SUPER VICTIMS Part 4
by Eric Neel

Mark Washington, Cornerback, Dallas Cowboys, Super Bowl X, Miami

Maybe you have the Sports Illustrated cover on your wall or in your collection somewhere.

It's from January 26, 1976. The headline reads "Pittsburgh Does It Again" and the caption below it says "Lynn Swann Leads the Way." The cover photo is a scene from Super Bowl X.

Swann is diving, falling, reaching for the ball on a 53-yard pass from Terry Bradshaw. His hips twist, his legs dangle, his yellow wrist bands and clean white elbow pads are in perfect symmetry, his hands rise up as if in prayer, and you can see his right eye trained on the flight of the ball the way a hitter tracks a fastball coming through the zone. It's been said before, but it bears repeating: The man is the very picture of grace, the Platonic ideal, the essence of receiverness. You look at the photograph, even after you've seen it a hundred times before, and it takes your breath away. He's floating, he's a dancer in the midst of a show-stopping solo.

Except he's not alone. Mark Washington lies beneath him, sprawled, thwacked, blown away, his arms flung over his head like a stick-up victim, his legs shooting up as if they belong to a crash test dummy at the point of impact. He's beaten. He's the poster boy for Beaten. You look at the photograph, even after you've seen it a hundred times before, and you barely even notice him. He's a prop, a part of the background, the stage for Swann's dance.

Half a second earlier, things looked very different. Late in the second quarter, the Steelers were stuck, third-and-six, on their own 10-yard line. The Cowboys were ahead, 10-7. And when the ball came arcing down toward Swann and Washington, it was the cornerback who made the play. "Washington was right there," Swann says. "He tipped the ball away." He put his guys in a position to get a punt and maybe score again before halftime. There was nothing more he could have or should have done. His technique was solid, he timed his jump well, and he broke up the pass. He did not come up short.

Except, of course, he did.

Swann, like Dr. J swooping behind the backboard, somehow stayed aloft and kept the ball alive, planted a knee in Washington's chest, and finally came down with the most spectacular catch in Super Bowl history.

Ask Swann about the play and he speaks with the light touch of a mystic, as if he's afraid to put too much pressure on the memory, as if it might break into a thousand little pieces: "Sometimes during the moment, you see you have to do something different and you have to figure out, sometimes in the moment, what that something different is."

Ask Washington about the play and you get nothing airy or philosophical at all. He keeps it grounded, keeps it simple and real: "The guy made a play. I was in position to some extent, but I didn't make the play."

"The guy" - not Swann, not Lynn, but "the guy." There's a safe distance in saying "the guy," and a certain no-quarter competitive fire. On some level, 30 years after the fact, Washington's still pissed at the way the play turned out. Part of that anger might be reserved for the late Tom Landry and defensive coordinator Ernie Stautner. As much as Swann, they were responsible for the position in which Washington found himself. First, they misread the Steelers' attack in the days leading up to the game by more or less ignoring Swann, John Stallworth, Terry Bradshaw and the Pittsburgh passing game. Swann had suffered a concussion in the AFC Championship game against the Raiders, and it was uncertain whether he would play in the Super Bowl at all (he decided to play when Cowboy safety Cliff Harris told reporters Swann might get hurt if he suited up). The Cowboys' emphasis was on Franco Harris and the running game. "Our main thing all week was stop the run," Washington says. "I think Tom's strategy was that he didn't want you to control the ball on him. I don't know that we really focused that much on the passing aspect of the game." Second, the Dallas coaching staff was in love with the blitz when the Steelers passed. "I think our major flaw that day was we got into these situations where we max blitzed the quarterback and it didn't work," Washington says. "When you're talking about a max blitz situation, that means everybody going except the cornerback, safety included. So I had to run 40, 50 yards with the guy one-on-one."

And it wasn't just the one play. There was a 12-yard completion to the right sideline in the middle of the third quarter, and there was another bomb. This one came in the fourth quarter, on third-and-four from the Steelers' 36. Again the Cowboys blitzed all-out, and this time linebacker D.D. Lewis got to Bradshaw (knocking him unconscious), but not before he let loose a prodigious spiral down the middle of the field. "We could get away with blitzing some teams, maybe," Washington says. "But Bradshaw had a real strong arm, and he picked up everything we threw at him." The ball, Swann and Washington flew down the field together. Sixty-four yards later, it was déjà vu all over again. Washington, this time maybe half a step behind Swann, reached up and tapped the ball. Swann, unfazed, pulled it in over his left shoulder for a running touchdown. He barely broke stride. "In terms of coverage, Mark Washington had a great day," Swann says. "I just had a little something extra." And that something extra was the difference in the game; the 64-yarder put the game away, 21-10 Steelers.

Like McNeal, Washington fantasizes about things turning out differently, about Swann dropping one or both of those balls, but he isn't haunted by the plays. "I see them on TV all the time this time of year," he says. "It's not something I run from. I take responsibility for what happened. It's my job to make the play, regardless of the circumstances." The interesting thing about the highlights, he thinks, is the chance to see something that happened in a flash drawn out in slow-motion. In slo-mo the mind allows for possibilities and imaginary decisions unavailable in real time. In slo-mo, Washington wonders whether he should have tried for an interception on the first pass, instead of just knocking the ball down, or whether maybe he should have jumped higher to make a play on the second one. "You go back and you can invent a whole lot of things," he says. "There's a lot of second-guessing."

But when he might give in to doubt and regret, Washington rights himself. "I give the guy credit, he went above and beyond," he says. "It's nothing I feel great about, but if you play, and you call someone to perform above and beyond, that's what Super Bowls are about."

A bit of philosophy after all: He and the guy weren't just adversaries - they were partners.