Jan. 26, 1997. The Green Bay Packers were about to win the Super Bowl for the first time in 29 years. One more kneel-down from Brett Favre, and the Vince Lombardi Trophy would come home to Titletown, suddenly an apt name once again.
Favre, who won the second of his three consecutive MVP awards that season, was deservedly receiving most of the attention. He was about to earn his first ring. So was the man standing behind him in victory formation.
Don Beebe was in his eighth NFL season and making his fifth Super Bowl appearance. For Beebe, the image of the seconds winding off the Louisiana Superdome clock will forever be etched in his mind. It was a countdown to a championship and simultaneously, the countdown to relief.
“To go to the Super Bowl and win in a Green Bay uniform, it’s iconic,” Beebe said. “Wherever I go the rest of my life, you’re revered.”
Still, Beebe found a quiet moment just minutes later, and found himself consumed with guilt. The achievement of a lifetime was cloaked in thoughts of others, those left behind. Those final 60 minutes of a season had been conquered by Beebe and his teammates, but that didn’t erase his past. A past filled with incredible successes, coupled with the devastating lows that come with falling inches shy of the goal.
Selected in the third round of the 1989 NFL Draft by the Buffalo Bills, the Chadron State product found immediate success. In his second year, the Bills started a run of mythical proportions, reaching the Super Bowl for the first of four consecutive seasons. No team has matched that feat before or since.
Beebe was sidelined for the first appearance due to a broken leg. More than 26 years later, the Illinois native immediately recalled the date and opponent of the injury, which forced doctors to install a rod into his limb. Relegated to the fringes for Super Bowl XXV, Beebe remained confident. Buffalo was favored by a touchdown in most Vegas books and was coming off a 51-3 throttling of the Los Angeles Raiders in the AFC Championship Game.
“You could feel it in the air in Buffalo. You thought you could make a run to be the first team in Buffalo to reach the Super Bowl,” Beebe said. “I remember going to practice every day and standing on the sidelines in Tampa, and it was really hard watching them practice. You knew we were going to win, we were a huge favorite.”
Instead, fans were treated to one of the more shocking results in Super Bowl history. Buffalo allowed the New York Giants to control the ball for more than 40 minutes. In the end, a 47-yard Scott Norwood field goal attempt famously sailed wide right, giving the Giants a 20-19 victory.
Beebe, 52, still bemoans the defeat. He wonders if his knack for the big play could have changed the outcome. It’s not the result that haunts us. It’s wondering how it could have been altered.
“Offensively we played well, but our defense couldn’t get (Jeff) Hostetler off the field. And then the running game with O.J. Anderson,” Beebe said. “It was hard to stand there because, yes, I do think I could have made a play to help.”
Buffalo returned to the Super Bowl in each of the next three seasons. It lost every time, with each showing an embarrassment and disservice to the caliber of the team.
After six seasons with Buffalo, Beebe and the Bills parted ways via free agency. The childhood Bears fan who idolized Walter Payton had his eye on a specific destination — Green Bay. Under head coach Mike Holmgren, the Packers had transformed from perennial doormat to championship contender, and lost in the NFC Divisional round for the second straight year in Beebe’s last season in Buffalo.
“Bob LaMonte was my agent, and I told him I wanted to go not where the most money was but where we both feel I could win a Super Bowl,” Beebe said. “I wanted to know what that felt like before my career was over. Mike (Holmgren) wanted me but I wasn’t Ron Wolf’s type of receiver. Ron won out that year, and I respect that.”
Beebe eventually landed with the expansion Carolina Panthers. For the veteran, the draw was simple. His best friend and Buffalo roommate Frank Reich was in Carolina, along with former Bills general manager Bill Polian. Those personal connections, combined with the chance to be the top receiver, convinced Beebe to take on the challenge. It proved disastrous.
“It ended up being the worst year of my nine-year career from a football standpoint,” Beebe said. “I was the number one guy and then I break a rib during camp and I’m out for two weeks. I come back and I’m the third guy behind Mark Carrier and Willie Green. It was tough to sit in meetings.”
The 1996 offseason brought Beebe to the open market once more. It also brought him to the same conclusion. He wanted to be a Packer. This time, Holmgren won out over Wolf. Beebe would get his wish, joining a team that fell one win shy of the Super Bowl the year prior.
“It was a tremendous decision, going from the worst year of my career to the best,” Beebe said. “It was awesome to be a part of. I’m a faith-based guy and God was working out a plan to me. I was blessed to be able to go to the Packers organization and being able to play with Brett. If I could do it all again I would want to play for Buffalo and Green Bay. … It was a great ride.”
The season was a huge success. Beebe posted a career-high 699 receiving yards as the Packers went 13-3 and earned home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. In the conference title game, Green Bay hosted Carolina. It won, putting Beebe in his fifth Super Bowl.
In the lead-in to Super Bowl XXXI, Holmgren wanted two veterans to offer his team some advice. Beebe and Jim McMahon, a backup quarterback the receiver cheered for as a teenager, were given the task of imparting their knowledge.
“Mike had me and Jim McMahon talk about our experience because we were the only two who had gone to the Super Bowl,” Beebe said. “He wanted Jim to talk about what not to do and me to say what to do. Jim and I got up and talked about our experiences. I didn’t care if I scored or caught a ball. I wanted two things. One was to win, and two, I wanted the young guys, being Desmond Howard, Antonio Freeman and Andre Rison, to score a touchdown.”
Beebe would have his chance to push all the previous disappointment into the past. Once more, 60 minutes.
This time, Beebe’s team was the best when it mattered most. Despite not catching a pass against the New England Patriots, the 33-year-old made an impact. In a setting meant for younger men with lesser names, Beebe threw the final block on Desmond Howard’s 99-yard kickoff return-touchdown, sealing off Patriots corner Scooter McGruder. In honor of Beebe’s effort, Howard signed the ball and delivered it to the man on his third team in as many years.
On the final play of the night, Favre knelt down before turning around and handing the game ball to Beebe, a man who ended his career without a Pro Bowl appearance, as a mark of respect for the struggle endured. Immediately after, Beebe was engulfed by his brother, wife and two children, who had managed to navigate security.
Four times, the man his teammates called Beebs was forced to watch other players celebrate. The other team got to talk about Disneyland and hug their loved ones, all while he was left to deal with more heartache. On this night in New Orleans, Beebe felt the thrills he could only watch from afar in previous years.
“I got to give my wife a kiss and carried my two kids off the field as a Super Bowl champion. It doesn’t get any better than that. As an athlete and player, you can’t experience anything better. That was the best moment in my NFL career.”
Yet, in all the elation of ultimate victory, it was the men left behind that filled Beebe’s thoughts.
“When that 10 seconds clicked off and I got the ball, I walked into the locker room and when things quieted down … I reflected on all the guys, and friends, from Jim (Kelly) and Frank (Reich) to (Steve) Tasker and the fans and Marv (Levy) and Polian and John Butler, the old general manager who passed away that drafted me.
“I felt really guilty. Why me? Why me when there were guys more deserving than me? I wished they could all be there. It was really anti-climatic for me. I wished all my friends and the fans from Buffalo could be experiencing that because they deserve it. I pray that one day the Bills will win a Super Bowl.”
Beebe has not played in Buffalo since the conclusion of the 1994 NFL season. In the 22 years since, the Bills have toggled between floundering and flatlining, making their last postseason appearance in 1999.
Neither time nor failure to win the game’s ultimate prize has distanced the western New York city from Beebe’s mind or heart. During his time there, the Bills became the only team in NFL history to reach four consecutive Super Bowls. That run means more to Beebe than the championship he earned in Green Bay.
“Think about it,” Beebe said. “There have been several teams that won back-to-back Super Bowls, but to accomplish four in a row? Nobody has ever done that. There have only been one or two to come close. To do what we did, and we are the only ones to do it? That means something. … The only comparisons in my mind, and I’m sure I’ll get flack for this, are the Steelers of the 1970s and what the Patriots are doing now.
“It’s amazing. … To go to four in a row, even Tom Brady would tell you, how easy it seems, they would all tell you that what Buffalo did to go to four in a row is crazy. It’s unbelievable.”
With the Bills, Beebe played with a litany of Hall of Famers including Andre Reed, James Lofton, Thurman Thomas, Jim Kelly and Bruce Smith. This is to say nothing of Shane Conlan, Cornelius Bennett, Darryl Talley, Kent Hull, Will Worford, Nate Odomes, Henry Jones, Jim Ritcher and Howard Ballard, all of whom either earned All-Pro or Pro Bowl honors.
There’s no question that Buffalo team was the greatest never to win a ring. The more interesting question is whether it qualifies as one of the greats teams of all time, without any qualifiers. Over their four Super Bowl years from 1990-93, Buffalo won a trio of AFC East titles and had an overall record of 49-15. In the AFC playoffs, the Bills vanquished Joe Montana, Dan Marino, Warren Moon and John Elway on five occasions.
Despite the lack of diamonds, Buffalo was transformed during that era. For a time, the hard-scrabble city built on banking and scientific research became the unlikely center of the football world. In the midst of that, Beebe and his teammates reached unmatched success in terms of perseverance and longevity.
Years after the fact, while sitting in his den, the man known for his impeccable eyeblack believes the best team he played on was never crowned champion.
“No doubt the Bills were the more talented team,” Beebe said. “I get a lot of raised eyebrows when I say that. The Packers were a great Super Bowl team but you look at the talent per position on the Bills, we had crazy talent. Look how many are already in the Hall of Fame … Here’s the reason, and I’ve thought about this for years. The difference was during the course of the game it is on emotion. The further you go, the emotions get higher. When we got to the Super Bowl, we couldn’t handle it.”
Beebe points to one play in Super Bowl XXVIII in particular. After the first half, the Bills led the Cowboys, 13-6, and were receiving the second-half kickoff. On the third play of the third quarter, from the Buffalo 43-yard line, Thomas took a handoff up the middle and fumbled. Dallas cornerback James Washington scooped up the ball and scored.
The score was the beginning of the end for the Bills, who were outscored 24-0 in the second half. If anything, this was the biggest difference between Buffalo and Green Bay. One could handle the moment. The other crumbled.
“Nobody was yelling at each other, it was just quiet. No emotion, nobody, including myself, said anything to anybody. Next thing we know, we don’t score another point and they take Emmitt Smith and cram it right down our throats. Now you fast forward two years, and we’re in the Super Bowl against New England, and (Drew) Bledsoe hits two passes and New England is winning 14-10. I remember coming to the sideline, and I was one of them. Leroy Butler, Eugene Robinson and Keith Jackson are saying ‘Guys, we’re fine.’ Reggie (White) was another one. The emotions were still high and intact. Next thing you know we are up 27-14 and the game is over.
“It was completely different. Buffalo was more talented but we were much weaker than we were in Green Bay, and that comes from the leaders of the team. … None of us could handle it.”
Time is a funny thing. It offers perspective and, occasionally, clarifies what once was difficult to understand. In other instances, time only proves an assertion correct.
For Beebe, the latter is true of his final NFL season. In 1997, the Packers were heavy favorites to return to the Super Bowl and win the franchise’s 13th championship. Things were going according to plan. Despite being in one of the most talented conferences of all time, Green Bay rolled to a 13-3 record, earning the NFC’s No. 2 seed.
After dispatching the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and San Francisco 49ers, the Packers arrived at Super Bowl XXXII. Green Bay was at the peak of its powers, with Favre earning an unprecedented third consecutive MVP award. Beebe had been limited to 10 games, making only two catches for 28 yards. Yet he had provided a spark on special teams, returning six kicks for 134 yards in three December games.
Then, his hamstring acted up again. Beebe was injured in the final regular-season contest and missed both NFC postseason affairs. After rehabbing and resting for more than a month, he was healthy for the Super Bowl. Then Holmgren wanted to talk.
“I was healthy and when I went to San Diego I was ready to play and I was practicing. The whole week we practiced in Green Bay I was ready to play, I got myself ready. And then I’ll never forget it. On Tuesday, Media Day, Holmgren calls me down into the eating area and he told me I was not going to dress for the game. I was stunned, I couldn’t believe I wasn’t going to play. I always thought why? It was my ninth year, and I felt like I wanted an answer. I insisted. They wanted to activate a guy by the name of Ronnie Anderson … That didn’t add up for me. Mike told me they wanted to activate him because that way nobody picks him up. I said who is going to pick him up? He’s a practice squad guy. I have all the respect in the world for Mike Holmgren and the Green Bay Packers, I just wish I could have played in that game.
“I was devastated, that was probably the most disheartening news I ever got in my NFL career. I was healthy to play and wasn’t able to play because of an organizational decision. … The kicker was two weeks after the Super Bowl was over, they cut Anderson. It took me four months to get over it.”
Getting over it is a relative term. Despite interest the following offseason from the Oakland Raiders, Beebe decided to retire.
In the end, Beebe will be remembered not for his personal accolades, but for the achievements of his teams. He is one of three players in NFL history to play in a half-dozen Super Bowls (Mike Lodich and Tom Brady are the others) — that’s more than all but five franchises. It’s natural curiosity to wonder whether Beebe views his career as a success or failure, considering the opportunities both realized and squandered.
For the man himself, the question is not a question at all.
“I feel completely blessed and honored to be a part of those teams,” Beebe said. “Whether you win or lose it was a great accomplishment. I have one ring but in reality I have six. Being 6-0 in conference championship games is quite a feat. I look at my ring display and I have six of them and they are beautiful. I have no complaints. … I wouldn’t change a thing, I had the time of my life.”