It may go down as the gutsiest call in Super Bowl history.
With his team trailing 10-6 at halftime, New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton decided to start off the second half of Super Bowl XLIV with an onside kick. How risky was the call?
So risky that no coach in any of the 43 prior Super Bowls had ever tried it.
In the history of the big game, there had never been an onside kick attempted in any quarter except for the fourth. For the unprecedented call to work, two things had to happen: The Saints needed a great kick and they needed someone on the team crazy enough to recover it.
The first part of the plan was executed perfectly by Saints onside specialist Thomas Morstead, although calling Morestead an onside specialist is probably a stretch considering he had just practiced his first onside kick 12 days before the Super Bowl.
The second part of the plan was as simple as it was difficult: recover the football.
Being the guy clutching the ball at the bottom of an onside kick pile is like being defenseless in a bar fight against 10 guys who have black belts and guns, the bottom line: You’re going to get hurt.
In the two minutes after the kick, the refs tried to break up the giant pile of humanity that the players had become.
When the confusion subsided, one player emerged with the coveted pigskin prize: every Saints fan's new favorite backup safety, Chris Reis (Saints linebacker Jonathan Casillas was given official credit for the recovery, but Reis came away with the ball).
From his offseason home in Cumming, Ga., Reis talked about the particulars of the big play. “I was just holding on to the ball,” the 26-year-old says. “I don’t even know who was pulling at it, I was just holding on for dear life.”
According to Reis, the Colts were doing anything and everything to get the ball, “They were trying to pry my hands, they were pulling at my arms, they were pulling at everything, but I wasn’t going to let it go. My hands and forearms were literally aching after that because I had been holding on to the ball so tight.”
Last Wednesday, Super Bowl referee Rob Vernatchi told a radio station in Sacramento something interesting about the onside kick: “In all the years I have been officiating, that was the longest onside kick pile I have ever been involved in.”
If it was the longest for Vernatchi, a ref, imagine what it felt like for Reis, “It felt like it lasted forever. I didn’t even know when [the refs] made the call [giving possession to the Saints],” Reis says.
“Later on TV, I saw that even after they made the call I was still in the pile for awhile after that. I think it only lasted like a minute and a half, but a minute and a half when you’re at the bottom of a pile where people are on top of you screaming, pushing, and pulling feels like an eternity.”
So how much has Reis’ life changed over the past week?
On Super Bowl media day, a day where over 1,500 journalists convened at Sun Life Stadium to interview players, Reis estimates he did seven interviews, a paltry number by media day standards.
After the Super Bowl was over, “I did seven interviews before I even got off the field.”
Once the former Georgia Tech star finally got off the field, it was time to start the post game celebrations, “I didn’t get much sleep,” Reis says of the 48 hours after the game.
“The after-party ran pretty long and we had to wake up early the next morning to get back to New Orleans. And then we had the parade the next day”
Ah, the parade. The city of New Orleans is arguably the parade capital of the world and for Tuesday’s parade, the city pulled out all the stops, it was the ultimate lead up to next week’s Mardi Gras. As a matter of fact, the parade had its own awesome Mardi Gras–like name: Lombardi Gras.
“The parade was the craziest thing I have ever been apart of,” admits Reis.
“The crowd was estimated at 800,000 people, the city pretty much shut down, everyone was there. It took us about five-and-a-half hours to get through the whole parade route. The route was supposed to be two hours long, but it took the five-and-a-half because the streets were so packed.”
Reis says that the Saints couldn’t have won the Super Bowl for a better group of fans.
“The city of New Orleans deserves this, that’s who we won this for and that’s what made it fun and I’m glad we could celebrate with them.” The third-year vet then got excited just thinking about the magnitude of the event. “It was the biggest parade in New Orleans history, so that was cool. I had never been in a Mardi Gras parade, but I got to be in Lombardi Gras.”
With the recovery of the onside kick, Reis has now etched his name into Bourbon Street lore, his name will echo in the French Quarter for years to come and he seems surprised by this.
“A reporter came up to me right after the game and said ‘you know, you’ll be remembered in New Orleans history forever.’ I guess I didn’t realize the magnitude of the play until afterward.”
Over the past week, Reis has had a chance to think about the play, “I’ve thought to myself, ‘What if I don’t hang on to the ball?’ It’s hard to even fathom how big of a play it was, I’m just humbled to be a part of it. People talk about Tracey Porter’s [interception for a touchdown] and Drew Brees’ great day, but if I don’t recover that kick, none of that even starts. It’s humbling and overwhelming at the same time.”
Reis' name is all over the sports world right now, but one place you probably won't hear it: on E!'s Kendra show. The former Girls Next Door star is married to Hank Baskett.
Yes, that's the same Hank Baskett who plays for the Colts, so yes, that's the same Hank Baskett who watched the onside kick bounce off his legs. The fortuitous bounce off of Baskett's leg set up Reis' recovery. "I don't really watch that show," Reis said of Wilkinson's reality program. "I usually end up watching whatever my wife does."
Finally, there’s one other perk to the onside kick recovery: Reis’ life has now come full circle. The Super Bowl hero was actually born in Canton, Ohio, the home of the Pro Football Hall-of-Fame.
Ironically, that’s where the football he recovered is headed, “I guess you have to make it in the Hall-of-Fame somehow, some people are known for making a big tackle, I’m known for recovering an onside kick.”