LeRoy Butler

"I had a lot of respect for him just trying that. Because he could have had his head taken off."

LeRoy Butler doesn't diminish his pride. When Green Bay faced Denver in Super Bowl XXXII, the then-Packers safety knew what kind of defense his teammates had boasted during that 1997 season. "Any time somebody created a first down on our defense, I was shocked," said Butler, whose team ranked fifth in the NFL in points allowed that season. "That's how good we were."

Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway understood that as well, particularly when his team lined up for a critical third-and-6 play midway through the third quarter of that contest. Butler had studied the Broncos all week and knew what the scouting reports had said. When Elway dropped back at the Packers' 13-yard line for what would probably be a pass, you had to take away his first and second options. Once that happened, he'd either throw the ball away or force it into a tight area. If Elway ran -- which the Packers didn't think likely -- he was going to slide.

As soon as the play started, Butler figured the Packers had Elway in trouble. The Broncos had designed the play to go to tight end Shannon Sharpe, but Butler and Eugene Robinson shadowed him off the line of scrimmage. When Elway stepped up in the pocket and darted to his right, Butler sensed the quarterback still might have another trick in mind.

"What honestly went through my mind was that he was going to run towards me and fake like he was going to throw it, then hope I jump, and then run right around me," Butler said. "So I kept telling myself, 'Don't jump, don't jump.' But every step he took, I took two. At that point, he had to make his mind up."

The decision Elway chose ran counter to everything Butler had been told going into the contest. Instead of searching for a safe place to slide, Elway saw Butler and his two teammates -- linebacker Brian Williams and safety Mike Prior -- and dived in hopes of reaching the first down. Butler collided with the quarterback in midair at roughly the same time Prior crashed into Elway's backside. Elway spun sideways in a fashion reminiscent of a helicopter propeller, but that wasn't what confounded Butler. "I saw the ball at the last minute and I was like, 'Ooh, I'm going to create a fumble,'" Butler said. "But he held onto it real tight."

Elway's play ignited the Broncos' sideline and shot his team's confidence to unbreakable levels. There were many more plays left in a game Denver eventually won 31-24. But none seemed as critical -- or as devastating to Green Bay -- as the first down Elway gained on what would be a 13-play, 92-yard touchdown drive to put Denver ahead 24-17.

To this day, Butler equates that moment to losing a basketball game to Michael Jordan on a last-second shot. He respected the fact that Elway was willing to nearly "have his head taken" off on the play, but he also laughs at a brief detail most people never saw afterward. "I just looked at him, and he just smiled and pointed to me like, 'I will never do that again,'" Butler said. "[As if to say] maybe that wasn't a good idea."

-- Jeffri Chadiha and Larry Graham, ESPN.com

Elway, shown diving for a crucial first down in Super Bowl XXXII,

said, "It's certainly my favorite play ever."

Photo: Sporting News/Getty Images