The score was 10-7, Denver, and quarterback John Elway of the Broncos was looking extraordinary, and the defense of the Giants was looking exasperated, and it was beginning to look as though Super Bowl XXI might turn out to be the worst beating anyone from New York had taken since Dwight Gooden vs. the Tampa cops.
Then the oldest player on the field stepped forward. And forward. And forward. And Ken Lanier of the Denver offensive line couldn't block him. And Elway couldn't tear himself away from him. And the aging bull, 6-foot 4-inch, 255-pound defensive end George Martin, kept charging until he rode the bucking Bronco to the ground in the end zone for a safety, giving the Giants two more points on the Rose Bowl stadium scoreboard and possession of the football, late in the second period.
From that point on, Sunday was an old-timer's day in Pasadena.
Martin, a National Football League manual laborer for 12 years now, two weeks shy of his 34th birthday and occupant of a body as leathery and stitched-up as a football, had the time of his relatively old life Sunday. He gave the Giants sufficient inspiration and perspiration so that they could come back and pound the Broncos, 39-20, for the heavyweight football championship of the world.
The least they could have done afterward is award him the game quarterback.
Most guys get to spike the football after scoring in a big game. Some guys get to keep the football after scoring in a big game. Martin not only scored, he scored in a Super Bowl, which is more than Jim Brown or O.J. Simpson or Walter Payton can say. Yet, there was only so much he could do to celebrate. He couldn't spike Elway or keep him. The NFL frowns on this sort of thing.
Then again, scoring is so old helmet to Martin by now, he can afford to be blase about it. Although this was his first safety, no other defensive lineman in NFL history has scored so many touchdowns. He even scored one on an interception runback against Elway and the Broncos in the regular season--the sixth touchdown of his career--huffing and puffing and chugging 78 yards, with oxygen and paramedics standing by.
"It was a cloudy day when I intercepted the ball, but by the time I got to the end zone, the sun was back out," was Martin's joke at the time.
His shining moment Sunday, with 2:46 remaining in the second quarter was as important to the Giants, though, as any of Phil Simms' passes or Joe Morris' rushes or Lawrence Taylor's crushes. As offensive tackle Brad Benson, another of the Giants' elder statesmen, later said: "It wasn't so much the safety's two points that helped us as much as it hurt their (the Broncos') momentum. I think old George broke their hearts and backs with that one."
The Broncos, who had scored twice in the opening quarter, did not recover or manage another point until late in the final quarter. By then, although he insisted that he didn't consider the game to be in the bag "until the Gatorade went over (Bill) Parcells' head," Martin had the championship for which he had hungered for so long.
So long. "George, how does it feel," he was asked at game's end, "to win a Super Bowl after years and years and years of . . . "
"That's enough years," he interrupted, laughing.
Martin and Benson and Harry Carson have been hanging around the New York camp for so long, the running gag was that if they ever got this far, they would empty a bucket of Geritol on the coach's head. It was inevitable after experiencing such an ultimate in football thrills that Martin be asked Sunday about retirement, to which he replied: "That's always a possibility, yes."
The old dog used a new trick to set up the safety, conning the Broncos into thinking he was changing the defense at the line of scrimmage. Tipping off Giant nose tackle Erik Howard that he would be calling "dummy" defensive signals at the line of scrimmage, which was the Denver 13, Martin was able to distract Lanier, the Bronco right tackle lined up across from him. Howard, meanwhile, ignored everything Martin yelled.
"The whole idea was to make their offensive tackle think we were going to run a stunt," Martin said. "And he bit on it."
Martin had Lanier twisting and turning like Chubby Checker, then chased Elway into the end zone.
"And then," Martin said, pausing for effect, "we embraced."
The safety got the Giants in a good mood. They had been embarrassed by Elway until then, Martin said, and the safety reminded them that there was still plenty of time for the defense to do its thing.
"And if that wasn't enough incentive, Lawrence Taylor came into the locker room at halftime and said a few choice words," Martin said. "And when Lawrence Taylor talks, most people listen. He made us make a re-dedication of what to do, of what we said all week long that we were going to do."
Then they went out and did it. "I'd played this game in my head at least 13 times," Martin said. "The dream I had about being MVP didn't come true, but just about everything else did."
Martin had been around a long time, waiting for such a day. He waited for it at the University of Oregon, where he lettered both in football and basketball, hoping to win a championship in something. He waited for it for a dozen seasons with the Giants, who drafted him in the 11th round in 1975.
Carson, 33, said Sunday: "They say good things come to those who wait. I just wish we didn't have to wait so long."
Maurice Carthon, a mere 25, must have known just how old these old guys felt. After the safety, Carthon, a Giant running back, waited for Martin to trudge from the field to the bench. Then he curled an arm around the old-timer's shoulders.
"Another great move by Knute Rockne," he said.