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The act of breaking free spit Manning out of the scrum and away from the line of scrimmage. He ran five steps to his right and back to the 33-yard line toward the Giants' sideline, caught a glimpse of Tyree, squared his shoulders and let fly. "If it had been the third quarter and that play happened, I would not have thrown the ball," says Manning. "You don't throw a 40-yard pass into the middle of the field, kind of up for grabs. But it was third-and-five, I almost got sacked, so you either throw it away or you give Tyree a shot. I gave him a shot."
Green turned, watched the play and heard a roar. "The whole thing was like slow motion," he says. "I said to myself, What in the hell just happened? I made big plays all year for my team, and that had to be the biggest play I didn't make." Green was raised in Donaldson, La., played at LSU and often visits New Orleans, where the Mannings are royalty. He has been hearing it since February: How did you not get him down?
Unlikeliest of heroes
At the snap Tyree had run at Samuel, planted his right foot and turned toward the middle of the field. After clearing Sanders, the safety, he looked back over this left shoulder. "Eli had just stepped up," says Tyree, "and he was obviously struggling. I drifted back toward the line of scrimmage and a little toward the middle of the field. I felt open. But I knew I wasn't going to be open long."
He was the unlikeliest of heroes. "Almost a Max McGee--type character," says Sabol, invoking the late Green Bay Packers wideout who starred in Super Bowl I after an all-night bender. Tyree grew up just seven miles from Giants Stadium, in Montclair, N.J., and in high school he was mired in a life of drugs and alcohol. "Every weekend I drank a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor and a half-pint of Jack Daniel's and smoked a blunt of marijuana," says Tyree. It continued at Syracuse and in the NFL, until 2004, when he was arrested in possession of a half-pound of marijuana. The incident scared him straight. He says he stopped drinking and smoking and reconciled with his girlfriend, Leilah, who had borne him one son and was pregnant with another. Tyree became a devout Christian. He married Leilah, and now they have four children (including twin girls born after the Super Bowl). On Dec. 15 Tyree's mother, Thelma, died of a heart attack in Florida at age 59. One day later the Giants' fourth receiver, Sinorice Moss, was injured. In five NFL seasons Tyree had established himself as a terrific special teams player but had seldom cracked the four-receiver rotation. "All of sudden, last two games of the year," he says, "I'm in the mix."
Manning's throw traveled 42 yards in the air, and it was no moon ball. "People said it hung up," says Tyree. "Take a look. It was a pretty hard throw." On the sideline Giants defensive end Justin Tuck watched the throw and cringed. "'Oh, my lord, this is just up in the air,'" he remembers saying. "I just put my head down."
Tyree went nearly straight up and got two hands on the ball. The Patriots' Pro Bowl strong safety, Rodney Harrison, first tried to bat the ball through Tyree's hands, pushing it against the receiver's helmet. Then Harrison took Tyree down by his right biceps, which had the effect of clamping the ball tighter against the headgear. "As it was happening, I almost felt like I could hear music," says Tyree. "It was fast, but it was slow, too."
Far beyond the catch, back judge Scott Helverson watched the play unfold. Football has long been his life. Helverson was a two-year starter at wideout for Iowa under coach Hayden Fry in 1984 and '85. His quarterback was Heisman Trophy runner-up Chuck Long, and he counts among his former teammates college coaches Bob Stoops and Mike Stoops. Helverson, 45, coached a year of high school football before turning to officiating: eight seasons at the high school level, five in Division III, eight in the Big Ten, five in the NFL, mostly as a back judge, the free safety of officials. "You never let anything behind you," he says. Helverson is such an officiating junkie that he is the only ref who works NFL and Arena Football League games.
Officials, like players, have keys. Helverson's first key was Smith, but when Smith moved toward the sideline, Helverson passed him off to line judge Carl Johnson and settled into a middle zone. "I remember seeing Manning throw long," says Helverson. "At that point I focus on Tyree, because the players will take you to the ball. I can see that Rodney Harrison is getting close, so the first thing that comes to mind is to watch for pass interference. The ball hits Tyree's hands, and there's no pass interference, but Rodney is all over him and the ball goes to his helmet.
"So he's falling to the ground, and I'm thinking to myself, It's going to come out, it's going to come out, it's going to hit the ground. And then it doesn't hit the ground. So I run up on the play, because I know that time is critical at that point and I figure Rodney isn't getting off Tyree anytime soon. The Giants call timeout, and at that point I look over at Larry Rose, who was the side judge, and I just do a silent 'Wow.'"