The greatest defensive play in NFL history

Nearly 14 years later, The Tackle remains unforgettable for all involved

Kevin Dyson claps his hands, turns and jogs to the line of scrimmage. No. 87 for the Tennessee Titans is in what he calls “that non-existent mindset.” No nerves. A calm confidence. There are 72,625 fans losing their minds in the Georgia Dome, but Dyson can’t hear a thing. Six seconds are on the clock, Super Bowl XXXIV hangs in the balance, and 10 yards separate the Titans from that blue-and-yellow end zone and a chance to extend this game beyond four quarters. The St. Louis Rams are up 23–16. And there is no doubt in Kevin Dyson’s mind that this baby is going to OT.

Titans quarterback Steve McNair takes the snap and Dyson bolts to the five-yard line. He cuts hard left, then pulls a perfect pass out of the air. The Utah-born receiver sprints for the end zone. “I remember how vivid, how yellow the paint was beyond the goal line,” Dyson says now, nearly 14 years later. “It was right in my grasp.”

Count down, out loud, from six. That’s how long it takes for all this to transpire on a Sunday in January: An undrafted kid becomes a hero, a coach makes good on his second and final chance to win a title and a then-24-year-old is forever haunted by what could have been. All in six ticks of the big hand, seconds that stand today as some of the most climactic and memorable in Super Bowl history.

Rams coach Dick Vermeil never expected a game this close. He swears his heart damn near blew out of his chest on the sideline as Dyson made that catch on Jan. 30, 2000. At kickoff, Vermeil thought the Rams were the better team, a funny thing considering St. Louis won four games a season earlier. Back then, the coach didn’t dare dream his team would be playing for a world championship. Nobody did. The Titans had a shot at their first Super Bowl title thanks to a wild card berth, but the Rams had produced one of the greatest single-season turnarounds in NFL history to get there. St. Louis had the second-most losses in the NFL through the 1990s (Cincinnati earned that distinguished title), and before week one of the 1999 season, they lost starting quarterback Trent Green to a season-ending knee injury. The Rams backup was an undrafted kid from Northern Iowa whose middle name was Eugene. “We’d seen Kurt Warner play, I mean, he was on the team,” says former Rams linebacker Mike Jones, laughing. “But we were worried. And none of us—and if anyone says otherwise, they’re telling you a story—none of us knew that Kurt was going to be the quarterback that he was. Well, except for maybe Kurt.” One of Jones’s favourite memories: week four, and Warner tosses up an interception to Ray Lewis. Then the former Arena League Football star hunts down the greatest middle linebacker in history and takes him down. Says Jones: “We’re all looking, going, ‘Wow. It’s on.’ ”

Warner carried the Rams to a 13-3 regular season—identical to the Titans’ record—to finish atop the NFC West. A Rams team that had grown accustomed to losing quickly got used to winning.

“A minute and 54 seconds away!” Vermeil’s right index finger is pointing furiously at his defence as he paces the sidelines in his blue-and-yellow windbreaker. St. Louis just scored on a 73-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Isaac Bruce, taking a 23–16 Super Bowl lead. Warner’s lone completion of the fourth quarter came just in time. “The only way they can beat us is throw it,” Vermeil yells, “and his ass is scrambling!” The ass he’s referring to is that of “Air” McNair. And Vermeil is concerned. He knows his defence is worn out. His fears are confirmed as the Rams make tired and uncharacteristic errors, jumping offside and missing tackles. Then comes the 26-second mark and a request from left defensive end Kevin Carter. “YOU WANT OUT OF THE GAME WITH 26 SECONDS TO GO?” Vermeil yells. Carter thinks he’s going to vomit, but he trudges back onto the field.

The second-last play of the game. The Titans at third and five on the Rams’ 26-yard line, 22 seconds left. McNair is forced out of the pocket by Carter and defensive end Jay Williams. They get hands on McNair’s blue jersey, on his white pants, but the shifty Titans QB stays on his feet. The Rams’ big men run into each other, and McNair completes a 16-yard pass to Dyson. Time out Titans. Six seconds to go, 10 yards out.

The worst part: The Rams saw this play coming. Defensive coordinator Peter Giunta called the hook and lateral, his guys were ready. “We’re looking at each other like, what just happened?” Jones says. “We had that play covered left to right and they still make it. It was demoralizing coming to the sidelines. Before we knew it, we’re at the [10]-yard line trying to figure out why in the world this game isn’t over with.” Vermeil tells Giunta: “Get ready for overtime.”

The Titans have every reason to believe they’re going to tie this thing up. They’re on a 78-yard march and the Rams are gassed. The offence has worked on this next play relentlessly, and they always get 10 or 11 yards, exactly what’s needed to force the first overtime in Super Bowl history. Here’s the plan: Tight end Frank Wycheck will act as a decoy and run a straight route down the seam, attracting the attention of Jones. Dyson will run five yards upfield, then cut underneath Wycheck, catch the ball at the five and run it in for the touchdown. Jones is waiting for the snap. He’s staring down Wycheck, thinking: “He doesn’t see me. I’m going to kill this guy.” Vermeil is pacing the sidelines. “All right guys, last play of the game!”

It goes according to script. Jones tracks Wycheck while Dyson runs his route. The moment McNair sees the back of Jones’s jersey, that No. 52, he unloads the pass to Dyson. But while Jones runs with Wycheck, he watches Dyson. He sees Dyson’s eyes get big, and Jones changes his focus. It’s his job to take the first inside release, and here it is. Dyson catches the ball on the five and Jones is there by the time he reaches the four. Jones’s left arm comes down on Dyson’s left knee, and as the Titans receiver tries to run, Jones wraps him up, knocks him off balance and stops him in his tracks. Dyson falls to the turf, he bounces, his left hand and entire six-foot-one, 208 lb. frame stretched out with that football, reaching for the vivid yellow paint, inches away. And just short. Dyson bounces again, rolls and stretches a second time. The ball crosses the goal line in his left hand. Every Ram on the field waves his arms, no. Vermeil jumps up and down at midfield, has no idea where the tackle was made, had no view. The referees need only a couple seconds to confer, and they’re waving their arms, no. It’s over. Rams win. Vermeil’s arms shoot up in the air. “We’re world champions!”

Dyson lets go of the ball. He pulls up to one knee on the goal line, his eyes fixed on the turf and the blue and gold confetti as it falls at his feet. The 24-year-old learned at a young age never to show the opponent his pain, so he pulls himself to his feet. On his way to the locker room, he congratulates every Ram in his path. All Dyson wants to do is go home.

Not for a single moment did Dyson think it was enough. Hoped, like he’s never hoped for anything, but he knew it was over before that second reach. “I was clearly down,” the 38-year-old says, from his office at Stewarts Creek High School in Smyrna, Tenn., where he’s now assistant principal and head football coach. “You’re in a desperation situation. I knew that was it.”

This is “The Tackle”—the greatest defensive play in NFL history, the picture that’s framed above Vermeil’s desk at home in Pennsylvania. But Jones didn’t grasp the magnitude of what he’d done—“I tackle people, that’s what I do”—until hours later. “Then I thought, ‘Hey, that wasn’t a bad play,’” he says, laughing. Vermeil didn’t realize who’d made the play until he got to the locker room. It was appropriate, he figured, that the defensive leader of his team came up big. Vermeil’s voice breaks, though he doesn’t shed tears (that’s unusual for him, but he’s driving, so his focus is on the road) when he looks back on that season. “Very few people who play football for a living ever get to share the final seconds of a game like we got to share in that one,” he says. “Magic. Unforgettable.”

Dyson would agree with that last part, even if he wishes it weren’t true. He has watched every single one of his NFL performances, start to finish, except this one. Throughout his career, he wanted to know what he could have done differently on every play, except this one. “I know that I get to the biggest stage in my life, and I don’t get it done,” Dyson says. “I don’t necessarily need to relive that over and over again.” But he can’t avoid it. Dyson says The Tackle comes up, on average, once a day. It’s in commercials, on Twitter, part of highlight packages. Inescapable. And he graciously revisits it for those who ask him to, even if it hurts.

In the days after that loss, Dyson’s mouth broke out with 22 canker sores—his reaction to stress. The sight made his dental hygienist cry. He couldn’t eat. He had trouble sleeping. It was months before he stopped agonizing over what he could have done differently. “I’ve hit game-winning free throws, I’ve caught game-wining touchdowns,” Dyson says. “That was the first time the ball actually touched my hands and I didn’t get it done. And it was the biggest game of my life. It was hard for me, a hard pill to swallow.”

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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