HOUSTON -- They were all little boys once. They were just like you, pulling on the jerseys of their favorite players, perching themselves on the edge of the couch, clutching a pillow, and wishing and hoping and praying their team won it all.
Some, like Patriots receiver Troy Brown, ran outside at halftime of the Super Bowl and tossed the football around, pretending he was playing for the ring. Others, like linebacker Mike Vrabel, followed a superstitious routine to ensure they were not the ones who prevented their club from reaching the pinnacle.
”I was a Dallas fan,” Vrabel said. “I had my little NFL Cowboys trash can right next to me. I put my helmet on, and rooted for them. When they lost, I took my helmet off, went right upstairs, and cried myself to sleep.”
Nose tackle Ted Washington favored the Pittsburgh Steelers, and was mesmerized by the look on Mean Joe Greene’s face when he was hunting down a running back. He got the same thrill from following Richard Dent and Mike Singletary of the Chicago Bears.
”I loved to watch Singletary,” Washington said. “I loved that whole defense. I felt the same way about the Steel Curtain. But I wasn’t thinking at that time about playing [in the Super Bowl] myself. That was too far away. I wasn’t into football back then.”
Patriots coach Bill Belichick was born into a football family. His father was a coach at the Naval Academy for 32 years, and as a boy, he watched the games from start to finish, as intently as if he were coaching them.
”The Super Bowl I remember the best was the third one, with [Jets quarterback Joe] Namath and the Colts,” Belichick said. “I was a Colts fan.”
On Jan. 12, 1969, Namath backed up his guarantee that the Jets would win. Coach Don Shula’s Colts went down, 16-7, and Namath, the MVP, broke the heart of the 16-year-old coach’s son. In time, Belichick would experience the thrill of his team being crowned champions when one of his father’s former players at Navy, Dallas quarterback Roger Staubach, notched the first Super Bowl win for the Cowboys and was named MVP.
”When Staubach won it the first time [Super Bowl VI in 1972], that was pretty cool,” Belichick said. “We always watched the Cowboys play, because of Roger. I had known him since I was 8 or 9. That’s what made it so great for me.
”There were 100 other guys running around out there, but this was the player I knew. This was the player I rooted for.”
New England offensive lineman Damien Woody grew up in Virginia and learned at a very early age there was no other team to worship other than the Washington Redskins. He loved the Hogs, John Riggins, and coach Joe Gibbs. He sat at home in 1983, watching his team dismantle the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII and thought, “Why not me someday?”
”You had to love that team,” Woody said. “The way those guys ran the football. They just pounded people.”
Most kids dream of being a running back or quarterback.
”Not me,” Woody said. “I was always big. I really did wish I was an offensive lineman. I know it sounds crazy, but when I watched those great Washington teams, my favorite part was watching those boys blow open big holes for Riggins to run through.”
Cornerback Ty Law always wanted to be a receiver, and nearly got his chance for the Patriots earlier this season when New England was down in numbers because of injuries. He watched a lot of football growing up, with distant cousin (and Dallas running back) Tony Dorsett of particular interest to him, but the team that ultimately stole his heart was Pittsburgh.
”I grew up there,” Law said, “so you spent a lot of time bragging about Franco Harris. But there wasn’t anything I liked more than watching Lynn Swann making those acrobatic catches. I had dreams of doing that in the NFL.”
Those dreams underwent a slight alteration when it became apparent Law wasn’t quite quick enough to play on the offensive side of the ball. He recognized his future was as a defensive back.
”That was OK,” Law said. “I watched Deion [Sanders] do his thing [in Super Bowl XXIX] and I thought, `Yeah, cornerbacks. We’re cool.’ “
Patriots assistant coach Dante Scarnecchia is the only person who has been to all four of New England’s Super Bowls. His favorite Super Bowl of all time was the first one, on Jan. 15, 1967, when the Green Bay Packers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10.
”It was exciting, because K.C. was the AFL champ, and the Packers were the Packers,” Scarnecchia said. “At that time, you didn’t really know who everyone was. The guys I loved were E.J. Holub, a tough linebacker who had something like 15 knee operations, and Bobby Bell, a defensive lineman who really knew how to play football. The K.C. quarterback, the guy from HBO, Len Dawson. He was fun. You sat there saying, `I can’t believe how good they are.’ “
Somewhere out there, the next Mike Vrabel sat by his television last night, with his NFL bobblehead doll beside him and his NFL helmet on. When the game ended, he either strutted up to bed with his arms raised, or went upstairs and cried himself to sleep. He may be a little boy now, but some of those little boys grow up to be Super Bowl heroes.