NEW ORLEANS -- Have to admit, I'm a sucker for the sentimental stories that come forth every year during Super Bowl week. Jerome Bettis' quest to ride off into retirement with a ring. John Elway finally getting the big confetti shower for once (and then twice). Walter Payton playing on the game's grandest stage at long last.
But while most of the football world's spotlight may be focused on Ray Lewis and his impending retirement this week, the 17-year Baltimore linebacker already has his ring, earned 12 years ago. That's why the Super Bowl XLVII subplot that intrigues me most is the unlikely pairing of San Francisco receiver Randy Moss and Baltimore center Matt Birk, both of whom were rookies on the 1998 Minnesota Vikings club that many consider the greatest team to never make the Super Bowl.
I covered that record-breaking yet ultimately star-crossed team as a beat writer for the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, and the Vikings' crushing 30-27 upset loss in overtime to the Atlanta Falcons in that season's NFC Championship Game still ranks as the most memorable afternoon of football I've ever chronicled. After a 15-1 regular season that saw Minnesota break the league record for scoring with 556 points (since broken), the Vikings' season-long magic carpet ride crashed in gut-wrenching fashion against the underdog Falcons.
Moss and Birk came excruciatingly close to a Super Bowl trip as rookies, and here they are, 14 years later, still trying to win the ring that they thought was their destiny in 1998. Moss, of course, did make it to the game in 2007 with the undefeated New England Patriots, but that turned into exquisite agony of a different kind, with the 18-0 Men of Belichick falling to the giant-slaying New York Giants. After a year's retirement in 2011, Moss chose well when he signed with San Francisco this spring, helping earn himself another shot at Super Bowl glory.
"To be able to win a championship really would complete my career,'' said Moss, who revealed this week he intends to return to the 49ers">49ers for the 2013 season. "I've always told myself that I wanted to win a championship on this level. Having a Super Bowl ring, I think my career would be complete.''
Birk, after being on three teams that lost a conference championship game (1998 Vikings, 2000 Vikings and 2011 Ravens), will play in his first Super Bowl on Sunday against Moss and the 49ers. At 36, with 15 NFL seasons and six Pro Bowl berths to his credit, Birk has finally made it to football's promised land. When he reflects on the near-miss that 1998 represented, he has a hard-earned appreciation for the work it took to complete his quest.
"I feel very fortunate to be playing this game and to be doing it with this group of guys,'' said Birk, who has spent the past four seasons with Baltimore after 11 years in Minnesota, where he grew up a Vikings fan in St. Paul. "Nobody's entitled and nobody deserves to play in the Super Bowl, but everything really came together for us. In 1998, I didn't even think I was going to be here 15 years later.''
Moss and Birk are the last two 1998 Vikings players still in the league, and one of them will finally be a champion late Sunday night at the Superdome. They were at polar opposite ends of the spectrum as rookies that year in Minnesota, with Moss taking the league by storm as the Vikings' sensational first-round pick (17 receiving touchdowns) and Birk a lightly regarded sixth-round selection from Harvard who spent the year as a backup to Pro Bowl center Jeff Christy. But now, their roles have reversed to some degree. Birk is the dependable longtime starter and man in the middle of the Ravens' offensive line, and Moss this season was a lightly-used reserve, with just 28 catches for 434 yards and three touchdowns.
"He's brought a lot of value, even with the 20-something catches,'' 49ers inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman said this week. "Shoot, some of those catches were big catches. His value is needed, his leadership is needed, his experience is needed. All of that is needed from Randy. He's been great in checking off everything you need in a veteran guy. That's a guy I would love to win this ring for.''
Moss said he realized last year when he was out of the NFL that he wasn't ready to give up the game, or give up his career-long pursuit of a championship. With his 49ers favored to beat Baltimore, his comeback season might have a storybook ending.
"It's actually a dream, really,'' Moss said. "Me taking a year off and having to work out for almost a whole year, being able to come back and be in the Super Bowl one year later is just a dream. I really didn't expect this. For me to be here, I couldn't have told you this back in June or July. It would've been more of a, 'Keep your fingers crossed. I hope I'm in New Orleans for the Super Bowl in February.' Now that it's here, I just want to make the best of it and take advantage of it and bring a trophy back to San Francisco.''
The painful near-miss Moss suffered in 2007 in New England is freshest in his memory, but Birk's recollection of the 1998 season in Minnesota remains vivid in many ways. It seemed fated all year that the Vikings would wind up in Miami for the Super Bowl, but the football gods had different ideas, which never seemed apparent until veteran kicker Gary Anderson missed a game-icing 38-yard field attempt with just more than two minutes remaining in regulation against Atlanta, his first failure of any kind all season.
"We weren't just beating teams that year, we were killing teams,'' Birk said. "We lost one game, and the team that beat us [Tampa Bay] didn't punt that day. We set the record for scoring, and nobody could stop us. Everything was just clicking until that NFC Championship Game in the fourth quarter. People in Minnesota still talk about that game, because you could say it was the best team to never make the Super Bowl.''
Birk had the best seat in the house to watch those 1998 Vikings, and he recalls thinking this NFL stuff isn't so hard after all, a view that he came to regret ever expressing.
"[Former Vikings longsnapper] Mike Morris just reminded me of it the other day,'' Birk said. "We were on the sidelines in our first playoff game [a divisional-round win over Arizona] and I made the smart-aleck comment -- as I'm apt to do from time to time -- that, 'Hey, there's nothing to it, you know. Last year I played for Harvard and we dominated the Ivy League, and now I'm with the Vikings and we're dominating the NFL.' But I wound up eating those words.''
Moss these days isn't the breathtaking talent of 1998 as a receiver, but Birk remembers when he first saw his fellow Viking rookie's ridiculous talent, and how he could take over games all by himself.
"I go back to the first game of that season [a home win over Tampa Bay], when Moss caught two touchdown passes, and one was a spectacular catch where he just reached back and tipped the ball to himself,'' Birk said. "It was just like, 'Wow. He's as good as advertised.' It was like the balls he was catching and the touchdowns he was scoring, they weren't just catches and scores, there were like statements. That's why they called him 'The Freak,' for the things he did out on the field. He was freaky good.''
Their careers took different paths after Minnesota, but Moss and Birk will meet again on the field Sunday, with a Super Bowl and the ultimate prize in football on the line. For one of them, the long quest is almost over. For the other, yet another near-miss must be endured, and no guarantee of another opportunity is promised.
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