At approximately -- no, check that -- at exactly one minute and 24
seconds into the first quarter of Super Bowl XXIX on Jan. 29 at
Miami's Joe Robbie Stadium, everybody knew the game was over. Three
quarters of a billion people were suddenly witnessing another of
those huge mismatches of which Super Bowls seem to be made. San
Francisco 49er wideout Jerry Rice crossed the San Diego Chargers'
goal line with a 44-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Steve Young,
wearing Charger safeties Stanley Richard and Darren Carrington like
twin tails on his Superman cape, and the signal was loud and clear:
That score capped the fastest opening touchdown drive in Super
Bowl history: a four-yard completion from Young to fullback William
Floyd; an 11-yard completion to wideout John Taylor. Then Rice. Boom.
Wouldn't the Chargers have expected Rice, who has scored more
touchdowns than anyone else in NFL history, to link up deep with
Young, who has led the league in quarterback rating for an
unprecedented four straight years? Well, yes, by golly, they did
think of that. Back in December, San Diego, playing its linebackers
deeper than normal and using a lot of double coverage on the 49er
wideouts, had been walloped 38-15 by the Niners. San Francisco had
nickeled-and-dimed the Chargers to death that day. So this time, San
Diego decided to move its linebackers up tighter, play the Niner
wideouts more aggressively on the short stuff and pray that its
safeties could bottle up the middle.
God to Chargers: Prayer rejected.
''We were in a man-free zone, and I was outside,'' said a stunned
Richard of that opening score. ''There's supposed to be a man in the
deep middle, and there wasn't.'' There hardly seemed to be any
Chargers anywhere. The point is, when playing the Niners, about all
you can adjust is the speed of your death, not its inevitability. San
Francisco won this Super Bowl by a final score of 49-26, but it
probably could have been 63-26 if 49er coach George Seifert hadn't
quit passing and then yanked his offensive stars for much of the
fourth quarter. ''We're part of history,'' summed up San Francisco
guard Jesse Sapolu in the locker room afterward. ''This is probably
the best offense people will see in their lifetimes.''
Depends on how old you are. Because if you live long enough, you
may see the 49ers do this again and again into the next millennium.
While today's other NFL teams ride the normal peaks and valleys of
sports, the Niners calmly massage the salary cap, pull off some
astute off-season free-agent acquisitions, draft shrewdly, recharge
Rice and Young and, voila, they're always near the pinnacle.
The second time San Francisco got the ball in this lopsided
affair, its offensive juggernaut slowed down just a bit, needing a
full 1:53 to march 79 yards for a touchdown. The drive included a
21-yard scramble by Young and was topped off by his 51-yard touchdown
pass to running back Ricky Watters, who broke tackles by each of
those two snakebit Charger safeties. That gave the Niners a 14-0 lead
with more than 10 minutes remaining in the first quarter. Just then,
the Chargers might have envied that little boy in the new Pepsi
commercial who is able to suck himself right inside the bottle.
But there is nowhere to hide when the 49ers come calling. Young
came into the game having thrown for 4,267 yards and 37 touchdowns,
and his offense had averaged 31.6 points per game in the regular
season. At practice on the preceding Monday at the University of
Miami, the San Francisco attack was already running through drills as
smoothly as honey melts into tea. With more weapons at his disposal
than the proprietor of a gun shop, Young moved his unit up and down
the field at will. Except for the skittish Rice, who dwells in his
own world of discipline, fear and conquest, everybody was loosey-
goosey. Even the preternaturally calm Seifert was stirred, saying the
session was ''as good a practice as I've ever seen us have. It was
This was precisely the way everyone feared it would be. The 49ers
were favored by 19 1/2 points, the largest spread in the history of
the Super Bowl, and an AFC team hadn't won this thing in a decade; it
was impossible to figure any way that the Chargers could withstand
the Niner tidal wave. ''We've been the overdogs in a number of games
this year,'' said Young, adding that that was how the 49ers liked it.
''We're risking everything. If we lose? Absolute train wreck.''
On Wednesday of Super Bowl week, San Francisco owner Eddie
DeBartolo Jr. sat poolside at his hotel in Miami Beach. Despite his
enviable position -- nobody in the NFL can come close to matching the
49ers' skill level and their record these last 15 years except the
Dallas Cowboys, and those detested foes had already been vanquished
in the NFC Championship Game -- DeBartolo was in a dark mood. The
hotel was the one at which he and his wife, Candy, had spent their
honeymoon back in 1968, but somehow DeBartolo could not see the
bright side of things. Imminent decay haunted him. And there was no
time to rest.
''Back then, everything was brand-new,'' he said, waving his hand
at his surroundings. ''But they've just let this place go. You could
sink $50 million into this place, no problem, and there would still
be a long way to go.''
The 49ers have stayed at the top through DeBartolo's skillful
management and ready infusions of cash, but life's problems cannot be
so easily solved. DeBartolo's beloved father, Eddie Sr., died of
pneumonia in December. Then, too, there was the constant speculation
about the ability of the Niners to retain the services of cornerback
Deion Sanders and offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan next year, and
about the job security of Seifert. The big question was whether
DeBartolo could be cruel enough to fire a likable, low-key coach with
the best winning percentage (.778) in NFL history just because he
wasn't, well, higher key. Seifert himself had said earlier in the
week, ''I'm always paranoid. I guess most coaches are too, but in
this situation, I am particularly. I'm not going to b.s. you. In this
organization you live on the edge.''
''I really consider George a friend, away from all this,'' said
DeBartolo with a sigh. ''He's the type of guy, maybe, you could not
go out and slam drinks with, but you could go out on a fishing boat
with and really have a good time.''
DeBartolo's curious gloom had even touched him on Media Day, five
days before the game. ''That was the first time I ever felt out of
place in 18 years,'' he said. ''I felt strange, not like I didn't
belong there, but just sort of awkward. I wanted to get it over with.
Maybe it's because I've missed so many games this year because of my
father. I'm not really sure, but it's the first time I ever felt that
The previous night, DeBartolo had spent an hour listing every
possible scenario that might bring about a 49er defeat. ''He tried to
convince me of all the reasons why we might lose,'' Niner president
Carmen Policy said with a grin. ''Then he called me up this morning
and said, 'It's going to rain.' I said, 'What the hell difference
does that make?' ''
If DeBartolo was unsure about many things, including the
preeminence of his Niners, other people had no doubts. Indeed, as the
game proceeded, the destruction of the Chargers resembled nothing so
much as a train coming rapidly off its track, car after car after
car. There is little to say about the great 49er offensive machine
except that it was even better than advertised. ''It's just wonderful
to watch,'' said Buffalo Bill coach Marv Levy three nights before the
game. The Bills, of course, had for the previous four years prevented
some other AFC team from being destroyed by the NFC's powerhouses in
the Super Bowl. Now, hey, welcome to it!
Young would throw for a Super Bowl-record six touchdowns, and the
best way to describe the TDs might be to list the scoring receivers
in order: Rice, Watters, Floyd, Watters, Rice, Rice. Sounds almost
like a recipe. There was also a nine-yard rushing touchdown in there,
by Watters in the third quarter, but it was nearly lost in the Young
passfest. The game might have been more interesting if the Chargers
had scored when they had a chance, with two minutes left in the first
half and San Diego on the San Francisco 13. The halftime score might
have been 28-14 instead of 28-10 had Mark Seay not dropped a pass in
the end zone. But it probably wouldn't have mattered at all.
''It's not like we were possessed or anything,'' said 49er
cornerback Eric Davis in the locker room afterward. ''The AFC is just
a different brand of football. It's not like the NFC, like us or
Dallas, or even some other teams. I feel fine now, but after we
played the Cowboys, I was really beat up. I hurt bad until the next
Friday.'' The hardest shot he received in this game? Davis shrugged.
Probably it came on his diving interception of a Stan Humphries pass
that ended the first half, when Davis collided with . . . the ground.
''This is no streak, man,'' Young said after the game, referring
to the blowout victory march the 49ers had been on ever since an
inexplicable 40-8 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles in early October.
''This is what we do.''
By throwing those six touchdown passes and leading all rushers --
even San Diego's vaunted Natrone Means -- with 49 yards on five
carries, Young earned the Super Bowl MVP Award and effectively
exorcised the Joe Montana ghost that had haunted him for years.
Before every game this season, tackle Harris Barton would go up to
Young, rub his shoulders and say, ''I'm taking the monkey off your
''Today,'' Young noted afterward, ''Harris said, 'I'm taking it
off for the last time.' For a long time I tried to pretend it wasn't
there. But I guess it was.''
It was more like a 1,000-pound gorilla that sat on the Chargers
all night. ''I don't think our defense improved all season,'' mourned
San Diego defensive end Leslie O'Neal after the game. ''The things
that were unsound are still unsound. (The 49ers) spread you and
spread you, and you try to pinch it down, and you try to stop
everything, and you end up stopping nothing.''
For his part, Rice, who had 10 catches for 149 yards and those
three TDs, was merely himself. He cried before the game, during it
and afterward. He played with a strained shoulder, injured when he
was blasted by cornerback Darrien Gordon on an end around in the
first quarter. Rice's tears made his eyeblack flow down toward the
pink Breathe Right strip across his nose until, in the locker room
after the game, he had a certain puffy-eyed raccoon look. ''I'm
emotional,'' he said needlessly to the crowd of onlookers.
Rice could have mentioned that he is unique, as well. With his
offensive production in this game, he rose to the top of the Super
Bowl receivers' stratosphere, a region that should probably bear his
name. He now either holds or shares Super Bowl records for most
receiving yards in a game (215, against the Cincinnati Bengals in
1989), most receiving yards in a career (512), most receptions in a
game (11 in '89), most receptions in a career (28), most touchdowns
in a game (three, twice, in '90 against the Denver Broncos and this
year) and most touchdown catches in a career (seven).
''Jerry Rice with one arm is better than everyone in the league
with two arms,'' summed up Young.
But it was, above all, Steve Young's night of nights. He was
brilliant afield, and then he, too, cried when it was all over,
pent-up emotion gushing from him like water from a spigot. He hugged
the Lombardi Trophy the way a sinking swimmer hugs a life preserver,
and then he, not Seifert, gave the postgame speech to the Niners,
shouting in a voice made hoarse from signal- calling and celebrating:
''There were times when this was hard! But this is the greatest
feeling in the world!''
Then, with veins bulging in his neck, he almost blew out his vocal
cords, screaming, ''No one -- no one -- can ever take this away from
us! No one, ever! It's ours!''
One of his teammates yelled, ''Sweet redemption, Steve!''
''I guess he can't win the big one,'' said Young's agent, Leigh
''The weight of the entire world was on his shoulders,'' said
Barton. ''Everyone was waiting for Steve to fall apart.''
After his locker room address, Young talked to every TV, radio and
newspaper person inside the stadium, anybody who would have him for a
quote, a sound bite or a smile, and then he nearly collapsed.
Soon afterward, in the limo that took him and Steinberg back to
the 49ers' hotel, Young turned shaky, pale and weak. Then he vomited
onto the floor of the car. ''Well,'' said Steinberg, ''I'll never
wash that shoe again.''
Young needed air, so he got out and walked the last quarter mile
to the hotel. In his room he was joined by his parents, Sherry and
LeGrande; his four siblings; his girlfriend, Stephanie Weston; some
college chums and other buddies -- 44 people in all. Then he felt
sicker. Paramedics from a rescue unit arrived. Young was given an
intravenous saline solution for dehydration, and he lay on his bed,
like an ailing head of state, receiving well-wishers into the wee
Sick or not, he could not be calm.
''Is this great or what?'' he burbled. ''I mean, I haven't thrown
six touchdown passes in a game in my life. Then I throw six in the
Super Bowl! Unbelievable.''
Someone in the crowd yelled, ''Joe Who?''
''No, don't do that,'' Young responded. ''Don't worry about that.
That's the past. Let's talk about the future.''
They did that then. They talked about the future while Young did
his damnedest to make time stand still.
''Don't go,'' he would say whenever anyone tried to leave. ''You
can stay. Stay! I'm fine. Really, I'm fine.''
He really was.