When the emotion and disbelief from the Minnesota Miracle cleared, my thoughts went to Marcus Williams. They went to his state of mind, and one of the best calls any broadcaster has ever made, when a much younger Verne Lundquist said, “bless his heart, he’s got to be the sickest man in America.”
Verne actually made that call of one of the most memorable plays in Super Bowl history on the Dallas radio broadcast of the game (it was televised on NBC with Kurt Gowdy). Oddly, would Jackie Smith’s drop have been as memorable without Verne’s exclamation of sympathy being attached to it? I’m not sure.
But nevertheless, we now have Marcus Williams joining a list of names that will be remembered by our collective sports conscience for quite a while. In baseball, we’ve seen errors and pitches be scrutinized in key moments. (And we already have the Bill Buckner comparisons to Williams.) Usually, in football–other than the very notable placekicker exception–it’s the great play that sticks in our memory. Go down the list of other top playoff moments. Are they more memorable for the player who made the play, or what someone else did?
The Immaculate Reception? It was a crazy bounce but there is no defender individually associated with Franco’s miracle. The Music City Miracle? Bills fans will claim it was a forward lateral, but there is no one defender held to task. The Helmet Catch? You know who made the catch and are less focused on the defenders around him. The Catch–Do you remember who was trying to cover Dwight Clark? Even a play like Mike Jones’ tackle, the public burden isn’t placed upon Kevin Dyson, the receiver who stretched just short.
There are a few exceptions (Earnest Byner and the Fumble, for one) but for the most part, the greatest moments in playoff history are notable for who made them, not who screwed up. And so, my heart goes out to Marcus Williams, because I think people will remember his involvement in what is a Top 5 NFL Playoff Moment (given the unlikelihood of winning for the Vikings) for a while.
We can take our sports a little seriously. That passion is why large stadiums are built and why the players get the salaries they do, but it’s also why the notorious moments can lead to real-life problems for those at the wrong end. We saw this in Chicago, with Steve Bartman being involved in an infamous play as a fan, and disappearing from public life. We’ve seen it with numerous athletes who do not want to talk about the most (in)famous plays of their career, who hear about it from fans years later.
Marcus Williams is at the beginning of his career, a rookie with the world still ahead of him. He stands in stark contrast to the Jackie Smith play. Smith was a 38-year-old former star who was talked out of retirement by Tom Landry that season, who didn’t make a catch all year, until the playoffs.
Smith had this to say a couple of years ago, when interviewed by Sports Illustrated and speaking publicly about the play for the first time in 40 years:
“It made me think about how fragile all of this is—fame, notoriety,” Smith says. “How much work it takes to get there, and how little work it is to take it all away. It can be taken away with something as frivolous as missing a goddamned pass.”
Smith, like Williams, stood and answered all questions after the game. The SI piece notes that he was at his locker for 45 minutes after the game, in nothing but a towel, answering all questions, while his 14-year-old son looked on.
Smith’s play came at the end of the third quarter, on a third down, where the Cowboys ended up kicking a field goal. He still received a lot of outsized attention for his role in a 35-31 Super Bowl loss. So while Williams’ play did not come in the Super Bowl, he needs to come to grips with two things.
The first is that he will be forever associated with one of the most famous plays in NFL playoff history. People will always bring it up. They will think of it when they see him. Jackie Smith is probably one of the ten best tight ends of all-time, is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and is remembered for the drop as much as anything else, whether that is fair or not. Williams will always be famous, even as a defensive player, for the play.
But it’s just as important that he remembers the second. Because while he will be remembered for it, it does not define him–he is still in control of that. He can still add to his story, both in football, and beyond. The odds are slim that he will be involved in a play more famous than this one, since it is being talked about in the same breath as some of the most famous plays in history. But every athlete who gets to this level has battled through long odds. The odds of getting to the NFL are slim. So he will go on practicing, perfecting his craft, chasing that elusive moment, all the while grinding away.
Just as importantly, it doesn’t define him as a person. Standing at his locker in the toughest moment of his life did that. Jackie Smith went around as a 75-year old doting on his kids and grandkids and a life well-lived when he had to talk about the play. Those personal connections are always more important. The rest of it? Bless his heart, but it’s just sports.