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They just don't get any better than this

February 02, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

FROM TAMPA, FLA. — It was Pittsburgh . . . no, it was Arizona . . . no, it was Pittsburgh . . . no, it was both of them, clutching each other in a dance of breathless, wonderful chaos.

It was the Steelers' giant James Harrison rumbling 100 yards with an interception for the longest scoring play in Super Bowl history, then collapsing in the end zone in exhaustion.

No, it was the Cardinals' shaggy Larry Fitzgerald streaking 64 yards with a touchdown catch that could have made more history, sticking his hand into a quiet sky in stunned disbelief.

No, it was the Steelers' speedy Santonio Holmes stretched into that same sky a few minutes later, three defenders around him, one football in front him, the ball finding his hands, his toes finding the grass, sudden victory wrapping him in its dizzying embrace.

In the end Sunday night, with Pittsburgh dancing and Arizona moaning and America struck dumb with the true spectacle of it all, Super Bowl XLIII will overwhelmingly be remembered for one thing.

It was the greatest.

From a stirring national anthem to a tingling late finish, the Steelers' 27-23 victory over the Cardinals was the greatest Super Bowl ever, one whose Roman numbers should have been XXL for its double-extra-large helping of theatrics and dramatics.

It was enough to even knock a world champion cold.

"It is definitely the most emotional game I have ever been part of. I've never been so emotionally drained in my life," said the Steelers' Harrison afterward, blinking his eyes above his sweat-drenched jersey. "I am just so tired right now man, I could go to sleep right here."

For the previous four hours, this game had never been more awake, the favored Steelers fighting to gain a record sixth world title, the Cardinals fighting to shed the label as the most hapless franchise in the sport, the fight devolving into part street, part sublime.

"So much on the line for both teams, everybody was trying to put their foot down, trying to show that there weren't going to be any punks out there," said the Cardinals' Darnell Dockett.

No punks, but plenty of fireworks and ferocity and eventually a fantastic ending that showed just 35 seconds remaining when Holmes caught the six-yard touchdown pass from Ben Roethlisberger to give the Steelers the victory.

Holmes celebrated by sitting alone on the ground, clutching the ball with his head buried in his arms.

"I thought, 'I did it, I just caught the ball that won the Super Bowl,' " he said.

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, one of the three Cardinals defenders beaten on the play, mourned by wandering to the sideline in a daze.

"All your dreams, all you worked for, shattered in one moment," he said.

It was a game of collectively indelible moments, beginning with Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson, who used her first public appearance since the October killings of three family members to belt out a national anthem for the ages.

There is no cheering in the press box but, yeah, well, after Hudson finished a final note that shot through the air like a knockout jab, we all cheered.

The night was later held together with a halftime show featuring ageless legend Bruce Springsteen, who bossed around 70,000 light-waving fans during a halftime show with such songs as "Born to Run," "Glory Days" and "Working on a Dream."

Those would eventually be not only titles, but game descriptions.

"Born to Run"?

That's what Harrison became at the end of the first half when, with Arizona driving for a go-ahead touchdown, he stepped in front of a Kurt Warner pass and ran 100 yards for a touchdown to give the Steelers an instant 17-7 halftime lead.

It was not only the longest-scoring play in Super Bowl history, it was one of the most entertaining, with the 245-pound linebacker rumbling around and through six potential tacklers and countless leveling blocks.

Said Harrison: "I didn't think I was going to make it, but our guys keep throwing their bodies all over the field, knocking them out of the way."

Said the Cardinals' Reggie Wells: "I was chasing, but it was like they had a convoy going."

The Steelers increased the lead to 20-7 in the third quarter and, considering no team has overcome a deficit of greater than 10 points to win the Super Bowl, it seemed as if the Cardinals were finished.

Then, in a fourth quarter that typified his comeback career, Warner made sure they weren't.

"Working on a Dream"?

Warner led the Cardinals the length of the field for a touchdown in about three blinks, the Arizona defense held, and then Warner hit Fitzgerald across the middle for a 64-yard touchdown pass with 2:47 remaining to give Arizona a three-point lead.

Said Harrison: "One second you are on cloud nine and the next second you feel like a piece of garbage."

Said Warner: "Your emotions are so high. . . . You know that you are two minutes away from being world champions."

But those two minutes, it turns out, belonged to the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"Glory Days"?

Roethlisberger, already trying to win his second championship at age 26, calmly led the Steelers back down the field from his 12-yard line, completing four of five passes.

Three of those passes were to Holmes, including a 40-yarder across the middle that gave the Steelers the ball on the six-yard line.

Then Holmes dropped a sure touchdown pass, after which he begged his quarterback for one more chance.

"I grabbed him outside the huddle, I said, 'Please, let me get you this game, I can get you this game,' " Holmes said.

Seconds later, on the same play on the other side of the end zone, he did, with a catch that ended with his feet brushing the grass.

Later, his children in his arms, wonder in his eyes, the newly crowned Super Bowl most valuable player of the greatest Super Bowl ever shook his head.

"My feet never left the ground," he claimed.

He was the only one.

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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