The football traveled only 26 yards through the air, beneath the high roof and hulking video screens at Cowboys Stadium on Sunday night in the closing minutes of Super Bowl XLV. Yet in truth it sailed across years. It left the right hand of Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers at his own 18-yard line and was caught at the 44 by wide receiver Greg Jennings, who raced across midfield before being tackled. It was a killing completion that would push Green Bay to the brink of victory and the Steelers to the edge of desperation.
But it was something larger, too, one big moment built on countless smaller ones. The Super Bowl is a cultural landmark steeped in excess that ends with confetti falling from the sky, yet its winners are lifetimes in the making. On this night the Packers had raced to an early lead before veteran defensive back Charles Woodson was knocked out of the game with a broken left collarbone just before halftime. Pittsburgh had rallied to within 28--25, and here on third-and-10, Rodgers called out Strong Left, Trips 27 Tampa. When Jennings slashed behind cornerback Ike Taylor and up the middle of the field, Rodgers hit him in dead stride. Six minutes later the Packers were in possession of a 31--25 victory and a fourth Super Bowl title, ensuring the Lombardi Trophy of a trip to its ancestral home.
Long after the game was finished, Rodgers, who completed 24 of 39 passes for 304 yards and three touchdowns to earn the MVP award, walked across the celebratory locker room warbling a dreadful falsetto version of Usher's I Don't Know. (The 27-year-old quarterback had earlier joined with teammates to belt out We Are the Champions in the shower.) Now he fell into a corner cubicle, dressed himself while quaffing from a plastic bottle of grape soda (his favorite flavor) and connected a single play to a long wait. "That one throw was all about the last three years of my career," Rodgers said. Those would be the three years since he replaced Brett Favre as Green Bay's quarterback. Before that he sat three years behind the Packers legend, and long before that he was a skinny high school quarterback in Chico, Calif., who had to go to the local junior college to earn a shot at a football career.
"The journey has been special," Rodgers said. "I'm not vindictive, but I'm blessed with a very good memory. You wait, you keep quiet and you take advantage of an opportunity when it comes." On this night he stood at midfield and accepted the MVP trophy while looking out at a couple of longtime Packers, wideout Donald Driver (another key player who was sidelined in the first half) and tackle Chad Clifton. When Rodgers stepped down he embraced his family, including his grandparents, Chuck and Barbara Pittman, 82 and 78, respectively, who'd driven to Dallas from California because they don't like to fly.
In much the same way, for every player in green the game reached far beyond the field.
More than 40 friends and family members joined Craig Rigsbee in the rec room of his home in Chico to watch the Super Bowl. It was nine years ago that Rigsbee, a 6'5", 250-pound former college offensive lineman and the head coach at Butte College in Chico, walked through a neighbor's yard and recruited a player no one else wanted. It took some time to persuade Ed and Darla Rodgers to let their son, who scored 1310 on the SAT, attend a junior college, but Rodgers wanted to play college football, and Rigsbee helped him do it. One year after enrolling at Butte, Rodgers was at Cal, and two years later he was in the NFL, biding his time behind the seemingly indestructible Favre.
Rigsbee and Rodgers talk all the time, even to this day. A couple of weeks before the Super Bowl, Rodgers wore a black BUTTE FOOTBALL hoodie for a television interview, then texted Rigsbee, "That was for you." Rigsbee watched Rodgers's laser shot to Jennings and remembered how Rodgers had lasted until the 24th pick of the 2005 draft in part because teams weren't sure he could make the big-arm throws. "I guess he can make those throws," Rigsbee said late Sunday night by cellphone. "When Jennings caught that ball, I'm telling you, we all just went crazy."
There are always two Super Bowls. One is the spectacle that the public sees, and the other is the strategic battle that coaching staffs plan but do not discuss. This game was served up to the masses as a matchup of storied NFL franchises with nine Super Bowl victories between them, Pittsburgh with a record six and Green Bay with three, including Super Bowls I and II. A Steelers win would have given image-rehabbing quarterback Ben Roethlisberger a third ring (POINT AFTER, page 72), matching Tom Brady, and 38-year-old coach Mike Tomlin a second. For the Packers the payoff would be simpler: a return to greatness.
Both staffs examined the Steelers' 37--36 win over the Packers on Dec. 20, 2009, at Heinz Field. The teams combined for 973 yards in that game, but only 125 were on the ground. In the regular season this year, Pittsburgh's defense allowed only 62.8 rushing yards per game, the best in the NFL by nearly 30 yards. "They're not even going to try to run it this time," Steelers nosetackle Casey Hampton said four days before the game. "They know what happens when teams to try to run on us: They don't make any yards."
Hampton was right. Green Bay had no intention of trying to win the Super Bowl by running, and Rodgers handed off just 11 times. But offense-savvy coach Mike McCarthy (whose Pittsburgh upbringing added yet another a layer to the game's intrigue) felt that Rodgers and the Pack's receivers could exploit the Steelers' secondary. Safety Troy Polamalu, the 2010 Defensive Player of the Year, was compromised by a nagging Achilles injury suffered late in the season, and that heaped more pressure on cornerbacks Taylor, Bryant McFadden and William Gay. "We felt we could spread it out four, five wide and use play action to beat them," Green Bay tight end Andrew Quarless said after the game. "We knew their corners were a little suspect when they were singling up."