The Super Bowl is arguably the biggest event of the year in the United States. This doesn’t just include sports, but all of entertainment. The game is watched by tens of millions of fans on television each year and in recent years, has turned into sort of a spectacle. In the end, despite all of the different Super Bowl week festivities, the week is nothing without the finale. The week of events sponsored by the National Football League in the host city is nothing without its main event.
Much like players in Major League Baseball are known for their successes (and failures) in October during the postseason, the same can be said of players who succeed (or fail) in the Super Bowl. For years, Peyton Manning was always being ripped apart for his postseason struggles despite all the touchdowns he had thrown. Jim Kelly was applauded for getting the Buffalo Bills to four straight Super Bowls in the 1990s, but his career totals have been played down because he couldn’t get it done in the big game. Many call Dan Marino the greatest quarterback that ever played the game, but without a Super Bowl title, he is often dropped down a few notches.
In most Super Bowls, it usually comes down to the quarterback. These are the faces of the organization and the natural leader of the team. When your team wins the Super Bowl, it is credited to the quarterback’s win-loss record, not the running back, wide receiver, cornerback, or any other unlikely hero. It is the unlikely heroes that allow underdogs to rout the favorites. It is because of these unlikely heroes that a team can essentially win the Super Bowl by a single yard.
Honorable mention acknowledgements go to Jacoby Jones and Malcolm Smith, but who are the top 10 most unlikely heroes in Super Bowl history?
12 Desmond Howard, Super Bowl XXXI
The first kick returner in the history of the Super Bowl to win the MVP award was Desmond Howard from the Green Bay Packers. The former Heisman Trophy winner from his time at Michigan didn’t have the career that many expected when the Washington Redskins drafted him with the fourth overall pick of the 1992 NFL Draft, but he will always be remembered for his Super Bowl XXXI performance. The Packers were 14-point favorites against the New England Patriots and it was Howard’s 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the third quarter that proved to be the final score of the game. In total on this day, Howard had 154 kickoff return yards and 90 punt return yards.
11 Dwight Smith, Super Bowl XXXVII
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. Super Bowl XXXVII was supposed to be the game when the Oakland Raiders returned to their winning ways. They were 4-point favorites against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and were being led into this game by NFL MVP Rich Gannon. Gannon had thrown for 4,689 yards with 26 touchdowns and just 10 interceptions and was the reason why the Raiders were favored to win. Unfortunately for Gannon and the Raiders, Dwight Smith, Dexter Jackson and the Tampa Bay defense recorded five interceptions with three returned for touchdowns, including two picks each from Smith and Jackson. Jackson earned game MVP honors because of his two interceptions, but it was Smith who returned both his interceptions for touchdowns.
10 Deion Branch, Super Bowl XXXIX
During the 2004 regular season, Deion Branch played just nine games and had 35 catches for 454 yards and 4 touchdowns. Playing in his third season, Branch was quickly becoming a favorite of quarterback Tom Brady when he made it on the field. It is because of his on-field relationship with Brady that a great performance from Branch shouldn’t have come as a surprise. Despite that, the performance that Branch had at Super Bowl XXXIX in the Patriots' 24-21 victory against the Philadelphia Eagles was incredible. Branch caught 11 of the 23 passes Brady completed that night for 133 yards, earning MVP honors. He parlayed this performance into a six-year contract worth $39 million with Seattle, following a contract dispute with New England.
9 Max McGee, Super Bowl I
In the first ever Super Bowl, which was originally known as the AFL-NFL World Championship Game, the Green Bay Packers took on the Kansas City Chiefs. It was a battle of the two best teams in their respective leagues and in the end, it was the Packers, led by their all-world quarterback, Bart Starr, that were victorious, 35-10. Starr threw for 250 yards and 2 touchdowns and earned MVP honors, but a great performance out of him was expected. However, it wasn’t as expected from wide receiver Max McGee. Admittedly, McGee was hungover during the game and still had the game of his life, recording 7 catches for 138 yards and 2 touchdowns.
8 T-5. Doug Williams, Super Bowl XXII
Heading into the 1987 regular season, Doug Williams wasn’t even the starting quarterback for the Washington Redskins. He ended up starting just two games during the regular season and lost them both. Washington ended up winning the NFC East with an 11-4 record and moved into the playoffs with Williams as their starter. As they squeaked past the Chicago Bears and Minnesota Vikings to advance to the Super Bowl, they did so because of Williams. When it came time for the Redskins to take on the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII, they were 3-point underdogs and went on to crush their opponents, 42-10. Williams threw for 340 yards in the game with 4 touchdowns, earning MVP honors.
7 T-5. Timmy Smith, Super Bowl XXII
In the same Super Bowl that saw Doug Williams absolutely destroy the favored Denver Broncos for 4 touchdowns, running back Timmy Smith also played a large part in their success that day. Smith was a 23-year-old rookie that was drafted by the Redskins with the 117th overall pick of the NFL draft. He appeared in just seven games during the regular season and compiled 126 yards on 29 carries. Heading into the Super Bowl, not much was expected from him, but he shredded the Broncos defense for 204 yards and 2 touchdowns. That remains the single-game rushing record in Super Bowl history. Smith’s NFL career wound up lasting just three total seasons, but he will always be remembered for his success in the Redskins' 42-10 victory.
6 Otis Anderson, Super Bowl XXV
Super Bowl XXV featured a matchup between the New York Giants and Buffalo Bills. The Bills were favored to win by a touchdown, but it was the Giants that pulled off the upset in what was the first of four straight visits to the Super Bowl for Buffalo. The Giants were led into the game by quarterback Jeff Hostetler, who threw for 222 yards and a touchdown, but it was the play of Otis Anderson, who was at the tail end of his career that is still talked about today.
In that game, he rushed for 102 yards with a touchdown and earned MVP honors. His ability to eat up yards and keep the vaunted Bills offense on the bench is what led New York to their second Super Bowl. He would only carry a football in an NFL game another 63 times over the next two seasons, but his MVP performance in Super Bowl XXV was the highlight of his career.
5 Larry Brown, Super Bowl XXX
With Deion Sanders lined up as the cornerback on the other side of the field for the Dallas Cowboys in Super Bowl XXX, Neil O’Donnell and the Pittsburgh Steelers decided to pick on Larry Brown. It ended up being a major mistake. The Cowboys were heavy favorites coming into the game and while they didn’t cover the spread, still got the win due in large part to Brown.
Brown picked off O’Donnell twice, earning MVP honors and as he said later on, “I went on ‘Letterman,’ I did ‘Married With Children.’ It was a blast. I felt like I knew what it was like to be Emmitt Smith or Troy Aikman for a month."
4 Malcolm Butler, Super Bowl XLIX
Malcolm Butler's incredible interception at the goal line has been overshadowed by the narrative that the Seahawks made just about the worst play call in Super Bowl history. Granted it was, but Butler's heroics, combined with his story are remarkable.
After being kicked out of community college, Butler was working part-time at Popeyes chicken and went undrafted. The Patriots signed him in May, with Butler making just one start in the season. Butler ran onto the field just as Seattle appeared set to pound in the winning touchdown. He jumped the short passing route beautifully, beating receiver Ricardo Lockette to the ball.
Tom Brady made sure Butler got his due, as the game's MVP passed off his 2015 Chevrolet Colorado to his previously unknown teammate.
2 Mike Jones, Super Bowl XXXIV
When the St. Louis Rams held on to win Super Bowl XXXIV essentially by a single yard against the Tennessee Titans, it was the end of one of the best Super Bowl games of all time. Led by Kurt Warner, the Rams were the second coming of the greatest show on turf and were favored to win that game by a touchdown. The Tennessee defense kept the game close, but in the end, it was the St. Louis defense, and especially the tackling skill of Mike Jones that led the Rams to victory. As the time ticked off the clock, Steve McNair completed a pass to Kevin Dyson who nearly reached the goal line, but was stopped by a remarkable tackle by Jones.
1 David Tyree, Super Bowl XLII
The 2007 New England Patriots seemed to be a team of destiny. Coming into the Super Bowl, the Patriots were 18-0 and were favored to beat the New York Giants by 12. Eli Manning and the Giants had something to say about those odds and Manning would lead the Giants to his first of two Super Bowl titles in this game. While Manning won the MVP after throwing for 255 yards and 2 touchdowns, it was David Tyree whose name is synonymous with this victory. He scored the Giants' first touchdown, but the moment of his career came later on.
On a crucial 3rd down play in the dying minutes, Manning scrambled away from pressure and threw it downfield to Tyree, who made arguably the greatest catch of all time against his helmet. The Giants scored what ended up as the final points of the game on the drive following the catch and Tyree will forever be considered the most unlikely Super Bowl hero of all time. A man who caught four passes that season and whose career totals were 54 catches, for 650 yards and four touchdowns made the crucial play to knock off an undefeated team. It turns out he was the man of destiny.