We’re often told defence wins championships, there’s no “I” in team, and that the Super Bowl comes down to a special player doing special things at the right time and place.
Take a look throughout history though, and you’ll realise there’s some pretty big no-names occupying the record books. Capturing the Lombardi Trophy can sometimes come down to one play from the most unlikely of heroes, and whether it’s a tackle, a touchdown, an interception, or even a missed kick – these moments can alter careers and turn the average Joe into an MVP.
Here’s a look at some of the great nobodies who have evolved from zero to hero on the grandest stage.
Adam Vinatieri – New England Patriots (Super Bowl XXXVIII)
One kick pushed to the right, one kicked blocked – it’ll take more than that to deter the greatest kicker of all-time. Adam Vinatieri slotted the game winner for the Patriots during Super Bowl 38, a 41-yard attempt with just nine seconds left on the clock. It was a remarkable display of resiliency after being denied twice, and it’s no surprise Vinatieri has since gone on to become the all-time leader in field goals made.
Antwaan Randle El – Pittsburgh Steelers (Super Bowl XL)
Already ahead 14-10 during Super Bowl 40, the Steelers decided to get a little creative in the fourth quarter against the Seahawks. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger took the snap under center, handed it to Willie Parker, who then tossed it to Antwaan Randle El to set up a handy trick play. Randle El, once a quarterback in College, lobbed a deep 43-yard pass to wide receiver Hines Ward, who already had a step on safety Marcus Trufant. The Steelers went on to win their fifth ring 21-10.
David Tyree – New York Giants (Super Bowl XLII)
Giants wide receiver David Tyree reels in a 32-yard pass from Eli Manning during Super Bowl 42.
David Tyree’s famous helmet catch in Super Bowl 42 has long been heralded as the greatest moment of all-time. Down 14-10 against a perfect 18-0 Patriots side, Giants quarterback Eli Manning dropped back on 3rd and 5, only to be swarmed by New England’s defensive line. Linebacker Adalius Thomas got to the quarterback off the edge, but Manning managed to escape and heave a pass downfield for Tyree, who was smothered by hard-hitting safety Rodney Harrison. Tyree caught the ball at the 24-yard line on his helmet, while the Giants went on to score the game-winning touchdown four plays later.
Desmond Howard – Green Bay Packers (Super Bowl XXXI)
Desmond Howard made a living as the Packers’ kick/punt returner for 10-seasons, although he’ll hardly go down in Green Bay folklore. Cheeseheads will remember his efforts in Super Bowl 31 however, as the 1991 Heisman Trophy winner returned a kick off for a 99-yard touchdown. The Packers went on to win 35-21 in Brett Favre’s only Super Bowl victory, while Howard finished with 244 return yards, a touchdown, and MVP honours.
Dexter Jackson – Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Super Bowl XXXVII)
Buccaneers safety Dexter Jackson spent just nine-years in the NFL, but he saved his most memorable game for Super Bowl 37. Jackson intercepted Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon twice to lead the Bucs (and Jon Gruden) to their first (and only) Super Bowl win in a 48-21 rout. The performance marked Jackson’s only multi-interception game of his career, helping him secure MVP honours.
Doug Williams – Washington Redskins (Super Bowl XXII)
In five seasons with the Bucs and four with the Redskins, Doug Williams posted steady career numbers during his nine-year career. He was also the first African American quarterback to win a Super Bowl, throwing for a record 340-yards and four touchdowns for the Redskins in 1988. He also became the first quarterback in the Super Bowl to throw for four touchdowns in a half, and the only to throw for four in a quarter. Not surprisingly, he took home the MVP trophy that year.
James White – New England Patriots (Super Bowl LI)
Down 28-9 entering the fourth quarter, the Patriots’ epic comeback against the Falcons in Super Bowl 51 might have never happened if it weren’t for James White. In just his third year in the league, White tallied 139 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns, leading New England to a 34-28 overtime victory. One of White’s most crucial scores came in the dying stages of the fourth quarter with less than a minute remaining, while his two-yard goal-line touchdown in overtime remains one of the top moments in Patriots history.
Jim O’Brien – Baltimore Colts (Super Bowl V)
With under a minute to go and the score tied 13-13, the Cowboys set up for a game-winning drive on their own 27-yard line in Super Bowl 5. Quarterback Craig Morton dropped back to pass, but was intercepted by Mike Curtis who returned the ball to the 28. Two plays later, Colts kicker Jim O’Brien trotted onto the field with just nine seconds remaining to set up a 32-yard game-winner. Long before kickers took a natural arc towards the ball, the 6-foot behemoth slotted a straight on toe punt to give the Colts their first ever Super Bowl win before moving to Indianapolis 13-years later.
John Taylor – San Francisco 49ers (Super Bowl XXIII)
Starting deep insider their own territory down three against the Bengals, Joe Montana led the Niners all the way down to the 10-yard line with just 40 seconds remaining in Super Bowl 23. Two plays after Jerry Rice’s huge 27-yard completion, Montana threw a laser between two defenders to John Taylor in the end zone, sending San Francisco home with a 20-16 win. It was a game-winning 93-yard drive from Montana, and while Rice stole the headlines (and his only MVP trophy) Taylor remains the hero on one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history.
Ken Norton – Dallas Cowboys (Super Bowl XXVII)
In one of the greatest goal line stands you’ll ever see, Cowboys linebacker Ken Norton played a pivotal role for the Cowboys in Super Bowl 27. On third down the Bills handed the ball to running back Kenneth Davis, only to watch him meet head on with Norton in a fierce tackle. The very next play the Bills chose to go for it on fourth down, a costly decision as quarterback Frank Reich threw an interception to Thomas Everett. Norton also went on to return a fumble for a nine-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.
Kurt Warner – St. Louis Rams (Super Bowl XXXIV)
After being cut by the Packers in 1994, nobody expected Kurt Warner to win the regular season MVP award and wind up in the Super Bowl six-years later. After the Rams finished the 1999 season 13-3, Warner threw for his first 400-yard game during Super Bowl 34 against the Titans. That’s not all though, his incredible 73-yard touchdown to Isaac Bruce with less than two minutes remains the focal point of the Rams franchise.
Larry Brown – Dallas Cowboys (Super Bowl XXX)
As a rookie Larry Brown was known as Edward Scissorhands, in large part thanks to his difficulties catching a ball. The Cowboys’ corner was money during Super Bowl 30 however, intercepting two of Neil O’Donnell’s passes to leave MVP. The most crucial pick came in the fourth quarter with the Steelers threatening. Pittsburgh had just scored after recovering an onside kick to trail by three, but Brown stepped in front of his receiver in the flat to return the ball down to the six-yard line. The Cowboys haven’t seen the Super Bowl since.
Lynn Swann – Pittsburgh Steelers (Super Bowl X)
Lynn Swann, known for his interest and ballet and gymnastics, takes a 53-yard circus catch during Super Bowl 10 against the Dallas Cowboys.
Dubbed the “Levitating Leap”, Lynn Swann’s catch during Super Bowl 10 against the Dallas Cowboys has stood the test of time. Backed up in their own end zone, Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw heaved a pass down the middle of the field for Lynn, who originally got hands to the ball, only to knock it up in the air and then catch the second attempt lying on his back. It was marked a 53-yard completion, one of two circus catches on the day from the eventual MVP. Known for his success in long jump at college, Swann goes down as one of the most graceful receivers in NFL history.
Malcolm Butler – New England Patriots (Super Bowl XLIX)
How does an undrafted rookie in 2014 turn into a two-time Super Bowl champion? Easy, by playing a part in perhaps the most famous coaching error in all of Super Bowl history. Down 28-24 with 26 seconds remaining, head coach Pete Carroll elected to throw the ball on second and goal instead of handing it off to running back Marshawn Lynch. Butler read the play perfectly – a basic slant route intended for Ricardo Lockette, and stepped in to intercept the pass handing the Patriots their fourth ring.
Max McGee – Green Bay Packers (Super Bowl I)
After staying out and partying the night before, a hungover Max McGee turned up at Super Bowl I with no intention of taking the field. He told Packers wide receiver Boyd Dowler “I hope you don’t get hurt. I’m not in very good shape,” before the game, only to watch Dowler exit with a shoulder injury on the second drive. In stepped McGee, who had to borrow a teammates helmet after leaving his in the lockerroom. Moments later, he caught a one-handed pass from Bart Starr for a 37-yard touchdown, the first in Super Bowl history. Green Bay went on to defeat the Chiefs 35-10.
Mike Jones – St. Louis Rams (Super Bowl XXXIV)
Nicknamed “the tackle”, Rams linebacker Mike Jones holds Titans wide receiver Kevin Dyson one-yard shy of the goal-line.
Everyone remembers touchdowns, but what about some good old fashioned defence? The Titans, led by Steve McNair, found themselves trailing the Rams 23-16 with one play remaining. Tennessee snapped the ball on the Rams’ 10-yard line, where McNair found Kevin Dyson for a nine-yard completion. It looked as though Dyson was about to score, at least until Rams linebacker Mike Jones wrapped him up to cut the play one-yard short of the end zone. Statistically speaking, Jones’ career was awful – he managed just nine sacks in 11 seasons. Still, it’s all about one play, and this one turned him into a Top 5 Super Bowl hero.
Nick Foles – Philadelphia Eagles (Super Bowl LII)
Everything about Foles’ performance during Super Bowl 52 screamed unsung hero. After replacing the injured Carson Wentz in Week 13, Foles led the Eagles to their first ever Super Bowl win, defeating the Patriots 41-33. He’ll be remembered equally for his nickname as well as the ‘Philly Special’, a designed trick play that saw him lineup behind the right tackle, only to jump into the endzone as a receiver and catch a pass from Trey Burton. It was a ballsy call on fourth and goal, but it was Foles’ own decision to run the play during the previous timeout, earning him free Philly dinners for the rest of eternity as well an unlikely MVP award.
Phil Simms – New York Giants (Super Bowl XXI)
The Giants already had it won by the end of the third quarter, but you can’t discount Phil Simms’s efforts in Super Bowl 21. The ever humble quarterback completed an unbelievable 22 of his 25 passes, with two of those incompletions coming in the form of dropped balls. Simms shredded the Broncos defence for 268-yards and three scores, while his commentary remains one of the best in the business to this day.
Rod Martin – Oakland Raiders (Super Bowl XV)
Five tackles, three interceptions, what more is there to say? Rod Martin was an absolute beast during Super Bowl 15, but his defensive efforts weren’t enough to overthrow Raiders quarterback Jim Plunkett for the MVP award. With 14 career interceptions and four defensive touchdowns to his name though, Martin played a crucial part in landing the Raiders a ring – something he went on to accomplish three year’s later in Super Bowl 18. These days Martin continues to haunt the dreams of Ron Jaworski.
Rod Smith – Denver Broncos (Super Bowl XXXIII)
With star tight end Shannon Sharpe lost to a knee injury on the Broncos’ first scoring drive of the game, Denver desperately needed someone to fill in. Wide receiver Rod Smith was the man for the job after posting three consecutive 1,000-yard seasons, but nobody thought he’d explode quite like he did. Smith’s 152-yard, one touchdown game ranks fifth on the all-time Super Bowl receiving yards list, while his 80-yard score remains one of John Elway’s top highlights.
Santonio Holmes – Pittsburgh Steelers (Super Bowl XLIII)
Santonio Holmes caught for over 1,000-yards just once in his nine-year career.
In the midst of his breakout year with the Steelers, Holmes was hardly an unlikely hero in Super Bowl 43. Considering his twilight years turned out to be rather mediocre however, Holmes’ game-winning touchdown can’t be forgotten. Down 23-20 with under a minute to go, Ben Roethlisberger threw a dart over the three defenders to find Holmes in the corner of the end-zone. Holmes stretched out, caught the pass, and somehow managed to tap both toes in bounds to finish as the MVP.
Scott Norwood – Buffalo Bills* (Super Bowl XXV)
Scott Norwood was the hero in Super Bowl 25, for the Giants anyway. His infamous missed field goal, nicknamed “wide right”, cost the Bills in their first ever visit to the Super Bowl, although a 43-yard kick in a blustery Tampa Stadium was certainly no gimme. For a kicker with very limited field goal range, it was especially difficult for Norwood though, who always had trouble from beyond 40-yards. Buffalo went on to lose another three straight Super Bowl appearances following the meltdown.
Tracy Porter – New Orleans Saints (Super Bowl XLIV)
The Saints were on the verge of their first Super Bowl win in 2009, all they had to do was stop Peyton Manning. The Colts found themselves on the fringe of the red zone with just over three minutes on the clock, only for Manning to drop back and throw a game-ending pick six down 24-17. Saints cornerback Tracy Porter was on the receiving end, stepping in front of an unexpecting Reggie Wayne. The Saints held on for the win while Porter left the hero.
Timmy Smith – Washington Redskins (Super Bowl XXII)
Selected in the fifth round of the 1987 NFL Draft, Timmy Smith was the unsung hero of the Redskins’ Super Bowl 22 victory over the Denver Broncos. Rushing for 204-yards and a pair of touchdowns, Smith set the all-time Super Bowl rushing record, a feat that still stands to this day. Smith’s time in the sun was shortlived however, finishing with just 602-yards in his three-year career. He was never expected to achieve big things, while legal troubles and a two-year prison stint also hurt his image.
Tom Brady – New England Patriots (Super Bowl XXXVI)
A bright-eyed Tom Brady took the field in his second year with the Patriots, tasked with taking down ‘The Greatest Show on Turf’ in Super Bowl 36. Brady had started in only 16-games by this point, and while he’d previously led the Patriots to a controversial victory over the Raiders in the Divisional Round, a knee injury in the AFC Championship over the Steelers put his health in jeopardy. Brady finished with 145-yards and a touchdown against the Rams, leading a crucial drive to the 31-yard line to set up Adam Vinatieri’s game-winning field goal. It marked the end of the Rams’ glory years, and the start of Brady’s never-ending legacy.
- Antonio Freeman (Super Bowl XXXI)
- Chris Reis (Super Bowl XLIV)
- Deion Branch (Super Bowl XXXIX)
- Dwight Smith (Super Bowl XXXVII)
- Jacoby Jones (Super Bowl XLVII)
- James Washington (Super Bowl XVIII)
- Reggie Harrison (Super Bowl X)
- Richard Dent (Super Bowl XX)
- Rodney Harrison (Super Bowl XXXIX)