The Super Bowl is the grandest stage in sports, but not every player who steps on the field is a household name. Sure, this year features quarterbacks Peyton Manning and Cam Newton. But we will also get to see Todd Davis and Ryan Delaire. Often, some of the least well-known members of the 53-man roster step up in the big game and make the leap from anonymity to immortality. With that in mind, let’s look at five of the most unlikely heroes in Super Bowl history, then close with our predictions of obscure players who could be game-changers in Super Bowl 50.
New York Giants
Super Bowl XLII
211th overall pick in the 2003 NFL Draft
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Heading into Super Bowl XLII, David Tyree had established himself as a useful depth player for the Giants. The backup tight end was a solid special teams performer who also totaled 54 receptions for 650 yards over the first five seasons of his professional career. He wasn’t indispensable, but he was good enough to keep a spot on the roster.
Then, “The Helmet Catch” happened.
The scene: 1:15 remaining. The Giants have the ball down 14-10 to a New England Patriots team that’s chasing a perfect 19-0 record.
The play: Eli Manning drops back to pass on a 3rd-and-5 and immediately feels pressure. He miraculously escapes a sack and chucks the ball downfield. The ball flutters in the air for what seems like a minute before finding the fingertips of Tyree. Draped in coverage by Rodney Harrison, Tyree presses the ball against his helmet to secure the catch as he crashes o the turf. The Giants go on to score four plays later and win the game, securing Tyree’s place as a Super Bowl legend. It turned out to be the last catch Tyree ever made in the NFL. He now serves as the the Giants’ Director of Player Development.
St. Louis Rams
Super Bowl XXXIV
Undrafted in 1991
Coming into Super Bowl XXXIV, Mike Jones was a solid contributor for the St. Louis Rams’ defense, recording 53 tackles and four interceptions in the preceding regular season. But a solid linebacker would get few headlines on the same team as “The Greatest Show on Turf.” The Rams’ offense, featuring Kurt Warner, Isaac Bruce and Marshall Faulk, was the face of the franchise—that is, until Jones made the biggest tackle in Super Bowl history.
The scene: The Rams are leading the Titans 23-16. With six seconds remaining, the Titans have managed to drive to the Rams’ 10-yard line.
The play: On the final play of the game, Steve McNair drops back to pass and hits Kevin Dyson with a perfect pass. Dyson turns upfield with a clear path to the end zone. But just as he is about to stride in for 6, Jones wraps him up from behind and rolls him to the turf. Dyson’s outstretched arm comes inches away from breaking the end zone, and Mike Jones goes down in history as the man who secured the Rams’ Super Bowl victory. Jones is now the head football coach at Lincoln University.
New England Patriots
Super Bowl XLIX
Undrafted in 2014
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We might one day look back at Malcolm Butler’s interception in Super Bowl XLIX as the play that launched a Hall of Fame career. His anonymity before the play was undeniable—he was an undrafted kid out of West Alabama with 15 NFL tackles to his name. Who would have guessed he’d make the biggest interception in Super Bowl history?
The scene: the Patriots are up 28-24 over the Seahawks with 26 seconds left to play, but Seattle is a yard away from the end zone.
The play: Instead of handing the ball off to Marshawn Lynch, the Hawks elect to pass. The call is for Russell Wilson to hit Ricardo Lockette on a slant route. Lockette runs the route and looks open as Wilson delivers the pass. But just as the ball reaches its target, Butler charges in front of him to steal it away for an incredible interception. The Patriots win the game, and Seattle’s decision to pass goes down as one of the most criticized coaching decisions in NFL history.
Super Bowl XXII
117th pick in the 1987 NFL Draft
The players previously mentioned on this list are notable for one exceptional play that essentially won the Super Bowl for their teams. In contrast, Timmy Smith dominated Super Bowl XXII from beginning to end. The rookie running back had totaled just 126 rushing yards during the 1987 regular season, but due to injuries he had an opportunity for more carries in the big game. He helped the Redskins stomp the Broncos 42-10 with 22 carries for 204 yards and 2 touchdowns—a remarkable performance. Smith still holds the record for most rushing yards in a Super Bowl. Due to an array of personal issues, he only played another 16 games in the NFL.
New Orleans Saints
Super Bowl XLIV
Undrafted in 2006
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Chris Reis didn’t have an illustrious career. The back-up safety played four seasons in the NFL, compiling one interception and 41 tackles. But ask any Saints fan about Reis, and you’ll instantly see they know who he is.
The scene: Trailing 10-6 to the Indianapolis Colts at halftime of Super Bowl XLIV, Saints head coach Sean Payton elects to call a surprise onside kick to start the second half.
The play: Saints kicker Thomas Morstead delivers a bouncing kick that glances off Colts receiver Hank Baskett’s hands. The play wasn’t designed for Reis to recover the kick, but the ball bounces his way. He dives to his left and snatches the ball out of the air. A mob of Colts players pile on, determined to strip the pigskin away, but Reis holds on tight. The play was a major turning point in the game, which the Saints went on to win 31-17.
Who Will it Be This Year?
It’s impossible to predict which unlikely player will make a game-changing play in Super Bowl 50, but we have a couple of ideas.
On the Denver side, we’re going with Shiloh Keo. The 144th overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft, Keo has had an unremarkable career up to this point. He was a solid special teams guy for the Texans for a few years before being cut by the team in 2014. He then joined the Bengals for a short time before again being cut earlier this season. He remained unsigned for much of 2015 before joining the Broncos on Dec. 9. This was after he tweeted to Broncos defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, his former coach, to “keep him in mind if another roster opening came around.” Since then, Keo has made some big plays and big hits. We wouldn’t be surprised to see him grab an interception or force a fumble in Super Bowl 50, and if it comes at the right time, it could totally change the outcome of the game.
On the Carolina side, we’re going with Colin Jones. A defensive back who was drafted 190th overall in the 2011 NFL Draft, Jones has been one of Carolina’s best special teams players this season. He plays on every one of the Panthers’ special team units, so he should have a lot of chances to make a big play. He also played seven defensive snaps in the NFC Championship game, so he could be someone who comes up with a huge tackle or turnover. His tenacity and good instincts have helped him stay in the league despite not being a household name, and that’s usually the profile of the unlikely hero who steps up in the Super Bowl.