WHAT A WAY TO START A CENTURY!

Now that Mike the Messiah has descended into Dove Valley, robes abulge with cash, is it too early to start dreaming of heaven? Nah. Take that orange hairshirt off this instant and try the future on for size. But remember, patience is still a virtue. Dallas and San Francisco weren't built in a day.

NEW ORLEANS (Jan. 29, 2000)--In a new century, they've finally grabbed the gold ring.

The Denver Broncos, losers of five previous Super Bowls, came up huge in the waning moments of their historic sixth try Sunday night, pulling out a 28-25 win over the Minnesota Vikings. Thus ends forty years of pro football frustration in the Mile High City, along with the storms of criticism that have buffeted Mike Shanahan, the first of the NFL's multimillionaire head coaches, whenever the team failed to produce.

The big game that optimists called the Millennium Bowl and cynics dubbed the Losers' Bracket featured a finish for the ages. After trailing for more than 58 minutes, Broncos quarterback Steve McNair lofted a 33-yard touchdown pass to slowing, aged wide receiver Anthony Miller with 1:42 left. Then, Denver's famed "Crush II" defense held tough. The Vikings' last-gasp drive toward a game-tying field goal try fell short on fourth down at the Broncos' 47-yard line.

"This is what we've worked for, this is what we've dreamed of for five years," a Gatorade-drenched Shanahan shouted in the jubilant winners' locker room. "No fans, and no group of players, ever deserved it more."

For the Vikings, meanwhile, Super Bowl XXXIV brought a fifth defeat in as many tries, dating back to 1970. "One of these teams finally had to win one," said Vikings defensive back Deion Sanders. "We just came up a little short. That camera running? I wanna say hi to my agent."

Quarterback McNair, the ex-Alcorn State standout who came to Denver three years ago in a controversial trade with the Atlanta Falcons, connected on 22 of 35 attempts for 267 yards and threw two touchdown passes. The first was an 11-yarder to Speedy Draftchoice in the second quarter, which drew the Broncos to within three, 10-7. But it was the game-winning strike to Miller that finally erased memories of McNair's three interceptions in the Super Bowl two years ago. Those mishaps led to a 44-13 drubbing by the Dallas Cowboys.

"This was it, this was the real thing," McNair said after Sunday's win. "I feel great for all the guys. For Shanny, because of all the *&%# he's had to put up with here, what with the money issue and the high expectations and everything. And I feel great for John. Without John, we wouldn't have been anywhere close to this. Guess they didn't call me Heir for nothing."

"John" is, of course, retired Broncos star John Elway, McNair's mentor. The Hall of Fame quarterback finally hung up his cleats three games into 1998 after a pair of Los Angeles Raiders sandwiched him on a third-and-long blitz. Elway's unspeakable knee injury and age forced him into retirement without winning a Super Bowl ring--like fellow questers Fran Tarkenton, Dan Marino, Warren Moon and Art Schlichter.

Yesterday, in the Louisiana Superdome, the Broncos' legendary Number Seven, now in street clothes, moved along the sideline with a noticeable hobble in his step. But on this day, he declined to use the cane he's depended on for more than two years. Elway is now forty--exactly the same age as the Broncos franchise.

"I can't begin to tell you what he did for me," McNair said. "Way back there in '97, when I had a strong arm and no idea who I was throwing to, he showed me everything. And he told me that we could do it. Together we could win it all. He's the greatest."

When Shanahan, then the hottest property in pro football, signed an unprecedented seven-year, multimillion-dollar contract with the Broncos in early 1995, Elway volunteered to "restructure" his own contract to help make the long-troubled team a winner once more.

As a result, Shanahan was able to recruit and develop the building blocks of "Crush II"--former Penn State linebacker Moose Stalwart, twin sack artists Sonny Nightmare and Frank "Medicare" Catanzeriti, and All-Pro defensive backs Rondell Swift, Abner Blaze and Junior Millimeter. It was Millimeter who picked off an errant Jeff George throw late in the third quarter of Sunday's Super Bowl and ran it back 39 yards for a touchdown. That made the score 25-21, Vikings.

"Never saw him," a disconsolate George said later. "Never saw him when I threw it. Never saw him when he ran it back, either. Just kind of felt him go by. As you know, they need special lenses to track Millimeter."

While the Broncos celebrated, President Gingrich took time out from his growing re-election troubles to congratulate Shanahan by telephone. "Mike?" he said. "Listen, Mike. You did a terrific job. Terrific. Reminds me of the kind of commitment we're getting from our brave boys fighting the war in British Columbia. And the war in Mexico. And the one against Harvard University. I took one look at the way Beertruck James smashed that Democrat running back's helmet with his naked forearm and understood the kind of effort you people have made all season long. I thank you, and the unborn thank you."

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