How the Bucs' Bert Emanuel overcame the non-catch that forged his legacy

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Twenty years ago today -- on Jan. 23, 2000, in the NFC Championship Game between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and St. Louis Rams -- wide receiver Bert Emanuel caught a pass he thought would propel the Bucs to the Super Bowl.

Instead, a controversial ruling determined it was incomplete, snuffing out Tampa Bay's final drive. The Bucs lost 11-6.

The ruling haunted Emanuel for nearly two decades, pushing him away from the sport he loved, and is part of a growing list of NFL controversial non-catches, such as the overturned Dez Bryant catch against the Packers in the 2014 NFC playoffs.

“When you go through a moment like that -- where you’ve kind of got the weight of not only the team, but the city and the fans across the world on your shoulders -- I don’t think people really understand what goes into those moments,” Emanuel said.

“Regardless if it’s your fault or not, you feel like you let people down. And those are things you have to live with for a long, long time.”

And so he stayed away -- from the NFL, from the city of Tampa and from the Bucs, believing the mere mention of the name ‘Emanuel’ was too painful for some to hear -- until his teenage son and namesake, Bert Emanuel Jr., brought him back.

Inside the catch that wasn't

It was second-and-23 from the Rams’ 35-yard line, with 51 seconds left on the clock and the Bucs trailing 11-6 with a chance to go to the Super Bowl if they scored.

Rookie quarterback Shaun King found Emanuel on a whip route, where he ran down and across the field, diving for a 12-yard catch that advanced the Bucs to the 23-yard line. Side judge Walt Anderson ruled it a catch. A timeout was called.

As Emanuel made his way over to the sideline, Dungy said to him, “Hey, look, are you ready to go to the Super Bowl?”

Emanuel responded, “I’m ready.”

The Bucs had never been to the Super Bowl but were on the brink.

He and Dungy discussed the next series of plays, including what they thought would be the game-winning touchdown, with Emanuel running a corner route into the back of the end zone.

That’s when head referee Bill Carollo came over and told them, “We’re gonna review the last play,” Emanuel said.

“[Coach Dungy and I] were like: ‘What do you mean review the last play? What are you reviewing?’"

It took more than 90 seconds. It was the NFL’s first season with instant replay, but no replays were shown inside the TWA Dome.

John Madden said on the Fox broadcast, “I don’t think you can take that one away.”

The call was overturned. It was ruled an incomplete pass because while Emanuel maintained control of the pass, the tip of the ball touched the ground.

"It was apparent that the player, as he was catching the ball, he used the ground and the tip of the ball hit the ground," Carollo said after the game. "By rule, you cannot use the ground or have assistance from the ground to make a catch."

Two plays later, the game was over and the Buccaneers' Super Bowl dreams were dashed.

“It was gut-wrenching,” cornerback Ronde Barber said.

“I’m sitting at my locker and it’s just total silence," Emanuel said. "I mean, you could literally hear a pin drop.”

After about five minutes, Warren Sapp looked over at him and said, “Hey, are you gonna say anything to the guys standing behind you?”

“I turned around and I promise you, I’ve never seen that many reporters ... that were just so respectful of the moment,” Emanuel said. “I remember Peter Gammons said, ‘Bert, did you catch it?’ And I’m just like, ‘Yeah, I mean, yeah.’ I don’t even know if I finished the sentence.

“It has haunted me since that day, because as a player, I felt like I did everything that I was trained to do,” Emanuel said. “I came out of my break, I dove for the ball, I squeezed it, I pulled it to my chest -- and to me, it wasn’t even a very high-difficulty play -- it was just kind of routine. And so I’ve lived with that scenario of, ‘Maybe I cost us the chance to go to the Super Bowl.'"

Dungy didn't see a replay until the next day, according to the Tampa Bay Times. "I was flabbergasted," Dungy told the Times. "I immediately called the league office and said, 'This has been a catch for 100 years and it always will be a catch.'"

‘The city was in upheaval’

The next day back in Tampa, Emanuel was mobbed at Idlewild Baptist Church, to the point that he and his family had to be escorted out the back door.

“It was so chaotic,” Emanuel said. “When I walked in, people just went crazy.”

The same thing happened when the family went out to eat and when he went to the gas station down the road from his home in Cheval.

“The city was in upheaval,” Emanuel said. “I mean, people were angry. The city wanted to boycott the Super Bowl.”

Out of concern for his family’s safety, he flew them to Houston, where they watched as the Rams beat the Tennessee Titans in the Super Bowl.

“I didn’t cheer. I didn’t say much,” Emanuel said. “I just kept thinking, ‘That should have been us.’”

That offseason, the NFL changed the rule, which came to be known as the “Bert Emanuel Rule,” which meant that the ball can touch the ground as long as the player maintains control of it through the process.

“The referees blew it and the NFL blew it,” Emanuel said. “They actually admitted it later that they blew it.”

'Where’s the catch?’

For 16 years, Emanuel tucked away that painful memory in a place he never planned to revisit. He avoided interviews and stayed away from team reunions, although he’s kept in touch with Dungy and former teammates like King, Derrick Brooks and John Lynch.

King never blamed Emanuel.

“I hope he doesn’t feel bad," said King, "because it wasn’t his fault. ... All of us probably look back on that game and feel like if we just did one little thing different, the result would be different. But that’s football.”

Four years ago, Emanuel's then-12-year-old son, Bert Jr. -- also known as B.J. -- started asking questions.

“Dad, I see all your memorabilia in here, but where’s the catch?” B.J. asked.

Emanuel said, “You know what, son, it’s just one of those things I never wanted to be reminded of.”

B.J. responded, “Dad, you have an NFL rule. You literally have changed the game. Don’t you think that’s something to be proud of?”

Emanuel told his son, “I don’t know if I’m proud of it or not. I’ve been struggling with that.”

B.J. found the number to the Tampa Tribune newspaper and urged his father to call it.

“Hey, my name is Bert Emanuel. I used to play for the Bucs and almost 20 years ago, I had a controversial catch that kept us out of the Super Bowl and I wanted to know if you guys had a picture of it,” Emanuel recalled saying.

The man on the other end of the phone said, “We’ve been waiting on your call for 17 years. The picture is in a vault and it’s yours. And if you’d like it, we’ll overnight it to you.”

“I almost cried,” Emanuel said. “I was just in awe of the fact that something like that was protected for all these years, only for me.”

Emanuel received a package with an 8-by-10 of the photo the next day.

“Tears just went down my face. Because it was iconic,” Emanuel said.

“At first, I always used to say, ‘It wasn’t a catch.’" B.J. said, "because I never saw it. He showed me the picture and I go, ‘Oh, so it was a catch.' ... I could tell it was a catch and how the call was wrong.”

Emanuel called in the nick of time. The Tribune was purchased by its rival, the Tampa Bay Times, and ceased publication in May of 2016. The building was demolished in 2017.

“It could have been lost forever,” said Emanuel, who credits B.J. for changing his mindset.

“He just really cut through all the years of frustration and isolation and just said, ‘Hey, look, you need to embrace this,’” Emanuel said. “‘Because maybe it wasn’t positive for you, but I think it’s something that can be positive for the game and everybody else that comes after you.’”

‘Nobody knows what a catch is’

Emanuel actually met with the NFL a few years ago in hopes of simplifying the rules.

The catch rule was revised in 2018 to where a player is now no longer required to maintain control of the ball through the process of going to the ground.

It also stated that a player must control the ball and have two feet down or another body part. It defined a ‘football move’ as a third step, reaching or extending for the line to gain, or the ability to perform such an act.

“The rule is right, but the interpretation of the rule has been vague and has failed us as fans, as former players, as existing players, as existing coaches, because nobody knows what a catch is,” Emanuel said. “We don’t need technology to make commonsense decisions.”

He believes it’s all about officials understanding the mindset of receivers.

“When you see the Dez Bryant catch and you see him extending -- he had control over the ball, otherwise he wouldn’t have extended. And so that’s where I think talking more to players that have trained for years in perfecting the craft of catching and getting their perspective and then having referees sitting in on that and understand from the receiver’s standpoint -- if that doesn’t happen then I think we’re going to consistently have misrepresentations of potential catch[es].”

‘I get to carry on his legacy’

For four years, the photo has sat inside a plastic sleeve on a desk in Emanuel’s home office as Emanuel has toted B.J. off to countless camps and 7-on-7 tournaments. He’s even taken up a job in football, working for the new XFL’s Houston Roughnecks.

“I still don’t know what to do with it. ... It’s just interesting to me how one moment can define a lot of different things.”

He has finally gotten to a place of acceptance, understanding that he may not have a Super Bowl ring (he was on the New England Patriots in 2001 but was cut prior to their win), but he did have an impact on the game.

“Having that conversation with my son -- he sees me as his hero. He sees me as someone that’s changed the game and that’s a big deal to him. He’ll always be able to say, ‘My dad has an NFL rule. As a matter of fact, I have the same name.’ … He’s actually made me accept it more,” Emanuel said.

“Me and my dad’s bond is unbreakable,” B.J. said.

B.J. suggests hanging the photo by their front door or in his father’s room, hanging above all his old jerseys. But then he switches to the garage, where the two are building a home gym. B.J., now a 6-foot-3, 180-pound dual-threat high school quarterback, has NFL dreams of his own.

“I really do want to make it to the league,” B.J. said. “Like I get to carry on his legacy in the league and get to continue to wear the Emanuel name on my back.”

“It would be pretty awesome seeing ‘Emanuel Jr.’ on the back of a jersey,” Bert said.

Added B.J., “That’s my biggest dream.”