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Rams coach Dick Vermeil, holding football's ultimate prize, and Titans RB Eddie George provided the final contrasting views of Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta. [AP photo]

By RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 31, 2000


ATLANTA -- It was the sweetest ending to a story that was pretty unbelievable to begin with.

Rams quarterback Kurt Warner had taken 11 snaps in the NFL before this season, but Sunday he finished his first season as a starter as Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XXXIV.

The nomad with a lifetime script too saccharin for Hollywood passed for a Super Bowl record 414 yards and two touchdowns to lead the Rams to a 23-16 victory over the Tennessee Titans at the Georgia Dome in one of the most exciting finishes to a world championship game.

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Warner's story is still waiting to be brought to the silver screen, but you can entitle Super Bowl XXXIV The Longest Yard.

Rams linebacker Mike Jones tackled Kevin Dyson 1 yard short of the end zone on the game's final play, preventing a touchdown that likely would have sent the game into overtime.

The Rams built a 16-0 lead, but hung on by their fingernails to beat the tenacious Titans, who nearly pulled off the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.

Tennessee running back Eddie George rushed for a pair of 1-yard touchdowns and Al Del Greco kicked a 43-yard field goal with 2:12 remaining to tie the score.

But on the Rams' next play, receiver Issac Bruce hauled in an underthrown bomb, eluded Titans cornerback Denard Walker and three other defenders for game-winning, 73-yard touchdown.

"Kurt Warner is Kurt Warner. He's not a fairy tale," Rams coach Dick Vermeil said. "It's real life. He's a great example of persistence and believing in yourself. What else can you write? He is the book. He is the movie, this guy."

It was the first time the Rams had hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy, but Sunday's game was a triumph of the perseverance and patience of Warner.

His story is one that includes the obscurity of playing for Northern Iowa, for the Arena League Iowa Barnstormers, for the Amsterdam Admirals of NFL Europe; to the absurdity of becoming the NFL's MVP after replacing injured starter Trent Green in the preseason.

"I'll tell you what, I always believed in myself," Warner said. "I've got a whole bunch of people here who believed in me. As long as I had those guys, I was going to give them everything I had. I thank all the players, the coaches and everybody that believed in me and we're world champions now. How about those Rams!"

Warner embodies the Rams, who went from 4-12 to Super Bowl champions this year under 63-year-old Vermeil.

However, Titans quarterback Steve McNair nearly stole the final scene.

McNair set a Super Bowl record for quarterbacks with 64 yards rushing. But he used his arm and legs to march the Titans 87 yards in the final 1:48.

His best play came on third-and-5 from the Rams' 26. After taking the shotgun snap, he eluded a seemingly certain sack by defensive linemen Kevin Carter and Jay Williams and fired a 16-yard strike to Dyson at the St. Louis 10, burning the final time out with five seconds left in the game.

Instead of taking a final shot at the end zone, McNair fired underneath to Dyson, who was wrapped up by Jones.

"You don't have to go to the end zone to score a touchdown," McNair said. "With the athletes we have and they have, it's a one-on-one battle and they won it."

Jones said he was just trying to get Dyson on the ground and possibly strip the football.

"I don't feel like a hero," Jones said. "I feel like a Super Bowl champion. We got him down and the game was over with. Without a doubt it was the biggest tackle of my career.."

Warner connected on 18 of 35 passes for 277 yards, the second-most in a half at the Super Bowl since Doug Williams passed for 306 in Super Bowl XXII.

The Rams made six trips inside the red zone to start the game and came away with nine points on three field goals by Jeff Wilkins.

It was an unusual occurrence for the Rams, who had the second-best offense inside the opponents' 20 this season. But Tennessee used an array of blitzes and pressured Warner once St. Louis surged inside the red zone.

Tennessee went to the locker room feeling fortunate it was still in the game.

The Rams dominated every phase, owning a first-half advantage in total yards (294-89), first downs (18-6) and time of possession (17:35 to 12:25).

Eight Rams caught passes in the first half; Torry Holt led them with six receptions for 100 yards. The Titans should've known Warner was going to have a big day when, on the game's first play, his pass was deflected and caught by Rams tackle Fred Miller.

But until Bruce's game-winning TD, the Rams were held to 69 yards in the second half. Twice in the fourth quarter, they went three-and-out. Running back Marshall Faulk was limited 17 yards on 10 carries for the game.

"There's only maybe two things that can stop this offense," Bruce said. "One was us. If we don't catch the ball, if we don't block, if we don't run it, we don't go anywhere. The second thing is the defense they have in Tampa."

The Titans aren't the Bucs. But just like last week's NFC Championship game, Warner made the game-winning touchdown pass with a defensive player in his face when his team needed it most.

The guy who used to stock groceries at Hy-Vee Foods is now clearing a shelf for MVP awards.

"I don't think of my story as a Hollywood story," Warner said. "It's my life. It's just been a great year. What else can you say? I'm truly blessed."

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