Priceless Super Bowl moments: The helmet catch

Among the thousands of images left behind by America’s biggest sporting event, a few live on as indelible. During this week leading up to Super Bowl LIII in Atlanta, we look back daily on a select precious moment and appreciate the story behind it. Third in a seven-part series.

David Tyree is not in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. But his helmet is, so, that’s something.

It’s the helmet, the one that co-starred in what is arguably the Super Bowl’s flashiest catch, that gets the display in Canton because, well, who makes a crucial big-game reception with his helmet? It is, after all, The Helmet Catch.

Today, no longer the New York Giants player, but rather the team’s director of player development and the father of seven children, Tyree looks back 11 years later and remains just as thankful as ever.

More on the series

» 1967 Super Bowl: A cigarette and a Fresca
» 1998 Super Bowl: John Elway goes helicopter
» 1973 Super Bowl: Who stole my watch?
» 1969 Super Bowl: The poolside guarantee

“People always try to bring the luck equation in,” he said during a mid-January interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I don’t believe in luck. Call it a miracle, call it providence – whatever you want to call it. It was a gift, I was the recipient of something that was special in the fabric of this great game.”

Settting the Super Bowl XLII scene, on third-and-5 on the Giants 44-yard line, literally last minute with New England leading 14-10, it goes something like this:

Did that just happen?

Did Eli Manning – hardly the slipperiest eel in the quarterback aquarium – just evade nearly every Patriot defender, desperately retreat and heave the ball a second before being leveled?

And did Tyree – hardly the most glamourous star in the receiving firmament – just go up with Rodney Harrison draped all over him and win the fight for the football? But only after pinning it with his right hand high against his helmet and somehow holding it there when crashing to the ground? Nope, never, ever seen that before.

On every further review, it’s difficult to tell which was the most improbable aspect of the play: Manning’s evasive maneuvers (at one point a defender had a handful of his jersey and stretched it to almost the ripping point) or Tyree’s catch.

“My initial reaction was – partially because I didn’t know that ball was on my head – I was overwhelmed with Eli’s ability to make that play,” Tyree said.

“Anyone can equally say the same thing about me from an athletic feat because I probably have one of the worst vertical jumps for a black guy, and that makes (the catch) miraculous by nature. Maybe tip the hat to Eli because you can blow on him and he might fall over.”

As Tyree recalls it, his vertical was measured at just over 31 inches coming out of college. “For athletic guy, that’s pretty bad. I was known to be a gamer,” he confessed.

The play gained 32 yards, an undoubtedly sapped even the Patriots deep reserve of resolve. There would come another catch four plays later – Manning to Plaxico Burress in the endzone for the game-winner – but even that one will be eternally overshadowed by The Helmet Catch.

Credit: Gene Puskar

Credit: Gene Puskar

Ruined in the upset was New England’s unbeaten season, as it looked to join the 1972 Miami Dolphins upon that summit.

But gained was a special place for Tyree in the annals of equipment-aided big receptions.

Before the catch, Tyree had made his mark – and earned Pro Bowl status – as a special teamer. In five seasons with the Giants, he totaled a modest 54 receptions and 650 yards. His only touchdown reception the entire 2017 season came earlier in that Super Bowl against the Pats.

So, while every player is more than his best or worst moment, Tyree does acknowledge the great difference that one play can make. “It changes drastically from the standpoint of how I would be viewed – not from my personal perspective but from the world’s perspective,” he said. “For me it’s a treasure, because before I grew as a man and a man of faith as well, I had the desire to make an impact on the game, to be remembered. I wanted to do something significant. At that time in my career, I was content with having a solid career, being a pro bowler. But at the same time being a part of the history of the game is something I never could imagine.”

The late Steve Sabol of NFL Films declared Tyree’s the best Super Bowl catch ever. And while he has never debated the point with other Super Bowl receiving luminaries like Pittsburgh Steelers’ Lynn Swann or Santonio Holmes or New England’s Julian Edelman or teammate Mario Manningham, Tyree has one irrefutable argument.

“One thing I’ve never done is outrightly try to rank it,” he said. “Of course, I think it’s obvious where I would rank it if I had to. But anytime there is a great catch in the Super Bowl, I think it’s safe to say there is no other catch they compare it to.” Because, hey, who else has caught one off the helmet?

Injuries would sabotage Tyree’s 2008 season, and a comeback with the Baltimore Ravens was unproductive in 2009. So, guess which reception stands as his parting statement.

“I’ll match my last catch against anybody’s,” he said.