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Mark Galli


On a Pass and a Prayer

Why we no longer believe in sports but should.

In the normal course of athletic affairs, 92 yards is nothing. It's a nine-second dash for some sprinters, and a mere one-minute stroll even for those of us nursing old sports injuries. But when the San Francisco 49ers stepped onto the field at Joe Robbie Stadium in Super Bowl XXIII, it must have looked like a mile. They had three minutes and 10 seconds to traverse the distance, and most spectators thought time had, for all intents and purposes, run out.

What stood in the 49ers' way were eleven massive and lightning-quick Cincinnati Bengals, one of the best defensive squads in the nfl, sitting on a 16-13 lead a mere 200 seconds from their first Super Bowl ring. They were prowling like lions, in no mood to give any ground. They'd heard the hype about the anointed Joe Montana (who already had two Super Bowl rings), but it was clear that he and the 12-6 49ers were past their prime.

But Randy Cross, who spent his Sunday afternoons that year hiking the ball to Montana, didn't hear the fat lady even warming up. Before the 49ers trotted on to the field for the last time, their center walked up and down the sidelines telling—make that screaming at—anybody he could find. "You gotta believe! You gotta believe!"

The mood in the huddle was businesslike—except for Montana, who wasn't nicknamed Joe Cool for nothing. As the players gathered in the huddle, Montana turned to tackle Harris Barton. "Hey, Harris," he said. "Check it out. There's John Candy."

The drive began with a couple of short passes and runs—Montana was, as usual, taking what the defense gave him, faithful in little. It wasn't much, and with 1:49 left, the 49ers had managed only to cross midfield. Another pass put them on the Cincinnati 35, but the next pass fell incomplete, followed by a penalty: Cross was downfield on a pass. Now it was second and 20 on the Cincinnati 45, with only 1:17 left.

"The crowd was so loud that I had to scream every word," Montana remembers. "And the excitement was just overwhelming. ...

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