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From the archives: Super Bowl recollections, 20 years later

Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in The Buffalo News on Jan. 30, 2011.

By Jerry Sullivan

NEWS SENIOR SPORTS COLUMNIST

Frank Reich, who was the holder for the famous kick in Super Bowl XXV, said he’s never told this part of the story before.

Scott Norwood was normally a machine in pregame warm-ups. He might miss one field goal in his entire routine. Two misses would be unusual.

“In warm-ups that day, he probably missed three or four – all to the left,” Reich said last week from Mobile, Ala., where he was coaching in preparation for the Senior Bowl.

“I do remember it was hooking more than normal, which was kind of weird.”

Every football fan knows what happened later that evening in Tampa, when Norwood missed a 47-yard field goal wide to the right in the final seconds, allowing the New York Giants to escape with a 20-19 victory over the Bills in a thrilling, unforgettable Super Bowl.

No other kicker has been faced with a do-or-die field goal in the Super Bowl, before or since.

Make it, you win.

Miss, you lose.

Norwood’s kick is the most analyzed miss in football history.

“Wide Right” has become the signature moment in the excruciating chronicle of Buffalo sporting failures.

It inspired a movie, “Buffalo 66.” Twenty years later, the memory lingers.

To a man, Norwood’s teammates and coaches do not blame him for what happened on Jan. 27, 1991. They look back on the game with a mixture of intense pride and nagging regret. They see the kick as merely the final act in a game of missed opportunities by a team that entered the game as a seven-point favorite.

Still, they do not feel defined by that loss, but by their ability to come back from it.

Looking back on it 20 years later, from a more mature and adult perspective, they feel a powerful sense of achievement, as well as a fondness for a remarkable group of competitors who made it to four straight Super Bowls, a record that isn’t likely ever to be broken.

“As time goes on, I really don’t look at it as failure, to be honest,” said former linebacker Ray Bentley. “It’s more a source of pride. But I still can’t go a day without hearing ‘Wide Right.’ People love to bring that stuff up. I don’t understand. Well, I guess I do understand it. They’re trying to get the old man’s goat.”

Reich quickly put Norwood’s practice kicks out of his mind that day. There was an amazing spectacle about to unfold and command everyone’s attention, before the game even began.

It was the peak of the Gulf War, a time when Americans’ sense of patriotism and vulnerability were at a high level. There was tension in the air, security checkpoints at the stadium.

The Buffalo News spoke with two dozen members of that team. In almost every case, it’s the ceremony before the game that is the most vivid to them, even more than the kick at the end.

People were waving American flags in the stands. There were flyovers by F-16 fighter planes. Apache helicopters hovered over Tampa Stadium. Whitney Houston sang a moving national anthem.

“The hair stands up on my arms to this day when I think about it,” said linebacker Darryl Talley. “I get goose bumps thinking about that moment. I’m getting them right now! I’m such a patriotic person. I remember thinking, ‘We’ve got people fighting for our rights and I’m playing a football game?’ ”

Steve Tasker gives a lot of corporate speeches, and he often reminisces about the start of that Super Bowl. He remembers Houston hitting the final note of the anthem and, on cue, the jets flying over the stadium.

“Then I remember the Apache gunship flies over,” Tasker recalled. “They weren’t supposed to fly low, but it seemed to me I could see the whiskers of the guy hanging off the sides. It was as though he wasn’t just flying for the ceremony, he was watching over us. Like, ‘Go ahead and play, because I’m on guard.’ That was awesome.

“Marv [Levy] was wiping tears from his eyes,” Tasker said. “Jim [Kelly] was wiping tears out of his. The fans were waving the flags with one hand and wiping away tears with the other. I was next to one of the officials, Larry Nemmers, and he was crying. It went way beyond football. In one sense, it was a little disappointing. For most teams, the Super Bowl is over-the-top important. Our game was put in perspective.”

It must have been difficult to shift into football mode after the surreal, emotionally exhausting introductions.

Bentley remembers standing there at kickoff thinking, “I’m shot.”

“I remember not sleeping well the night before, because they were introducing our offense,” said center Kent Hull. “I was afraid I was going to trip over my feet coming out of the tunnel. They introduced me as Ken Hill. He was a guard for the Oilers. I didn’t care. It’s better for an offensive lineman to be unknown, anyway.”

“Are you kidding?” said nose tackle Jeff Wright. “Leon Seals and I finished warming up and the planes went over. I said, ‘Holy crap, I can’t feel my legs!’ There was so much adrenaline in my body. It was so emotional with the war. It was our first time there. We wanted it so much for Buffalo, because the city had been through such a tough time.”

Wright directed his energy at center Bart Oates on the Giants’ very first play, shoving him back into O.J. Anderson for no gain. But Talley was offsides on the play.

That set a troubling tone for a Bills defense that spent the night overpursuing plays, missing key tackles and getting outmuscled at the line of scrimmage.

Anderson, who turned 34 a week before the game, rushed for 102 yards and was named MVP. He never rushed for 50 yards in a game again.

The Giants held the ball for 6:15 on that opening drive to take a 3-0 lead. That was the blueprint for coach Bill Parcells, who had an average offense and a tough, veteran defense.

Giants writers told their Buffalo counterparts that Parcells wanted to control the clock and score 20 points – two touchdowns, two field goals.

The plan worked to perfection, because the Bills couldn’t get stops.

“We didn’t,” Bentley said. “I blame it on our third-down defense. You look at all those situations we had and couldn’t get them out. That’s why they had the good rushing numbers. We had opportunities, but we didn’t tackle.”

The Bills put together a couple of scoring drives to go ahead, 10-3.

Midway through the second quarter, Giants quarterback Jeff Hostetler tripped over Anderson, regained his footing and was sacked by Bruce Smith in the end zone for a safety. Who can forget the sight of Smith’s hand locked around Hostetler’s right forearm, and the ball not coming loose?

The Giants drove 87 yards on 10 plays just before halftime, getting a 14-yard TD pass from Hostetler on third-and-10.

On the opening drive of the third quarter, they used up 9:29 of the clock on a 14-play, 75-yard drive to take a 17-12 lead. Mark Ingram kept the drive alive with a 14-yard catch on third-and-13, breaking several tackles along the way.

Thurman Thomas, who had 190 yards on 20 touches from scrimmage in 19 minutes (135 yards rushing, 55 receiving), broke a 31-yard TD run on the first play of the fourth quarter to make it 19-17.

The Giants mounted one more long drive, getting to the Bills’ 3-yard line before settling for a Matt Bahr field goal and the 20-19 advantage.

The teams exchanged punts.

Then the Bills got the ball at their own 10 with 2:16 to play, and Kelly drove them to the Giants’ 29-yard line, setting the stage for Norwood with eight seconds on the clock.

The Giants called timeout to freeze him. Norwood had made only six of 10 kicks from 40 to 49 yards that season.

It wasn’t until later that Bruce DeHaven, the Bills’ special teams coach, realized Norwood had never made a field goal that long on grass. But he knew they were at the edge of Norwood’s range.

Still, Norwood had envisioned winning the game with a last-second kick. He talked about it during media day interviews. He never considered that the kick was beyond his range.

“Not at all,” Norwood told reporters after the game.

“I had put some through from that far in pregame warm-ups. I knew I’d be able to get it there.”

Norwood rarely speaks about the kick and did not respond to requests for this story. He played one more year with the Bills and moved to his native Virginia. Guard Jim Ritcher saw him at an event here a few years later. He asked Norwood, whose wife is from Buffalo, why he moved away.

Ritcher said Norwood said he couldn’t go a day without someone asking about the kick.

Ritcher wasn’t on the field-goal unit in Tampa.

“I came off the field, flipped my helmet back off and kneeled down,” he said. “We were all holding hands on the sidelines. Scotty was lined up, all set to go. The ball was just about to be snapped. I felt a light breeze on my face. I thought, ‘I hope it’s not a factor.’ ”

“At the time of the kick,” DeHaven said, “the wind was blowing left to right.”

Hull, normally a center, lined up in Ritcher’s spot at left guard, alongside left tackle Will Wolford. The Bills had all their big guys blocking for the most dramatic kick in football history.

Adam Lingner, the long snapper, sent the ball back to Reich, who had taken on the holder’s duties that year in place of departed punter John Kidd. The snap and hold seemed perfect.

Norwood was right. Distance wasn’t the issue. He crushed the ball toward the right upright. Time seemed to stand still as the world waited for the football to move left.

“I remember looking at Will and saying, ‘It ain’t hooking, it ain’t hooking,’ ” Hull said.

Ritcher said the kick looked good when it left Norwood’s right foot. Then he said to himself, “Is it going to blow out?”

He waited for the moment when a good kick disappears briefly from view, signifying that it slipped inside the right upright.

DeHaven remembers thinking, “Don’t let it be blocked.”

That’s how special teams coaches think.

He found out nine years later, on a lateral play in Tennessee, how one special teams failure can change your life forever.

“From our viewpoint on the right sideline, you can never tell,” DeHaven said.

“You know it’s close, but all you can do is watch the officials. When you see his hands aren’t going up in the air, it’s like you’ve been shot in the gut.”

“I didn’t watch it when it happened live,” safety Mark Kelso said. “The reaction told me everything.”

“People say he choked,” DeHaven said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. He absolutely crushed that ball. It could have gone from 57.”

The kick never hooked. It stayed right and missed by at least two feet.

That’s what separated the Bills from a Super Bowl victory and two decades of questions.

What if the kick went through? Would they have gotten back three more times? Would they have won another Super Bowl?

Norwood played one more season for the Bills, who then signed Steve Christie, a younger kicker with a stronger leg.

Two years after Super Bowl XXV, Christie came up to Lingner and said, “You know the laces were off on that kick, don’t you?”

Lingner said no.

Christie said he’d watched a tape of the kick and the laces weren’t turned to 12 o’clock − or directly away from Norwood. They were an eighth of a turn off. Christie said the ball won’t hook as much if the laces aren’t turned perfectly.

It was 15 years later, at Thurman Thomas’ Hall of Fame reception in Canton, when Lingner finally got around to asking Reich about it.

“I said, ‘Hey, Frank, did you turn the ball?’ He said it was the weirdest thing. I said, ‘My God, he didn’t turn the ball! He didn’t know where the laces were, so he put the ball down. They were an eighth of a turn away from the holder.

“I said, ‘Frank, they were in the worst possible spot.’ ”

Reich recalls the conversation with Lingner. He remembers laughing at the movie “Ace Ventura,” parts of which are loosely based on Norwood’s kick and makes a reference to “laces out.” He doesn’t know if there’s any scientific evidence that having the laces out will keep a ball from hooking properly.

“I don’t know,” Reich said.

“Was it the perfect hold? No, it wasn’t because the laces weren’t in the perfect spot.”

Reich said his theory is that Norwood aimed just outside the right upright because he’d been hooking balls in warm-ups.

“He hit it so hard and pure it never broke. It’s almost like putting through the break in golf.”

Hearing Lingner and Reich anguish about the laces, you sense that, even to this day, they would like to take some of the burden off Norwood.

He was crushed by the miss. Norwood has said he didn’t feel he had failed, but that he had let his teammates down. He trudged off the field, his head slumped forward, then went into the losing locker room.

Norwood stood at his locker for a good hour, answering every question from wave after wave of reporters. DeHaven stood by his side the whole time.

A few minutes would go by, then DeHaven would ask Norwood if he’d had enough. Norwood shook him off each time.

“I think I owe it to the fans to answer some questions.”

DeHaven later named a son after Norwood.

“We adopted him in Colombia,” said DeHaven, who is on his second tour as the Bills’ special teams coach.

“Tobin Scott DeHaven. Scott handled that deal with so much dignity, so much class, that day.”

He spoke haltingly, the emotions surging in him again.

“I, I just wanted to be able to tell Toby some day, ‘This is how you should conduct yourself in life. This is a pattern in life to follow.’ He’ll be 14 soon. I think he understands now.”

The next day, the Bills flew home and went to Niagara Square for a public reception. Some 30,000 fans showed up. DeHaven says he still can’t talk about it without choking up.

He remembers the team riding into the city, escorted by police and helicopters, and seeing people standing by the side of the road, waving and cheering.

“They brought us into the back of City Hall,” DeHaven recalled.“You didn’t have any idea until you came through the front door what was out there. We went out the front door and my God, all those people. It went on forever. That’s Buffalo. Where else would that happen? Someone was up there talking, I don’t remember who, and ...

DeHaven hesitated.

He was crying.

“You start hearing this chant: ‘Scotty, Scotty, Scotty.’ Holy cow, you think maybe they’re going to quit, but they won’t. Then someone pushed him up there. It was right at the start, the first thing. It was an incredible experience. Nobody could ever understand unless you’ve lived here.”

Norwood took the microphone, the crowd continuing to cheer. He wiped tears from his eyes and told them he’d never felt such love.