TAMPA, Fla. - Santonio Holmes sat on the grass alongside the end zone — legs outstretched, head bowed, arms wrapped tightly around the ball.
He’d come too far to let go.
The kid who once sold drugs on a street corner had grown up to become MVP of a most remarkable Super Bowl.
Holmes, who overcame his gritty childhood in rural south Florida, made a brilliant touchdown catch with 35 seconds left to give the Pittsburgh Steelers their record sixth Super Bowl title, a 27-23 victory over the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday night.
“I dared the team,” Holmes said. “Just give me the ball, give me the chance to make plays and I will do it for you.”
He was true to his word on the 6-yard winner.
After a pass to the left corner went through Holmes’ hands, Ben Roethlisberger lofted the ball toward the right corner, over the hands of not one, not two, but three Arizona defenders. Holmes leaped to get it — and somehow managed to drag both feet in bounds, his toes barely scraping the grass before he tumbled out of bounds.
The official threw up both arms — touchdown! — and Holmes sat out of bounds for several seconds, looking down at a ball he didn’t want to give up. His teammates piled on top of him, celebrating a game that will go down as one of the greatest in Super Bowl history.
The referee took a look at the replay to make sure Holmes had control of the ball and got both feet down. The third-year receiver never had any doubt.
“I knew it was a touchdown 100 percent,” he said. “My feet never left the ground. All I did was stand on my toes and extend my hands.”
That finish was a classic. This one was even better.
“The first read was the running back in the flat, but he wasn’t open,” Roethlisberger said. “Then I was going to try to bang it to Hines (Ward, MVP of the 2006 Super Bowl), but someone was closing in on it and I was a little nervous about it. It wouldn’t have been a touchdown. I looked back, scrambled a little bit and saw ’Ton’ in the corner. I tried to throw it high so he was going to catch it, or no one was.
“Luckily, he made a heck of a play.”
Holmes was so good — nine catches for 131 yards, four of them on the winning 78-yard drive — that he actually managed to outshine teammate James Harrison, who seemed to be a shoe-in for the MVP award through three quarters.
“Santonio is a guy who just loves to deliver in big moments and big games,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said.
Harrison, the NFL’s defensive player of the year, returned an interception 100 yards for a touchdown on the final play of the first half. The longest play in Super Bowl history gave the Steelers a 17-7 lead heading to the locker room, and they stretched it to 20-7 after three periods.
But Kurt Warner and the gritty Cardinals rallied, going ahead 23-20 with 2½ minutes remaining on Larry Fitzgerald’s 64-yard touchdown catch.
Then it was Holmes’ turn to shine. Earlier in the week, he used the Super Bowl stage to acknowledge selling drugs in Belle Glade, Fla., hoping his story would persuade other youngsters growing up in tough surroundings to turn their life around, just as he did.
Now, he’s given them another compelling reason to follow his path.
“This is a wonderful blessing,” Holmes said. “I would like to thank the Lord for helping me overcome all the things I overcame, the coaches for sticking with me, the organization for being behind me and believing in me, and my quarterback for giving me this opportunity to make plays for him all season.”
After being drafted in the first round out of Ohio State, Holmes matured into one of Pittsburgh’s key offensive players by his third season, making 55 catches for 821 yards and five touchdowns in 2008. He added three more scores in the playoffs.
“What he did tonight was similar to what he did in the month of January in the playoffs to get to this game,” Tomlin said. “In big moments we know what we can get from him.”
Before the final drive, Holmes told Roethlisberger to look his way. They hooked up for 14 yards. Then a 13-yarder. A 40-yard play took the Steelers to the Arizona 6.
And, finally, the one that mattered most of all.
On Pittsburgh’s winning drive, Holmes and a hand — and feet — in all but 5 yards.
Roethlisberger actually looked for Holmes on first-and-goal, but he couldn’t hang on to the high throw. Holmes slapped the ground after the ball slipped through his hands, then headed back to huddle.
He was sure thankful to get another chance.
“I said to him that I wanted to be the guy to make the plays for this team,” Holmes said. “Great players step up in big-time games to make plays.”
They don’t get any bigger than this.
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