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He could gloat. But he won't

By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 15, 2001


OAKLAND, Calif. -- An emotion so heavenly, a quarterback taking a knee. Dropping to the Oakland grass, but feeling so high. Time running out on the Raiders, but Trent Dilfer's clock was ticking louder than ever.

Playing his own Cast Away melodrama, Dilfer proved more than a survivor, heading for Super Bowl XXXV, going back to Tampa, whence the Bucs chased him.

Leaving the field Sunday, his smile was brighter than California's setting sun. Trent's goatee seemed to twitch with joy. His eyes quickly reddened. Ravens came running, putting congratulatory slaps on No. 8's helmet.

Dilfer wiped tears.

These studs from crab-cake town, they're colossal odds-beaters. Baltimore went 2-0 on the playoff road, upsetting Tennessee and Oakland. In other post-season games, visiting teams went 0-8.

Dilfer ... the ultimate stunner.

He was glowing. His new playmates had a strong inkling what this meant to the gent from Fresno State. They know how Tampa Bay gave up on the 28-year-old QB after six seasons. Many fellow Ravens shouted to him, "Trent you're going home to Tampa. You showed 'em."

Oh, the sugary XXXV script, plus the setting so meaningful to Dilfer, climbing from the NFL dumps to become a Super Bowl quarterback, returning to Raymond James Stadium, an arena he could never conquer with the Bucs.

But anticipate no gloating from Dilfer, just a magnum of pride, plus a wealth of class. He won't chant "Na-Na-Na-Na!" Won't sling mud, even at his most severe Tampa Bay critics, both media and public. Not unless they start something.

"People figure on bitterness from me," said Dilfer, whose finest football hour came just 55 miles from Aptos High School where he first gained significant notoriety. "Vindication? I honestly never think in such terms. Tampa? I wouldn't trade a single one of my experiences there."

Funny how Sunday started.

As the first quarter evolved, you saw problems that haunted Dilfer with the Bucs. Buoyed by an extraordinary Ravens defense, just like in his Tampa Bay years, Trent was given wonderful field position but did nothing with it.

Three straight possessions, Baltimore took over in Oakland territory. From that, in a 0-0 scrum, the Ravens could score nothing with Trent having 0-for-5 struggles.

From 2,600 miles away, you could almost hear anti-Trents bellowing, "Same old Dilfer!" Next time the Ravens got the ball, they were in far lousier shape. Backed up to the goal line.

It came to a third-and-18 prayer from the Ravens 4. With so much riding, Dilfer would trigger the most important play of his life.

"We were just trying to get more punting room," he said, "or at most a first down." Trent flicked a pass over the middle. Raiders were blitzing, opening pass lanes. Marquez Pope, a safety, was left to cover tight end Shannon Sharpe.

A little hope turned into the dream of a Dilfer lifetime. Sharpe busted loose from Pope. There were no more Raiders to beat. Shannon kept huffing, with receiver Patrick Johnson shoving him the final 5 yards into the end zone.

Ninety-six yards. Longest touchdown pass in NFL playoff history. Dilfer, the Cast Away guy, breaking a record set 40 years ago by a Hall of Fame quarterback, George Blanda of the Raiders, who completed an 88-yarder to a Heisman Trophy talent, Billy Cannon.

It hit Network Associates Coliseum like a 7.0 earthquake. The Black Hole turned blue. There would be no catch-up for the Raiders, not against a smothering defense. Dilfer later threw an interception, which must've made many watchers in Florida again wail, "Oh, now, there he goes."

Even that would be a minor deal. Oakland got a field goal; nothing more heroic than averting a shutout in a 16-3 whipping. When it was over, a huge stage was wheeled onto midfield for a Lamar Hunt Trophy presentation. Dilfer was the first Baltimore player to climb the stairs.

Never before a Trent hour like this, even if he is hardly the reincarnation of Joe Montana or John Elway. "I went through some tough times," Dilfer said, "but, long ago, I learned not to run from adversity; to let it hit you in the face, then grow from the experience, becoming a better person."

Trent's faith is a constant. His strength is his Christian beliefs. On the field, seconds after the game ended, Raiders and Ravens bumping all around him, Dilfer saw a familiar Tampa Bay face and remarked, "Everything is possible to him that believes."

Later, dressed in jeans and a white T-shirt advertising In-And-Out Hamburgers chain, Dilfer said he continues to get "thousands of letters" from the Tampa Bay area, "almost every one of them extremely positive and supportive of me. Maybe I am hated by some people there, but it might be shocking to find what a minority it is.

"You won't hear me knock the Buccaneers at all. I still have so many friends, among players and coaches and front office. Friday, I got a call from Joel Glazer (of the Tampa Bay ownership family), wishing me well."

Dilfer admits he received, after being dropped by the Bucs, no offer other than from Baltimore. Even now, as he primes to quarterback the Ravens in the Super Bowl, there are rumors about coach Brian Billick making a move for Redskins free agent Brad Johnson.

"That doesn't concern me," Trent said. "All I can do is try my hardest, doing the best I can. So far, that's worked pretty well for the Ravens. I know I'm the right quarterback for this team right now."

Reporters kept showing up. New cameras to face. Dilfer was repeatedly asked to explain 96 yards of TNT and his feelings about going back to Tampa to play the Super Bowl. "I've got to stop answering those," he said. "Every time I go, I start crying."

Tears of unprecedented joy.

Under center, under fire

Kerry Collins and Trent Dilfer combine to make one of the least-glamorous starting quarterback tandems in Super Bowl history. On this list, Hall-of-Famers are in bold, probable Hall-of-Famers appear with an asterisk (*). Last year's starters are omitted from consideration because it is too early in their careers:

(Game, Winning team's starter, Losing team's starter)

I BART STARR, Packers -- LEN DAWSON, Chiefs

II BART STARR, Packers -- Daryle Lamonica, Raiders

III JOE NAMATH, Jets -- Earl Morrall, Colts

IV LEN DAWSON, Chiefs -- Joe Kapp, Vikings

V JOHNNY UNITAS, Colts -- Craig Morton, Cowboys

VI ROGER STAUBACH, Cowboys -- BOB GRIESE, Dolphins

VII BOB GRIESE, Dolphins -- Bill Kilmer, Redskins

VIII BOB GRIESE, Dolphins -- FRAN TARKENTON, Vikings

IX TERRY BRADSHAW, Steelers -- FRAN TARKENTON, Vikings

X TERRY BRADSHAW, Steelers -- ROGER STAUBACH, Cowboys

XI Ken Stabler, Raiders -- FRAN TARKENTON, Vikings

XII ROGER STAUBACH, Cowboys -- Craig Morton, Broncos

XIII TERRY BRADSHAW, Steelers -- ROGER STAUBACH, Cowboys

XIV TERRY BRADSHAW, Steelers -- Vince Ferragamo, Steelers

XV Jim Plunkett, Raiders -- Ron Jaworski, Eagles

XVI JOE MONTANA, 49ers -- Ken Anderson, Bengals

XVII Joe Theismann, Redskins -- David Woodley, Dolphins

XVIII Jim Plunkett, Raiders -- Joe Theismann, Redskins

XIX JOE MONTANA, 49ers -- Dan Marino*, Dolphins

XX Jim McMahon, Bears -- Tony Eason, Patriots

XXI Phil Simms, Giants -- John Elway*, Broncos

XXII Doug Williams, Redskins -- John Elway*, Broncos

XXIII JOE MONTANA, 49ers -- Boomer Esiason, Bengals

XXIV JOE MONTANA, 49ers -- John Elway*, Broncos

XXV Jeff Hostetler, Giants -- Jim Kelly*, Bills

XXVI Mark Rypien, Redskins -- Jim Kelly*, Bills

XXVII Troy Aikman, Cowboys -- Jim Kelly*, Bills

XXVIII Troy Aikman, Cowboys -- Jim Kelly*, Bills

XXIX Steve Young*, 49ers -- Stan Humphries, Chargers

XXX Troy Aikman*, Cowboys -- Neil O'Donnell, Steelers

XXXI Brett Favre*, Packers -- Drew Bledsoe, Patriots

XXXII John Elway*, Broncos -- Brett Favre*, Packers

XXXIII John Elway*, Broncos -- Chris Chandler, Falcons

XXXIV Kurt Warner, Rams -- Steve McNair, Titans

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