Lost Heroes of the Super Bowl

Lost Heroes of the Super Bowl

Championships aren't won on the shoulders of one man, yet history best remembers the accomplishments of superstars. The pivotal contributions of role players are often obscured by time. ESPN.com revisits the feats of five such players and shares the stories of where they are now.

By Kevin Guilfoile

Mike Jones Super Bowl XXXIV by Elizabeth Merrill

Thirteen years later, in various parts of Missouri, Mike Jones can still command a free meal, a drink on the house and a small following. He almost seems embarrassed by this, how one play in a football game can define a man's life. Before Super Bowl XXXIV, Jones was a nondescript linebacker with a common name who quietly did his job for the St. Louis Rams. Now he's immortalized. Jones is the Super Bowl champ who made "The Tackle."

After that, anything is possible. He went on to coach a high school team in St. Louis, Hazelwood East. The team won a state championship on a Hail Mary pass. Jones moved on and became a college assistant, and a year later he got his first head coaching gig, in his home state of Missouri.

That's when things started to look impossible. Jones would never say that, of course. When you play football at the highest level, when you stop a lunging receiver at the 1-yard line and a give a city its first Super Bowl championship, you are not programmed to fail.

Jones, 43, is the head coach at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo. In November, his team wrapped up a season that yielded just one victory. It wasn't all that much of a surprise; Lincoln hasn't had a winning campaign in four decades, suspended its program in the 1990s, and plays in a conference that is known as the SEC of Division II. When Jones arrived on campus, he took a tour of the weight room, which is in the ROTC building. The room used to be a gun range.

After a 12-year NFL career, Mike Jones rose from high school coaching to the college level.

Dominic DiSaia for ESPN

"The weight room had equipment in there that was over 40 years old," Jones said. "It was older than me."

Jones did what he always does. He quietly went to work. He gathered his new players and staff, and they helped pour concrete and grabbed some paintbrushes. In February, Lincoln had a ribbon cutting for a new, state-of-the-art weight room. In the ceremony, Jones tried to drift in the background.

But Jones knows that if Lincoln is going to change history, his history will be a big part of it. Jones needs to win some in-state recruiting battles, and it doesn't matter if the kids he's talking to were barely in preschool in 2000, when he won his ring.

"I use that a lot," said Lincoln running backs coach Tony Van Zant, who played with Jones at Missouri. "I tell them about his Super Bowl. Those kids, they like that they get a chance to be coached by someone who's played in the Super Bowl.

"Anywhere we go, people want his autograph."

That wasn't necessarily the case before Jan. 30, 2000. Jones was on a Rams team famously known for its offense, called "The Greatest Show on Turf." But defense became the story that night.

Jones has presumably told the story of "The Tackle" at least a thousand times. First-and-goal at the 10-yard line, six seconds to go, final play of the game, the Rams' 23-16 lead over the Tennessee Titans on the line. There are not a whole bunch of profound thoughts that go through a man's head in that position, Jones says, even with millions watching around the world, and one man - you - between Kevin Dyson and the goal line.

Kevin Dyson caught a pass in stride at the Rams' 3-yard line on the final play of Super Bowl XXXIV, but Jones wrapped up Dyson and left him reaching in vain for pay dirt.

Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images

The Rams' defense was gassed that night. Jones played every defensive snap and was running around on a bad ankle. Titans quarterback Steve McNair was determined, Jones said. McNair had rallied his team from a 16-0 deficit, and three plays turned into four and into five. "He was not going to be denied," Jones said. On the last play of the game, Frank Wycheck ran straight up the field, drawing Jones, and the plan was for McNair to hit an open Dyson near the goal line. He was open, but Jones switched direction.

Jones wrapped him up, and Dyson's knee hit the ground at the 1-yard line. Dyson stretched his arm out with the ball, but it was over. It gave coach Dick Vermeil, who was miked up for NFL Films, his first Super Bowl title. As Jones made the tackle, he said, "Didn't make it. Didn't make it. No, no. That's it. We won it. Woo-hoo!"

The play still accounts for one of the most dramatic endings in the history of the Super Bowl. But Jones, for his part, is subdued. He knows it helped him stay in the league longer in a career that lasted 12 years. He knows it will help him as he climbs this gigantic mountain at Lincoln.

But Jones said he never thought about what would happen that night if didn't make the tackle, and he hasn't since.

"If I didn't," he said, "I wouldn't be talking to you."

Rod Martin Super Bowl XV by Jeffri Chadiha

Rod Martin knew a one-week trip to New Orleans could lead to plenty of entertaining nights when the Oakland Raiders traveled to Super Bowl XV. He also realized that all the carousing and craziness wouldn't alter his focus prior to his team's meeting with the Philadelphia Eagles in the final game of that 1980 season. Like most of his teammates, Martin returned from Bourbon Street in time to study extra film before going to bed. What he discovered in those early-morning hours led to the biggest game of the outside linebacker's career.

Of the many memorable moments in that 27-10 Raiders victory, Martin provided three of them. The first came when he intercepted Eagles quarterback Ron Jaworski on the game's third play from scrimmage, setting up Oakland's first touchdown. The second came when he picked off Jaworski again, this time early in the third quarter. By the time Martin added his third interception late in the final period, his legacy had been set. No other player has ever intercepted that many passes in a Super Bowl before or since.

Rod Martin proudly tells the world how many interceptions he recorded in Super Bowl XV.

Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Martin didn't leave New Orleans with Most Valuable Player honors - that distinction went to quarterback Jim Plunkett - but Martin remains proud of that record and that victory. "I had so many emotions going on that it really didn't bother me," Martin said of not winning the award. "I was having too much fun [after the game]. Besides, I was on 'The Today Show' with Bryant Gumbel the next morning, so it wasn't like I wasn't getting some attention."

Attention actually had been hard for Martin to come by before Super Bowl XV. As a 12th-round pick in the 1977 draft, he had to fight his way into the NFL from the day he arrived. The only reason the Raiders gave him a shot was because head coach John Madden had asked USC head coach John Robinson - a former Raiders assistant - to recommend a player worthy of a late pick. When Robinson called back, he told Madden to think long and hard about a certain 200-pound linebacker who thrived off smarts, quickness and resilience.

Martin was mentally tough enough to not sulk when the Raiders traded him to San Francisco after the fourth preseason game of his rookie season. He also didn't despair when the 49ers cut him two weeks after he showed up there. Even after spending most of that year training in Los Angeles, Martin believed his time would come. When the Raiders called him back in December and asked him to play special teams, he sensed that his prayers had been answered.

That season ended with Oakland losing to Denver in the AFC Championship Game, but the Raiders had seen plenty from Martin during his brief stay. "I remember looking for a place in L.A. with my girlfriend, and Oakland called [to say they were keeping me on the roster]," Martin said. "I was just determined to make it. I knew I could prove everybody wrong about me."

Under the eye of Al Davis, Martin went from 12th-round pick to Super Bowl linchpin.

MPS/USA TODAY Sports

Martin found his niche the same way he built his career - with small, meaningful steps. He bulked up to 205 pounds before his second year and filled in at inside linebacker for eight games. By his third year, Martin was playing right outside linebacker (his natural position) in the Raiders' 3-4 defense and roaming the field at 215 pounds. Oakland owner/general manager Al Davis actually thought so highly of Martin that he moved veteran star Phil Villapiano from outside to inside linebacker to make room for the younger player.

As much as Martin was growing as a player, he believes the Eagles still saw him as a liability in Super Bowl XV. "Just look at our defense back then," Martin said. "On the right side, you had Dave Browning at end, Dwayne O'Steen at cornerback and me. On the left side, you had John Matuszak, Ted Hendricks and Lester Hayes. We knew they would be attacking the right side of our defense."

Martin's career actually took off after the Super Bowl. He went to two Pro Bowls (1983 and '84) and was named All-Pro in 1984. Martin also helped the Raiders win Super Bowl XVIII three years later before finishing his career after the 1988 season. During 12 NFL seasons, he amassed 14 interceptions and 10 fumble recoveries.

These days, Martin serves as a technical support manager at his alma mater, USC.

Dominic DiSaia for ESPN

Since Martin played and lived in Southern California most of his life, he capitalized on his local connections when his playing days ended. He made appearances as an extra in commercials for McDonald's and John Madden's video game. He had a bit part in an episode of "Married with Children" and opened a barbecue restaurant in Manhattan Beach, Calif. In the late 1990s, Martin was buying a computer for his two daughters when he decided to learn more about information technology.

That little bit of curiosity eventually led Martin, now 58, to seek out more training, which in turn led to him landing an interview for a computer analysis position at USC. These days he manages a department at the school that handles user-support needs of university employees. Surprisingly, Martin's bosses didn't know he played football until former Trojans great Charles White - who also worked in the department - told them about his success. Martin said he didn't take offense because it had been a long time since his playing days.

Once the word did get out, Martin knew what was coming next. Everybody wanted to hear about Super Bowl XV. It was one more indication that losing out on MVP honors still wasn't such a big deal. People who follow NFL history know what that game means for his reputation.

As Martin said, "How many people can say they had three interceptions in a Super Bowl? It hadn't been done before and nobody has done it since. It's like I always say - a lot of people may not know all the MVPs who have played in the Super Bowl. But they know I had three interceptions when I played in that game."

Chris Reis Super Bowl XLIV by Jeffri Chadiha

The play never called for Chris Reis to be the hero. As the New Orleans Saints lined up for the second-half kickoff in Super Bowl XLIV, the reserve safety was thinking about handling his own responsibility during the biggest surprise of that game. The Saints had called for an onside kick to gain momentum in a close contest against the Indianapolis Colts. Reis' job was to provide insurance. He had to make sure that no Colts player turned the risky kick into a deflating touchdown return.

That was before Saints punter and kickoff specialist Thomas Morstead squibbed a kick to his left, and the ball bounced off the hands of Colts receiver Hank Baskett. The ball did not carom toward Saints safety Roman Harper - the man for whom the play was set up. Instead, it squirted back toward the Saints' sideline. Reis launched his body toward the ball, trapping it between his right arm and right thigh. Various Colts and Saints players piled on top of him, eager to get their hands on it as well. It was 63 seconds of sheer mayhem for Reis, who later said, "It seemed like forever. Something like 18 players jumped on that pile."

New Orleans seized momentum in Super Bowl XLIV when Chris Reis recovered an onside kick to open the second half against Indianapolis.

AP Photo/J. Pat Carter

Only one man emerged with the football after that ruckus. As Reis stood up, his forearms burned and his hands ached from fighting for possession. He'd given the Saints the edge they needed to push forward for what became a 31-17 win, and he'd etched his name into Super Bowl lore. "I remember our defensive coordinator, Gregg Williams, coming up to me after that play and saying that wasn't about X's and O's," Reis said. "We said that all the time in meetings. Coaches can draw up plays, but it all comes down to heart, desire and execution."

Those 63 seconds turned Reis into an instant celebrity in New Orleans. Reporters swarmed him after the game, and giddy fans pointed at him as he walked the local streets in the following weeks. It was crazy to think this was the same guy who had started his career as an undrafted free agent out of Georgia Tech in 2006 and nearly gave up football after failing to stick with the Falcons in his rookie season. It was merely good fortune that he landed a job in New Orleans on special teams in 2007. And it was Reis' deep faith that kept him grounded when his playing days ended after the Saints cut him in 2011.

Reis already had been thinking about writing a book before the conclusion of his playing days. He wanted to move people with his life experiences and generate hope where despair had long been the norm. It was around that same time that Reis realized his topic should include his father, Mike. Although they had never had a deep bond during Chris' childhood - Mike abandoned the family when Chris was only 2 but maintained contact with his two sons - Mike had started coming to grips with his own demons.

Mike and Chris Reis teamed to
write a book about how Chris' accomplishments inspired Mike to overcome his addictive behaviors.

Dominic DiSaia for ESPN

"My father was arrested for a DUI two weeks after the Super Bowl," Chris said. "That's when he told me he'd had addictions his entire life and he'd been lying about them. I wanted to write this book, and I didn't know what to do. I eventually asked my father if I could write about that, and he said, 'Sure, as long as you don't make me look bad.'"

The book, "Recovery of a Lifetime," is due to be released during Super Bowl week. More than a manuscript came out of that conversation. Mike's confession opened up unexpected lines of communication with a son who had been longing for a deeper connection with his father. When Mike would visit during Chris' childhood, Chris always remembered him as somebody "who would come down and try to be the fun dad - it was real surface level." When Mike was battling to overcome alcohol abuse and sex addiction, Chris saw an entirely different person.

"He told me that he watched that play in the Super Bowl and it inspired him," Reis said. "The DUI was the catalyst, but he said he saw me under that pile and he wondered what it took for me to get there. I was going in a different direction with my life, and he saw my peace. He said he needed that."

Chris and Mike haven't stopped brainstorming ideas since that day. They've been traveling the country for most of the past two years and speaking to men's groups, churches, recovering addicts and anybody else interested in their message. As Chris said, "We're just two normal guys trying to be vulnerable. People ask us if we're motivational speakers, and I tell them that we're inspirational speakers. Motivation only lasts for a short time. I want to inspire people."

Chris, now 29, needs only to look to his father to see whether he's accomplishing that goal. As they flew to San Diego to meet with an author to help write their book two years ago, Chris noticed that Mike was feeling anxious. When Chris asked what was up, Mike said, "I'm scared." After Chris asked why his dad was so fearful, Mike opened up even more. "I'm afraid you'll hear about what I've done and you'll never forgive me."

That response actually drew a chuckle from Chris. He did have some idea of how far his father had fallen, and he probably knew some things about his old man that Mike would be surprised to hear. But forgiveness? Chris believes that nothing good happens from harboring bitterness. He'd become a Super Bowl hero because he'd believed in his ability to make a play. He could change lives - even his father's - with the same sense of unyielding purpose.

"I already forgave you," Chris told his father. "Now let's go help some other people."

Jim O'Brien Super Bowl V by Elizabeth Merril

Teammates used to call Jim O'Brien "Lassie" because he had long brown hair, kind of like the dog. It was better than "Hippie," another name that was occasionally bandied about. When you're a rookie, respect doesn't come easily. But all that changed in the final seconds of the season, when O'Brien kicked the game-winning field goal for the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl V.

It was the third week of 1971, the best year of O'Brien's life. He met his wife, Pam, that year. O'Brien was handsome and cool and a celebrity of sorts back then. He even played tennis in the Dinah Shore Invitational.

And four years later, it was all over.

Four decades after punctuating the Colts' first Super Bowl win, Jim O'Brien works as a construction manager in Southern California.

Dominic DiSaia for ESPN

O'Brien, navigating through an afternoon slog of Southern California traffic on a recent fall day, asks if you can call back. He's on his way to a meeting and is pressed for time. He's 65 and is not part of the annual old-guy Super Bowl celebrity tour - O'Brien concedes that gig is awarded to players with far more staying power - but he is plenty busy. O'Brien is a construction project manager for a 320-unit venture in Santa Monica.

Life after the NFL is often littered with regrets, and O'Brien had reason to be bitter when his playing days ended in 1974. He was in a bar that year talking to an old college friend when her ex-husband, O'Brien says, "sucker" hit him with a beer bottle. O'Brien usually wore contact lenses, but he happened to have his glasses on that day, and one of the lenses cut his right cornea.

He had the eye stitched up, but it was never the same. Neither was kicking.

"I can't blame that on cutting my career short," O'Brien said. "There were a lot of things I did personally that created the shortness of my career.

"You can stew the rest of your life and ruin your whole life, or you can get on with it and make lemonade out of lemons. That's what I tried to do."

Like many athletes back then, O'Brien didn't play just one position. He was also a receiver, a talented one out of the University of Cincinnati. In those days, O'Brien spent the whole workout with the receivers and then kicked for 10 minutes at the end of practice.

Maybe that's why his career field goal percentage of .556 was serviceable back then. The clout of one kick no doubt carried him for a while.

On Jan. 17, 1971, the Colts and Cowboys were down to the last five seconds in a rugged, ugly Super Bowl that featured 11 turnovers when O'Brien lined up for a 32-yard field goal with the score tied at 13.

O'Brien was a rookie when he booted the first winning field goal in Super Bowl history in 1971.

Malcolm Emmons/USA TODAY Sports

O'Brien, a straightaway kicker, was not thrilled to be on AstroTurf in Miami, and he didn't inspire confidence in his teammates before that kick. Earlier in the game, he had an extra-point attempt blocked. But as he stared down and waited for the snap, he thought of nothing but mechanics and routine. He nailed the field goal, giving the Colts a 16-13 victory.

In some ways, that kick marked the beginning of the end for O'Brien. Maybe, at 23, he assumed things would come easily after that.

"I was young and dumb," he said. "And then winning that Super Bowl the first year, that probably didn't help a lot, either.

"I probably didn't practice enough. I don't know … maybe I wasn't serious enough about a football career. I guess you get what you deserve."

The fatalist in him never thought his career would last longer than four to six years, anyway. He had his degree in economics from Cincinnati, and maybe that helped him figure out that his $15,000 bonus check for winning the Super Bowl - $10,000 after taxes - wouldn't last long. He would not slack in his post-football career. O'Brien is out the door by 6:30 most mornings and drives to work with a view of the ocean on one side of his car.

More than three decades passed before another Super Bowl was won on a field goal in the final seconds. Adam Vinatieri did it in Super Bowl XXXVI with a 48-yarder in New England's 20-17 upset over St. Louis. Vinatieri did it again with a 41-yarder against Carolina in Super Bowl XXXVIII. Those are the only three Super Bowls to feature a game-winning field goal in the final seconds.

Today, a few colleagues know of O'Brien's place in football history, but many others don't, and he's OK with that.

When his career ended, he stayed away from football; he didn't watch it and tried not think about it. He watches now, but mainly to avoid "all the crap that's on TV." He sees kickers that are much better and a game that is much bigger. He laughs about the hair. At least his long locks, he says, didn't cover the name on the back of his uniform.

"I think you miss it," O'Brien said. "Every year it gets better and better. You miss it less and less. I think within five years, I pretty much didn't miss it. I didn't care one way or the other.

"It was fun to have done, but it wasn't me."

Ricky Sanders Super Bowl XXII by Jeffri Chadiha

As soon as Ricky Sanders lined up and glanced left, he liked his odds of making something special happen. The Washington Redskins may have been trailing 10-0 early in the second quarter of Super Bowl XXII, but quarterback Doug Williams noticed a potential weakness in the Denver Broncos' defense.

Cornerback Mark Haynes had crept so close to the line that he could've whispered a secret to Sanders, one of Washington's talented wide receivers. Sensing a mismatch, Williams slowly nodded toward Sanders, an indication that a simple run call was about to become a backbreaking deep pass.

Washington's Ricky Sanders had 193 receiving yards in Super Bowl XXII, a figure topped only by Jerry Rice, who had 215 the following year.

Don Larson/Getty Images

It wasn't merely that Sanders blew by Haynes and hauled in a perfectly thrown ball from Williams. It was how quickly a game that seemed to be totally in Denver's control completely changed direction on that play. Sanders never broke stride on his way to an 80-yard touchdown reception. The Redskins never lost their momentum, either. They would score a Super Bowl-record 35 points in one quarter en route to a 42-10 victory.

There were many standouts for the Redskins that night, as Williams won MVP honors (with 340 passing yards and four touchdowns) and running back Timmy Smith set a Super Bowl record with 204 rushing yards. Seemingly lost in those fireworks was the damage that Sanders inflicted on Denver. He added another 50-yard scoring catch and finished with nine receptions for 193 yards and amassed 235 total yards - both yardage marks were Super Bowl records at the time. "I would've loved to have won MVP, but I was happy regardless," Sanders said. "Doug had a great game. Timmy had a great game. We could've all been co-MVPs."

There was no higher point in Sanders' 10-year career than that performance. The 80-yard score relieved him of all the anxiety he felt coming into the game - "Talk about being nervous; this was the biggest game of my life," he said - but the entire game validated that he was a skilled, effective NFL receiver. The following season, Sanders enjoyed a breakout season, but before Super Bowl XXII, he was merely a talented young player trying to fit in on a deep roster brimming with playmakers.

Sanders battled a severe case of depression after his 10-year career in the NFL concluded.

Dominic DiSaia for ESPN

Sanders, a standout at Southwest Texas State (now known as Texas State), started his pro career with the USFL's Houston Gamblers in 1984. When that league folded two years later, he was picked up by New England before being traded to a Redskins team that already had two strong receivers. Future Hall of Famer Art Monk was the possession guy, and Pro Bowler Gary Clark brought the attitude. Sanders was the fastest of the trio, which would become known as "The Posse," but he caught only 51 passes in his first two seasons.

It wasn't until Williams replaced injured starter Jay Schroeder midway through the 1988 season that Sanders found his stride. "Doug and I both came to Washington at the same time," Sanders said. "And we spent a lot of time practicing on the scout team. We got our connection going [in those sessions]. He had a way of always hitting me in stride, and we were tough when he got it going."

Sanders enjoyed his best season in 1988, with 73 receptions, 1,148 yards and a franchise record-tying 12 touchdown catches. He caught 80 more passes the next season, this time for 1,138 yards. Sanders would eventually spend four more years in Washington and two others in Atlanta before his career wound down and he had to wrestle with problems off the field.

A divorce left him drained emotionally and financially, and the residual effects of a career spent taking hits from bangers such as Ronnie Lott and Lawrence Taylor left his brain in peril. There also was some lingering bitterness that the Redskins hadn't done more for him at the end of his career, followed by severe depression. "There were days when I literally would sit in bed in the mornings, afraid to get up," Sanders said. "I didn't want people to see me and have them wonder what happened."

Sanders rebounded from personal difficulties, thanks in large part to the help of wife Sharon, and he now works in the freight industry.

Dominic DiSaia for ESPN

Sanders admits there was no preparation for what he faced in retirement. Not only were the usual doors that had been open to him as a player closing - no more free meals or complimentary rounds of golf - but his world was crumbling around him. If not for his second wife, Sharon, Sanders openly admits that his future might have been too miserable to endure. "She literally saved my life," Sanders said.

Aided by the support of Sharon, Sanders slowly found his way back to stability.  He had spent most of his early years in retirement playing golf, but about 10 years ago, he met a friend of a friend who asked for Sanders' help in a freight company he was starting. Sanders jumped at the idea and became an independent contractor with the business. These days, at age 50, he also makes time to return to the D.C. area whenever possible.

Sanders was named one of the 70 greatest Redskins during the team's 70th anniversary in 2002, and he was in Washington earlier this fall for the franchise's 80th anniversary. "Every time I go back there, they treat me like I'm a long-lost son," Sanders said. "That's the great thing about those fans. They are definitely die-hard."

That same bond also exists among the players on that Redskins team. In fact, Sanders ran into Smith in November, and they reminisced. That game vaulted both men into the national spotlight and Super Bowl history. And to this day, Sanders relies on those memories to remind him of how far he has come professionally and personally. "When I think about those moments - and everything I've gone through - it always makes me feel good." Sanders said. "It reminds me that nobody can take those things away from me."