Max Lane, New England Patriots, Super Bowl XXXI

By Eric Neel

"OK, go ahead"

They were just three little words. Three little words Max Lane wishes he could take back. Three little words that sealed his fate in Super Bowl XXXI in 1997.

Then a 25-year-old third-year right tackle for New England, Lane had been matched up against Green Bay's soon-to-be Hall of Fame defensive end Reggie White throughout the first half. And it was going all right. The Patriots were running a chip, whereby tight end Ben Coates would take a quick shot at White before heading out into his routes, giving Lane an extra half-second to get in position to block the big man. White had a pressure or two, but no tackles and no sacks. "At halftime, I was feeling pretty good about how it was going," Lane remembers. "But of course, we were down 13 then."

After a Brett Favre keeper late in the first half put the Packers up 27-14, the Patriots' tight ends coach, Mike Pope, looking for more offense, came to Lane in the locker room at halftime and asked him about taking the chip off so they could get Coates out in his patterns more quickly.

"It looks like you're doing all right out there," he said.

"OK, go ahead," Lane answered. They were the three words he now regrets.

Maybe he should have thought more about the Pats' having to throw to play catch-up. Maybe he should have resisted his Naval Academy impulse to do whatever was asked of him. Maybe he should have been more realistic about who he was and what Reggie White could do. Maybe he should have ignored the voice in his head telling him he could handle whatever White threw at him. Maybe he should have protested. Maybe he should have shouted, "Are you crazy? Have you lost your mind?!" But he didn't. It wasn't his way. Besides, this was the Super Bowl. This was his moment.

"I was never on Reggie White's level," Lane says. "He was a five-tool player; he was a legend. But you always feel you've got a chance. You always feel you can rise to the challenge."

Down 35-21, on first-and-10 from their own 25 with little more than three minutes to play in the third, the Patriots looked to mount a drive. A screen to Keith Byars on the right gained 5 yards. On second-and-5, quarterback Drew Bledsoe called another pass play. "We were down, and we didn't have a lot of success running the ball at them," says Scott Zolak, New England's backup quarterback and Lane's best friend on the team. "We'd become one-dimensional." White smelled blood. The ball was snapped, and he ran hard to Lane's right shoulder. Lane shuffled and leaned, his weight on his outside foot.

"My technique was terrible. I should have had my weight over my inside foot, but I'm thinking, 'I gotta cut him off, I gotta get in front of him,' " Lane remembers. "And then he pulled his classic hump move. He brings his inside arm up and under my right shoulder. He brings his arm up and then just hits you right across the shoulder and basically just moves you out of the way enough so that he can get a clear path right to the quarterback. You'd see him make the move on film, you know, you'd see him just throw linemen aside and you'd think it was brute strength, but he could have moved me with a tap of his finger. It was the stuff he did before he threw you that made it for him. It was the way he got you off balance and then moved from the outside to the inside. It was what he did to your feet."

White sloughed off Lane like he was shedding an overcoat. In the blink of an eye, Lane went from upright to face-plant: "I'm falling over and I'm thinking, 'Oh s---!'" He pounded the turf in anger while White pounded Bledsoe for an 8-yard loss.

Third-and-13 from the 22. Another pass play. Packers thinking blitz. White's ears pinned back.

"We left Max on an island," Zolak says. "We used to run a thing called 'scat protection,' where we had two backs in a split set. The tailback would free-release into the pattern, and the fullback would pick up the strong inside linebacker on a blitz. But if they blitzed the strong outside linebacker, too, we had to slide the line that way, to the strong side, to try to pick him up. We left Max exposed one-on-one with Reggie on the backside. ... I don't care who you are, even if you're Orlando Pace, you're not going to block Reggie White one-on-one. He's got that power slap move and he does the uppercut up through you, and you just pick your poison -- which one do you want to die with? Because you are going to die."

Lane hunkered down. He had to protect his inside. He couldn't get lured off-balance again. Though his lips never moved, he gave a pep talk to himself: Stay at home. Stay within yourself. Don't look at him. Don't let him dictate. Your game. Your turn. Inside, inside, inside.

At the snap, White jumped back to the outside. Only this time there was no hump. No switchback. "He was in my head then," Lane says, half laughing and half kicking himself. "I played for the inside so much that he went around me. I basically gave him the short corner, the short path to the quarterback."

Down went Bledsoe. Again. Two plays, two consecutive sacks, two times Lane's friends and family back in Norborne, Mo., cringed at the mention of their favorite son's name on television. (There was also a third White-over-Lane sack late in the fourth quarter, but by then the outcome was no longer in doubt.) The whole thing took about a minute; Lane had gone from anonymous to ignominious, from holding his own to holding the bag, in nothing flat.

"I remember Reggie said he felt the adrenaline pulsing through him," says White's widow, Sara. "He said he felt like that game and those sacks were his destiny. He was where he thought he should be. He was completely in his element."

Lane, meanwhile, was a character in a Southwest Airlines commercial: He wanted to get away; he wanted to disappear. The punting team came on the field, and Lane trudged off it, head down, stumbling his way through a line of teammates and toward a bench like one of George Romero's zombies. "I didn't want to make eye contact with people," he says. "I just wanted to be by myself for a while."

There's nothing to be said in a moment like that. "I told him, 'Don't worry about it,' " Zolak says. "But he couldn't hear that then." There was no wriggling or rationalizing. He had to sit with it, experience the full weight of it, and bear it as best he could. This was the moment Montana feared, the feeling he never had to feel. We canonize those who succeed in the big game, but success, no matter how great the pressure, is easy by comparison. Failure is a mean bugger shooting straight for your heart.

Lane was confronted not only with White, or with the hundreds of cameras in the Superdome that day, or with the millions of people watching around the world, but with something even more painful -- his own limitations and the written-down-in-ink evidence that he didn't have enough when it mattered most. "I think to him, those plays were his whole career," says Lane's father, Ezell. "He really struggled with it."

Lane didn't take the team bus back to the hotel after the Patriots' loss. He showered and changed quickly and walked out of the stadium. No interviews. No conversations. "I didn't want anything to do with anybody," he says. "Like Forrest Gump running cross-country, I just wanted to get away." The sacks didn't cost the Patriots the game. As Zolak points out, they lost matchups "all over the field that day." Still, the sense of letting his teammates down lingered with Lane. "We were such a tight team that year," he says. "I hated not being able to make those plays for those guys."

It has been difficult to work through that feeling. "I'll tell you what," he says, "it's tougher than what people think to get over something like that." Patriots coach Bill Parcells (who was heading out the door for the job with the Jets) told Lane to take it as a challenge and be ready the next time he faced White, an opportunity that never came. Other guys on the squad told him to keep his head up. Fans in the streets of Boston would tell him he'd done a good job. But as time passed, Lane says there wasn't much opportunity, or inclination on his part, to talk about what happened. "It's been more internal than anything," he says. "I guess it's hard. But guys are guys. We don't talk about these kinds of things much."

Ezell had often teased Max to get him out of a funk, a father's way of putting things in perspective for his son. Since he had gone away to the Naval Academy, they had spoken by phone several times a week, and his dad would talk him through a post-mortem after every game. In the days leading up to the Super Bowl, Ezell poked at Max to cut the tension. "You take it easy on Reggie White," he said. "Don't you hurt him now." They'd both laugh. "I quit saying that after the game," Ezell says now, his voice falling like a leaf. "We hurt for him. We knew he was hurting, and there wasn't anything we could do to take it away."

Lane played three-and-a-half more seasons with the Patriots, reaching the playoffs twice more, but he never played in another Super Bowl. In 2000, he broke his leg near the knee in a game against Cleveland in the sixth week and was unable to recover. He was picked up, but later cut, by the Houston Texans and retired in 2002 after an eight-year, 100-game career. Over the years, he has replayed the confrontations with White in his head. "I always think in terms of what I could have done differently," he says. He avoided video clips from the game like the plague, though. He'd excuse himself to the bathroom or the kitchen if the game came on ESPN Classic. He stayed away from replays in the days after White died of pulmonary failure in December 2004. "It was like I felt if I just didn't watch it, maybe it didn't happen," Lane says.

Something his father said finally spurred him to watch the clip. "Look at it this way," Ezell joked one day. "That was Reggie White, that was the Super Bowl -- you're in the Hall of Fame!" In fall 2000, the Patriots were playing the 49ers in the Hall of Fame Game in Canton, Ohio. Lane visited the hall the night before the game. He stood before a wall dedicated to Super Bowl highlight reels in one of the display rooms, shifting from foot to foot, sneaking glances over each shoulder. "And finally I thought, 'All right, I'm gonna do it!' " he says. He selected Super Bowl XXXI, hit "play," and the reel began to roll. As game time elapsed, he thought about walking away, but he held his ground. Here came Favre's sneak, then Curtis Martin's touchdown run up the gut in the third quarter, then Desmond Howard's kickoff return for a touchdown. The sacks were next. He dug in, got his balance ... and the reel stopped! Howard's return was the end of the highlights. He was spared by the Hall. "I couldn't believe it," he says. "But I'll tell you what, I didn't push the button a second time!"

That was more than five years ago, and until his cooperation with this story (see accompanying video), Lane still hadn't watched the sacks. When he finally did, for the first time in nine years, the impulse to look away still raged: "It's like 'Oh! I don't want to watch that!' It's like watching somebody get, like, a bad knee injury. Reggie gives me that classic cut move, and I'm like, 'Oh! That hurt!' " But it's not seeing the plays that stings the most, it's the way they work, like some wicked Wonderlandian rabbit hole, to send him tumbling back to the emotions he felt on Super Bowl Sunday, it's the way the footage makes the disappointment and frustration real and present all over again:

"The feeling and the memory of it are worse than watching it. You know watching it, it's just on a tape, and it's over, but it's not over in my head. I've got it up in my head forever."

Sara White worries when she hears that kind of thing. "Does he see that it was a game, that he and Reggie were doing their jobs?" she asks. "I understand that the guys take it very personally and it's not just a game to them, but at the same time, it's not life, right?"

For all his lingering angst, Lane sees that. Regular conversations with Ezell (about the game, about the weather, about nothing at all) and time to reflect have allowed him to see, as his dad sees, the accomplishment woven into the disappointment. "It was a hard day, but it was also a special day," Ezell says. "We were just so thankful that he had done what he had. We were awfully pleased and proud to see him have the honor of playing in a Super Bowl."

Lane knows it's crazy that a kid from Norborne, Mo., could make The Show. He has come to the realization that a few bad plays don't have to erase the other 60-odd plays that went well that day, or the years of hard work he put in leading up to them, either. He understands that once upon a time, as a sixth-round draft pick so afraid of being cut he scurried and hid from Parcells in the halls of the Patriots training camp offices, he lived and thought only in terms of the next day, next game, next season. He gets it ... now. He's not happy about those plays, but he does experience his ride as the magical mystery tour it was.

In the end, for Lane, it's not, as Sara White says, that it's "just a game," it's that it's the game. It's that he played in it, and played hard. And even more than that, it's that he has managed over the years (in ambivalent fits and starts, sure) to make a kind of peace with what went wrong. That peace began with isolation and avoidance, but lately it's blossoming into something that would warm Sara White's heart.

Turns out when Lane isn't dredging up the past for me, and squirming through videotape rehearsals of his most disappointing professional moment, when he isn't rooting around in the bad feelings, he's throwing himself, banged-up knee and all, right back into the game.

He's running classes and clinics for high school-age offensive linemen in and around New England and giving talks about his experiences to young players and their families. "It's pretty small starting out," he says. "But I think it could be something special."

Indeed. You can just see it, right? There'll be classes in the morning on keeping your weight over your inside foot, and sessions in the afternoon on keeping things in perspective.