Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Ghosts of the Orange Bowl: Jim O'Brien
Jim O'Brien might be the most unlikely Super Bowl hero who ever played. In 1970, the long-haired rookie kicker for the Baltimore Colts was just hoping to play in the NFL. He was a 3rd round draft pick from the University of Cincinnati and most football fans outside of Baltimore had never heard of him. But on January 17, 1971 in the Orange Bowl, O'Brien forever etched his name in Super Bowl history. He would kick a field goal in the final seconds to win Super Bowl V.
The 1970 football season was the first following the NFL-AFL merger. The first four Super Bowls matched up the champions from the NFL and the AFL. Both the Dallas Cowboys and the Baltimore Colts were established NFL powers. The Colts were among three NFL franchises that joined the new American Football Conference that was primarily made up of teams from the old AFL. The Cowboys were the champions of the National Football Conference. Super Bowl V established several firsts in the history of the big game. It was the first Super Bowl played on artificial turf. It was also the first Super Bowl in which the MVP (Dallas linebacker Chuck Howley) was a defensive player and also played for the losing team.
Super Bowl V featured some of football's greatest players including hall of famers Johnny Unitas, John Mackey, Ted Hendricks, Mike Ditka, Bob Lilly and Bob Hayes. But it was also one of the most poorly played Super Bowls of all time. The game was often referred to as "The Blunder Bowl" or "Stupor Bowl" Both teams combined for a record 11 turnovers, including 7 by the Colts who were the winning team. Dallas committed a Super Bowl record 10 penalties for 133 yards. But the most enduring image of the game was Jim O'Brien's 32-yard field goal with 5 seconds remaining in the game to give the Colts a 16-13 victory.
In a game that was filled with turnovers and mistakes, it was only fitting O'Brien's game winning field goal was set up by a Dallas interception. With less than a minute remaining in the game and the score tied 13-13, Cowboys quarterback Craig Morton threw a pass intended for running back Dan Reeves. The pass was high and bounced off Reeves's fingertips and fell into the arms of Colts linebacker Mike Curtis who returned the ball to the Dallas 32 yard line.
With only five seconds left on the clock, all eyes turned to Colts kicker Jim O'Brien. The rookie was under incredible pressure. O'Brien was an old-school straight-on style kicker, as opposed to today's kickers who all kick soccer-styled from the side of their foot. O'Brien was also one of the last of his era, who wasn't just a kicking specialist. He was also a wide receiver and wore #80. But if he was nervous, he never let anyone know he was scared.
"I always pretended that every field goal was the last second of a championship game," O'Brien said. "I wasn't the greatest kicker and I never pretended to be. I never told anybody I was. Whenever we needed a kick, I made it. I never missed a kick that would have won a game."
Colts quarterback Earl Morrall took the snap, placed the ball perfectly and O'Brien drilled the ball through the uprights of the Orange Bowl's east end zone. The Colts won their only Super Bowl as the Baltimore Colts.
"I knew that it was going to be good," O'Brien said. "It probably could have gone 55 yards. It was the best kick of my life and I was very fortunate to be in that spot and to be successful."
Jim O'Brien played only four seasons in the NFL. He was a decent to average kicker at best and also caught 14 passes as a backup receiver including 2 touchdowns in his career. He is not the only kicker to have the opportunity to win a Super Bowl. Twenty years after O'Brien's game winning field goal, Buffalo's Scott Norwood tried to duplicate O'Brien's heroics in Super Bowl XXV. But Norwood's 47-yard attempt fell wide right. O'Brien's distinction for being the only player to kick the game winning field goal in the Super Bowl finally ended when New England's Adam Vinatieri made the winning kick to beat the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. Vinatieri did it again two years later to beat the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVII.