For nearly 40 years, one game has stood above the rest for Bruce Arians.
On Sept. 23, 1984, the young head coach at Temple took his underdog team to Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia to face the University of Pittsburgh in a contest that was supposed to be so boring and lopsided it served as the opening act for a Beach Boys concert at the venue later that day. On a last-minute field goal, however, Temple was able to win, 13-12, and beat its instate rival.
"Beating Pitt is the number one win in my career," Arians said this week. "It ranks above the Super Bowl trophies I have in my house, and the players that helped do that, they’re lifetime friends."
It’s been nearly two decades since a quarterback set Super Bowl media day ablaze with the mere suggestion he could win five championships in the NFL, surpassing what was then the record of four held by Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana. Kurt Warner, who made that claim, had already won once the previous year and seemed almost certain to pick up a second title in just a few days as his Rams were heavy favorites over the Patriots and their young backup quarterback. Warner never did win a second Lombardi Trophy. The kid he faced 19 years ago, Tom Brady, went on to break the record Warner coveted and will try to extend it further with a seventh ring on Sunday.
The point to all of this is that most times we never know when we are about experience greatness. Arians certainly hoped Temple would beat Pitt, but he had no way of knowing it would become the defining moment of his coaching career when he showed up at the stadium that day humming "Surfin’ USA" to himself. Brady probably had confidence going against the Rams in his first of what would become 10 Super Bowl appearances, but he had no clue of the career that would follow the victory or even, at age 24, that he would still be playing professional football at age 43 and making plans to continue to do so.
"I could never imagine it would be like this," he said this week, thinking back to that game. "And I don’t think anybody could have."
But then there are days that everyone knows will be memorable and magical. Days when you open your eyes and everything looks different, like the world has been polished and buffed to a shine in anticipation of something special.
Sunday is one of those days. Because Super Bowl LV is not sneaking up on anyone. Certainly not on the Buccaneers.
They have had this game in their sights since mid-March of last year when they signed Brady to a two-year contract and changed the expectations of the franchise from one that maybe possibly could potentially compete for a postseason berth to one whose realistic aim became nothing short of a Super Bowl title.
The matchup against Kansas City, the defending champs with the brightest young star in the league at quarterback, only adds to the feeling of enchantment. Nineteen years after Warner was talking about how many Super Bowls he wanted to win, we’re back to looking at the quarterback who will oppose Brady and speculating on how many he’ll end up with in his caree.
This is the first Super Bowl to feature the winning quarterbacks of the past two Super Bowls. That it features one at the beginning of his career and one toward the end only adds to the drama and anticipation.
Brady, meanwhile, keeps chugging along.
"When I showed up as a freshman in high school and didn’t know how to put pads in my pants, I was just hoping to play high school football because I wanted to be like Joe Montana and Steve Young," he said. "And then when I got a chance in college, I just wanted to play at Michigan. And when I got drafted by the Patriots I just wanted to play, I just wanted to start. It’s been a series of little steps like that, trying to be a little better every year, trying to learn a little bit more every year… Fast-forward 21 years and I’m sitting in Tampa trying to go out and win a Super Bowl, which would be pretty sweet."
Brady, of course, is not the only one who has spent a lifetime preparing for Sunday.
"It is every kid’s dream," said Bucs left tackle Donovan Smith, who was born and spent most of his childhood in Hempstead. "This is why you play, to get to the big game. The opportunity to have your name, your team, etched in history."
No matter what happens on Sunday, the Buccaneers will be part of that history. If they beat Kansas City, it will be another chapter in Brady’s remarkable book. If they don’t, it may serve as the end of the Brady Era and trumpet the beginning of the Reign of Mahomes.
Yes, Sunday will be a special day in Tampa. Super, even.
And if things go the Bucs’ way, who knows, Arians may have a new contender for the number one win in his career for the first time in decades.