SI Vault
Damon Hack
February 11, 2009
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
February 11, 2009

A Game For The Ages


View CoverRead All Articles
1 2 3 4

"Uh, Mr. Harrison, do you like to beat up cameramen?" the quarterback asked.

"Only if it's Ben Roethlisberger," Harrison replied.

While some coaches shield their players as much as possible from distractions during the buildup to the Super Bowl, Tomlin invited 250 of the Steelers' friends and relatives to watch Pittsburgh's 38-minute walkthrough on the day before the game. Among the attendees was the Reverend Jesse Jackson, who also found his way into the team's postgame celebration.

"He has [the players'] mothers, fathers, grandparents, uncles and aunts to build a community," Jackson said of Tomlin. "At his age, he has a rapport with his players that is unusual. Because he's so young, his genius is covered up."

But its effects are evident—especially on defense, where Tomlin's Steelers create the same mayhem as always. He and coordinator Dick LeBeau ask for versatility from their players, and the pass-rushing Harrison epitomizes that. A special-teamer on the Super Bowl XL team, Harrison, 30, has emerged as one of the NFL's hardest defenders to scheme against. All night he disrupted Arizona's plans, forcing left tackle Mike Gandy into three holding penalties and—with fellow linebackers Farrior, Larry Foote and LaMarr Woodley—putting near-constant pressure on Warner.

But the league's No. 1 defense still had problems against the Cardinals, thanks to their array of elusive receivers and backs and the poise of their 37-year-old quarterback. All week Warner had been the vision of calm, carrying a note from his 17-year-old daughter, Jesse, in the front sleeve of his playbook: "Dad, I just wanted to let you know how proud I am of you. I'm so thankful and honored to be your daughter. I'll be praying for you. You deserve everything you want and probably more. I love you so much. Go Cards! Love, Jesse."

Warner carried those thoughts onto the field, coolly connecting with second and third options when the Steelers stacked their coverage against Fitzgerald. For most of the first half Pittsburgh flip-flopped cornerback Ike Taylor and safety Troy Polamalu, giving Fitzgerald several looks at the line of scrimmage. Warner adjusted, riding Anquan Boldin and Steve Breaston in the opening quarters, cutting Pittsburgh's lead to 10-7 on a one-yard pass to tight end Ben Patrick.

Then came a critical turning point. After Roethlisberger was intercepted on a pass deflection, Warner moved the Cardinals into position to score again in the waning moments of the first half. With Arizona on the Pittsburgh one and 18 seconds remaining, Harrison dropped into coverage rather than coming on the rush and stepped in front of Boldin to pick off Warner's pass. Taking off down the right sideline, he dodged Warner, Fitzgerald, Breaston, Gandy, tight end Leonard Pope, guard Reggie Wells and the churning legs of his own teammates. When Fitzgerald and Breaston finally caught Harrison short of the goal line, the linebacker did a somersault over Fitzgerald, landing on his head to score the touchdown. For several long moments Harrison lay on his back, palms up, toes pointing skyward. Tomlin headed for the end zone, where he helped Harrison to his feet and walked him off the field, an arm draped over the linebacker's shoulder. "It was tiring," Harrison said of his historic run, "but it was all worth it."

AT HALFTIME TOMLIN GATHERED HIS PLAYERS. HE talked about embracing the moment and honoring the legacy of the players who'd come before, players like Swann and Bettis, both of whom were on the field before kickoff. There were reminders of Steelers football everywhere in Tampa. Tens of thousands of towel-waving, black-and-gold-clad fans had descended upon the area, escaping a harsh winter and a harsh economy, for a few days at least. And while Super Bowl week might have been subdued, the football on the field was both familiar and magical.

Harrison's mad dash recalled Franco Harris's Immaculate Reception. Holmes and Ward channeled the dramatics of Swann and Stallworth. Tomlin's jaw was as firm-set as his predecessor's. Roethlisberger pulled halfway to Bradshaw's four rings with a mettle that, like Bradshaw's, might not be truly appreciated until after he's gone.

Continue Story
1 2 3 4