There have been 56 Super Bowls played since the game debuted in 1967 but since then only one special teams player has been named MVP of the game and that was Desmond Howard of the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXI.
In that game, Howard broke or tied eight Super Bowl records, including longest kickoff return (99), most punt return yards (90) and most combined yards (244). His 99-yard kickoff return late in the third quarter of the game gave the Packers a commanding 35-21 lead and broke the backs of the New England Patriots who had just scored to pull within a touchdown.
“Desmond is unbelievable,” quarterback Brett Favre said after the game. “We love watching him play. He’s always got a way of turning a game around and putting it out of reach.”
Patriots head coach Bill Parcells added, “Desmond Howard is as important to the Green Bay Packers as any player, with the exception of Brett Favre.” That was high praise at that time.
The amazing thing is Howard almost didn’t make the Packers team in 1996. He was on the roster bubble entering the final preseason game against Pittsburgh and decided to play despite dealing with a hip pointer injury. He returned a punt for a touchdown in that game that secured his spot on the roster. He signed a one-year deal worth $308,000 with the Packers which prolonged his NFL career. Many people were already calling him a draft bust but he proved them wrong in 1996.
The former Heisman Trophy winner from the University of Michigan went from nearly being out of the league to winning a Super Bowl and being named MVP of the game. Along the way, he led the NFL in punt return yards with 875, average with 15.1 yards per runback and scored three touchdowns to lead the league in that category as well. He added another punt return for a score in the Packers first playoff game against the San Francisco 49ers.
In the Super Bowl, the Patriots tried to kick the ball short and away from Howard but it didn’t work and he was still effective and gaining good yardage on his returns.
But then came his big moment. Howard recalled the touchdown that clinched the game years later. “I saw Don Beebe lead up through the hole, and the hole got a little bigger. Don and I are on the smallish side when you talk about football players. We get our little bodies through the hole, and [Hason Graham] grabbed my facemask. I don’t know if a lot of people know that, but he grabbed my facemask. Then I looked and I saw [ kicker Adam] Vinatieiri.”
“Any returner worth his salt, when you see the kicker or the punter, you’re thinking: ‘I’m about to score.’ Unless there are some other guys close to him and they’ve kind of got you boxed in. Once I saw Vinatieri, I’m thinking, ‘OK, I’m taking this one to the house.’”
Guard Lindsay Knapp recalled his role on the play. “They were coming down and I made a call to switch with J.T.’s [Jeff Thomason] guy,” Knapp said. “So, I took his man, and the guy kind of played off me. I put a body on him, and all he got was a hand on Desmond.”
“It was a momentum-shifting, game-changing play,” Howard added. “They were on top of the world, they scored a touchdown and pulled within six. Then, in a blink of an eye, the wind was taken out of their sails and our sideline erupted in jubilation and excitement, with a whole bunch of newfound energy.”
“We were worried about him, but you can’t cancel the game,” Parcells added. “I credit him. He really made the plays. He made guys miss on his own.”
“It was disheartening. At that point we just were feeling we were getting back into the game,” Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe said. “It was a six-point game and we had the momentum. All of a sudden, he breaks that play and it’s back to a 14-point game.”
Even after scoring, Howard didn’t expect to win the game’s MVP. “I never thought I would get MVP,” Howard admitted. “It never crossed my mind until they actually announced it. It never crossed my mind because I’m not a stats guy. I’m really not. I just went out there and tried to do the best I could to put us in position to score points every time I got the opportunity. That was my goal, that was my job, that was my focus.”
Howard did not re-sign with the Packers in 1997. Instead, he joined the Oakland Raiders for two seasons before rejoining the Packers in 1999. He finished his career with the Detroit Lions in 2002.
Howard never became a factor as a receiver, but he was a very effective return specialist and his play with the Packers in 1996 was a big reason for the team’s successful season and their first Super Bowl title since the Lombardi Era.
He also joined Roger Staubach, Jim Plunkett and Marcus Allen as the only players to win the Heisman Trophy and be named MVP of the Super Bowl.
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