MIAMI – The decision that ultimately turned Super Bowl XLIV in the New Orleans Saints' favor came before the game even started. Sean Payton told his team prior to kickoff of the eventual 31-17 victory that it would go for an onside kick in the second or third quarter.
At halftime, with the Saints trailing the Indianapolis Colts 10-6, Payton made the call.
"We're running Ambush," he told his team, calling the onside kick play they'd practiced all week.
For the remainder of intermission, as The Who's Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend rocked the halftime show, 23-year-old rookie kicker Thomas Morstead(notes) sat petrified in the Saints' locker room. He knew that if he executed the kick well he stood a chance of being a hero, at least in part. Blow it and he'd be the goat who gave Peyton Manning(notes) a short field.
"It's the biggest stage in the world," he said. "I was terrified. That's an aggressive move."
As Morstead lined up for the kick, Chris Reis(notes) prepared for his big chance. As a "looper," he knew he'd be the one running at an angle toward the sideline where Morstead's kick was supposed to go, and if all worked out well, the ball would be there for the taking.
Ten yards away, the Colts had no clue what was coming. Morstead lined up, trotted toward the ball and – dink – dribbled it toward Hank Baskett(notes), a reserve wide receiver standing on the outside of the Colts' front line. The ball caromed off his shoulder straight at a charging Reis, who cradled the ball just before an onslaught of blue Indianapolis jerseys smothered him.
For the next few minutes, as the referees tried to figure out who had the ball, Reis laid at the bottom of the pile in a virtual tug of war.
"Everybody's pulling at the ball, and I'm grabbing on, holding for dear life. My forearms were burning afterwards," replayed Reis. "Some refs were saying blue ball; some refs were saying white ball. But I clearly had it. There was no way I was coming out of that pile without the ball."
Finally, the referees had made a decision – Saints ball on their own 40-yard line.
To that point, the high-powered Saints offense had been somewhat listless, managing just two field goals in the first half. Following the recovery, the Saints marched downfield in short order, with Drew Brees(notes) completing four straight passes before connecting with Pierre Thomas(notes) on a 16-yard touchdown strike to put New Orleans on top for the first time, 13-10.
"We knew we were going to call it at some point, and we made the decision we were going to do it," Payton explained. "I just think it's important that, certainly, you have a plan, you're going to carry it forward, and yet you want to show your players that you're confident in them."
The Colts, behind the arm of Peyton Manning and the legs of Joseph Addai(notes), answered back with a touchdown drive of their own to take a brief four-point lead. But from that point on, it was all New Orleans, which scored the game's final 18 points to claim the organization's first Super Bowl.
"We had a shot to recover it. We just didn't get it done," Colts coach Jim Caldwell said.
As the Saints celebrated amidst a shower of confetti after the game, two nuns, appropriately clad in cream and black colored habits, stood talking. They didn't know it, but they were standing on the exact spot where Reis had recovered the onside kick.
"I knew this was my moment and this was the time to really change the game around," Reis said afterward as he stood on the field, "and we were fortunate enough to get it."
- Sean Payton