City Miracle in reach. He caught the ball in stride inside the five and had only one man between him and the first overtime game in Super Bowl history. Jones, however, wrapped up the wideout, and Dyson's lunge for the goal line fell short. "It seemed like slow motion," Jones said. "I couldn't see McNair throw the ball, but I could feel it."

It was the rarest of football events—a Super Bowl that exceeded its colossal buildup, and nice guys finished first and last. The victory was an inspirational validation for Vermeil (box, above), who returned in 1997 from a 14-year absence and by the middle of his second season was facing a near-mutiny by his players because of his relentlessly demanding approach. After a 4-12 finish in '98, St Louis upgraded its roster, and Vermeil and his assistants wisely loosened die reins.

Soon Fisher's team will shake off the agony of defeat and celebrate the joy of the journey. As driven and intense as he can be, Fisher has more perspective than most men in his profession. Five hours before the game, just before he left his hotel room to attend chapel services, the 41-year-old coach returned a call to a dying man in Florida who had been moved by the Titans' rousing run through the postseason. "This will be my last Super Bowl," the man told Fisher, "and I want you to win it" As Fisher hung up the phone, his wife, Juli, looked on in awe. "He doesn't get emotional much," she said, "but he was really choked up. I thought, What a great man he is. Because isn't that what this is all about—touching people, using your success and good fortune to try to reach out and connect?"

Brenda Warner also used the term "great man" to describe her husband, who gets irked when people attribute his or his team's success to luck or astrology or the sage (allegedly used for cleansing) that burned inside the Rams' locker room before Sunday's game. Warner wears number 13 as a way of underscoring his aversion to superstition, because he believes such views are inconsistent with a faith in God. Clutching a Bible on the postgame bus ride, Warner didn't act like a man who had gotten lucky. Told by offensive line coach Jim Hanifan that he had broken Montana's Super Bowl yardage record, Warner replied, "The only record of his I want to break is to win five of these babies."

Later, he flashed back to perhaps his darkest moment, the night in 1996 when he was awakened by a call from a sobbing Brenda, then his girlfriend, telling him that her parents had been killed by a tornado that leveled their Arkansas home. Within five minutes he was out the door of his apartment in Des Moines, where he was playing for the Arena League's Iowa Barnstormers, and on the road to Brenda's, an hour and 40 minutes away in Cedar Falls. "The whole time I just thought I was dreaming," he said, "that I would get there and everything would be fine."

The bus pulled up at the Rams' hotel, and Warner was back to his rock-star reality. He and his teammates walked toward the main entrance, and when someone spotted Warner, fans converged madly, and he was ushered through a side door and up a service elevator. After a quick visit to his eighth-floor room, Warner was escorted through various kitchens, laundry areas and service hallways to the team's victory party, where he hugged Brenda and other family members and had his aching ribs blessed by Jeff Perry, the pastor of the Warners' St. Louis church, and Jeff's wife, Patsy. As a band played Eddie Floyd's Knock On Wood, Warner was asked whether he had seen Heaven Can Wait, the 1978 film in which Warren Beatty plays a quarterback who is taken by an overzealous angel after a bike accident and ends up winning the Super Bowl for the Rams.

It turns out that Warner saw the flick on TV as an eight-year-old in Cedar Rapids, and he doesn't remember much: the accident, a couple of football scenes and the ending, when Beatty gets the girl. That final scene is perfect: The Rams have won the big game, and Beatty, the hero, is the last player to leave the locker room when Julie Christie approaches. She sees something special about him, then it registers: "You're the quarterback," she says.

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