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NFL Produced Underdog Superbowl Champion in 2002 - 2002-12-21

In American football in 2002, the National Football League season produced an underdog champion, with the New England Patriots capturing the Vince Lombardi trophy in Super Bowl XXXVI.

The National Football League's premier event was played in February for the first time ever, after the season was delayed in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York and Washington.

The season ended with a major surprise, as the New England Patriots shocked the heavily favored Saint Louis Rams, 20-17, at a thrilling Super Bowl 36 in New Orleans.

On "Super-Sunday," February 4 at the Louisiana Superdome, the Patriots' so-called "bend but don't break" defense proved to be more than a match for a Rams offense billed as the "greatest show on turf." New England took advantage of two interceptions and a forced fumble, to score 17 straight points and take a 17-3 lead into the fourth quarter.

Saint Louis fought back with a two-yard touchdown scamper by quarterback Kurt Warner and a touchdown catch by Ricky Proehl that tied the score at 17, with just one minute, 30 seconds left in the game. New England quarterback Tom Brady led his team down the field for the win. "We seized the opportunity that we had," he said. "We were in the Super Bowl, playing for a chance to be World Champs, and went out and put it together."

Brady guided New England to the Saint Louis 31-yard line and, with time running out, Patriots' coach Bill Belichick called for a field goal. Adam Vinatieri's 48-yard field goal as time expired gave New England the 20-17 win. And it gave Bellichick's Patriots their first-ever Super Bowl title. "This is what every player and every coach works a lifetime for, and it was a tremendous thrill," said Bellichick. "When Adam hit it, it was so true, there was never really a doubt about it. It was high, it was long and looked like it was right down the middle."

Elsewhere in the NFL, Emmitt Smith of the Dallas Cowboys broke Walter Payton's all-time career rushing record on October 27 against the Seattle Seahawks. Smith ended the 193rd game of his career with 16,743 yards, breaking Payton's record by 17 yards.

Smith said breaking Walter Payton's record was a tremendous honor. "He meant so much to me in terms of the things that I was able to gather from him, in terms of knowledge, inspiration, wisdom and the person that he was," said Smith. "And to share with his family, it was a wonderful thing. It was something that I've always wanted to do if I had the chance to do so."

Payton, who played his entire career for the Chicago Bears, had set the record in 190 games. The man nicknamed "Sweetness' for his beautiful playing style, died from cancer in November, 1999, at the age of 45.

In 2002, the world of American football said goodbye to Hall of Fame quarterback Johnny Unitas, who died of a heart attack September 11, at the age of 69. Unitas, who was known for his signature "flat-top" haircut, broke nearly every passing NFL record and won three championships with the Baltimore Colts in an 18-year career. He passed for 40,239 career yards and 290 touchdowns. In college football, the undefeated Miami Hurricanes won the national championship that followed the 2001 season. On January 3, 2002, in Pasadena, California, Miami cruised to a convincing 37-14 victory over the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Rose Bowl.

The game was virtually decided by the half with Miami leading, 34-0. Quarterback Ken Dorsey led the Hurricanes' attack, throwing for 355 yards and three touchdowns. "It was definitely not an easy win," asserted Dorsey. "Nebraska is a hell of a team and they fought all the way till the end. You know, anytime you have a team that fights as hard as Nebraska and is as talented as Nebraska, it's going to be a tough win."

Miami finished with a 12-0 season, and made Larry Coker only the second head coach to win a national collegiate football title in his first year. Coker said the win was a reflection of the whole season. "We talked about talent all along, but the thing that sets this team apart [is] they have great character," he said. "They refused to give in, refused to flinch. They have done what they had to do, week in and week out. They have gotten the whole job done. Just a tremendous group of young athletes and tremendous coaches."

One day earlier, the Florida Gators captured the Orange Bowl in Miami by defeating the Maryland Terrapins, 56-23. But on January 4, Florida head coach Steve Spurrier resigned his post after 12 seasons to try the National Football League. He took over as coach of the Washington Redskins, but success has been slow in coming for him in the NFL.

In major college bowl results from January 1, the outgoing national champion Oklahoma Sooners defeated Arkansas, 10-3, in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas, Texas. South Carolina needed a last second, 42-yard field goal to defeat Ohio State, 31-28, in the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Florida.

Florida State defeated Virginia Tech, 30-17, in the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Florida, while Tennessee beat Michigan, 45-17, in the Florida Citrus Bowl in Orlando. In New Orleans, the Sugar Bowl went to home favorite Louisiana State University, which beat Illinois, 47-34. Second-ranked Oregon easily defeated third-ranked Colorado, 38-16, in the Fiesta Bowl in Tempe, Arizona.