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Trent in land of wonder

By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 29, 2001


TAMPA -- We know him so well. A quarterback the NFL world, especially the hammers and fists of Tampa Bay, so loved to rap. But now he's Master T.

Trent. Tampa. Terrific.

He comes back to Raymond James Stadium, badgered and belittled Trent Dilfer, to win a Super Bowl ring. A warm, heroic, nags-to-riches story. Dilfer's smile shines from here to his native California.

In a dozen months, old No. 12 goes from Belittled Buc to something of a Lord Baltimore, even if the conquering Ravens aren't yet sure they will rehire No. 8 for next season.

Dilfer had his night.

Oh, he winds up a few rockets shy of Doug Williams and Steve Young, castaways from Tampa Bay who became MVPs of Super Bowls, but I wonder if any NFL champion, through all of history's grand Packers and Steelers and Cowboys and 49ers, has ever had a prouder celebrant than Dilfer.

Good for him.

Funny, as I watched television Saturday night there was something on the QVC shopping channel that triggered a quick guffaw. They were peddling official Super Bowl XXXV footballs for $345, each autographed by two quarterbacks, Johnny Unitas and Trent Dilfer.

Some mixed marriage, huh?

At first, the pairing of Johnny U and Master T seemed more than odd. Stunning jock juxtaposition. It appeared as strange as having an official World Series baseball signed by both Ted Williams and Luis Sojo.

But now it makes more sense. Unitas urged the Baltimore Colts to a classic 1958 overtime win in the NFL Championship Game against another collection of Giants. Now it's Dilfer, the unlikely QB hero of another explosion of Baltimore delight with today's Ravens.

Though their pro football portfolios seem as far apart as the Bering Sea and Mediterranean, quarterbacks Unitas and Dilfer are now truly linked, with No. 8 pitching Baltimore to NFL glory as No. 19 did so many years ago.

This one would become a knockout. Giants felled 34-7. New York's offense could've played until April and would've never scored against the Ravens. It took a kickoff return.

Dilfer had a wealth of help, like from linebacker Ray Lewis, voted most valuable player. Trent's defensive mates are football's stony Gibraltar. Still, when Sunday night's verdict was still in doubt, Trent delivered an extraordinary touchdown throw.

Not a pretty game, but intriguing ...

Right away Dilfer had a familiar erratic look, especially to Tampa Bay eyes. But he was wearing different colors. Not the uniform number of his Bucs days. Representing a new town. But you can't fool us. We saw swatches of the same old upsy/downsy Fresno State fellow.

Trent's good passes, they flew so lovely, textbook and memorable. But his baddies, they, too, had a recognizable odor, some sailing too high, others fluttering too low, and occasionally one being muffed into enemy hands.

Second time the Ravens were on offense, Dilfer stroked a beauty. Long ball. Sweet spiral. His receiver, Patrick Johnson, went blurring past Giants cornerback Jason Sehorn. Open for deep business.

But, dang him, the Trent grenade was overthrown by a Hillsborough heartbeat. Johnson stretched, leaped and strained, but the football bonged agonizingly off his fingertips. An opportunity near missed, but the Dilfer dude in Baltimore white, he would get a quick mulligan. That's a golf term for a second chance.

Next possession for Baltimore, there came another assault of Sehorn. This time Brandon Stokley was the smoking, running free Raven. Jason was again eating Super Bowl grass. This time Trent didn't overcook the pass. Didn't miss.

That one fell so precise, like a mama eagle dropping food to her babies in a nest. Adroitly executed. A 38-yard touchdown pass, Dilfer to Stokley. Huge boost for the Ravens in a Super Bowl of killer defenses and erratic offenses.

Never get too giddy, Trent.

Something truly Dilfer ugly was about to occur. Trent at his frantic flubbingest. Rushed high and hard by New York's relentless Michael Strahan, he flicked a panicky throw into the left-side never-never land. Oh, baby, for witnesses who are Tampa Bay NFL regulars that sort of Dilfer trauma was easy and painful to recollect.

As the Dilfer wounded duck went knuckling, Giants linebacker Jessie Armstead was the only soul in the area. Room-service touchdown. Armstead embraced the football and went untouched 43 yards into the south end zone. He could've gone 443. Oh, you just knew No. 8 of the Ravens had made one of his numskull mistakes, throwing away that then-precious 7-nil advantage.

We'd seen it before. Against the Giants, when, as No. 12 of the Bucs, Dilfer was guilty of three interceptions in a calamitous 1999 season opener, blowing the game, beginning his skid that would eventually send Trent sliding out of Florida and on the way to Maryland.

But not this time!

Dilfer's luck had demonstratively changed. As crummy as that intercepted missile might've been, the Armstead jubilation was to be erased. Giants defensive tackle Keith Hamilton did Trent a colossal favor, getting flagged for holding. Jessie's touchdown was expunged. Trent still had his 7-0 edge.

Trent was on his way. Defense, kick returns and a another splash of Ravens offense buried the Giants. Before long Dilfer was on a 50-yard line post-game podium where the Ravens were being passionately rewarded.

Holding the Lombardi Trophy.

Glitter came tumbling from the sky. People roared. Trent in Wonderland. He credited "faith and perseverance." Doing it with class. Giving thanks for his Bucs experiences. Celebrating with Baltimore, just as the great Johnny Unitas once did.

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