Play of a lifetime

Super Bowl XLIII: Steelers 27, Cardinals 23

Originally Published: December 14, 2009
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James HarrisonAl Bello/Getty Images

Technically, Ben Roethlisberger's 6-yard touchdown pass to Santonio Holmes with 35 seconds left -- a breathtaking and exquisite piece of work by all parties involved -- was the difference in Super Bowl XLIII.

Back on Feb. 1, the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Arizona Cardinals 27-23 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. It represented the proud franchise's record sixth Super Bowl victory and was, from end to end, perhaps the most exciting championship game on record.

Yet afterward, most Steelers players pointed to another play, spectacular but understandably overshadowed, an improbable feat of cunning and perseverance by linebacker James Harrison that ended the first half.

"That's the difference in the game," insisted Steelers safety Troy Polamalu afterward. "I can honestly tell you. We had a defensive touchdown. They didn't."

First of all, Harrison wasn't supposed to be there, lurking in the passing lane between Cardinals quarterback Kurt Warner and wide receiver Anquan Boldin in the end zone. It was the story of his life; Harrison is the youngest of 14 children and had been cut four times by NFL teams (three times by the Steelers) before landing on the roster for the final time as a very free agent.

Pittsburgh was nursing a 10-7 lead, but Arizona seemed on the verge of heading to halftime with an uplifting last-minute touchdown. With 18 seconds left, Warner dropped back. Harrison, responsible for running back Tim Hightower if he ran a pass route, drifted back and disrupted an attempted pick play by Boldin and fellow receiver Larry Fitzgerald. When Warner let go of a quick slant pass on the right side underneath to Boldin, he never saw Harrison, who jumped forward and beat Boldin to the ball at the goal line.

"He certainly wasn't supposed to draw up to get the slant on Fitzgerald," said Steelers' defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau. "But he was in the area for sure, and James' instincts just took over."

Harrison is not the fastest runner. Still, he proceeded along the right sideline with admirable efficiency. Three Cardinals got a piece of him along the way, including Warner and Fitzgerald. He came perilously close to stepping out of bounds and, on one occasion, losing the ball. Fitzgerald hit him just short of the goal line, but Harrison's knee actually landed on the Cardinals receiver and he bounced headfirst into the end zone as time expired.

"To be honest," the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year said later, "I didn't think I could make it all the way back."

The play went for 100 yards, the longest in Super Bowl history, 1 yard more than Desmond Howard's wondrous 99-yard kickoff return in the Packers' victory over the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI.

More important, instead of giving the Cardinals a four-point lead and a jolt of adrenaline heading into halftime, it brought the Steelers a 17-7 lead. It was a margin that would save them in the cathartic fourth quarter, when Arizona would score 16 unanswered points and nearly complete the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.

The crowd of 70,000 was still buzzing when Bruce Springsteen took the stage during halftime. His last three songs were "Born to Run," "Working on a Dream" and "Glory Days."

They all seemed appropriate as the soundtrack to Harrison's superb play.
--Greg Garber