Jerry Rice was frightened. His legs felt weak. All week he had felt it coming. A cold, the flu, something. Friday, he took an intravenous feeding. Now it was Sunday, an hour and a half to showtime. Catching passes, loosening up, the best receiver there ever has been felt a shiver of weakness in the legs that have carried him so many places. "I was scared," he said.
By night's end, he carried his left shoulder under a bag of ice, a warrior's treatment for an injury so painful a man can't comb his hair. He had left the field early in the second quarter, hurt by a tackle. The trainer put ice on the shoulder then. The trainer taped it. Then Jerry Rice did his own medical treatment. "I put a little dirt on it," he said.
They gave the big award to Steve Young. They did right. The man threw six touchdown passes in this Super Bowl the 29th. Joe Montana once threw five, but stopped there. No one else ever did more than four. So the big award for Steve Young was a good thing, proper, even compassionate, for now Young has proved beyond question he belongs in the same paragraph with Montana, if not the same sentence. It took him eight years. It only seemed like forever.
Remember Jerry Rice, though. "Three?" he said. His brown eyes became wide and bright. He'd forgotten the touchdowns. Three touchdowns, two of them in the second half when he played with the pain. What he remembered was not the touchdowns. He remembered landing against the shoulder in the end zone. "Now I know what Emmitt felt," he said lightly, the allusion to Emmitt Smith's ignoring a separated shoulder in a big game a year ago.
Rice was weak and he was in pain and he caught 10 passes for 149 yards and three touchdowns--after gathering his teammates before kickoff, dozens of redshirts huddled in near to hear his thin voice, and telling them, "This is what we've worked for. We've come too far to let it get away."
What the San Francisco 49ers brought to this Super Bowl was a presence so powerful it will pass into legend. These people were wonderful athletes working at the top of their ability with a sense of mission that elevated them all. Jerry Rice was weak and scared and on the third play of the game there he went.
From the right slot.
Bend it to the post.
Looking back now.
The ball there.
Coming down against his hands, sent there by Steve Young, delivered perfectly to the perfect receiver.
A touchdown, 44 yards, with less than a minute and a half gone in the game.
Of Super Bowl the 29th, this also must be said: They had peacock feathers. They attached the feathers on the backs of nubile maidens soon to be in distress. They had fire and they had smoke. Jet fighters passed overhead, wingtip to wingtip, their roar almost as loud as Hank Williams Jr. exploding, "ARE YOU READY FOR SOME FOOTBALL?"
They had men 12-foot tall with bones hanging on their chests. They had a flamingo on stilts. A yacht moved across the field. Blimps and helicopters and little planes filled the airspace above Joe Robbie Stadium. They had Indiana Jones and Tony Bennett and Kathie Lee Gifford. Maybe 300 young girls arranged themselves in the shape of Florida, after which they scattered in all directions, assuming the shape of the San Diego Chargers' offense.
They had Ninja warriors. They had monks in brown robes. They had bombs bursting in air and green laser lights criss-crossing in the night.
They even had the Enola Gay cranked up and flying over the stadium to drop Deion Sanders rap albums on anyone whose eardrums somehow survived the NFL's awesome assault on the senses of unsuspecting customers in the stadium, across America and in 174 countries that also came under the siege of sound that was this Super Bowl.
Just making up that part about the Enola Gay. Maybe next year.
What they had, praise be, was a San Francisco team so good that one of its youngsters risked blasphemy afterward by saying in essence: This Joe Montana guy, how good could he have been? Rookie fullback William Floyd said in actuality: "With all due respect to Joe Montana, this is the best team San Francisco has ever had. Yes, Joe won four Super Bowls. But now Steve Young has won his first."
Such brashness wasn't limited to kids. The 12th-year center, Jesse Sapolu, declared these 49ers the best offensive team of his time or, for that matter, of any time. "The best offense the NFL has ever witnessed," he said.
As proof, a 49-26 victory came the hard way--when it was expected. "We came here as the team with a doubt," Sapolu said. By that he meant the 49ers had already dispatched the Dallas Cowboys and came to this Super Bowl with nothing to prove but what we already knew. "Us and Dallas, we were like two big kids in school fighting to see who the biggest bully is. If San Diego had been able to confirm any doubt about us early on . . . "
He left the sentence unfinished, silly as it was.
"Most offenses take what the defense gives them," linebacker Gary Plummer said. "Ours takes what it wants."
Three plays and this Super Bowl was history. In one minute, 24 seconds, the 49ers did it: Steve Young to Jerry Rice, 44 yards, touchdown. Rice going against one man. Man to man against Jerry Rice? Down the middle? What's with San Diego? They hadn't seen Jerry Rice before?
To have a chance, San Diego had to score first and control the game with its running. To score first, it had to throw deep. To keep the lead, it had to shut down a San Francisco offense that features Steve Young and Ricky Watters and Brent Jones and John Taylor and William Floyd and . . . the greatest receiver who ever was.
No flu would undo him. No shoulder, in one piece or unhinged, would keep him out of this one. "I couldn't let my teammates down. I had to get back out there and play. I couldn't run as well as I wanted, but I was out there and I think that meant something."