American Football: Manning has another shot at glory, but not Burress
Super Bowl will be repeat of 2008 showpiece but wide receiver has moved on after gun accident
Super Bowl XLVI, to be played tonight in the Lucas Oil Stadium here, is a repeat of the 2008 showpiece, when the New York Giants shocked football by denying the New England Patriots a perfect season. It was decided late in the game when Plaxico Burress, the Giants' wide receiver, froze New England cornerback Ellis Hobbs with a clever feint and caught a pass from quarterback Eli Manning unchallenged in the end zone. But the subsequent careers of the three demonstrate the extremes of fortune in the United States' toughest sport.
Manning is still the Giants' quarterback, hoping to join an elite rank of his brethren who own two Super Bowl rings. He went into the 2008 game as the younger brother of Peyton, the Indianapolis Colts' outstanding quarterback, but has developed a reputation of his own as a tough competitor and team leader.
Some questioned his grasp on reality when he claimed elite status earlier in the season, but after a series of come-from-behind game-winning touchdown passes, as Troy Aikman, the former Dallas Cowboys great, said: "That question won't be asked again the rest of Eli's career."
If he cements his legacy with another game-winning pass, it will not be to Burress, who left the Giants for New York rivals the Jets last summer after serving 20 months in jail for a firearms offence.
For reasons best known to himself, he took an unlicensed gun into a nightclub eight months after the Super Bowl win, tucked into the waistband of his tracksuit bottoms. When it slipped down, he reached to retrieve it and somehow pulled the trigger, shooting himself in the thigh.
After he had served his sentence, Burress hoped to re-sign with the Giants but was dismayed to find that Manning, who had not contacted him in jail, preferred to remain loyal to young players such as Victor Cruz, who had replaced him.
"I was always his biggest supporter, even days he wasn't on, because I could sense he didn't have thick skin," Burress said in an interview in Men's Journal last September. "Then I went away, and I thought he would come see me, but nothing, not a letter, in two years. I don't want to say it was a slap in the face, but I thought our relationship was better than that."
However, for all Burress's later travails, he has the 2008 highlight to look back on. "Eli told me before I broke the huddle that if they gave me single coverage, he was going to throw it," he later recalled. "I had been watching film on Ellis Hobbs, and noticing that he likes to stop his feet right around the goalline. I knew exactly how and when to run. I knew that I had a great shot to make the game-winning catch.
"Being able to play in the Super Bowl, to win it in the fashion that I did, it's something that you dream of as a child," Burress added. "To do it against a team that was probably the best in history offensively? It's just something that will always be a part of me. It was a defining moment of a lot of guys in our careers, and it was a beautiful moment."
He can still dream of repeating it with the Jets, but for Hobbs that prospect is over. He was forced to retire last season at 28 after suffering a neck injury as a result of a hit while returning a kick-off for his next team, the Philadelphia Eagles, in November 2010. Coincidentally, the opponents were the Giants. He has moved into film production; his first project, The Last Fall, is the story of a footballer who must face early retirement.
Hobbs is relaxed about the 2008 touchdown, saying he "played the coverage to the best of my ability. It was what it was and it happened, simple as that. That call and everything leading up to that play, you cannot solely put that on anybody". He is much more emotional about the hit that ended his career. "It hurts. I still think about it. I just force myself to open my eyes because I don't want to see it. It's about the fact that something was taken away from me."
Manning has also had the fragile nature of an NFL career brought home to him by the fact that his brother's future in the game is in jeopardy after surgery on a neck injury. "You don't know if you're going to get a chance to play in another Super Bowl," he said this week. "You don't know when a season might be cut short on you.
"If you play this game long enough, you realise how precious each season is and how precious these opportunities are."
New England Patriots v New York Giants is on BBC1 tonight, kick-off 11.25pm
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