Ventura County Star and Knoxville News Sentinel – Feb 06, 2006 – Rhiannon Potkey – Joe Theismann doesn’t remember any of itâ€? the plays he called, the passes he threw, the handoffs he made.
It wasn’t until receiving a jolting hit midway through the first quarter that the Washington Redskins quarterback realized Super Bowl XVII had actually started.
“I still sit and watch the first five minutes of the game like a fan,” Theismann said of Washington’s 27-17 victory over the Miami Dolphins. “I have no recollection of it. I guess it was so overwhelming in its scope that it really took me out my consciousness.”
Unparalleled in its magnitude, media attention and potential ramifications, the Super Bowl is as much a mental test for players as a physical battle.
A single, great performance on the biggest stage in American
sports can define a career, establish a reputation and secure a legacy.
But along with the potential for stardom, comes the pressure of avoiding failure.
“You say to yourself, don’t lose this game,” said Terry Bradshaw, who quarterbacked the Pittsburgh Steelers to four Super Bowl titles in the 1970s. “This is the biggest game of your life and this marks you. This is what you live for.”
While major league baseball and the NBA give teams a chance to regroup during a seven-game championship series, in the NFL, it all comes down to just one game.
A bad day or a few off hours, and the chance for a title may be gone forever.
“There is no tomorrow,” Theismann said. “It’s a little bit like the Olympics. You train all your life for one moment, and when it’s over, who knows when you will have that opportunity again, if ever?”
Waiting the hardest part
For many players, the game itself is not the biggest obstacle to overcome. It’s the hype and buildup leading up to Sunday that presents the stiffest challenge.
“There is so much going on that week with all the media attention and the interviews,” said former Pro Bowl safety Darren Woodson, a three-time Super Bowl champion with the Dallas Cowboys. “There is a buzz every day, and you are not accustomed to that during the regular season. The most important part is how you are going to deal with those distractions of the media and the club scene and the women that are there.”
If not managed right, the distractions can be exhausting, and the players can lose focus, says sports psychologist Robert Troutwine.
“If you get too caught up in it, and find yourself suddenly in awe of the spectacle, you probably have lost your mental edge,” said Troutwine, a consultant with NFL teams like the New England Patriots, Philadelphia Eagles and Carolina Panthers. “Even though it’s not just another game, you have to try and treat it like one.”
Some players seem inherently wired to deal with the Super Bowl pressure while others fold under its weight like a cheap deck of cards.
“It is really individualized,” Troutwine said. “There are people who can find it exhilarating when the attention is at a high level, and can actually perform better. Others aren’t as successful at managing their emotions and their thoughts.”
Montana, Brady cool customers
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana is the most accomplished quarterback in Super Bowl history, and his drive against Cincinnati in 1989 is a fitting symbol of his “Joe Cool” image.
Backed up at his own 8-yard line with three minutes remaining, Montana looked out from the huddle into the stands and said to his teammates, “Hey, look, there’s John Candy.”
The Hall of Famer proceeded to complete 8 of 9 passes Ã¢â‚¬â€? the final one a 10-yard touchdown to John Taylor Ã¢â‚¬â€? to give the 49ers a 20-16 victory.
The player drawing the most comparisons to Montana is Tom Brady. The New England Patriots quarterback has led his team to two Super Bowl comebacks in the final minutes.
“Brady is the best modern-day example of somebody who has not only competed well, but actually raised his level of performance,” said John Murray, a sports psychologist who works with many NFL teams. “His mind seems clearer, his mistakes are down and he makes quicker decisions. He is able to focus and use all that energy positively.”
Anxiety the order of the day
Although his four titles and two MVP awards suggest Bradshaw mastered the Super Bowl mind games, the Louisiana native remembers fighting his anxiety every step of the way.
“I had to really struggle with myself to slow down and settle down,” he said. “It started the moment the AFC Championship Game was over with trying to get myself under control and realize how important it is. When you go through that tunnel and enter the playing surface, it hits you and it hits you hard.”
Many players say those first few steps are when they really grasp the magnitude of the event. They notice the extra television cameras, see the flashbulbs popping around them and hear the roar of the planes flying overhead.
“You really can’t describe it. It’s almost like a shortness of breath when you get on that field,” Woodson said. “There is nothing like it. There is just so much electricity in the air. You know right then it is do or die, and the culmination of all the hard work you put in.”
During pregame introductions, Theismann had only one thought cross his mind, “Don’t trip over the goal line as you run under the goal post,” he said. “Don’t embarrass yourself in front of all these millions of people.”
But once the ball is snapped, “it is just like any other football game,” three-time Super Bowl champion offensive lineman Mark Schlereth said. “I didn’t think about the crowd. I didn’t think about the magnitude of the game. I thought about playing football and going out and executing.”
Woodson says the worst thing a player can do is try to be the hero.
“I think some guys get caught up in playing on the biggest stage and fall short,” he said. “They think outside themselves and believe they have to make the big play because of all the pressure.”
While some coaches view the two-week buildup as potential for added distraction, former Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson saw it as a blessing when his team played the Buffalo Bills in 1993.
“I don’t know if I have ever coached a game professionally where I was more confident than I was for that first Super Bowl, and that is how the end result was,” said Johnson of the Cowboys’ 52-17 victory at the Rose Bowl. “In my experience, (the Super Bowl is) like a test,” Johnson added. “The more prepared for the test you are, the more confident that you are, and the less pressure you have.”
Losing leaves a mark
No matter how much success a player or an organization experiences, the failure to win a Super Bowl can leave an everlasting black mark.
“You win the game, you are world champions, you lose the game, you are just a loser, and that is how you are defined,” Schlereth said. “The Buffalo Bills had an amazing run with four AFC championships, but they are most remembered for losing in four straight Super Bowls.”
On the flip side, a Super Bowl victory can erase a multitude of past sins and cement a player’s status in the NFL annals.
“Doug Williams threw four or five touchdown passes in one quarter and everybody says Ã‚Â¿Man what a great year he had,’ ” said Theismann, referring to the former Redskins quarterback’s MVP performance in Super Bowl XXII. “He only started four games that season and really struggled throughout his career. But he had one fantastic quarter in that game, and now, rightfully so, he is legendary.”
Perhaps the best measure of the enhanced pressure players face in a Super Bowl is watching their reaction after the game.
“For some guys it is just a sense of relief, and for others it is a lifetime achievement and a dream come true,” Theismann said. “I always had this vision in my mind of walking off the field with my finger up showing No. 1 like Bradshaw did, and holding a football in my hand. I guess I did it. I didn’t even think about it, I just did it.”
Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.