TAMPA, FLA. - We look for the greatest performances on the greatest stages. Broadway. La Scala. The Super Bowl.
And this one - the XLIII edition of football's biggest game - had it all: the passion of any opera, the drama of any stage play, and the kind of individual performances children mimic in backyards and grandfathers use for years and years to spin unbelievable yarns.
Sit down. Let me tell you a story. I remember when ...
A pair of quarterbacks played dueling banjos for four quarters. A linebacker sprinted 100 yards down the field, from one goal line to the other. A wide receiver tallied 115 yards in a half, catching one ball near midfield and sprinting to the end zone to win the game. Wait, no. That one didn't seal it. We only thought it did.
As the sandglass started moving like quicksand, the quarterback in black and gold marched back down the field. And in a game of improbable plays, we were treated to one more that we won't soon forget.
With his Pittsburgh Steelers trailing the Arizona Cardinals by three points, wide receiver Santonio Holmes caught the ball in the corner of the end zone - with only 0:35 glowing on the clock above him - and he amazingly kept both sets of toes inbounds, giving the Steelers an exciting 27-23 win.
Somewhere, Dwight Clark was thinking, "Now that's a catch." Mikhail Baryshnikov was telling friends, "Now that's some good footwork." And Art Rooney was hopefully watching, too, surely thinking: "Thank you. Now I have rings on both hands."
What Holmes did to win is among the most difficult things in sports. Forget the pressure of trailing in the final minute of the Super Bowl. Forget the fact that just one play earlier, a touchdown pass slipped through Holmes' hands. Forget that on the Cardinals' sideline, they were already sizing their fingers for championship rings.
Holmes reached up and pulled the floater out of the air. Somehow, he knew precisely where the end zone ended and out-of-bounds began. Holmes dropped an anchor from his pocket, his toes somehow finding the painted grass. His momentum pulled him out of bounds, but his toes didn't budge. Just an inch or two separated unforgettable victory from stunning disappointment.
"You can't explain it," Steelers safety Troy Polamalu said. "You are seconds away from me crying in the locker room, and them being out here. That's how amazing this game is."
For four quarters, players passed around the spotlight like a baton. One minute, the stadium is abuzz with Steelers linebacker James Harrison setting a record for longest touchdown play. Then we're talking about Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner becoming the first quarterback with three 300-yard passing games in Super Bowl history. And then we were awed by the fact that Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger suddenly has won two Super Bowls wins before his 27th birthday.
While Holmes' reception sealed the victory in the final minute of the second half, it was Harrison who salvaged the Steelers' hopes in the final minute of the first half. Pittsburgh held a 10-7 lead, but Arizona was on the 1-yard line. Warner took the snap from shotgun formation and attempted a short pass over the middle. Harrison stepped in front, though, catching the ball and moving through traffic like a game of Frogger. How far could he go? Well, you knew if you could appreciate how far he had already come.
More than four years ago, Harrison was waived by the Ravens. He obtained his commercial driver's license and was preparing for life as a bus driver. But the Steelers gave him a second chance. And then a third and a fourth. They waived him three times before Harrison cracked the starting lineup. This season he was the NFL's best defensive player.
So, how far was he going? No one would stop him. He crossed the goal line, 100 yards later.
Everyone in the stadium, whether they were waving gold towels or had their face masked in red paint, knew that as long as Warner was in the Cardinals' pocket, the game wasn't over. Sure enough, midway through the fourth quarter, trailing 20-7, Warner ran a no-huddle and completed eight straight passes, the last to Larry Fitzgerald for a touchdown.
Five minutes later, Warner needed just one pass, again to Fitzgerald. The 64-yard score gave the Cardinals their first lead of the game.
Roethlisberger didn't have much time, but he had enough. With only 48 seconds remaining, he tried hitting Holmes in one corner, but the receiver couldn't pull it in. Walking back to the huddle, Holmes told his quarterback, "My bad." Roethlisberger he responded, "It doesn't matter."
Clearly it didn't. The quarterback went right back to Holmes, but this time in the opposite corner.
And Holmes, as improbable as it still might seem this morning, did the rest.
"We're going down in history with one of the greatest games ever played in the Super Bowl," Holmes said. "We finished it up the way we needed to and brought another championship back to Pittsburgh."
The Steel City will certainly cherish this one. But its residents aren't the only ones. It will be one that everyone remembers for a long time to come.