MINNEAPOLIS -- There is no more unlikely success story in Super Bowl XXVI than that of Mike Brennan, a former Mount St. Joseph lacrosse star.
Lou Holtz once told Brennan he had no chance of playing football at Notre Dame. The Cincinnati Bengals cut him twice in the space of one week this season. And the Phoenix Cardinals kept him on their roster for nine weeks, then released him without letting him take a single snap.
Yet, showing the luck of a leprechaun, Brennan landed on his feet with the playoff-bound Buffalo Bills in December. And when the AFC champions play the Washington Redskins on Sunday at the Metrodome, Brennan will be on the Bills sideline as a reserve offensive lineman.
"I'm here. I made it to the end of the season. I'm going to 'The Dance,' " Brennan said, half in amazement, yesterday. "It's a sweet ending to a bitter story."
Brennan, 24, was released by the Bengals and Cardinals this season in the week before each was to play the Redskins.
"There's no job security in the NFL," said Brennan, who grew up in Severna Park but lives in the off-season with his family on a 500-acre farm in Easton.
"It's a great profession, but we're all out there working as hard as we can on keeping our careers going. I'm young, in my second year, and I have all the confidence in the world I'll be playing next year, hopefully in Buffalo."
After an All-America lacrosse career as a defenseman at Mount St. Joseph, Brennan chose to be a football walk-on at Notre Dame in the latter stage of the Gerry Faust regime.
"When Lou Holtz came in, he told me I'd never, ever play football at Notre Dame," Brennan said. "He said, thanks, but no thanks, you won't be playing here."
Brennan refused to quit. When he asked Holtz to let him play lacrosse to get a Notre Dame letter, Holtz said all right, and Brennan played lacrosse his sophomore and junior years.
In the meantime, Brennan persevered in football. He had entered Notre Dame at 6 feet 5, 185 pounds. Five years later, he was a robust 290 pounds and a fourth-round draft pick of the Bengals.
He gained 20 pounds a year for his five years in South Bend, Ind. He did it through weight training and diet, he said. He also switched from tight end to tackle. By his senior year, he had finally gotten a scholarship and started three games, including Notre Dame's game against Navy in Baltimore and the team's national championship game. He started every game his fifth year while working toward his master's degree in finance.
"I went to Notre Dame to become a lawyer," he said. "I don't plan on being done playing football for a few years, but I'm not using football as a crutch to get me through the rest of my life. When I went to Notre Dame, I knew I had to take education seriously to help me later on down the line."
When he joined Buffalo in December, Brennan met Baltimore native Carlton Bailey for the first time. Bailey played football at Woodlawn but never crossed paths with Brennan.
"When I got to Buffalo, he came up to me and said he was from Baltimore," said Brennan, who was born in Los Angeles but moved to Baltimore when he was 3. "I said, 'No way.' So now we've got a nice little bond going."
* It wasn't quite a Joe Namath guarantee, but Bills linebacker Cornelius Bennett is predicting a Buffalo victory over the Redskins.
"Last time around, we left it to having to make a field goal and we missed it," Bennett said. "This time around, we're going to win. I just feel that we now know what it takes to win this type of game."
* Running back Thurman Thomas, who complained on Tuesday that he isn't receiving proper recognition for what he has accomplished in four years with the Bills, skipped yesterday's interview session in the team's St. Paul hotel.
Denny Lynch, director of public relations, called the absence a misunderstanding, saying Thomas did not think he had to be present.
Thomas attended all three mandatory interview sessions for last year's Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla.
* Quarterback Jim Kelly, who was chastised by Thomas for criticizing teammates during the 1989 season, said the Bills aren't surprised by anything the running back says.
"Whatever comes from Thurman, we just laugh about," Kelly said. "We never know what he's going to say. A guy like him, whatever he does, he does. Sunday, his chin strap will be on, though. It's a big plus having a guy like that."
* Two starters were held out of practice at the University of Minnesota yesterday. Missing the workout were strong safety Leonard Smith with a knee infection and defensive end Bruce Smith, who has regularly missed practice this season to prevent fluids from building up in his left knee.
Leonard Smith is questionable for Sunday's game with a staph )) infection that has caused high fever. Coach Marv Levy said the "more time passes, the less likely it is" that Smith will play. Dwight Drane, a six-year veteran, would start if Smith is unable to play.
Starting right guard Glenn Parker is questionable for the game with a sprained left knee. He did limited work during yesterday's practice, the first for the Bills since arriving in Minneapolis. Levy said Parker's chances of playing were much better than Leonard Smith's.
Levy Said of the workout: "The concentration was good. I was pleased with how they practice. The attention level was keener than it would be because of the importance of the game."
* Levy said that if offensive coordinator Ted Marchibroda leaves Buffalo to become head coach of the Indianapolis Colts after the Super Bowl, the Bills would retain the no-huddle offense Marchibroda made famous.
"I don't know if we're going to lose him to the Colts," Levy said, "but if he gets the opportunity, he'll go with my blessing, and that of the whole organization. We'll continue to build on our style here."