The conversation occurred in the immediate aftermath of Super Bowl XXVII, when Dallas Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman was riding with his agent from the Rose Bowl back to the team hotel in Santa Monica.
“Do you know what just happened?” Leigh Steinberg asked his exhausted client.
“Yeah,” Aikman said, “we just won the game.”
“No,” the agent corrected him. “When you entered the game you were Troy Aikman, very good quarterback. You left the game as Troy Aikman, superstar, name in lights.”
There have been 57 Super Bowls and 34 starting quarterbacks who presided over winning teams. They are members of the most exclusive club in sports.
“It’s talked about from middle school to high school to college, all the recruiting, how to evaluate the position,” said Brad Johnson, who won a Super Bowl with Tampa Bay in 2002. “And it’s the ultimate prize to lead your team to win the ultimate championship. If you’ve hoisted that trophy, it’s a dream come true. It’s a wow. It’s not a vote. It’s not a political thing. It’s won, and it’s earned.”
Next Sunday night, when the Kansas City Chiefs play the San Francisco 49ers, one starting quarterback will be standing on the Allegiant Stadium dais in Las Vegas amid a blizzard of confetti.
If it’s Kansas City’s Patrick Mahomes, it will be his third Super Bowl victory. San Francisco’s Brock Purdy is going for his first, and the 49ers’ first Lombardi Trophy since the 1994-95 season.
“The old saying is possession is nine-tenths of the law; I learned that in law school,” said Steve Young, the last San Francisco quarterback to win it all. “Only in this case, it’s `perception’ not possession. The perception is that Super Bowls define careers, and they do.”
Buffalo’s Jim Kelly and Miami’s Dan Marino had spectacular Hall of Fame careers, but neither quarterback won a Super Bowl. Those are gaping holes in their resumés, and Kelly had to deal with four consecutive Super Bowl defeats.
“The reason why football is a cruel sport is that if a team makes the Super Bowl and doesn’t win, they’re not viewed as the second-best team in pro football and ahead of 30 other teams,” Steinberg said. “If you ask the Buffalo Bills, they will tell you they’re known as the losers.”
Of the 34 starting quarterbacks who have won Super Bowls, 30 are still living. Gone are Bart Starr, Len Dawson, Johnny Unitas and Ken Stabler.
Thirteen quarterbacks have won multiple Super Bowls, led by Tom Brady, who has an astounding seven rings. Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw each won four. Aikman won three, and the others in that group won a pair: Starr, Ben Roethlisberger, Bob Griese, Peyton Manning, Eli Manning, John Elway, Jim Plunkett, Roger Staubach and Mahomes.
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“You’re part of a championship team,” said Brady, who won six with New England and one with Tampa Bay. “Coach [Bill] Belichick always used to say, `You don’t have to defend anything. No one can take it away from you.’ ”
The New York Giants won the Super Bowl in 2007 by knocking off the undefeated New England Patriots. The Giants’ Eli Manning remembers how close that season came to going a different way.
“[Winning the Super Bowl] honestly meant a lot, especially in New York where in my first three years there was a lot of ups and downs even though we made the playoffs a few times,” Manning said. “There was a lot of scrutiny of [coach] Tom Coughlin and me. They were ready to kick us out of town going into that fourth year. Even during that season it kind of got started off bad, we lost a couple in a row.
“To win enough games to just make the playoffs and then go and win a Super Bowl it kind of secured that I was going to be in New York a few more years. That doesn’t happen if we lose to Buffalo late in the year, in the second-to-last game or if we go to Tampa and lose in the first round of the playoffs, there’s a chance Coughlin’s gone and I could have been gone.
“It definitely changed the trajectory of my career.”
Manning won a pair of rings, beating the Brady-led Patriots again in the 2011 season.
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“It’s special and I’m honored to be a part of it,” he said of the brotherhood of winning quarterbacks. “Don’t take it lightly. Because I know how hard it is and what goes into it. I know what goes into the work if you don’t win a Super Bowl.
“But to be a part of that team that goes to it, there’s not a better feeling in the world to be winning playoff games, going to a Super Bowl and to be the champions, going up on that stage and getting to hold the trophy for the first time. You feel the excitement for these guys who are going through it, especially for the first time.”
One win is enough to get you in the club.
“You’ve got some greedy quarterbacks, some of them have got more than one,” Washington’s Doug Williams said with a laugh. “That’s part of the game, though. It’s an exclusive club and it feels good to be in it. You look around and you’ve got quarterbacks that are in the Hall of Fame that didn’t get that opportunity. It’s something that goes with you. It’s something that nobody can take away from you.”
Those Washington teams won three Super Bowls in 10 years between 1982 and 1991, and did so with three starting quarterbacks: Joe Theismann, Williams and Mark Rypien.
“It absolutely changes your life,” said Theismann, who led his team to victory over the Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII. “When you win a Super Bowl it’s sort of like you’ve accomplished something in your particular profession that very few people have… The visibility is there for other opportunities. It’s sort of like, OK, you’ve accomplished this in your profession, how can you take that and relate it to people in every other profession about what it took to be at the top?”
Running back John Riggins was named Most Valuable Player of that Super Bowl 41 years ago, but Theismann had his own magical moment at game’s end.
“When I ran off the field, there were two images that flashed through my mind,” the quarterback said. “One was Terry Bradshaw holding the ball up with one hand. The other was Joe Namath waving the finger No. 1. And when I left the field, the ball went up and my index finger went up. It was a combination of what they had done and it’s emblazoned in my mind.”
That game was the start of a glorious 10 years for Washington, back before the desert of despair under the subsequent ownership of Daniel Snyder.
Rypien, whose team closed out that stretch with a Lombardi Trophy of its own, felt the weight of expectations.
“The road was already paved before I got there,” he said. “It was kind of like, hey, if you don’t get to the pinnacle and win the game, if you didn’t at least go deep into the playoffs, you felt like the season was a disappointment.”
Oh, but for a quarterback, winning the Super Bowl was like strapping on rocket boosters.
“The effect of having thousands of press people there filing stories for a week, followed up by the biggest television ratings we have for an event, it reaches all of America and beyond,” Steinberg said. “It has an exponential effect on endorsements, an exponential effect on salary negotiations.”
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Not long after his Buccaneers beat the Oakland Raiders, Johnson had a moment that gave him goosebumps.
“It was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me,” he said. “I was in a Los Angeles hotel in a room with Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith, Ronnie Lott and Magic Johnson. We all were signing these autographs and Magic turned to me and said, `Now you finally know what it feels like to be a champion.’ ”
There are so few people in this Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks club, Brad Johnson would love to see the NFL recognize it. Maybe one similar to the gold jacket the Hall of Famers wear.
His suggestion: a red jacket with a patch on the breast pocket featuring the Lombardi Trophy and the Roman numerals of the Super Bowls that quarterback won. With all of his accolades, Brady would be as decorated as a four-star general.
“You look at these teams that are watching from home and might have been a couple plays away from playing in it,” said Jeff Hostetler, quarterback of the Giants’ winning team in 1990. “From a career perspective, it’s the peak.”
But, Hostetler said, there’s a rub.
“You have to win it.”
Not surprisingly, all seven Super Bowl wins are special for Brady, so it’s tough for him to say one was more meaningful than another. But there were a lot of remarkable elements to his first ring, when the Patriots toppled the heavily-favored St. Louis Rams in the 2001 season.
“The first one was just so unexpected because we were 5-5 halfway through the season and we ended up having a magical run,” he said. “Even the Super Bowl we were like 13-point underdogs or something. Man, it feels like so long ago and at the same time it feels like it was yesterday.”
Peyton Manning won Super Bowls when he was with Indianapolis (against Chicago) and Denver (against Carolina) and donated both pairs of cleats from those games to the University of Tennessee, his alma mater, where they now sit behind glass.
“They’re regular cleats I guess and you kind of say, `How do you really know those are the cleats that you wore in the Super Bowl?’” Manning said. “What’s cool and unique about them is they have confetti on the bottom. I think that’s just cool. The confetti is kind of stuck into the bottom of the cleats.”
It’s proof positive that a winning Super Bowl quarterback is actually walking on the ground. It only feels like walking on air.
Super Bowl winning quarterbacks
Tom Brady (7), Terry Bradshaw (4), Joe Montana (4), Troy Aikman (3), Patrick Mahomes (2), John Elway (2), Bob Griese (2), Eli Manning (2), Peyton Manning (2), Jim Plunkett (2), Ben Roethlisberger (2), Bart Starr (2), Roger Staubach (2), Joe Namath, Len Dawson, Johnny Unitas, Ken Stabler, Joe Theismann, Jim McMahon, Phil Simms, Doug Williams, Jeff Hostetler, Mark Rypien, Steve Young, Brett Favre, Kurt Warner, Trent Dilfer, Brad Johnson, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Joe Flacco, Russell Wilson, Nick Foles, Matthew Stafford.
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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.