Stars are often born on NFL's biggest day

February 07, 2007|By KEN MURRAY | KEN MURRAY,Sun reporter

Before the 15th Super Bowl, Oakland Raiders linebacker Rod Martin had a foretelling of his arrival on the NFL's grand stage. Two people, one of them his sister Carolyn, told him of dreams that he would get an interception against the Philadelphia Eagles.

As a former 12th-round draft pick happy to be playing for a championship ring, Martin listened to the predictions and quietly dismissed them. Little did he know the dreams wouldn't come close to the real success he experienced in New Orleans' Superdome.

Martin, 26 at the time, had three interceptions and a fumble recovery in Oakland's 27-10 romp. Although he didn't get the game's Most Valuable Player award - an injustice at best - he did wind up on the cover of Sports Illustrated, three fingers pointing to the sky.

Of such heroics are legends born.

Half a lifetime later, Martin, 52, remains a prominent member of the unofficial Super Bowl heroes club. From Max McGee in January 1967 to Martin in January 1981 to the Indianapolis Colts' Kelvin Hayden on Sunday, the Super Bowl is filled with unheralded players who not only seized opportunity, but made the game their own.

McGee scored the very first Super Bowl touchdown in 1967 as a reserve Green Bay receiver who went in early when the Packers' Boyd Dowler got hurt. McGee's performance (seven catches, 138 yards, two TDs) was more remarkable because he spent the entire night before partying with two American Airlines stewardesses, not expecting to play.

Hayden delivered the coup de grace to the Chicago Bears on Sunday with a 56-yard touchdown on an interception return, sealing the Colts' 29-17 victory. Unlikely hero? He is a second-year cornerback who was on the field because veteran Nick Harper could no longer play on a sprained ankle. One more twist: Hayden is a Chicago native who grew up a Bears fan.

McGee's splash came near the end of his career. Hayden's is just starting. For Martin, it was a launching point.

"That," Martin said yesterday from Los Angeles, "was my best single day in football."

Martin's was a distinguished career. He played 12 seasons with the Raiders, won a second Super Bowl, twice went to the Pro Bowl and once was named All-Pro.

But short of dreams, there was no way to predict the impact the fourth-year pro would have in the title game. He had been drafted by the Raiders, been traded to and cut by the San Francisco 49ers his rookie year, and played his early years as an undersized inside linebacker for Oakland.

Moved to outside linebacker in 1979, he could use his speed to great advantage against tight ends and running backs. In the Super Bowl, he jumped in front of Eagles tight ends Keith Krepfle and John Spagnola to get his first two interceptions. His third came in a prevent defense at middle linebacker.

For Martin, whose daughter Jade is a freshman at Morgan State, it was a chance to establish himself in the NFL.

"All the scouts thought I was too small at USC," he said. "They couldn't judge the heart and my desire to be the best at my craft. Those three interceptions opened a lot of people's eyes."

Martin still holds the Super Bowl record for interceptions in one game. When Hayden delivered his game-clinching touchdown, it brought back memories for Martin.

"We all know records are made to be broken, but I'd like to hold onto this as long as I can," Martin said. "I don't think a linebacker will break it."

Three years later, in Martin's second Super Bowl, it was linebacker Jack Squirek's turn to seize the spotlight. A reserve linebacker who was better in pass coverage than run support, Squirek was inserted just before halftime with the Washington Redskins on their own 12.

Moments later, Squirek jumped in front of Joe Theismann's "rocket screen" pass intended for Joe Washington and ran the interception 5 yards for a touchdown and a 21-3 lead. The Raiders rolled, 38-9.

Squirek's moment of fame was almost as short-lived as his career, which ended after two games with the Miami Dolphins in 1986.

He wasn't the only one-game wonder, though.

Perhaps the all-time rise and fall belonged to Redskins running back Timmy Smith, who made his first NFL start in the 22nd Super Bowl as a rookie. Smith barreled through the Denver Broncos for a Super Bowl-record 204 yards and touchdown runs of 58 and 4 yards.

Smith rushed for only 470 yards a year later and finished his career in 1990 with a cameo appearance for the Dallas Cowboys. In 1994, he made a comeback with Baltimore's fledgling Canadian Football League team but couldn't last a week.

Last year, Smith was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in federal prison for cocaine distribution. He and his brother Christopher were charged with possession of 500 grams or more of cocaine with intent to distribute in September 2005.

For the most part, defense has produced the most unsung heroes in the Super Bowl.

In the January 1982 Super Bowl, journeyman linebacker Dan Bunz made a huge stop in a third-quarter stand that helped the 49ers beat the Cincinnati Bengals, 26-21.

In January 1994, reserve Cowboys safety James Washington had 11 tackles and a 46-yard touchdown run with a Thurman Thomas fumble, playing as a nickel back against the Buffalo Bills' no-huddle offense. The Cowboys won, 30-13.

Two years later, Dallas cornerback Larry Brown intercepted Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Neil O'Donnell twice, setting up 14 points in a 27-17 Cowboys' victory.

But maybe the most memorable defensive play in Super Bowl history was delivered by St. Louis Rams linebacker Mike Jones, who dragged down wide receiver Kevin Dyson at the 1-yard line on the game's final play to outlast the Tennessee Titans, 23-16.

None of these players ever came close to matching their clutch Super Bowl performance. Only a few, like Rod Martin, were able to deliver on that promise.

"I didn't want to be an overnight sensation that was a bust," Martin said. "I was focused on trying to continue to improve and see how good I could get."

ken.murray@baltsun.com

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