It happened fast, like a bolt of lightning knifing through the sky – sudden, unexpected. In that instant, everything changed. We all jumped to our feet and the room erupted in a joyous, boisterous blast. The audio from the big, flat screen TV was drowned out by our delirious cheering. The noise from the small group, forty or so of us packed into the long card room, was deafening.
I could hardly believe my eyes. Was this really happening? Only a few minutes ago I was resigned to a disappointing outcome . . . but now? I glanced to my right at my friend Larry, who stood a few feet away, clapping hysterically. I’d known him for the better part of four years now, but at that moment, I couldn’t think of a time when I’d seen Larry with a bigger smile on his face. He looked over at me and our eyes met.
“Do you believe it?” He shouted through the noise, clenching his fists and raising them in the air with his huge smile still plastered across his face. “They finally got some life. They could win.”
I nodded enthusiastically while clapping and cheering along with the rest of the folks in the room. Reaching down, I grabbed the neck of my Bud Lite off the table and put it to my lips. The cold liquid went down like champagne and I savored the taste. It was the taste of victory . . . and for the first time that night, I could taste it.
But a little apprehension crept in as I sat the bottle back down on the table.
“There’s still a lot of time left,” I said to Larry as we both settled back down in our chairs. The cheering was beginning to die down a little but still, the sudden burst of energy that had permeated the room was palpable.
“I know,” he replied as he looked over at me while picking up his Bud Lite and lifting it to his lips. “But the defense has been doing a good job this half. All they have to do is hold them.”
Indeed, all they had to do . . . was hold them.
It was Super Bowl Sunday and our park in Mesa was hosting its annual Super Bowl party. Chips & salsa, Sloppy Joes, deviled eggs, beer, wine – it was all there for us to enjoy and we were having a good time. We had done this many times before of course, gathering together to eat, drink and watch the Super Bowl. And it was always fun and everyone really enjoyed themselves whether they were a football fan or not.
But this year it was different.
For the first time ever, the Arizona Cardinals were in the Super Bowl. The usually hapless football team from Phoenix had somehow made it all the way through the playoffs and was the NFC champions. This year as we ate and drank with our eyes glued to the big screen TV on the wall in front of us, we felt more connected to the big game. Although most of us in that room were from somewhere else, winter visitors from the north, the Arizona Cardinals were our team. And this time, the outcome of the game felt more personal.
I had followed the Cardinal’s exploits only mildly over the last two months of the regular season. But I had watched enough to know that while quarterback Kurt Warner could engineer impressive wins by using his talented corps of receivers, Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald, the Cardinals could still lay an egg on any given Sunday. As the day of the Super Bowl approached, I only hoped that they wouldn’t get blown out by the vaunted Pittsburgh Steelers.
And so as we sat down with our friends that day, eating and drinking and watching the big screen TV, it didn’t take long for me to realize that my fears might come true.
By half time, Arizona was trailing 17 to 7 and it didn’t look good. The Cardinals had been dominated by the Steelers most of the first half, showing little of their celebrated pass offense. And a shocking interception at the goal line that was run back by the Steelers for a touchdown at the end of the first half, pretty much cemented Arizona’s fate in my mind. They were a good team, I thought. But not a Super Bowl champion.
The third quarter was uneventful. We sat and watched quietly, our necks craned to the TV as the Cardinals and Steelers played to a virtual draw. Pittsburgh was the only team able to score in that quarter, managing only to put a field goal on the board. By the end of the third quarter, with the Arizona offense not showing any life, our little group seemed grudgingly resigned to the fact that it would be a runaway win for the Steelers.
But then in the fourth quarter the Cardinals woke up. Using a no huddle offense, Kurt Warner began moving the ball down the field with sharp passes to his talented receivers. Those of us in the crowded card room came to life as well, clapping and cheering as Arizona fought and clawed their way back into the game.
This is amazing, I thought. They were actually making it interesting. With a little less than three minutes to go, the roomful of snowbirds sat on the edge of their seats as Warner and the Cardinals took the ball over at the Arizona thirty-six yard line. Incredibly, with Arizona trailing 20-16, all that stood between a Cardinal Super Bowl win was two minutes and fifty-eight seconds and one of those patented Kurt Warner touchdown drives.
And then the lightning bolt.
On second and ten, Warner threw a short pass over the middle that Larry Fitzgerald caught on the run. Splitting four defenders, he sprinted down the middle of the field like a deer running across a meadow, easily out distancing his slower pursuers to the end zone.
“All they have to do is hold them,” Larry repeated as we sat there watching the TV screen, the eruption in the room dying down.
My mind was racing. I had never been in a city before when a major sports team had won a big championship. Phoenix would explode with excitement if the Cardinals held on. I envisioned the media, falling all over themselves covering the team’s arrival back home, the rush of the fans meeting them at the airport. And I saw myself at the big parade downtown. Oh yes, I would go. It would be a once in a life time chance. Oh yes, I would be there.
But then it all came crashing down. Ben Roethlisberger engineered a drive for the ages. We watched in horror as he completed pass after pass moving his Steelers down the field and chewing up lots of time in the process. The near flawless execution of Arizona’s defense for most of the second half disappeared in that last Steeler drive. With forty-two seconds to go Pittsburgh scored what proved to be the winning touchdown on an incredible catch by one of the Steeler receivers.
The room fell silent.
“You were right,” Larry said as he looked over at me amid the muted hush in the room. “There was way too much time left.”
The game ended as Kurt Warner fumbled the ball on a desperate attempt to throw a Hail Mary pass . . . and that was that.
Slowly, quietly, the little group of fans picked up their things, moved a few tables back into their original positions, cleaned the place up a bit, and then walked out into the cool Arizona evening, going home with thoughts of what might have been.
The next morning I picked up the paper on my doorstep. The Arizona Republic had run a huge picture of Kurt Warner forlornly walking off the field with his helmet dangling from his hand by his side. The disconsolate expression on Warner’s face once again reminded me of how close we had come. For a few minutes, those of us in that room . . . we believed.