The National Football League is celebrating the Golden Anniversary of it's biggest event this Sunday, February 7th, as Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers take on Peyton Manning's Denver Broncos in Super Bowl 50 at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California.
Leading up to the big game, The Shadow League will continue to share some of our most memorable reflections from the event that has become much bigger than football, morphing into an essential piece of the tapestry that defines who we are as an American society.
1996 was a special season for the Packers' nonpareil return specialist Desmond Howard. He set an NFL record with 875 punt return yards, which far outdistanced the previous mark of 692 which was set by the Miami Dolphins' Fulton Walker in 1985.
Howard's pedigree as a multi-purpose threat had long been established, since his playing days at the University of Michigan, where he enjoyed a Hall of Fame undergraduate career. He won the Heisman Trophy in 1991 while tallying 85% of the first place vote, the largest margin of victory in the prestigious award's history.
The only Wolverine who was greater in college was the incomparable Charles Woodson. Howard, in my book, is ahead of such program greats as Tom Brady, Jim Harbaugh, Jake Long, Anthony Carter, Ty Law, Tyrone Wheatley, Braylon Edwards, Timmy Biakabatuka, Mike Hart, Denard Robinson and Amani Toomer.
One of the most electrifying skill players in college football history, Howard's calling card was speed, an explosive open field burst and his penchant for spectacular catches.
His breakout year as a pro was in 1996, which he capped off by helping to restore the long-lost glory of the historical Green Bay Packers franchise. Teams had decided to kick away from him for the most part as he established himself as perhaps the greatest kick and punt returner in NFL history that year.
After returning three punts for touchdowns during the regular season, he saved his best work for the postseason. In Green Bay's playoff opener against the 49'ers, his 71-yard punt return for a touchdown put the Packers up 7-0, and his 46-yard return later in the game set up another score.
But in the biggest game, on the brightest stage, Howard delivered a performance that will never be forgotten by those who witnessed it.
In Super Bowl XXXI against Bill Parcells' New England Patriots squad, Howard only had a mere 32 kick return yards in the first half. His two punt returns of 32 and 34 yards had led to 10 Green Bay points, prior to halftime, but as Glenn Jones had once said, he'd only just begun.
The New England players were barking at him throughout the first half, "Nothing for you today, baby," they hollered. "We shutting you down!"
He returned the opening second-half kickoff 23 yards, and New England seemed to have schemed him into becoming rather ordinary. But when the Patriots scored late in the third quarter, to make the game a tense 27-21 battle heading into the final minutes, Howard was ready to leave a lasting mark on Super Bowl history.
On the inside, he felt somewhat disrespected by Parcells' special teams strategy. New England was doing what most teams shied away from, and that was kicking the ball directly to him. "I can't believe he's rolling the dice and kicking me the ball," Howard repeatedly told himself.
After the game, he said, "I knew that sooner or later, I was going to scorch 'em."
All Howard was looking for was the slightest seam. And man-oh-manischewitz did he find it on the ensuing kickoff return, which he took 99 yards to the house.
While everyone figured that the deciding factor heading into the game for the Packers would be Brett Farve's passes to Andre Rison and Antonio Freeman, it was Howard's exploits that most led to the 35-21 victory which delivered Green Bay's first Super Bowl title in 29 years.
"We had a lot of momentum, and our defense was playing better," said Parcells after the game. "But [Howard] made the big play. That return was the game right there. He's been great all year, and he was great again today."
For the day, Howard compiled 90 yards in punt returns yards and 154 kickoff return yards, setting the Super Bowl record for all-purpose yards with 244 and earning him the game's MVP award.
He is the only player in the 50 year existence of the Super Bowl to take home MVP honors based solely on a special teams performance.