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Cleveland: On The Super Bowl

The New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons will play the 51st Super Bowl in Houston Sunday. That’s Super Bowl LI if you are keeping score in Roman numerals, which was Pete Rozelle’s plan all along.
I’ve been to XXIX of them, all but one as a reporter. Always, there have been Mississippi connections.
Mississippi – or players with Mississippi connections – have won four Super Bowl MVPs. Eli Manning won two and Jerry Rice won one (and probably should have won two). And do you remember the fourth?
No, not Brett Favre. Deion Branch of Jones Junior College did in 2005 when he tied Rice’s record with 11 Super Bowl receptions in a single game. Rice, you should know, still holds the career Super Bowl receptions record with 33 in four games.
You ask me, Rice’s record may stand for another “C years.”
If a Mississippian wins MVP this season, then you can bet favored New England will win the game. The Atlanta Falcons may be closer to home, but New England has a decided Magnolia State flavoring. Madison Central’s Stephen “Beaver” Gostkowski could be called on to make the winning kick. Vicksburg’s Malcolm Butler (who played at Hinds CC), a Super Bowl hero two years ago, has become one of the league’s best cornerbacks and definitely will be called on to “check” Atlanta’s other-worldly Julio Jones. That, by the way, is not a task I would wish on anyone, but Butler will have it. Indeed, he wants it, which is the attitude every cornerback must have.
Brandon Bolden of Ole Miss and LaGarrette Blount of East Mississippi CC are two of the Patriots running backs. Matt Slater, the Patriots’ special teams captain and all-star, is the son of Jackson State legend and Pro Football Hall of Famer Jackie Slater.
Vegas oddsmakers have made Tom Brady the MVP favorite this year, but remember what happened when he won it two years ago? Brady gave the loaded pick-up truck, his prize for winning, to Butler who made the game-winning play at the end. And, at the time, Brady also predicted Butler would go on to a long, successful career. Brady said he knew how good the then-unknown Butler was because he had to go against him so often in practice. Butler intercepted Russell Wilson to win the game, and Brady said he understood how Wilson felt because Butler had done it so many times to him in scrimmages.
It was one of the feel-good stories of all Super Bowls. Just a few years before, Butler had worked the pick-up window in a Popeye’s in Vicksburg, earning money so he could return to Hinds. From a fast food pick-up window – “Would you like that spicy or mild?” – to Super Bowl hero is not a journey many make.
There have been many, many other superlative Super Bowl performances by Mississippians that haven’t won MVP.
When the Green Bay Packers defeated the Patriots 35-21 in the 1997 Super Bowl, Favre threw for two touchdowns and ran for another. In perhaps the the greatest non-MVP Super Bowl performance ever by anyone, Rice caught 10 passes for 143 yards and three touchdowns in the 49ers’ rout of San Diego in the 1995 Super Bowl at Miami. Remarkably, he played the game with a separated shoulder and a bad case of the flu, which caused him to have IV treatments twice during the game. (Steve Young was MVP, which tells you how good he was.)
Sportscasters often call the Super Bowl football’s “ultimate” game. And I guess it is. But I am reminded that somebody has to lose on the sport’s biggest stage. Two of my favorite Mississippi players ever were two of the unluckiest at Super Bowls. Kent Hull (Greenwood and Mississippi State) played in four for the Buffalo Bills. Sammy Winder (Pocahontas and USM) played in three for the Denver Broncos. Neither ever won one. That’s VII Super Bowls, no rings if you are keeping score. And that’s also seven times when a nice guy finished second, not last.
Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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