More than an ice storm: The agony and ecstasy of Super Bowl XXXIV

The following appeared in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s 48-page special section on Sunday previewing Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta. 

Dick Vermeil had a bad angle on one of the most dramatic plays in Super Bowl history.

The head coach of the St. Louis Rams didn’t know for a brief moment whether his team had won Super Bowl XXXIV over the Tennessee Titans on the final play.

He saw the tackle by Rams linebacker Mike Jones on Titans wide receiver Kevin Dyson. He just didn’t know whether the play was short of the end zone or a game-tying touchdown.

“I’m on the sideline and I couldn’t tell if they scored or if they didn’t score,” Vermeil told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently. “So, I walked out on the field and looked at the line judge to see if he put his hands up or crossed them by his knees. When he didn’t put his hands up, I knew they didn’t score. Then I knew we won the game.”

The scoreboard went final, 23-16, in favor of the Rams on Jan. 30, 2000 at Atlanta’s Georgia Dome. It would be the last Super Bowl played in Atlanta until the city was awarded Super Bowl LIII nearly two decades later.

After the play that ended on the 2-yard line, which has gone down in Super Bowl history as ‘The Tackle,’ the party started.

Confetti fell from the roof of the now demolished Georgia Dome. Rams tackle D’Marco Farr, one of the five remaining Los Angeles Rams on the team, was sprawled out on the field. (The team has since moved back to Los Angeles). Titans tight end Frank Wycheck was bent over in the endzone. Titans quarterback Steve McNair was consoled by head coach Jeff Fisher as they both knelt on the turf.

Agony and ecstasy in one moment.

Vermeil was being calmly escorted around the field. Rams quarterback Kurt Warner went into the stands to hug his wife, Brenda, after completing a miracle turnaround for him and the Rams.

“Winning it, that’s my best memory because we could have easily lost it there in the final seconds of the game,” Vermeil said. “Number one, I remember winning it. Number two, I remember the great comeback that Tennessee was making in the fourth quarter and I remember the last play of the game.”

The pain and emotional drain was real.

“Me personally, I didn’t watch the game for probably 10 years or so afterward,” Fisher told the AJC. “Only because I was asked to do a story on it. I sat down and went back through the play-by-play and watched the game. It was exactly how I expected it to be. It was a great finish by both teams, particularly our offensive effort on the last drive.”

The Titans took a hard road to Atlanta. They won a wild card game at home against the Buffalo Bills with the ‘Music City Miracle’ play. The Titans went on to beat the Indianapolis Colts and Jacksonville Jaguars to earn a trip to Atlanta.

“It was a disappointing ending, but certainly it was, you know … you can’t win them all,” Fisher said. “Somebody is going to go home with their head down. But we as an organization, we kept our chins up. We did our best to get back the next year.”

The tackle by Jones was selected as the top defensive play in Super Bowl history in “The Ultimate Super Bowl Book” by Bob McGinn.

“We felt like fate was on our side,” Dyson said years later in the book. “Look how we got there. We had to go through Jacksonville for the third straight time. We went to Indianapolis and the noise. Before that was the ‘Music City Miracle.’ We just felt like it was our game to win.”

If Tyson had scored, Fisher would have tied the game with an extra point kick and forced overtime.

“As coaches you always have to stay a little bit ahead even though you’re in an emotional moment,” Fisher said. “Our jobs are to manage games and make decisions. You stay focused and, yeah, I was going to kick the extra point. I expected to get in and was going to kick the extra point.

“I figured that we had a tremendous advantage in overtime. I wasn’t at that time, in that moment go for two (point conversion) and then rob the players of the chance to win a championship. Sometimes coaches’ decision, you know, can’t been arrived through predictive analytics. It’s a gut feel. That was my feel and that’s what got us there.”

For Vermeil, who’d left the game due to coaching burnout, it was a triumphant return to his profession.

Personally, at that time in my career, I had been out of coaching for 14 years, then we’d come over and taken over the team that had lost more games in the 90s than any other team in the National Football League,” Vermeil said.

“Also, all of a sudden we find ourselves playing for the world championship. It was more than a dream come true. Then all of a sudden, you win it all. It was just what you would call a highlight of a lifetime. That doesn’t happen to many people. It doesn’t happen to most people that coach. Let alone someone who left the league 14 years and comes back, takes over a losing team and wins it all. I’m so grateful to all of the people that made it happen.”

Vermeil, 82, who described himself as a born-and-raised Napa Valley wine guy, would retire for good after the 2005 season. He’s in the wine business today, Vermeil Wines.

“I do some speaking,” Vermeil said. “Company speaking engagements and that kind of stuff. I live on 100 acres. so I do a lot of work on it. So, I always have something to do. A lot of charity work, too.”

Fisher, who consulting for the Alliance of American Football League, wants to get back into coaching.

“I’m doing some consulting with them and watching the league real close hoping that I might get another opportunity,” Fisher said.

Warner was an unknown who salvaged his career by playing in the Arena Football League and NFL Europe. Just a few years earlier, he was the fourth quarterback in Green Bay Packers’ training camp behind Brett Favre, Ty Deter and Mark Brunell in 1994.

After taking a job packing groceries and making under $6 an hour, Warner played for the Iowa Barnstormers in the AFL. The Rams signed him to a futures contract in 1997 and sent him to NFL Europe to play for the Amsterdam Admirals.

The Rams turned to Warner after Trent Green, a high-priced free agent, suffered a season-ending knee injury in the exhibition season. Vermeil named Warner, who was undrafted after starting one season at Northern Iowa, his starting quarterback.

When Warner closes his eyes, he can still picture his 73-yard touchdown pass to Isaac Bruce that gave the Rams the lead for good.

That go-ahead pass isn’t only engrained in his mind just because it led the Rams to the team’s first Super Bowl. The play was poetic justice for Warner’s personal and career strife.

He’d finally arrived on the game’s grandest stage.

“I think the biggest thing was that whole season for me and then to finish that way with the ball in your hands with two minutes to go in the Super Bowl, that to me is what it’s all about,” Warner told the AJC. “It’s what you dream of in your front yard a million times. … You just couldn’t have written a better script for the entire season. But then it was the perfect script for the final game as well.”

In 1999, Warner earned several accolades as the season progressed. To go along with his Super Bowl MVP trophy, Warner was the league’s passing touchdowns leader, passer rating leader, NFL MVP and was voted an All-Pro and to the Pro Bowl. But the accomplishment that meant the most to Warner from that season was his hand in resurrecting the Rams.

Before the Super Bowl run, the Rams’ last winning season was 1989.

“I think the idea of where the Rams had been and what we were able to accomplish played huge (in the Super Bowl),” Warner said. “I look back at my career now and I was able to accomplish a lot of things like playing in three Super Bowls and winning some MVPs and stuff, but the thing that still sticks out to me that I’m most proud of is being a part of changing the identity of two different organizations. It started obviously with the Rams.”

Warner played 12 seasons in the NFL with the Rams, New York Giants and Arizona Cardinals and totaled 32,344 passing yards, 208 touchdowns and averaged a 65.5 percent completion percentage. He also played in two more Super Bowls before his retirement in 2009.

While players don’t have much time to experience Super Bowl host cities as they prepare for what will be one of the biggest games of their lives, the Rams and Titans had even less opportunity to experience Atlanta in 2000.

Over the weekend of Jan. 22-23, Atlanta experienced an ice storm which left more than 300,000 homes and businesses without power, some for several days. As Atlanta recuperated from the blast and prepared to host the Super Bowl, another storm hit on Jan. 28, 2000 that consisted of freezing rain and led damage across the city.

The impact of the storm not only limited teams from seeing the host city, but it brought concern the players’ families couldn’t physically get to the game or in the city at all.

“You dream of playing in the Super Bowl forever and you never dream that when you go to the Super Bowl you’re going to be practicing in the snow and ice and freezing cold outside where we practiced,” Warner said. “And then when your family is coming in, it was making sure that they got there safe and travel safe.

“That’s the thing I remember about the city more than anything else is it was so much about the game, but that was kind of the subplot there of people just getting into the stadium and the weather conditions outside that I think we were all grateful we were playing inside.”

JuliaKate Culpepper contributed to this report.