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MIAMI – A few hours before the greatest moment of his football career, New Orleans Saints cornerback Tracy Porter(notes) was in a chair, in his hotel, getting the most prophetic haircut of his life. Three images were being carved into his head: a Lombardi Trophy, the Louisiana Superdome and "SB44" – an homage to Super Bowl XLIV. Threading the three images together was a road, meant to symbolize the journey from New Orleans to the NFL's ultimate victory.
The only thing that was missing from the image was Porter himself, and the Saints following in his wake to the Lombardi Trophy, and the greatest sports triumph in New Orleans' history.
"Now you can look at the Lombardi Trophy on that same road," he would say of his haircut on Sunday night, "going back to the Superdome."
If there is any justice, history will remember Porter like this: as the Louisiana kid who outsmarted two of the state's more heralded sons, Peyton Manning(notes) and Reggie Wayne(notes), intercepting a pass for a 74-yard touchdown that seized a championship. Some will argue there were many pivotal moments in the Saints' 31-17 win over the Indianapolis Colts at Sun Life Stadium, but seemingly none would deny Porter's as being the moment.
Late in the fourth quarter, with the Colts driving, Porter stepped in front of Wayne and instantly destroyed weeks of Manning Mania. The game that was supposed to cement the Indianapolis quarterback as one of the greatest ever instantly went the other way, etching one of Louisiana's lesser-known football talents into the ultimate spotlight.
Almost an hour later, even Manning couldn't deny him that, simply saying over and over, "He made a great play. Porter made a heck of a play." Maybe even Manning could appreciate how this one came to be – how he was ultimately thwarted by the kind of film study and diligence that has so often delivered him to victory.
That's how Porter was able to recognize the pivotal route late in Sunday's game, as the Colts lined up with 3:24 remaining, trailing 24-17. Indianapolis came to the line of scrimmage in a three-wide look, with rookie wideout Austin Collie(notes) on the outside and Wayne next to him in the slot. Porter was across from Wayne, and he remembered from film study that the Colts rarely ran plays with Collie on the outside, in what was essentially the No. 1 receiver spot. He knew if Collie went in motion, which he eventually did, that Indianapolis would "stack" the rookie behind Wayne, snapping the ball at the exact moment that Collie and Wayne were only feet apart, in hopes of confusing the opposing coverage.
But Porter and the Saints secondary knew the routes Wayne and Collie typically ran out of that set – a pair of staggered "in" routes at the first-down marker, where the receivers would stick a foot in the ground, pivot and give Manning two targets for a first-down completion. Porter had the play diagramed in his head, and the moment Wayne crossed the first-down marker and began to put a foot in the ground, Porter devoured the space between them, stepping in front of Wayne to snatch Manning's pass.
"It didn't surprise me at all," Wayne said of Porter jumping the route. "That's kind of how they were playing a little bit throughout the game. They kind of were squatting a little bit [on routes]. … We've run [that play] quite a few times. We ran it earlier in the game and Peyton went backside with it. I think [Porter] kind of had a feeling it was coming. It was the same formation. He did a good job of recognizing it."
"In film study, I'd seen that play over and over," Porter said. "Third down, that was a big route for them to convert upon. Through the numerous amounts of film study that we've done all week in preparing for the Super Bowl, when that route came, it was just like I was watching it on film. I made the break and here comes the end zone."
Once Porter had the ball in his hands, all it took was Saints defensive end Will Smith(notes) clearing Manning out, which he did with a crushing block that flattened the quarterback at the 50-yard line. From there, Porter had an open path to the end zone and the Lombardi Trophy – a road home, if you will.
Game, set and match on a play when three Louisiana natives collided – Manning and Wayne having been born in New Orleans, and Porter in Port Allen, just across the Mississippi River in Baton Rouge. Among that trio, Porter went to college as the least heralded, a "no star" athlete in recruiting terms. And unlike Manning and Wayne, he made his way through an impressive college career in far more anonymous fashion, cutting his reputation at the little-regarded University of Indiana. A place where, ironically, he spent four years of his college life in the middle of a state obsessed with Manning.
But New Orleans was always on his mind, and as a member of the "Who Dat" nation by birth, the Saints were always in his veins. That he delivered them to their greatest achievement by besting Manning only seems oddly appropriate.
"The Saints have been for so long nicknamed ‘The Aints' ," Porter said Sunday. "We wanted to change that whole mentality. We wanted to be known as a team of destiny."
That destiny arrived on Sunday, and Porter was cradling it.