Super Bowl XXXIII: Six-year wait for revenge fires Reeves

Denver face determined opposition from underdogs as they attempt to repeat last year's victory
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AN UNEXPECTED sight may have greeted the surgeons who performed a quadruple heart bypass operation on Dan Reeves last month: a deeply scarred organ full of anger and bitterness.

Reeves, head coach of the Atlanta Falcons, appears on the surface to be perfectly temperamentally suited to the peculiar demands of his profession. It is a job he has performed with distinction for 17 years: no other active coach can emulate his 172 career victories, nor his record of four Super Bowl appearances.

Despite his medical condition, Reeves will tomorrow lead the Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII where he will face the Denver Broncos, the team which fired him six years ago. That alone adds a spicy personal subplot to America's premier sporting soap opera. Throw into the mix the fact that Denver's head coach, Mike Shanahan, and quarterback John Elway are the people Reeves holds responsible for his demise, and you have the elements of a Shakespearean drama. Watching the sidelines will be almost as much fun as observing the action on the gridiron.

It all happened six years ago, but for Reeves, the psychological wounds remain as fresh as the physical ones inflicted on his ailing heart just six weeks ago. "There's still a lot of hurt there that won't ever go away," he said. "I don't think any time you're fired, and you've been in a place for 12 years and had the success we had, that you understand it or [can] say it doesn't hurt you." The story goes that Reeves hired Shanahan, an exciting young prospect, to coach his wide receivers in 1984, promoting him to offensive co-ordinator a year later. All seemed well. With Elway masterful at quarterback, Denver went to three Super Bowls, in a four- year spell in the late 1980s, and although they lost them all, the Broncos were recognised as a force within the game.

Shanahan joined the Los Angeles Raiders as head coach in 1988, but lasted less than two years, and when he was sacked Reeves swiftly brought him back to Colorado, this time as quarterbacks coach. Problems soon followed. In a 1990 report in the Denver Post Elway was quoted as saying that communication between himself and Reeves was "poor". The rift deepened as Shanahan and Elway became increasingly close. Reeves believed that his assistant was working with the player behind his back and even creating plays without the knowledge or permission of the head coach. Unwilling to be marginalised, Reeves dismissed Shanahan in 1992 for insubordination.

A year later, following a mediocre 1992 campaign, Reeves too was gone, and Elway described playing for his former boss as "hell". After a two- year hiatus during which Wade Phillips tried unsuccessfully to revive the franchise's fortunes, Shanahan returned as the head man with a glowing endorsement from the veteran quarterback. Denver have been irresistible since winning their first Super Bowl last year and are heavily favoured to retain their title on Sunday.

Reeves then spent four years with the New York Giants taking them to the play-offs before landing the thankless task of attempting to revive Atlanta in 1997. The Falcons, one of the league's most consistent losers, had won just three games the year before and the enormity of the task was evident as they won just once in Reeves' first eight games.

Since then, the turnaround has been dramatic. The Falcons have lost just four times in 26 outings: 60-1 underdogs at the start of the campaign, they are without doubt the most surprising team in Super Bowl history. Reeves has rightly been named coach of the year for the achievement, his reputation restored beyond debate.

At times this week, however, his feud with Shanahan and Elway has threatened to overshadow the occasion. His resentment has not dimmed with the years. "You never forget those things," said Reeves. "But am I a person that's not going to speak to Mike Shanahan or John Elway? I don't live my life like that, but I won't go out to eat with them or go socially to a function."

A surprised Shanahan says his relationship with his former boss is beyond repair, and denies accusations of undermining his previous employer's authority. "I thought we were both going to take the high road on this and I don't really understand it," he said.

Elway, appearing for what may be the last game of a glittering 16 year career is maintaining diplomatic dignity through it all. "That was six years ago," he said. "I've moved on, and I concentrate on the good times. We had a hell of a lot more good times when he was here than bad times."

Can the feud be resolved? Not according to Reeves. "You'd have to get us in a room with a psychiatrist and make us talk about what happened," he said. "But that will never happen because somewhere along the line, you find somebody who's not telling the truth."

Since airing his grievances earlier this week under the intense scrutiny of 3,500 media representatives assembled in Miami for the game, Reeves has apologised for his words, the apology being accepted by Shanahan. In a real sense however, his heart has been laid bare in more ways than one in recent weeks. Perhaps a victory over the team that caused him such trauma six years ago will finally allow Dan Reeves' wounds to heal.