NEW ORLEANS -- Desmond Howard was five questions into his post-game interview when an NFL official yanked him off the podium.
The dozens of reporters who had gathered to hear Howard raised a roaring protest.
The official quickly returned to the microphone with an explanation.
"Desmond just got a phone call," he said. "The White House is calling."
Ah. Well. Never mind then.
Howard was back at the podium three minutes later, wearing a smile the size of the Superdome.
"The president said he had watched the game on a big-screen TV with a bunch of congressmen," Howard said. "He said he knew I had gone through a lot of trials and tribulations and that he was proud of me for persevering."
It is the stuff of Hollywood now, the tale of the Heisman Trophy winner who goes bust in the pros, reinvents himself as a kick returner, carries his team to a Super Bowl victory and gets a call from the president.
Howard completed that remarkable story last night by becoming the first player to win the Super Bowl's Most Valuable Player award despite never lining up for a play from scrimmage.
Not only did he provide the decisive play of the Green Bay Packers' 35-21 defeat of the New England Patriots with a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, but he also set up two other Packers scores with long punt returns.
In all, he returned 10 kicks and punts for 244 yards, a Super Bowl record.
"He's a terrific player. He's been great all year, and he was great today," said Patriots coach Bill Parcells, whose team was within six points of the Packers late in the third quarter, when Howard ruined New England's chances with his dramatic touchdown on the longest kickoff return in NFL playoff history.
It was the appropriate ending to Howard's magical season, which began with his sweating out the final cuts at training camp and ended with his becoming more important to his team over an extended period than any kick returner in pro football history.
Is that overstating the case? Hardly. Howard smashed the league record for punt-return yardage during the regular season, carried the Packers to a playoff victory over the 49ers and broke open the Super Bowl.
Never has a kick returner been so integral to a team's blueprint for success.
"I never stopped believing in myself," Howard said last night.
He certainly had reason to stop believing. After winning the Heisman at Michigan, he joined the Redskins as the fourth player drafted in 1992, touted as the game's next great receiver. When he didn't meet those expectations, he was let go by the Redskins and landed in Jacksonville, where he also failed to impress.
The Packers brought him into camp this season, envisioning him as a backup receiver. He missed a lot of camp with an injured hip and barely made the team.
Never has a final cut proved more important.
"[Packers quarterback] Brett Favre was the league MVP; we respect that. But for our team, the MVP, it had to be Desmond," defensive end Sean Jones said. "Without him, we wouldn't have gotten this far."
They certainly would have had a much harder time eliminating the 49ers in the playoffs. Howard won that game virtually by himself, scoring one touchdown and setting up another with punt returns early in the game.
For the two weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, he had all but dared the Patriots to kick to him.
"I really thought they'd kick away from me, considering the way I was going," Howard said, "but as I said before the game, if they wanted to roll the dice, well, go ahead."
The Patriots tried to box him into a corner with their first punt, a long kick that Howard fielded near the sideline at his 13-yard line. He eluded the first wave of tacklers and raced 32 yards upfield. The Packers scored their first touchdown two plays later.
"That play was all him," Parcells said. "We did what we wanted to do. He beat it."
Howard, who seldom talks on the field, was so charged up he responded to the Patriots' taunts.
"They used some expletives, some harsh, crass words," he said. "You get caught up in the moment, and words just start to regurgitate."
Later in the second quarter, with the Packers ahead by a field goal, he again escaped from a sideline box and returned a punt 34 yards to set up a field goal.
But his big moment came late in the third quarter, after the Patriots had scored to narrow the Packers' lead to 27-21.
The cheeseheads in the stands were starting to melt.
The Patriots, two-touchdown underdogs, were starting to believe.
"I thought we might have had them rocking just a little bit," Parcells said.
Seventeen seconds and 99 yards later, the Packers could start to celebrate.
"That was obviously the back-breaker," Howard said. "It was a perfect return. The wedge formed. I just made sure I broke through at full speed and made the kicker miss."
He was standing on a podium bathed in spotlights, sweat pouring off his brow.
"Do you believe the way this season has gone for you?" someone shouted.
Howard smiled his brilliant smile.
"There's an old saying," he said, "that cream always rises to the top."
All the way ...
Desmond Howard now tops this list of players who have returned kickoffs for touchdowns in the Super Bowl:
Year ..Player, Team .. .. .. .. ..Yds.
1997 ..Desmond Howard, G.B. .. .. ..99
1983 ..Fulton Walker, Mia. .. .. ...98
1995 ..Andre Coleman, S.D. .. .. ...98
1989 ..Stanford Jennings, Cin. .. ..93
... to the MVP
Desmond Howard became the first special teams player to be named Most Valuable Player in a Super Bowl. A breakdown:
Position .. .. .. ..No. of MVPs
Quarterbacks .. .. .. .. .. .16
Running backs .. .. .. .. .. .6
Wide receivers .. .. .. .. ...3
Defensive linemen .. .. .. ...3
Defensive backs .. .. .. .. ..2
Linebackers .. .. .. .. .. ...1
Kick returners .. .. .. .. ....1
Pub Date: 1/27/97