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Original Issue

AN EPIC ICE STORM, A DANCING DOT-COM CHIMP, A NAIL-BITER OF A GAME AND AN ALL-PRO'S ARREST ON MURDER CHARGES.

SUPER BOWL XXXIV, AT THE TURN OF THE CENTURY, WAS SOMETHING ELSE. PERHAPS THAT'S WHY IT TOOK THE NFL SO LONG TO RETURN TO ATLANTA

ON FEB. 3 THE SUPER BOWL RETURNS TO ATLANTA FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 19 YEARS.

The last go-round? Well. The Rams and the Titans clashed in what would be one of the most thrilling championship games ever—but the event is remembered for other reasons. Two historic ice storms racked the region in the lead-up. And the Monday-after watercooler talk centered on the over-the-top dot-com commercials and the overnight arrest of one of the league's biggest stars. As the city prepares to rewrite its hosting history, we look back at the last Big Game in the ATL.

I. THE BID

Go back four years before the game, to Oct. 31, 1996. All 30 NFL owners gathered in a New Orleans ballroom and voted on which city would host Super Bowl XXXIV, in January 2000.

JIM STEEG (NFL executive director of special events, 1979 to 2005)

Atlanta was up for the bid against Tampa Bay. Commissioner [Paul] Tagliabue had, in effect, promised Tampa: If you build a new stadium, we'll play a Super Bowl there.

RICH MCKAY (Buccaneers GM, 1995 to 2003; current Falcons CEO)

We had gotten the vote to build [Raymond James Stadium], done our politicking and kind of knew the votes.

STEEG

The Glazer family [which still owns the team] thought pretty strongly the game was theirs.

MCKAY

Then Atlanta made its case: Rankin Smith was ill.

STEEG

Taylor Smith made the argument, "My father is dying; give this game to him as a reward for being a loyal [owner] for 30 years." The vote came down and the game was awarded to Atlanta. (Rankin Smith died a year later, at 72.)

MCKAY

[Malcolm] Glazer did not take that well.

STEEG

The Glazers literally went crazy.

MCKAY

Tagliabue, who was always the smartest guy in the room, figured a way to save a bad situation. He asked if we'd be willing to have the next Super Bowl vote right then.

STEEG

So we awarded two games that day. Tampa got 2001 as a consolation. And Atlanta would host 2000.

II. THE BUILDUP

Fast-forward four years. When the 1999 season kicked off neither the Rams nor the Titans were contenders. St. Louis was coming off a 4--12 campaign, but for years its front office had been hoarding offensive talent, culminating with the first-round selection of receiver Torry Holt and the signing of Arena League QB Kurt Warner. The Rams added to that mix coordinator Mike Martz, who would create a scheme unlike any the NFL has seen.

MIKE JONES (Rams linebacker, 1997 to 2000) We were the worst team in the NFL the year before.

HOLT (Rams receiver, 1999 to 2008)

When they drafted me, I was like, "I don't want to go to this s----- team." But then I got there and saw all the talent and.... Oh, my God.

JONES

First it was the trade for [running back] Marshall Faulk [from the Colts, in April]. Then the Kurt Warner story.

ISAAC BRUCE (Rams receiver, 1994 to 2007)

And Mike Martz.

DICK VERMEIL (Rams coach, 1997 to '99)

When I brought Mike here, I told him the offense would be his baby. Neither he nor I anticipated it'd be as explosive as it was.

MCKAY

They suffered the injury at the end of the preseason to their starting QB [Trent Green]. Now here comes Warner.

WARNER (Rams QB, 1998 to 2003)

My first thought was, This system is perfect for me.

HOLT

I remember looking at the pages of plays and how vertical everything was in the passing game.

WARNER

We were going to throw it down the field, and we were going to try to score on every play.

BRUCE

I like to compare it to when Muhammad Ali first came on the scene.

MARTZ (Rams offensive coordinator, 1999)

It was the antithesis of the way the game was being played. We said, "If you can cover everybody, God bless you. But I bet you can't."

WARNER

It was the perfect storm. We had a collection of talent that was ridiculous.

HOLT

We were pretty damn good, man. We were the Greatest Show on Turf.

The old Oilers had rebranded as the Titans and relocated to Tennessee. After two 8--8 seasons in two temporary homes, their first year at Nashville's Adelphia Coliseum, in '99, was spectacular, with a star QB--running back tandem and a tenacious D.

AL DEL GRECO (Oilers/Titans kicker, 1991 to 2000)

When I got to the Oilers we were a pretty good team. It went downhill when [QB] Warren Moon left, in '93.

BRUCE MATTHEWS (Oilers/Titans, 1983 to 2001) [Owner Bud]

Adams announced in '95 that we'd be moving. Those next four years sucked.

DEL GRECO

The last season in Houston there was a Save the Oilers rally at City Hall. There were about 38 people.

MATTHEWS

We were a lame-duck team. We'd had seven years in a row in the playoffs. Then, all of a sudden, there's 17,000 fans in the [Astrodome]. Everything about the move was billed as, "Wait till '97! We'll play in Memphis the first year, but they'll embrace us!" That wasn't the case at all.

EDDIE GEORGE (Oilers/Titans running back, 1996 to 2003)

We couldn't give away tickets in Memphis. Playing in front of 16,000 fans, the majority cheering for the opposing team.... It wasn't conducive to winning.

MATTHEWS

The '98 season they said, "We'll play at Vanderbilt Stadium [in Nashville]—then we'll really start experiencing what it's all about!" That sucked as well.

KEVIN DYSON (Oilers/Titans receiver, 1998 to 2002)

[In '99] we move again, finally, to Nashville. But now it's, What's our name? What are our colors? When they finally made that announcement, it was a special moment. We knew who we were.

MATTHEWS

There was newfound optimism. New uniform, new name, new stadium....

DYSON

Now we are home.

DEL GRECO

We'd been building, adding bits and pieces. Eddie George. Steve McNair was coming into his own.

GEORGE

The key piece was finding a dynamic pass rusher, a game-changer on the defensive side. We drafted Jevon [Kearse in '99], and Day One, he made his presence felt as the freak of nature he was.

DYSON

He changed our team. We were suddenly championship-caliber.

The Titans went 13--3 and were the AFC's No. 4 playoff seed.

JEFF FISHER (Oilers/Titans coach, 1995 to 2010)

We were built well. Physically. It wasn't a fluke that we got there.

GEORGE

Most teams weren't built the way we were, hadn't gone through what we had. We were mentally, physically and emotionally tough.

MATTHEWS

And we beat the Rams earlier in the year. We matched up well with them. We really felt like, "This is going to happen."

GEORGE

[Going into SB XXXIV], everyone was giving it to the Rams. It's going to be a blowout; it's not worth watching. We embraced that.

St. Louis also went 13--3, breaking offensive records and earning the NFC's No. 1 seed.

MARTZ

We were [6--0] when we played the Titans earlier that year, and they beat us 24--21. They had us down 21--0 at half.

JONES

After that first game we knew that if we got them on a neutral site, we could beat them.

DEXTER MCCLEON (Rams cornerback, 1997 to 2002)

It was definitely revenge.

HOLT

We wanted to get that ass back.

III. THE STORM

A destructive ice storm—hundreds of car wrecks, including one 47-car pileup; $48 million in damage—is certainly not the way the NFL wants to usher in its biggest event, but that's what it gets in Atlanta one week before the game. Locals call it a 100-year storm. And then, two days before kickoff, a second one hits.

FISHER

The Super Bowl fell immediately after the championship games. One week. That made everything more difficult.

MCCLEON

When we got there, there was ice all over Atlanta.

DAVID RATCLIFFE (Georgia Power CEO, 1993 to 2003)

It was one of the worst ice storms we ever had—400,000 people out of service.

STEEG

Those were the days before practice bubbles. The Titans were at Georgia Tech, the Rams were at the Falcons' practice facility. Both were outside.

TODD HEWITT (Rams equipment manager, 1986 to 2001)

We planned like it was Green Bay in late December. Players had thermals. Coaches had gloves, stocking caps; everyone had hand warmers.

HOLT

It was still cold as all get-out.

GEORGE

It felt like we were practicing on sheets of ice.

HEWITT

I ordered blowers. The sidelines looked like a street corner, a bunch of guys huddling by the heater.

BRUCE

If you were looking for Isaac Bruce, I was right next to the heater.

STEEG

And there wasn't enough room in the hotels. We had to put a tent in the parking lot for [Titans] press conferences.

FISHER

Players didn't want to go in there for interviews, it was so cold. And cold in the South is different—it's a wet, bone-chilling cold.

STEEG

So cold the orange juice we put out literally froze.

MCCLEON

Everything was ice. All the roads were frozen. The buses couldn't move.

STEEG

But by midweek we were thinking, O.K., we've blown through this and we don't have to worry about it anymore.

RATCLIFFE

Then the second storm comes.

HEWITT

On Saturday we didn't even go to the stadium for practice, because of the weather. We had a hotel walk-through.

MARTZ

Cars slid off the road. It was a nightmare.

STEEG

You know when Hartsfield Airport closes down, it's reached a really serious point.

VERMEIL

I had family members that almost didn't get there.

STEEG

The NFL had its big party scheduled for Saturday night. Three or four thousand people. They canceled it because nobody could get to it.

HEWITT

We ended up taking our kids to Hooters instead.

BRUCE

Still, I don't think the weather dampened the mood. We knew on Sunday we were playing in the Georgia Dome.

MCCLEON

Guys were so excited. We could have been playing in Alaska.

GEORGE

There could have been a tsunami and I wouldn't have noticed. We were in the damn Super Bowl.

IV. THE BROADCAST

It was the start of a new millennium—no, the world did not end on Jan. 1—and American industry was embracing the digital revolution. Riding this wave, a whopping 25 (mostly unknown) Internet companies paid exorbitant fees to buy 30-second ads to air during what would come to be known as the Dot-com Bowl.

MIKE ZAPOLIN (Tech entrepreneur)

This was the year that made commercials part of what the Super Bowl is.

STEVE JOHNSON (Chicago Tribune TV critic)

Through the '90s this was building as a cultural phenomenon, but that 2000 game really cemented the feeling.

ROBERT LACHKY (Anheuser Busch CMO)

We'd become the ultimate advertiser in the Super Bowl. Ten years in a row of dominance. Then, all of a sudden, the buzz was the dot-coms.

ZAPOLIN

The frenzy of investment [in dot-coms] was overwhelming. You'd go to your dentist, and your dentist was like, "Oh, yeah, I have a startup fund. I have an incubator."

JOHNSON

People were throwing billions of dollars around, right and left. And all of that led to this ridiculous onslaught of ads. That and the phenomenal success of a really great Monster.com commercial the year before.

ZAPOLIN

Monster.com had a successful ad, and now they had a billion-dollar market cap. I owned Computers.com, and I said, "Wouldn't it be amazing to do a Super Bowl ad and launch this thing?" We approached ABC. They said, "We can sell you one of Pepsi's spots for $2.75 million."

STEEG

The ad rates went up dramatically that year, to [an average of] $2.2 million, a new high.

ZAPOLIN

It was an arms race. But the ads had to be crazy.

JOHNSON

They were all determinedly wacky.

ZAPOLIN

Cyberian Outpost shot gerbils out of a cannon.

JOHNSON

The E-Trade ad was two guys and a dancing chimp. "Well, we just wasted $2,000,000." You had the sense that companies were spending all their venture-capital money on this one shot. And in many cases blowing it spectacularly.

JONATHAN BEAMER (Monster.com CEO)

For a lot of these companies, the world wasn't quite yet ready for them.

ZAPOLIN

Only a few months after the game, the bubble burst. All the funding stopped. Then it all crashed.

MCKAY

Within four years half those companies didn't exist.

HOLT

It's so fitting that the Internet was the new wave, revolutionizing the world. And the Greatest Show on Turf was a new wave. We were the Internet of football.

V. THE GAME

Despite the ice storm (and a bomb threat that came about 45 minutes before kickoff), the game went on. Faith Hill belted out the national anthem, and at 6:25 EST, on Jan. 30, 2000, the Titans kicked off to begin Super Bowl XXXIV.

MCCLEON

Our game plan was to stop Eddie George and keep Steve McNair in the pocket.

JONES

Eddie was the center of their offense. He set everything up.

HOLT

I had never seen a running back that big [6'3" and 235 pounds]. I was enamored and in awe of his size.

MCCLEON

And Steve was like an extra running back. Even if you got your hands on him, he could shake you.

MATTHEWS

We struggled early. Offensively, we weren't playing very well in the first half.

GEORGE

We got out of our element. We were wide-eyed and got away from our game plan.

FISHER

We got caught up in the Greatest Show on Turf and tried to throw the ball all over. We were not about that.

GEORGE

It was like we were playing in quicksand. But [the Rams] weren't scoring either.

HOLT

We were moving the ball up and down the field, but we had problems in the red zone.

MATTHEWS

We were very thankful our defense held them to field goals.

DYSON

It gave us a fighting chance.

BRUCE

The Titans didn't have a Hall of Famer on that defense, but they played so well together.

MARTZ

Their whole deal was pressure. It seemed like they blitzed on every snap.

HOLT

They had Kearse. The Freak, man. The Freak.

MARTZ

He was going nuts. Nobody could block him.

HOLT

Kurt took a beating. You could hit a quarterback back then. And they were hitting the quarterback.

MCCLEON

We led 9--0 at halftime, played about as well as we could on defense. But you knew those guys were going to get it right at half.

BRUCE

Field goals weren't going to beat this team. Not the Titans, led by Steve McNair. It just wasn't going to happen.

But first: the halftime show. Phil Collins! Toni Braxton! Christina Aguilera and Enrique Iglesias! Giant puppets! Fireworks!

STEEG

The halftime show was important in history because ABC broadcast the game, and Disney had just bought ABC. Now, for halftime, you basically got the production company of the network broadcasting the game. That begot CBS two years later wanting [its Viacom partner] MTV to do the halftime show for their Super Bowl, which a couple years later begot MTV doing the Janet Jackson show.

BRUCE

Walking back on the field, the smoke from the halftime show settled right at the top of the dome. It had no exit.

HEWITT

It looked like a fog bowl, or like there was a fire.

MCCLEON

Our offense took it right down the field to start the second half. You couldn't ask for a better start: 16--0. We thought we had the game in hand.

HOLT

We got the rhythm now. Here comes the Greatest Show on Turf.

JONES

When we got up on teams, they usually didn't come back.

GEORGE

They felt like they'd won the game. Jeff Fisher said, "They're celebrating. What are you going to do about it?"

DYSON

We looked over at the Rams celebrating, and it was like, Let's calm down and do what we do. If we go out doing what we do, we can live with that.

VERMEIL

They just started pounding it. They were patient. They didn't play as if they were behind 16--0.

MATTHEWS

We went back to what had gotten us there.

DYSON

Hand the ball to Eddie George left. Hand the ball to Eddie George right. And let Steve McNair make some plays. We beat them down and wore them out.

JONES

Before we know it, we look up and a 16--0 game is now tied 16--16.

GEORGE

The possibility of us pulling off this magical season was within our grasp. We felt like we were destined to win.

MARTZ

With two minutes and 12 seconds left, we thought we'd take a shot.

VERMEIL

I said, "Mike, this corner is about 5½ yards off Isaac Bruce, and they are playing one-on-one. He can't cover Isaac Bruce one-on-one." And Mike called the play.

BRUCE

Twins Right, Ace Right, 999 H Balloon. I knew immediately I was getting the football.

HOLT

It was an All Go.

BRUCE

Four receivers spread out, they all run down the field, try to take the top off the defense. And I had a free release.

HOLT

Kearse was closing on Kurt. Kearse hit him and took a little bit of juice off the ball.

GEORGE

He came within an inch.

BRUCE

Me and the defensive back running stride for stride ... then the ball dropped out of the sky, into my hands [for a 73-yard catch].

VERMEIL

Bang. Touchdown. But we scored to make it 23--16 too fast.

GEORGE

We looked at the clock and said, "Oh, we got plenty of time."

MATTHEWS

There was no doubt we were going to drive down and take this thing to overtime.

BRUCE

One minute and 48 seconds left, and we're playing Steve McNair? Oh, my goodness. Here we go.

DYSON

We started on our own 11.

FISHER

It was a drive for the ages, what Steve was able to do.

BRUCE

I think a legend was introduced on that drive.

MCCCLEON

We were looking at that clock like, Please run! We went like 30 straight plays against Steve. That was one of the toughest things I've ever been through on the football field.

BRUCE

I didn't want to see him succeed, but I felt helpless at that moment, watching his greatness.

MCCLEON

We got them to third down [with 22 seconds left]. Steve was scrambling around; it looked like we had him bottled up a couple times.

VERMEIL

[Defensive end] Kevin Carter had him in his grasp and was spinning him around.

JONES

Then Steve takes off. He whirls around.

BRUCE

He had two defensive linemen—about 600 pounds—hanging on him. What we call "country strong."

HOLT

Two of our biggest guys, he's shedding them off.

DYSON

Steve extended the play, and I found a crease in the zone, and he delivered. I caught it [at the 10] to set up the final play.

DEL GRECO

This stuff doesn't happen unless we are supposed to win.

MCCLEON

They called a timeout with six seconds left. Time for one play.

BRUCE

I was getting my mind right to play the first overtime game in Super Bowl history.

GEORGE

If it went into overtime? They didn't have a chance. They were exhausted.

VERMEIL

We were worn down from chasing McNair, tackling Eddie George.

MCCLEON

We had a combo call [on defense]. 77 Blast. Cover 7 on both sides

DYSON

When I saw they were in zone, I knew the ball was coming to my side.

JONES

I [was covering] the inside. So as I'm running with [tight end Frank] Wycheck, I'm looking at Kevin Dyson the entire time.

DYSON

Frank was pushing vertical, extending Mike. I'm coming underneath Frank to force that linebacker to make a choice.

JONES

Kevin comes underneath. I see him plant his foot in the ground to come back for the ball, and I come with him. I don't think he sees me. I think, I'm going to kill Kevin.

DYSON

I saw him, but I didn't think he was in position to make a tackle. I thought I could run through his arms into the end zone.

JONES

He catches it, and when I wrap him up, I have my arm around his right hip. He tries to extend.

DYSON

I remember seeing the yellow paint of the end zone and thinking I had it.

JONES

Then I bring my left arm around and I catch his knee right as he's going up. He falls like a tree.

DYSON

As I'm going down, I do that one last extension. If I could just get the nose of the ball across.... Then I see the blue and gold confetti coming down.

DEL GRECO

They call that The Tackle, I guess.

LACHKY

Mike Jones, God bless his soul.

HOLT

I want to hug him now.

GEORGE

I recall looking up at the clock to see if there was more time left. It can't end like this.

DEL GRECO

There has to be more time.

MATTHEWS

To this day when I watch it, I'm thinking we're going to find a way to win this thing.

DEL GRECO

You wonder what that party would have been like if we won.

HOLT

We partied like s--- in the locker room. I ended up going to parties in Atlanta that night. Next thing I remember, I was on top of a truck, bobbing and weaving in St. Louis.

VI. THE MURDER

At approximately 4 a.m. outside one of those parties—in Buckhead, seven miles north of Georgia Dome—two men died in a stabbing incident. Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis, in town for the festivities, was arrested and charged with double murder. The news broke Monday morning.

MCCLEON

That was supposed to be the time we wake up as Super Bowl champs, and it's all about us on the news: the Miracle Rams. But the talk that morning was all about what happened in Buckhead.

FISHER

We made it back to Nashville on Monday, and all the headlines were about Ray Lewis.

GEORGE

We didn't know if he did it, didn't do it. We just knew two people were dead and they were accusing Ray of doing it.

HEWITT

Players were talking about it on the plane home [Monday], as we were getting ready to take off. Did you hear what happened? Where was it? It was right here!?

DYSON

I was actually at that same party. I left just before the incident and went to another party. It was surreal.

STEEG

I got a call Monday from the police, [Lewis] was under arrest. I had to tell Tagliabue. He was at a chef's table at the Hyatt. I remember trying to explain what little I knew: There was a murder investigation and Lewis was in the middle of it.

GEORGE

To wrap your head around him being involved in a situation like that was mind-boggling.

MATTHEWS

All I know is, I wanted him suspended for the next year's playoffs. [He wasn't.] Instead they beat us. The Ravens' defense was just nuts.

STEEG

You go from Ray Lewis being arrested to, a year later, he was named MVP of [Super Bowl XXXV].

GEORGE

Certainly, it was a strange time.

Lewis pleaded guilty to obstruction of justice but was cleared of other charges. He settled with the victims' families.

VII. THE RETURN

After two decades of unprecedented growth and the opening of the state-of-the-art Mercedes-Benz Stadium, in 2017, Atlanta will host another Super Bowl. This time, city and league officials believe they'll get it right. (Oh, and Tampa? The city is hosting again in 2021.)