TAMPA, Fla. – Ben Roethlisberger joked that the play was called "scramble right, scramble left and find someone open." It's drawn up a bit more complicated than that, although in the large, lonely moments of Super Bowl XLIII, it feels all the same.
The Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday had gagged away a 13-point fourth-quarter lead. They were about to waste one of the greatest plays in Super Bowl history, a 100-yard, halftime buzzer beating interception return. Their previous drive had finished with a safety. They suddenly trailed 23-20 in the final minute.
All season they had won the tough way, in tight games with big plays. They had the No. 1 defense in the league and took plenty of pride in slugging it out week after week against a brutal slate of opponents.
Hard was easy. It was easy that was proving hard. They were never going to just run away with it at the end, just blow out the underdog Arizona Cardinals.
In truth, Ben Roethlisberger had dreamed of another Super Bowl to prove he could play his best in the biggest game. The Steelers offense had coveted the chance to equal the greatness of their defense.
Receiver Santonio Holmes had even taken a moment earlier in the day to ask God, "Can I be the guy to win this game?" Then, after a dropped pass, he had to ask Roethlisberger for forgiveness and continued confidence.
So now everyone had their chance, ball on the Arizona 6-yard line, clock headed for 35 seconds. Now, one last time, it was dig deep time for this team, Roethlisberger lumbering left and lumbering right, Super Bowl in his hands.
His first read, a running back in the flats, was covered. His second, a toss to Hines Ward, was too dangerous with a defender closing fast.
Finally he saw Holmes breaking for the corner. Now it wasn't Holmes who had to forget the drop, it was Roethlisberger who needed to also. Three Cardinals were in the area. He had to believe in his guy. He had to believe in himself.
Steelers WR Santonio Holmes catches the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter.
(Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
He let it rip.
"I tried to throw it high so he was going to catch it or no one was," Roethlisberger said.
He didn't think he'd done it.
"I thought [Cardinals cornerback Ralph Brown] was going to pick it," Roethlisberger said.
It got just over Brown's fingers, then got to Holmes'. He snared it out of the air by extending his hands and making a leap so small he wasn't sure he ever left his feet. He had, and as he dragged the ball in he tapped both feet down in the red paint of the end zone before getting shoved out of bounds by safety Aaron Francisco.
On the most picturesque of plays, the resilient, rock solid Steelers had won their sixth Super Bowl, 27-23.
Troy Polamalu was talking even faster than normal. It was nearly an hour after the game. All the confetti had fallen. All the fanfare had subsided. His adrenaline was still churning.
"We're a team that's taken on the personality of our city," the great safety said. "We're unselfish. We're very blue collar. We're resilient."
The Steelers aren't just a team for the people of Pittsburgh, they're an identity. You could see it all over Raymond James Stadium in a flurry of waving towels and team jerseys. Steelers fans had flooded the place, overwhelming the Cardinals and turning this into as close to a home crowd as you're going to get in the Super Bowl.
Polamalu admitted that this connection with the city was anything but new. It's been that way for decades, a "fraternity" he called it. It goes the other way though also. Pittsburgh's embraced the personality of its Steelers, too.
It's a city that refuses to bottom out like so many of its Rust Belt peers. It's a place that takes challenges and finds a way to persevere. It's a people who never forget where they're from, even if they have to move out to pursue dreams. It's the shared values that transcend race and culture and social status. It's all as constant as the flow of the rivers that define it.
It's Pittsburgh. It's the Steelers.
"It's always four quarters," Polamalu said.
It was a sentiment repeated across the roster, throughout the locker room, even up in those stands. The fourth quarter had been a disaster for the Steelers, 16 unanswered points, a tiring defense and an offense that couldn't get out of its own way.
A lesser team would've crumbled. A weaker-minded group would've pointed fingers. Anything less than a champion would've let the Cardinals momentum wash right over them.
Roethlisberger had no such concerns. He knew his guys. He gathered the team before that final drive, embraced the opportunity and dared his teammates. This was their chance. It's one drive for the Super Bowl, who doesn't want this?
"I told the guys, you know what, it's now or never," Roethlisberger said. "You'll be remembered forever [for this drive]."
Eight plays, 78 yards and one catch for the legends later and it'll be toasted with cold Iron Cities forever.
"The ultimate high," Roethlisberger said.
The ultimate team.