Former NFL players share stories of their Super Bowl TDs – ESPN

playHow scoring a Super Bowl TD can create a lifelong memory (0:53)

John Keim relates what scoring a Super Bowl touchdown has meant for players such as John Riggins. (0:53)

  • John Keim, ESPN Staff WriterFeb 9, 2024, 06:00 AM ETClose
      John Keim covers the Washington Commanders for ESPN. He joined ESPN in 2013 after a stint with the Washington Post. He started covering the team in 1994 for the Journal Newspapers and later for the Washington Examiner. He has authored/co-authored four books. You can also listen to him on ‘The John Keim Report’, which airs on ESPN Richmond radio, and follow him on Twitter @john_keim

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Scoring a touchdown is one thing; doing it in the Super Bowl is another. It can elevate a player into legendary status — regardless of what he had accomplished prior to the game or afterward.

For many players it might be the highlight of their career, or they could become a trivia answer. Of the feat’s significance, former NFL receiver Ricky Proehl, one of four players in history to score a Super Bowl touchdown for two different teams, summed it up best.

“You dream about that as a player, even as a kid growing up. I just want to play in a game that’s relevant, that means something,” he said. “There’s nothing like scoring a touchdown in the Super Bowl because it’s the biggest game and you know how many people are watching — family, friends all over the world.”

The memories don’t fade, even with time. ESPN spoke to 10 players who shared their memories of their big moments — some of which became iconic Super Bowl plays — and what it meant to them to achieve glory in the big game.

The first AFL TD

Curtis McClinton, fullback, Kansas City Chiefs
When: Super Bowl I, Jan. 15, 1967
Where: Los Angeles Coliseum
Final score: Green Bay Packers 35, Kansas City Chiefs 10

Chiefs FB Curtis McClinton had a 7-yard TD reception and later added a 27-yard reception. Rod Hanna/USA TODAY Sports

McClinton was the first player from the American Football League to score a touchdown in a Super Bowl. But all he knew at the time was that his 7-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Len Dawson tied the score at 7 with 10:40 left before halftime.

“That game was so important to all of us that the significance of scoring or the significance of just playing and being a part of it was to do what we had to do, and that was beat that club,” said McClinton, who is the only player who scored a touchdown in that game still living. “I tell you the one thing that was impressive to us was the audience. I mean, it was a packed stadium. Oh man. That was exciting — just the fact that we were in a packed stadium and for the Super Bowl.”

McClinton, 84, does share memories with his six grandkids on occasion; their classmates sometimes ask them about what it was like for him. He can tell them that he caught 154 passes in his eight-year professional career and that he rushed for 3,124 yards and scored 32 touchdowns overall.

But what he can also tell them is, unlike current players, he needed to hold down other jobs (the minimum salary for veterans that season was $10,000). Though the Chiefs’ players pocketed $7,500 for the game, McClinton had to report for work the next day as the executive director of the Black Economic Union in Kansas City.

“I had to make sure that I maintained my position because you never know,” McClinton said.

‘They’ve been asking me about this play for 50 years’

Mike Bass, special teams, Washington
When: Super Bowl VII, Jan. 14, 1973
Where: Los Angeles Coliseum
Final score: Miami Dolphins 14, Washington 7

Washington special teams ace Mike Bass (41) became lifelong friends with Dolphins kicker Garo Yepremian. David Boss/USA TODAY Sports

Bass had one job on special teams: a spy. On the rare chance a kick was blocked, his job was to go after the ball. Which is how he entered Super Bowl lore.

Miami was trying to wrap up a perfect season, holding a 14-0 lead with kicker Garo Yepremian attempting a 42-yard field goal to clinch the win. Bass listened for the thud of the kick.

“If there was a second one, then I obviously became very, very alert,” said Bass, who was listed at 6 feet, 190 pounds. “The minute I heard that second thud, my eyes went directly to Garo. We all want to get a chance to hit a kicker, and especially a kicker who was half our height (Yepremian was listed at 5-7, 175). I saw him grab the ball and I thought he was really going to just try to run it. And so here I had a chance to really hit a kicker. But then he tried to pass it, and I bore down on him and he hit [the ball] twice.”

Yepremian had attempted to throw the ball, but it slipped out of his hands and bounced off him and into Bass’ arms. He sprinted down the left sideline, past his teammates on the bench. Yepremian ran at him, but Bass feigned a cut inside and then kept down the sideline for a 49-yard touchdown return with 2:07 remaining. Bass also wondered if holder Earl Morrall, a backup quarterback, might get him. He didn’t.

“The ultimate embarrassment would be to have either a kicker tackle you or a quarterback tackle you,” he said.

Though Washington lost the game, 14-7, Bass said he has been asked about the play ever since. Miami’s perfect 14-0 season had some imperfect plays.

“They’ve been asking me about this play for 50 years,” Bass, now 78, said. “I haven’t won a dime on that play. I’ve never gotten 10 cents off of that play. But it is remembered, and Garo and I spent a lot of time after we both retired and we were great friends, obviously, and he passed away a few years ago. I remained very close to his wife as well and his son. But we’ve laughed about that for years, and it’s a memorable play. But of course, it’s the only thing that really is remembered about the Redskins because obviously nobody remembers who finished second.”

‘I’m basically a footnote that will win you a beer at the bar’

Randy Grossman, tight end, Pittsburgh Steelers
When: Super Bowl X, Jan. 18, 1976
Where: Orange Bowl, Miami
Final score: Pittsburgh Steelers 21, Dallas Cowboys 17

Steelers TE Randy Grossman got in the end zone in a Super Bowl before Lynn Swann or John Stallworth. AP Photo/Phil Sandlin

An undrafted free agent tight end who joined the Steelers with the famed 1974 draft class that included, among others, Hall of Famers Lynn Swann and John Stallworth, Grossman has the distinction of doing something before either one of them: scoring a touchdown in the Super Bowl — a 7-yard play-action pass from quarterback Terry Bradshaw.

“I’m basically a footnote that will win you a beer at the bar,” said Grossman, who was also the first Jewish player to score a Super Bowl TD.

Grossman won four Super Bowls in his seven years with the Steelers, playing alongside an array of greats from that ’74 class that also included Hall of Famers Jack Lambert and Mike Webster.

“You can’t really appreciate it until you get some distance from it and looking back on it,” Grossman said. “But yeah, it was a startling group of people that they had assembled. I mean, I was obviously the runt of the litter.”

He remembers the play well: the same one another tight end, Larry Brown, had scored on in the Steelers’ Super Bowl win the previous season. Grossman caught the pass during a game in which the movie Black Sunday was allowed to shoot footage.

“The only thing unusual about [the play] from my perspective is … I wouldn’t say that Terry didn’t have touch on his passes, but what I would say, you better buckle up and be ready,” Grossman said. “It was coming hot. And I was wide open and I’m expecting this heater to come flying at me. And he basically lobbed the thing to me and it was like a change-up. I actually almost dropped it. It was exciting. And every once in a while I get to relive it on the movie Black Sunday.”

‘It turns you into a folk hero for one play’

John Riggins, running back, Washington
When: Super Bowl XVII, Jan. 30, 1983
Where: Rose Bowl, Pasadena, California
Final score: Washington 27, Miami Dolphins 17

John Riggins cemented himself in Washington football lore with his fourth-down, 43-yard touchdown run/ Tony Tomsic/USA TODAY Sports

Everyone in the stadium knew Riggins was getting the ball. It was fourth-and-1, with Washington on the Dolphins’ 43-yard line and protecting a 20-17 lead with 10:28 remaining.

“Many millions of people watching knew what was going to happen,” Riggins said, knowing that the list of people included every Dolphin coach and defender. “It was just a matter of, am I going to the right or am I going to the left? I look back on it now and I feel like I missed an opportunity to do Babe Ruth and point where I was headed.”

He ran to the left, through Miami corner Don McNeal and into franchise lore as his touchdown run all but clinched Washington’s first Super Bowl victory — and first NFL championship since 1943.

“It turns you into a folk hero for one play,” said Riggins who, two nights earlier, had worn a top hat and tails and twirled a cane at a team party. “And it’s kind of similar to Joe Namath in a weird sort of way that really the one moment when he said, ‘I guarantee it’, when they beat the Colts … I didn’t buy a lot of drinks for a while. It made you an instant celebrity on a very high level here in this town.”

After the game, having been told that President Ronald Reagan spoke to coach Joe Gibbs, Riggins repeated a line he had told a teammate two weeks prior: “At least for tonight, Ron is president and I’m the king.”

Riggins was voted into the Hall of Fame in 1992.

“The great satisfaction that you get from having success at a very high level, it speaks for itself,” Riggins said. “The [Hall of Fame], and I don’t want to disparage anybody, but it’s a popularity contest so that’s all subjective. What happened in Pasadena was objective. And to me that’s the acid test or the crucible by which I think most people want to be measured.”

‘That was the only touchdown pass he threw’

Dan Johnson, tight end, Miami Dolphins
When: Super Bowl XIX, Jan. 20, 1985
Where: Stanford Stadium, Palo Alto, California
Final score: San Francisco 49ers 38, Miami Dolphins 16

Dolphins TE Dan Johnson was so sure he’d catch another TD pass from Dan Marino in Super Bowl XIX that he didn’t even keep the ball. AP Photo/Al Messerschmidt

Johnson has the distinction of being the only player to catch a touchdown pass in the Super Bowl from Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino. It was hard to imagine that would be the case, considering Marino had led Miami to the Super Bowl in only his second season.

Johnson had battled salmonella and appendicitis during Miami’s playoff run — the latter occurring two days before Super Bowl XIX against the 49ers.

“I had an appendicitis attack,” he said. “At midnight I go to the hospital, they gave me some type of medication and sent me home and the pain went away in probably four hours.”

Johnson got his reward in the first quarter. After catching a 21-yarder that brought Miami down to the 2-yard line, his number was called again.

“Danny put it there, and then that was it,” Johnson said. “We’re thinking we’re going to do this all game. … Everybody asked me, ‘You kept the ball right?’ I go, ‘No, we’re doing this all game. I might get two of them. I’ll wait until the second one.’ That’s how we were thinking because every game prior to that we were. I always spun the ball when I scored a touchdown and that’s what I did, just like it was a normal thing. The coolest thing is I had my brother, my mom and dad there.”

And not only did they think it would continue all game, but they figured Marino would play in many Super Bowls.

“I felt so bad for Danny. God, how can you be that good … and he just never got back,” Johnson said. “And then to come down to it, that was the only touchdown pass he threw. It was special in that way, it’s a big trivia question nowadays. But I really felt sad for Danny.”

‘I was just happy they believed and trusted me’

Howard Griffith, fullback, Denver Broncos
When: Super Bowl XXXIII, Jan. 31, 1999
Where: Pro Player Stadium (now Hard Rock Stadium), Miami
Final score: Denver Broncos 34, Atlanta Falcons 19

Broncos FB Howard Griffith kept both footballs with which he scored in Super Bowl XXXIII. AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

Once upon a time Griffith scored touchdowns — a lot of them. In fact, he scored a lot in one game. In 1990 as a senior at Illinois, Griffith scored an NCAA-record eight touchdowns. That’s one fewer touchdown than he had in eight NFL seasons. But he also managed to score twice in the biggest game of his life.

There was nothing fancy: two 1-yard runs — in the first quarter to make it 7-3 and in the fourth to make it 24-6. That gave Griffith one fewer career Super Bowl touchdown than the Hall of Fame back he blocked for — Terrell Davis. During walk-throughs the day before games, Griffith and Davis used to go over plays on their own. The day before this game, they went down to the goal line and walked through the play — Griffith said they were just messing around.

After all, Griffith said he did not recall them running this play that season until the Super Bowl.

“A lot of people that studied our film knew that whatever direction I stepped normally meant the ball went that way as well,” Griffith said. “But on this play we were able to get them to over pursue, and actually we call it the jab play. I take a jab to the right and TD goes that way. And then I come back to the left and they did a really good job on that side of giving me an opportunity to score a touchdown.

“I don’t know if I have the right words to put it into perspective. I was just happy they believed and trusted me.”

They wanted to trust him one more time when Denver reached the Atlanta 3-yard line in the fourth quarter.

“Right before we’re lining up they called timeout because they realized John [Elway] hadn’t scored yet, and they called a quarterback sneak and John scored on the next play,” Griffith said. “We can go back to the previous Super Bowl before against Green Bay. We line up and it’s a bootleg, and I’m wide open in the end zone, and John decides to run it in. You can get mad about it, but that was never my thing. John just said, ‘Buddy, I didn’t trust myself throwing, so I just ran it in.'”

Griffith has both touchdown balls at home; the memories linger.

“Every year around this time people are running highlights from our championship run or our Super Bowl game,” he said. “It’s kind of cool to sit back and be like, wow, this is some of the things you had an opportunity to accomplish.”

Curse you, Adam Vinatieri!

Ricky Proehl, wide receiver, St. Louis Rams and Carolina Panthers
When: Super Bowls XXXVI and XXXVIII, Feb. 3, 2002, and Feb. 1, 2004
Where: Superdome, New Orleans and Reliant Stadium (now NRG Stadium), Houston
Final scores: New England Patriots 20, Los Angeles Rams 17 and New England Patriots 32, Carolina Panthers 29WR Ricky Proehl scored for the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI and for the Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII. AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

Proehl has good reason to dislike Tom Brady and Adam Vinatieri. In two Super Bowls against the Pats, the duo ruined both of Proehl’s Super Bowl touchdowns. In each game, Proehl tied the game with a late touchdown catch; and in each game the Patriots drove for a game-winning field goal — the first as time expired and second with four seconds remaining.

So when he became Vinatieri’s teammate in 2006, with the Colts, it was awkward.

“Vinatieri was like, ‘Proehl, you hate me, don’t you?’ And I’m like, ‘Adam, I really do. But the problem is you’re such a good dude that I can’t hate you,'” Proehl said. “I hated him just watching him kick those field goals. Then when I met him and got to know him as a teammate, he’s a great guy. But he was funny.”

Though Proehl won two Super Bowls — with the Rams and Colts — in his career, the two losses to the Patriots stung.

In the first, Proehl caught a 26-yard pass from quarterback Kurt Warner with 1:30 left in regulation, tying the score at 17-17 after trailing by two touchdowns.

“We had a really good defense and we all felt confident,” he said. “This game’s going into overtime.”

Two years later, Proehl caught a 12-yard pass from Jake Delhomme with 1:08 remaining in the game, tying the score at 29.

“I felt probably more confident we were going to win that game just because of how we were outplaying them in the fourth quarter. We had the momentum and then unfortunately our kicker kicked it out of bounds. As fast as that place was electric, our sideline, we were deflated two minutes later.”

Before the ‘Helmet Catch’ came the TD catch

David Tyree, wide receiver, New York Giants
When: Super Bowl XLII, Feb. 3, 2008
Where: University of Phoenix Stadium (now State Farm Stadium), Glendale, Arizona
Final score: New York Giants 17, New England Patriots 14

David Tyree’s Super Bowl TD catch is completely overlooked because of the “Helmet Catch” that came later. Tom Hauck/Bloomberg via Getty Images

It’s hard to start a conversation with Tyree about any other play other than the one that became dubbed “The Helmet Catch”. It’s one of the most iconic plays in Super Bowl history: a third-and-5 grab for 32 yards in which he caught the ball by pinning it against his helmet.

Oh, yeah, he also caught a 5-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to give New York a 10-7 lead.

“One of my favorite things to say is that I have the greatest catch in Super Bowl history and the most forgotten touchdown in Super Bowl history,” Tyree said. “Yeah, two great moments.”

He also was an unlikely hero, at least offensively. In five years with the Giants he had caught 54 passes — and four that season. In the Super Bowl, he caught three.

Tyree said he was happy to be part of the game plan offensively.

“Imagine this little scrawny kid from Jersey who no one knows anything about scoring a touchdown in the Super Bowl. So that was really my whole thought of pregame,” he said. “It was: find a way to make a play in my role as a (special) teamer and, man, if we can get in position and dial this up, this is going to hit.”

They got in position with 11:10 left in the fourth, trailing 7-3. On his touchdown, quarterback Eli Manning faked a handoff and delivered a strike over the middle to Tyree.

“Eli drove it in there,” he said. “I probably dropped that pass in practice on Friday.”

Next stop: legendary status and the Helmet Catch. Tyree never caught another pass — he missed the following year with a knee injury and lasted 10 games with Baltimore in 2009, running five routes all season.

“I definitely look [back] on the helmet catch more,” Tyree said. “It’s the topic of conversation, but the touchdown catch is special to me because I was in the game plan. They called that play, we executed that play, and I scored a touchdown. [But] the helmet catch was the biggest exclamation point I would argue anyone has ever had [in a career] inside of five years.”

‘If you kick me the ball I’m going to make you apologize’

Jacoby Jones, kickoff returner, Baltimore Ravens
When: Super Bowl XLVII, Feb. 3, 2013
Where: Superdome, New Orleans
Final score: Baltimore Ravens 34, San Francisco 49ers 31Jacoby Jones celebrates his Super Bowl record kickoff return with his Ravens teammates. Al Bello/Getty Images

Days before Jones ran back the longest kickoff return in Super Bowl history, the Baltimore Ravens kick returner was told by teammate Bryan Hall the 49ers would never let him come out of the end zone on kicks.

“Bet,” Jones told Hall.

“So I went to Coach [John] Harbaugh and I’m like, ‘Coach, we’re going straight down the pipe let me come out no matter what.’ He said, ‘OK,'” Jones said. “The funniest thing is on media day I walked and stood on the spot and I said, ‘Hey I’m coming out right here.’ They’re all looking at me like I’m crazy. It was the same spot I came off from. That’s the most memorable thing when you talk about it and it happens. If you kick me the ball I’m going to make you apologize.”

Baltimore did not have Jones return kicks for the first five games in the 2012 season. But, on his first time deep, he returned one 108 yards for a touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys. On a return the following season, Jones seemed destined for a 100-yard return score against the Pittsburgh Steelers before coach Mike Tomlin, who had walked onto the field, impeded his path as Jones ran down the sideline. Tomlin was later fined $100,000 by the league.

But before Tomlin, came the Super Bowl.

“Coach Harbaugh told me as long as you get at least past the 25-yard line I don’t care. That was my goal to get past the 25,” Jones said. “If I get past the 25, you know what that means? I am gone. When I hear the crowd I know I’m gone. I ran track; I know they’re not coming to get me. The only person close to getting me was Mike Tomlin.”

‘It still feels surreal’

James White, running back, New England Patriots
When: Super Bowl LI, Feb. 5, 2017
Where: NRG Stadium, Houston
Final score: New England Patriots 34, Atlanta Falcons 28 (OT)

Patriots RB James White played a huge role in Super Bowl VI, with 14 receptions and three touchdowns. AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

White scored three touchdowns in Super Bowl LI, including the winner in overtime as New England famously rallied from a 28-3 deficit to beat Atlanta. White set one Super Bowl record (14 catches) and tied five players for another (three touchdowns) in the game.

“It still feels surreal,” White said.

White scored his first TD with 2:06 left in the third quarter to start the comeback, but bigger moments awaited. With 57 seconds left and the Patriots trailing 28-20, White scored on a 1-yard run. The 2-point conversion forced overtime.

Then it got even more surreal for White. On second down, the Patriots ran a toss sweep to the right to White, who was met at the 2-yard line by Ricardo Allen.

“I know I have to get through him somehow,” White said. “So I pick a shoulder, get into his shoulder, I’m able to get by him there. Then I start seeing the end zone. Try to be smart, don’t reach the ball in that situation. I just keep driving my feet and I always do a pretty decent job of when I’m falling to not let my knees hit first, try and extend or straighten my legs out so I can extend as far as I can. And it worked well for me. That time.”

The replay review was close.

“I thought I clearly was in and then looking at the replay, it was a lot closer than I imagined in my mind,” White said, “but I knew I was in there. I knew my knee didn’t hit.”

White doesn’t have the ball from that touchdown. But he hasn’t forgotten the feeling.

“The only way I could describe it, I don’t even know if it’s a good way to describe it, you black out in a sense. It’s like I score, I get up, I just start running,” White said. “Obviously I hear the crowd, but this feels like it is me, my teammates, and then the Falcons in there. That’s just kind of what it felt like. I was running to nowhere and then LeGarrette Blount came and tackled me. It just feels very surreal.”

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