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The Bitter End

Feb. 09, 2004
Feb. 09, 2004

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Feb. 9, 2004

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The Bitter End

If your wife left you for your best friend, would you follow them
on their honeymoon?

This is an article from the Feb. 9, 2004 issue Original Layout

If you were having open-heart surgery, would you ask for a mirror
to watch?

No? Then what Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme did on
Sunday after losing a pupil-popping Super Bowl to the New England
Patriots, 32-29, is going to make zero sense to you.

As the Patriots rushed to the middle of the field to do their
best screaming, leaping and dog-piling, Delhomme didn't sprint
off the field, didn't go hide in the Jacuzzi and didn't kick the
holy Gatorade out of a cooler. Instead, he made himself stand and
watch the Pats' jubilation, won at his expense.

Nothing could make him leave. Even as the ushers tried to herd
him off the field with ropes--"Them rope people treated us like
we were Salvation Army castoffs," grumbled Panthers receiver
Steve Smith--Delhomme stood fast and watched unblinking, letting
the knife cut deeper. He looked like a man watching his prized
sailboat sink.

"I guess I just wanted it to hurt as much as possible," said
Delhomme afterward. "I wanted to watch the celebration so that it
could hurt, so I could remember it, for motivation."

This wasn't the easiest week for the rabbit-eating Cajun from
Breaux Bridge, La. All week he was Mary Ann to Tom Brady's
Ginger. Brady was called the new Joe Montana. Brady had that Joe
Namath dimple women love, that pick-proof caution coaches love
and that rescue-the-damsel winning streak press-box poets love.

Delhomme? The best anybody could think to say of him was that he
threw a decent enough ball for a sidearmer. Delhomme was the one
who was a backup for the Amsterdam Admirals, the one who wasn't
even Carolina's starter when the season began. You know the
quarterback who was at the State of the Union Address? It wasn't
Delhomme.

Nobody seemed to care that Delhomme's postseason passer rating
was almost 30 points higher than Wonder Boy's.

But for the first 27 minutes of this very odd Super Bowl, the
29-year-old Delhomme looked as lost as one sock. He started off 1
for 9. He had one passing yard and one fumble and had been sacked
three times. He looked more exposed than Janet Jackson's right
breast.

But then Delhomme started making like Sammy Baugh. He threw the
sweetest little rainbow to Smith for a touchdown just before the
half. He made history with Muhsin Muhammad on an 85-yard streak
that stands as the longest play from scrimmage in Super Bowl
history. And he hit Ricky Proehl with a dart for another score.

You knew Delhomme was loose. He was singing along with the
stadium songs during timeouts. He wound up with 323 yards
passing, three touchdowns and zero interceptions. And when the
Panthers led 22-21 with less than seven minutes left, every MVP
ballot had to have had Delhomme's name scrawled on it.

But with the game tied at 29 and 1:08 to play, Carolina made the
worst Super Bowl gaffe since the NFL announced, "The site of
Super Bowl XL is Detroit!" John Kasay pulled a Gerald Ford,
shanking the kickoff out-of-bounds, giving New England the ball
at its own 40 and leaving Brady a short drive away from setting
up the winning field goal. And it wasn't even Brady's birthday.

Scratch out Delhomme's name on the MVP ballots, write in Brady's.
Cue the confetti. Cue Delhomme, toothpicks in his eyelids, a
Clockwork Blue.

What in the world were you thinking all that time, Jake?

"I was just standing there thinking how much I'd love to be one
of those guys, to have that feeling. Because it looks like it
might be one of the ultimate rushes you could have. Someday I'd
like to have that rush. Someday I'd like to be on the other side
of those stupid ropes."

The best athletes, the ones that wind up with all the rings, take
losing about the way cats take baths, but never in my 16 Super
Bowls have I seen a man so inconsolable after a loss.

Do you feel good about the great game you played? Delhomme was
asked.

"No," he said, his eyes watery. "No way. I can't tell you how bad
this feels. Worst feeling in the world."

But didn't you show the world you belonged?

"No. We lost. If the game had been 60 1/2 minutes, we would've
won. But it wasn't. And we lost."

When he finally left the field, he went straight into the locker
room and cried.

"That's how Jake is," says his mother, Marcia. "He'll cry at
movies, family stuff. He's not afraid to be emotional."

It wasn't until he had his 13-month-old daughter, Lauren, in his
arms, that some light finally came back in the two black coals
that were passing for his eyes.

"Hey, Jake," a Patriots fan hollered as Delhomme trudged to the
bus, "you'll live!"

He didn't look convinced.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER READ MILLER

"I wanted to watch the celebration so that it could hurt,"
Delhomme said, "so I could remember it, for motivation."

If you have a comment for Rick Reilly, send it to
reilly@siletters.com.