Charge of the heavy hitters

ONE NATION'S CHAMPIONSHIP: San Diego cling to the hope that lightning c an strike twice in the Super Bowl Simon Kelner in Miami surveys a battle against adversity and, right, picks four key men who can turn the match
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The Independent Online
MOMENTS after losing 55-10 to the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl of five years ago, John Elway, the Denver Broncos quarterback, was asked what his side could have done to have prevented such an ignominious failure. "We could have stayed at home," Elway replied. When the San Diego Chargers failed to show up at the allotted time for the first of their assignments with the media last Tuesday, the thought occurred that they had heeded Elway's advice, and we would be spared the exercise in ritu al humiliation that American football's big game has too often become.

The Chargers did arrive - 30 minutes late - and will doubtless be there on time at Joe Robbie Stadium today for their appointment with the 49ers in Super Bowl XXIX. They go into the game as possibly the biggest underdogs since Roman numerals were invented; compared with the Chargers, the Christians were widely fancied to get a result against the lions.

Form lines, logic, history, and the assessments of every expert are stacked up against San Diego. The bookmakers have the 49ers to win by 19 - the biggest points spread in Super Bowl history - but that tells only part of the story. As representatives of the American Conference, the Chargers are attempt- ing to break a 10-year winning run by the champions of the National Conference - indeed, the disparity in quality between the two conferences is now such that it is rather like the winners of our Premiership meeting the top club in the Endsleigh League to decide the championship.

The 49ers do not need California's District Attorney to take time off to prosecute their case. The facts are grisly enough. The average margin of victory during this decade of National Conference dominance is a whopping 23 points; the Chargers are in their first Super Bowl while the 49ers have won it four times in the past 13 years; and, most pertinently, the regular season meeting between the two sides finished 38-15 in favour of the 49ers. If San Diego win this one, it would be no less surprising thanO J's changing his plea to guilty.

And yet. It was in this city 26 years ago that one of the most celebrated upsets in gridiron's 75-year history occurred, establishing the Super Bowl in only its third playing as an event that captivated a nation and turning an extraordinary Joe into a sporting legend. The New York Jets were massive underdogs against the mighty Baltimore Colts but, three days before the game, Joe Namath, the Jets' quarterback, told the press that he would "guarantee" victory for his side. Namath was as good as his word, and the Jets won 16-7. The Chargers have a bolt of lightning as their logo, and they are not the only ones hoping it strikes twice.

Another predictably one-sided, painful-to-watch Super Bowl would be a damaging blow to a sport which is relentless in its pursuit of marketing opportunities. Given baseball's continuing problems with its labour force, the winter game has a chance to reinforce its position of dominance, but it needs a championship match that holds America in its thrall. Meanwhile, touts have had to reduce ticket prices, some major companies have decided against advertising at $2m a minute during the game and today's TV ratings are unlikely to match the numbers of the past.

And yet. The Chargers are not a hopeless case, and the two play-off victories that brought them to Miami testify to a team willing to go helmet-to-helmet with adversity. First, they overcame the Miami Dolphins after trailing 21-6 at half-time and then travelled to the highly fancied Pittsburgh Steelers, took a late lead, and clung on to a 17-13 victory. Taking both games, the Chargers were ahead for a total of 5min 48sec. "You can measure a team's talent and athletic ability," the San Diego linebacker Junior Seau said last week, "but what can't be measured is the character and chemistry. We are strong in these intangibles. We don't have the high-profile names, but we stick together and that makes up for it."

Seau, a behemoth at the heart of San Diego's defense, will carry a large burden on his sore shoulders today. As will, when the Chargers have the ball, their 22-year-old running back Natrone Means. If the Chargers are to stay in the game, they have to control the ball by means of Means, and keep San Francisco's stellar offense on the sidelines. "Once we get our running game going, that opens a lot of doors for us," explained Means who, at 5ft 10in and 17st 7lb, has the physique and speed to run through, past and sometimes over the opposition, and will surely be the focal point of the Chargers' offense.

There is little doubt that San Diego play as a team (as much as that is possible in a game of 45-a-side) and, should things turn against them today, it is hard to see them folding completely. Their impressive head coach, Bobby Ross, has attempted to foster a corporate responsibility: "We talk in terms of keeping our poise. We tell the players that at some point something bad is going to happen out there and you have to work together and react to it. We try to be prepared for the bad thing, and that's why we've had success coming back."

There may be too many bad things for the tightly focused Chargers to handle today, however. San Francisco have no obvious weakness, and, despite the rapping, the trash-talking and the showmanship that have characterised their public appearances this pastweek, there has been little to suggest over-confidence. There is certainly too much at stake for the quarterback, Steve Young. He knows that he is unlikely ever to supplant the great Joe Montana in the hearts and minds of the Bay City faithful. But if he loses this, his first Big One in the four years he has led the 49ers, the monkey on his back will grow into an orang-utan.

Young, in measured tones befitting a law student, has been convincing in his mission statement. "You can't just go out there and play and hope everything will be all right," he said. "That is the farthest thing from the way we are handling this game. We're workaholics. We prepare. We don't take ourselves lightly, nor do we take anyone else lightly."

In a team of all talents, Young is the most generously endowed. He has been the league's highest- rated quarterback for each of the past four years and, statistically at least, can now claim to be the most effective playmaker of all-time. He can drop theball on a sixpence from 60 yards away with half a ton of prime linebacker stampeding towards him, but he does more than just stand and deliver. Young is the most elusive, mobile quarterback in the business and, once in daylight, has a step that can embarrass any tackler. Nevertheless, he does not yet possess the ugliest, but most prized, piece of jewellery in America: a Super Bowl winner's ring. The four years he spent as a million- dollar understudy to one of the sport's legends has clearly fuelled the desire to make this one his own. "I was in the laboratory with Joe Montana every day. How could you get a better tutor? But there was a time when I felt like saying, `OK, I got it do wn, now can I try it?' Those years were tough."

This is redemption day for Steve Young. And the pay-back can come from any number of directions. He can throw long to Jerry Rice or John Taylor, he can dump it short to the tight end Brent Jones, he can hand it off to the explosive running back Ricky Watters, or he can scramble himself. It is a range of options from quarterback heaven. And what with their all-star defense, led by "Neon" Deion Sanders, the 49ers surely cannot lose.

And yet. There are no guarantees, but the Chargers could at least get closer than the bookies suggest. And they may even deliver a bolt out of the blue.

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Case for the defense Deion Sanders San Franscisco 49ers Position: Cornerback (No 21). Responsible for coverage of opposition receivers in the backfield.

Distinguishing features: Flash motor-mouth who has attracted most attention in Super Bowl week. Penchant for overstated jewellery, and wears matching gold earrings. Tonsorially challenged, his hair is sculpted in the style of a relief map of the London Underground. Claims to have 200 suits and 400 pairs of shoes. Definitely has three houses.

Background: Born on the wrong side of the tracks in Fort Myers, Florida, 27 years ago. Joined the 49ers this season as a free agent from the Atlanta Falcons. A supremely gifted athlete, he also plays Major League baseball for the Cincinnati Reds, and appeared in the World Series while playing for the Atlanta Braves. Once played pro baseball and football on same day.

Qualities: Widely regarded as the best defensive back in the game. Has speed to burn, and is a quick thinker. His ability to intercept passes has forced opposing teams to avoid throwing near him. Became the first player in NFL history to take an interception and run it back for a touchdown from more than 90 yards twice in the same season. One was against former team-mates from Atlanta.

Weaknesses: Hardly any. However, his confident pronouncements of this past week will have increased the pressure on him. There will be no one more pumped-up for the match.

Soundbite: "I don't need any more exposure. I'm household."

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Junior Seau San Diego Chargers Position: Middle linebacker (No 55). Central figure in Chargers' defensive unit. Responsibilities include breaking through the line of scrimmage to pressurise the opposition quarterback if he is attempting a pass, and tackling the man with the ball on a running play.

Distinguishing features: Of Samoan parentage, he could pass for Inga Tuigamala's long-lost brother. Seau (pronounced "Say Ow") is thoughtful and quietly spoken, a huge contrast to his emotional presence on the field. A devout Christian.

Background: Was born in San Diego, but did not speak English until he was seven. Now 26, he is in his fifth year with the Chargers. Has overcome great hardships: his family was so poor that he and his brothers slept in the garage. Eighteen months ago hisfirst child was born two months' premature and was critically ill; his youngest brother is now in prison after being found guilty of a gangland killing. Has established the Seau Foundation for Child Abuse Prevention.

Qualities: Strength and speed. He is being compared with great linebackers of the past such as Lawrence Taylor and Mike Singletary. He is also an inspiring leader, and is as physical as they come. Will react quickly to changing circumstances.

Weaknesses: Has a dodgy shoulder. Should it give out, the Chargers might as well give up.

Soundbite: "I'm a beach bum at heart."

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Case for the offense Jerry Rice San Francisco 49ers Position: Wide receiver (No 80). One of the main weapons in the 49ers' impressive armoury. He will be largely responsible for turning Steve Young's passes into touchdowns.

Distinguishing features: Resembles the young Smokey Robinson. A reserved, understated character who, in common with many of the 49ers, sports a gold earstud. Has the quiet confidence born of a decade of high achievement.

Background: Now 32 years old, and in his 10th year as a 49er. Born in Mississippi, he has broken countless receiving records and is already regarded as one of the all-time greats in his position. In only his second season, he was named the NFL's Most Valuable Player.

After early difficulties, he has an understanding with Young that matches his great relationship with the 49ers' former quarterback Joe Montana. This is his third Super Bowl, and he already has one Super Bowl MVP award.

Qualities: His ability to out-think and out-manoeuvre even the best defensive backs, allied to searing pace and hands that are the safest in the business. More importantly, he has a knack of coming up with the big play in the pressure situation.

Weaknesses: Slight question mark over whether his hunger for success has been sated. Has talked about retiring after this Super Bowl: "If the fire is still within me, I'll carry on. If not, I'll quit."

Soundbite: "We respect San Diego, but only up to a point."

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Stan Humphries San Diego Chargers Position: Quarterback (No 12). The man in control of the San Diego offense, which, while not as expansive as it once was, still features many big plays and high-risk passes.

Distinguishing features: Looks like one of the grown-up Walton children, clean-cut and fresh-faced. Those close to him talk of a ruthless determination to prove himself. Has had weight problems in the past and will weigh in for today at 16 stone plus.

Background: Until his rise with the Chargers, was regarded as the eternal back-up. He is now in his seventh year in the professional game and joined San Diego at the beginning of the 1992 season after he was traded by the Washington Redskins, where he had been the number two, and even number three, to a succession of quarterbacks. He was born 29 years ago in Shreveport, Louisiana, a cradle for a number of great figures in the game, including Terry Bradshaw, one of the best quarterbacks of all time.

Qualities: A tough competitor, who is more effective than his awkward style of throwing suggests. His experience, particularly at a club like the Redskins, is a great asset and he is unlikely to be fazed by the occasion. Has an ability to withstand pain,and this may be invaluable.

Weaknesses: He is a thoroughly professional quarterback, but that's about it. He doesn't have the mobility nor the vision of Steve Young.

Soundbite: "A coach would never show a video film of me to a youngster and say: `This is how to do it.' "