Shine on

The Saints sport last year's ring. Going into this year's Super Bowl, the Steelers have 29 rings between them while the Packers have a collective goose egg. Derick E. Hingle/US Presswire

This story appears in the February 7, 2011 issue of ESPN The Magazine.

ON THE NIGHT OF JUNE 7, 2009, three men wearing rubber gloves, rubber boots and black Ninja-like outfits scaled the walls of a Massachusetts jewelry manufacturer, bored through the roof with a saw blade, and made off with a half-ton safe. Nestled inside, among rare coins, gold plating, assorted jewelry and gems, were 27 rings that belonged to the front-office staff of the New York Giants. They had earned them by winning the Super Bowl.

On paper, the rings were valued at $172,000. But to the Giants, of course, they were worth a great deal more. In the 44 years since Vince Lombardi's Packers beat the Chiefs in Super Bowl I, the ring that goes to the NFL champs has become the most storied trophy in sports. Frank Sinatra owned one, purchased for him by Raiders owner Al Davis. The Kremlin has one, swiped in 2005 from the hand of Patriots owner Robert Kraft by Russian president Vladimir Putin, who had asked to see it while entertaining a group of U.S. businessmen, then slipped it into his pocket. (Kraft later declared it a gift.) The largest ring on record (size 25) belongs to former Bears defensive lineman William "Refrigerator" Perry. He had it designed to fit his middle finger. "More gold that way," he explained.

The Steelers and Packers, who play for the NFL's grand prize on Feb. 6, will tell you the ring's shine is irresistible. It wasn't always so. The first edition was downright austere compared to modern models. After meeting with Lombardi to review sketches, Ken Westerlund of Jostens rushed off to a Green Bay TV station, borrowed an air brush, and reworked the design to meet the coach's exacting standards. On the left side was the NFL logo. On the right, a crown from the Lombardi family coat of arms, framing the words Harmony, Courage, Valor. On the face, in the center of a white gold globe, was a full-cut, brilliant diamond measuring 1.0 point.

Prior to Super Bowl I, players were often rewarded with lapel pins, watch fobs, tie bars and once -- to mark a 1933 title won by Chicago -- bearskins. But the league seized the opportunity to create a single, sparkling symbol of excellence by offering to pick up the tab for each team's title rings. Players were slow to embrace the prize; the Super Bowl bonus check was the bigger deal. Not until the great tide of TV revenue lifted their salaries did the ring become the thing. After claiming four titles between 1975 and 1980, the Steelers put the sacred talisman on the map with a dreadful disco song: "We are the Steelers, the Super Steelers, We'll have one for the thumb in '81."

NFL owners gleefully joined in the fun, adding more gold and diamonds each year. After the Raiders beat the Vikings in the 1977 Super Bowl, Al Davis issued this edict: "I want to be able to wear the ring in front of the Queen of England and not be embarrassed." In 1982, after he had won his second title, the league handed down restrictions, which stand to this day. All rings must now be made of 10-karat plumb gold and weigh no more than 30 "pennyweight" (about 1.6 ounces). The diamonds are not to exceed 150 points for a first-time winner. And if the price tag exceeds $5,000 for any ring, the NFL insists it won't cover a penny of the bill.

Not that this has slowed the gem escalation. Some owners simply pick up the tab themselves, or pressure the manufacturer -- Jostens, Balfour, Tiffany or Diamond Cutters International -- to produce the rings at a loss. The companies cheerfully comply, as the cachet that comes from making the Super Bowl ring is a boon for business.

In 2004, Kraft ordered the grandest ring in history, 3.8 ounces of 14-carat white gold encrusted with 104 diamonds. Total points: 505. In 2005, he raised the gem count to 124. The copy that now sits in the Kremlin library was reported to be worth "substantially more" than $15,000. Last year, the Saints received $750,000-$5,000 apiece for up to 150 rings -- toward the purchase of their hardware. By modern standards, the design was, well, tasteful. Only 60 diamonds. The ring was unveiled to the players in June, after a private dinner. The feeling at the ceremony was best summed up by cornerback Tracy Porter, who Tweeted: GOT IT!!!!

Without a doubt, the ring's symbolic value is overrated. Brett Favre has only one, while Jason Garrett has two. But Walter Payton demonstrated that the keepsake does have its own peculiar magic. In 1996, the Bears Hall of Famer punctuated a pep talk he gave to the basketball team at Chicago's Hoffman Estates High by placing his 1985 title ring in the palm of Nick Abruzzo, the top shooter. Payton told him to hold onto it until the team had completed its playoff run. With gold in hand, the players battled their way to the state championship tournament. That's when their lucky charm disappeared. Hoffman lost its next game by a point. Payton (who would die of cancer in 1999) had to buy a duplicate ring.

In 2001, Phil Hong, a student at Purdue, was playing with a Doberman pinscher in his off-campus apartment when the dog's rubber ball rolled under a couch. Hong peered beneath the hand-me-down, which once belonged to Abruzzo's younger brother. There it was -- Payton's lost prize. It had traveled 600 miles, from one apartment to another and finally a third, before it had worked free of the couch's stuffing.

Hong did the honorable thing. He tracked down Payton's widow, and returned the ring. "Walter Payton was my lifelong idol," he said. "It is not my place to hold this ring."

If only the three men charged with lifting the Giants' treasures were as wise. When their case goes to court, they'll have to explain how one ring ended up on a dresser in one of their homes, not to mention the dozens more that turned up in a friend's safe deposit box.

Maybe they can blame it on Putin.