He got crushed like a beer can at a pregame tailgate, collapsing
under 600 pounds of silver-and-black wrath. Curled in the fetal
position, ground into the grass by Oakland Raiders defenders
William Thomas and Darrell Russell at his own four-yard
line--where else did America expect Trent Dilfer to be? Yet a
tantalizing twist awaited: With the Raider Nation clamoring for
his scalp, Dilfer, the Baltimore Ravens' ridiculed quarterback,
sprang off the turf and stunningly seized the moment.
Baltimore was locked in a scoreless tie with Oakland early in the
second quarter of the AFC Championship Game on Sunday, but Dilfer
was, in his own, warped way, exulting in the agony. He's a player
who prides himself on his willingness to absorb punishment,
saying that "by getting up and bouncing right back, it shows the
guys on defense you can take the best they've got to give. They
think they're getting the better of you, but you can turn that
around and demoralize them when they close in for the kill."
That's why Dilfer was strangely giddy as the Ravens huddled in
their end zone. He told his teammates, "Keep the tempo up and
we'll draw them in. They'll blitz again, and then we've got 'em."
Turning to veteran tight end Shannon Sharpe, Dilfer added, "I'm
just waiting for that matchup we've been looking for. Don't
worry, it's coming."
Two plays later Dilfer delivered an off-the-Richter-scale jolt.
Facing third-and-18 from the four, the 6'4", 229-pound Dilfer
dropped back five steps, stared down an Oakland blitz and fired
the pass of his life. Sharpe, lined up in the right slot in a
spread formation called Rocket Right, caught the ball in front of
strong safety Marquez Pope at the 12, blew past late-arriving
free safety Anthony Dorsett and blasted into the clear. By the
time the Raiders caught up to Sharpe, he was in their end
zone--and the Ravens were on their way to a 16-3 victory and the
franchise's first Super Bowl appearance.
So deal with it, football fans: Trent Dilfer is going to Super
Bowl XXXV, and he knows exactly what you're thinking. True, he's
riding the coattails of Baltimore's record-setting defense, and,
yes, there are plenty of reasons to wonder whether he's worthy of
such good fortune. Dilfer, who signed a one-year free-agent
contract with Baltimore last March, concedes that even if the
Ravens beat the New York Giants in Tampa, the site of the Super
Bowl, he has no idea whether coach Brian Billick will ask him to
return in 2001. (Billick is noncommittal on the subject.) Then,
without a trace of sarcasm, Dilfer adds, "I want my legacy to be
that I was the quarterback of the team that won the Super Bowl in
spite of its quarterback."
The rest of the NFL may not know what to make of that statement,
but let's just say that the 28-year-old Dilfer has something to
prove--about toughness, perseverance, honor and self-sacrifice.
Appropriately, he'll attempt to do so in Tampa, the city where he
made his claim to shame. After the Buccaneers took him with the
sixth pick in the 1994 draft, Dilfer, despite going to the Pro
Bowl after the '97 season, became known mostly for what he
wasn't: neither an especially accurate or mobile passer, nor a
man adept at carrying a team. As coach Tony Dungy developed a
dominant defense, Dilfer became the somewhat-deserving scapegoat
for the Bucs' offensive ineptitude.
Last January, Dilfer--a man who has taken more hits, literal and
figurative, than any other quarterback of his era--was released.
Baltimore signed him to be a backup to Tony Banks, whom he
replaced midway through the season amid the Ravens' maddening
five-game stretch without a touchdown. Now, says Baltimore
fullback Sam Gash, a nine-year veteran, "We love the guy.
Whatever anybody has said about him and whatever he may lack
physically, Trent Dilfer is a great leader, one of the best I've
Dilfer's leadership skills aren't easy to quantify. On Sunday he
completed 9 of 18 passes for 190 yards, with one interception.
Take away the 96-yard strike to Sharpe, the longest scoring pass
in NFL playoff history, and Dilfer would have had a double-digit
yardage day. Such noxious numbers are often cited as evidence of
his inferiority, but there's a single statistic he offers as a
rebuttal: In his last 15 starts, including four last year with
the Bucs, Dilfer is 14-1. "I'll be the first to admit that I've
had the luxury of playing with great defenses during that
streak," he says, "but I've also been smart enough to do whatever
it takes to win those games, even if it meant playing ugly."
There's a beauty to Dilfer's approach that only those closest to
him can appreciate. "Trent sets a great tempo for our offense,"
said right guard Mike Flynn after Sunday's victory. "When things
go badly, he doesn't get rattled, and he's good about not blaming
A few lockers away defensive linemen Rob Burnett and Lional
Dalton lauded Dilfer for his willingness to apologize to
teammates in the wake of his failures. "It's a first for me to
have a quarterback like that," All-Pro left tackle Jonathan Ogden
said. "He could be caught up in numbers and looking good, but
he's obsessed with winning, and that's perfect for us."
For example, the previous week Baltimore had a mere six first
downs in its 24-10 divisional playoff victory over the Tennessee
Titans, and Dilfer completed only 5 of 16 passes. However, he
made smart plays at key times, notably a 51-yard hookup with
Sharpe that set up a game-tying touchdown. Several times Dilfer
helped the Ravens to escape from deep in their own territory,
thus keeping the defense from having to play on a short field. He
missed only one snap after absorbing a vicious helmet blow to the
chest by Titans linebacker Keith Bulluck in the third quarter.
Most important, Dilfer, who averaged nearly 15 interceptions per
season from 1995 through '99, avoided making any big mistakes.
(He has just the one interception in 48 postseason pass attempts
"The Titans' whole mentality is to win the turnover battle,"
Dilfer explained last Saturday. "They're coached to expect it and
thrive on it, and when the game gets further and further along
and that turnover still hasn't come, they're crushed. There are
tons of layers like that in football that people don't see."
Late in 1997 Dilfer's detractors never saw the eight painkilling
shots he had injected into his badly sprained right ankle or the
eight Vicodin pills he swallowed daily--all so that he could
continue not only to play in games but also to practice. The Bucs
were on the verge of their first playoff appearance since '82,
and Dilfer wasn't about to desert his teammates. He made 70
consecutive starts (second only to the Green Bay Packers' Brett
Favre among quarterbacks at the time) before Dungy benched him in
the seventh game of the '99 season. When Eric Zeier took the
first snap in Tampa Bay's 20-3 loss to the Detroit Lions,
Dilfer's stomach knotted up. "It crushed me," he says, "because
that streak was my ace in the hole. You could call me a bad
athlete, call me a choker, but no matter what, you had to say I
was a tough player who was always there for my team."
Not much has come easily to Dilfer, who says he's selfish by
nature. He embraced Christianity as a sophomore at Fresno State,
but his quest to sublimate his ego--at least on the field--has
played out like some sort of heavenly black comedy. The NFL is
full of quarterbacks who say they'll do anything to win, but few
have had to do so with everyone repeatedly doubting their
Last Saturday, as he sat on a bench outside the Ravens' hotel
overlooking San Francisco Bay, Dilfer pondered his curious place
in the football pantheon. "I'd rather figure out the best way to
win football games than be the player of the week, and I really
mean that," he said. "There are guys who can do both, but I'm
definitely not one of them. I want my genius to be that I was
willing to do anything and endure anything to get what I wanted.
If I do, it will challenge people to decide if quarterbacks truly
are measured by whether they win or lose."
The Bay Area horizon was as clear as Penelope Cruz's skin, and
Dilfer pointed across the water to Oakland, where the Raiders and
their vaunted history awaited. "I'm so psyched that Jim Plunkett
will be at this game," Dilfer said, referring to the man who
quarterbacked the Silver and Black to Super Bowl victories after
the 1980 and the '83 seasons. "He's the player I think that I'm
most like: a huge character guy who struggled early, never quit
and could care less if he's mentioned on the list of alltime
greats. All he did was win."
Then Dilfer took a deep breath and pointed southward toward
Aptos, his hometown 49 miles down the coast. An athletic standout
and party animal in high school, Dilfer didn't achieve inner
peace until he earned a scholarship to Fresno State and struck up
a friendship with a swimmer named Cassandra Franzman. They went
out once as freshmen, and she fell asleep twice on the date. But
eventually their shared spiritual growth led to love, marriage
and three children, daughters Madeleine (four) and Tori (almost
two), and son, Trevin (three).
Trent, a onetime scratch golfer, said he has reduced his life to
football and family. "I was lying in bed with Cass four nights
ago, totally exhausted, and she was helping me study my plays,"
Dilfer said. "When I went to turn off the light, she said, 'Look,
no matter what happens on Sunday or beyond, I want you to know
that no one can work any harder than you do as a football player,
a father and a husband.'" He looked at the water, paused for
several seconds, then stared down at his Quicksilver jeans. When
he looked up again, he was crying. "She didn't know how much it
meant to me that she said that," he whispered, and then his voice
Dilfer cried even more heartily on Sunday afternoon as the final
seconds ticked away and teammates offered hugs, thanks and
congratulations. The moment belonged to him as much as to anyone,
and with the Tampa angle waiting to be pounded into public
consciousness, it was his chance to thump his chest and yell, How
do you like me now?
There was a time when Dilfer couldn't have resisted such a
self-congratulatory setup, but now restraint came easily. He
flashed back to all the occasions when he'd been humbled--the
benching, the belittling, the beatings--and thanked God for the
mettle and perspective that had come of it all. "If you're
willing to face adversity and let it hit you in the face, it'll
make you stronger, as a football player and as a person," he said
after the game. "You just fight and fight and fight until they
won't let you fight anymore."
An hour later, as he prepared to leave the locker room, Dilfer
praised his former and current coaches, saying, "Tony Dungy has
had as much of an influence in my getting here as anyone, and
Brian Billick has completed the equation. My teammates--man, I
love them more than I can say."
In the Network Associates Coliseum parking lot, three dozen
friends and family members were waiting to greet Trent with a
robust cheer. Cass met him first, just outside the locker room
door, and slapped a bear hug on him that encompassed a decade's
worth of emotion. Teammates and well-wishers converged to get a
piece of him, but he had no intention of breaking free. For the
NFL's most amenable bull's-eye, this was the sweetest hit of
that won the Super Bowlin spite of its quarterback."