As a player, becoming a Super Bowl champion is what you strive for from the moment you arrive in the National Football League.The Super Bowl is the pinnacle of our profession, the largest stage in all of sports when all eyes from around the world are watching. It's a rare accomplishment, something you work hard for each season knowing there are no guarantees. And if you're lucky enough to get there, all of the lights and cameras from a multitude of media outlets converge on you for a week in which you prepare to reach your ultimate goal.
I remember the feeling I had when the Titans defeated the Jaguars for the third time during the 1999 season, the last one in the AFC Championship Game at Alltel Stadium that punched our ticket to Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta. It was a feeling of relief, pure joy and pleasure knowing what we had just accomplished, but realizing the journey wasn't over.
I thought about all of the hard work we had put in during the season -- the culmination of sweat, injuries and come from behind victories. We beat a team three times in one season. There were a flood of emotions running through my body -- things coaches had talked about the prior week for our Super Bowl preparation. How will tickets be handled? What hotel would we stay at? What would the schedule be like?
Now it was all becoming reality. I wanted to call my mother, brother and everyone else so they could get their things together. We were going to the Super Bowl. Large contracts and Pro Bowls aside, this is what we shoot for -- the chance to be a Super Bowl Champion.
We came home that night to an amazing turnout at Adelphia Coliseum, where fans showed up in force to congratulate us and send us off to Atlanta in style. With only one week between the AFC Championship game and Super Bowl, there was little time to celebrate. We departed Nashville Monday afternoon for Atlanta, the site of Super Bowl XXXIV.
Until you experience it, you don't realize just how big this event is. We were treated like royalty from the time we landed in Atlanta, surrounded by hordes of media waiting to get the first video and photos of our arrival.
There is so much going on right out of the gate -- the media, the rental cars and everyone vying for your time for interviews. It was exciting to be there and I wanted to take it all in because you don't know if you'll ever get back. But there was a fine line between enjoying the experience and realizing that we had to go to work the next day.
One of the wildest days of the week was Tuesday's Media Day, when hundreds of reporters converged inside the Georgia Dome to get interviews with our team. In addition to all of the national media, I was talking to reporters from around the world that used translators to ask their questions. It felt like there were people from every nation represented, and I was amazed by all of the detailed questions they asked. They definitely did their homework. Even the ones that didn't speak English knew all about the Music City Miracle!
We practiced all week and our coaching staff did its best to keep our routine as normal as possible. During our down time some of us would watch movies in the rooms. You could watch extra film or get treatment. We just tried to keep our minds occupied and not get too worked up. I hung out with our receivers group and played cards. My phone rang constantly all week with people wanting interviews.
The week flew by and before I could blink, it was Saturday night, less than 24 hours from kickoff at the Georgia Dome. I was thinking, 'what am I going to wear to the big game?' I was picking out a suit, anything to kind of get my mind distracted. I turned on the TV in my room and a group of ESPN analysts were talking about who was going to be the unsung heroes in the game. They mentioned my name as a player that could be a game-changer and make a difference on Sunday. Our stars were Eddie George, Steve McNair, Frank Wycheck, Jevon Kearse, Blaine Bishop and those guys. I was kind of that 'next tier' guy and didn't want to get caught up in all of that, so I turned off the TV and got a good night's rest.
Game day arrived when I woke up the next morning. Our schedule was set up very similar to any other road game with the exception of having more time to kill due to the late kickoff. My normal game day routine included sitting in my room, having breakfast, going to position meetings, team meetings and chapel service.
The hotel had some different activities to occupy our time. I didn't really want to stray too far from my room with all of the distractions. There were merchandise vendors and people wanting to get autographs in the lobby. So I kind of secluded myself in my room, watched a little TV, watched a movie and took a nap!
Soon it was time to board the buses for the Georgia Dome. I had my headphones on and was listening to music, just getting into that pre-game mode during the short bus ride to the game.
I had a standard routine when I got to the stadium of changing into my sweats, going out onto the field for pregame warmups and breaking a little sweat. Eddie and I walked out onto the field together and that's when the heavy moment hit me. There were already thousands of people in the stands. It wasn't like that my rookie season when we played the Falcons in my first preseason game at the Georgia Dome with just a few fans in the seats.
There were cameras everywhere, and members of the media were setting up and getting ready...there was so much going on with a definite electricity in the air. We both kind of sat there for a minute outside the tunnel and soaked it in like, 'wow, we're here' and then we went about our business and got warmed up.
After team warmups, it was another waiting game inside the visitor’s locker room until we took the field for pregame introductions. When we exited the locker room, I noticed Tina Turner in the back of the tunnel. I was having this celebrity moment, then everything happened quickly and all of a sudden I am the first one being introduced out of the tunnel.
I was thinking that everyone I knew from little league football on through high school was watching this moment, seeing me come out of the tunnel for the Super Bowl! I was thinking, 'what am I going to do?' I didn't have anything special planned, so I just ran out and did my typical 'quiet the crowd' type of thing and got ready for the game.
It didn't take long to settle down after the opening kickoff. I think that's the nature of professional athletes. Each player goes through their specific routines, but I had practiced all my life to get to this moment and now I was ready to compete on this very large stage.
Yes, it was the Super Bowl, but at the end of the day it's a game and you've got a job to do. I had nerves before every game, even in the preseason, and it was no different this time. I was nervous until that first play was called in the huddle and I lined up to do my job.
We all knew the magnitude of the game, but when all the smoke cleared and the National Anthem was sung, the overwhelming moment was transformed back to being a football game that we all wanted to win.
I actually thought I was going to score a touchdown on the first play of the game. We had a play-action pass called and there was some leakage off the back side that flushed back and I was open, but Steve was pressured and didn't have time to scan the field and find me. Nerves weren't even in the equation once the game started.
Unfortunately things did not go our way early. We fell behind 16-0, and it could have been worse. The Rams should have been ahead 31-0 in all reality. We didn't play well in the first half, but we didn't waver. We had been down before and found ways to win. We had come-from-behind victories and been pretty resilient all season long.
It's well documented when Coach Fisher pulled us together after Blaine was injured and said the Rams were over on their sideline in 'happy mode.' They were in complete control of the game and Jeff said, 'How are you going to go out? They're over there laughing, celebrating and thinking they have this game won. How do you all want to be remembered?'
That was it -- the turning point of the game. We had fought too hard all year long to let things slip away.
We went back to what we did best and became more physical than the Rams were in the second half. Eddie scored two touchdowns and Al Del Greco tied the game at 16 late in the fourth quarter. As the game progressed, we were the ones with more energy and eventually wore them out. The Rams were tired and running out of steam.
There we were right on the brink. We felt good about working our way back into the game. We had tied things up and now it was a zero, zero mentality and anything goes. We just had to play it one possession at a time.
When you looked at the clock, there was only going to be one or two more possessions. If the defense got a stop, we got one more possession. And if the defense didn't stop them, we still would only have one more possession. That's just kind of how it mapped out. At some point in the game we had to make a play.
After St. Louis regained the lead on Kurt Warner's long touchdown pass to Isaac Bruce, we had to go nearly the entire length of the field with under two minutes remaining to tie the game. It seemed like a daunting task, but if you asked any of the guys in that huddle, none of us had any doubt that we would score. I had that sense in the huddle and there was no doubt in anyone's mind that we were going to get it done. To this day, I just knew we were going to score. We all kind of lived by that mentality and that's how our season was.
Steve led us downfield, making some miraculous plays. One of his best plays came in the final seconds when he escaped a heavy pass rush and was nearly sacked by Kevin Carter. I ran my route, looked back and saw him get loose and I just tried to make myself available to make the catch. Steve made a great play by escaping two defenders and finding me down the field. When you look at it on tape, if I had turned the other way after making the catch, I would have had a chance to score, but I turned inside and into the tackle. So again, you talk about a game of inches and a few things here and there.
Then with six seconds left, it came down to the last play of the game. I don't think any one of us had any doubt that we were going to be successful. We had proven that all year long. We had found ways to win and we had worked all year long to get to that point.
We had two concepts on the final play. Frank and I were on one side attacking the zone coverage, while Derrick Mason and Chris Sanders were on the opposite side in a man-to-man concept. All of us were thinking 'If the ball comes my way, I'm going to be the one to make the play.' I don't think any one of us had any doubt that we would score.
Unfortunately we didn't.
The Rams gave us the coverage for my side of the field. They ran exactly what we thought they would and I became the primary receiver. Steve threw the ball, I made the catch and saw the yellow paint in the end zone. I knew Mike Jones was there, but when I initially crossed paths with him, I didn't feel like he had the angle or body position to even make the tackle. I thought maybe he would get his hands on me and I would still be able to get to the end zone. But if you watch the replay, he was able to bring his whole body around and get his left hand on my left knee. I couldn't extend my left leg up to make the play or get that extra length I needed. It was a tribute to him making the play.
That's the game of football. Somebody at some point has to make a play. I thought the football had potentially crossed the plane. When I finally hit the ground I just tried to get the extra lunge, hoping the officials would take the time to review it and see if the ball crossed the plane. But obviously when the confetti came down, there was a sense of disbelief that the game was actually over.
It was kind of a surreal moment. I don't know what other players would say that have lost a Super Bowl, but there's that moment when the game is over and you don't want to move. At the same time, you don't want to sit on the field and watch the other team celebrate.
It was hard to believe. Everyone wants to win that game, and to lose the way we did after the season that we had -- the come from behind victories and everything that got us there -- was tough to swallow. It was that moment of just not believing that it was over. I just sat there and saw the confetti come down and then I thought back to some of the things I was taught growing up -- don't let your opponent see your disappointment. Get up, be gracious and go into the locker room.
I looked up and saw all the cameras in my face and people taking pictures of me and I was like, 'you know what? I need to get up because I don't want them to see me hurting.' So I got up, said my congratulations and went to the locker room.
I've had 14 years to put that game, that moment in perspective. I dwelled on it for a long time, stressed about it for months. But you eventually have to put things in perspective. Some things are more important than football. It was the most important game of my athletic life and you understand how hard it is to get to that point, but you have to move on. It actually propelled me to one of the better off-seasons I ever had. I wanted to get back to that stage again and everyone else had the same approach.
We had such a good football team in 1999 and 2000. In my opinion We were the best football team for two years that did not win a Super Bowl title.