It began as the most thrilling day in Seattle Seahawks history. It ended as the most heartbreaking.
It was Feb. 5, 2006, the day Seattle faced the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XL at Detroit’s Ford Field. The game was one the Seahawks and their fans had long been looking forward to, and it produced an outcome they would have a long time forgetting.
“It still stands out as one of the greatest moments of my football career,” said Mack Strong, Seattle’s starting fullback that season. “The opportunity to play in a Super Bowl, that’s what every kid dreams about and it’s what every pro in the National Football League wants to have happen to them. Ultimately, that’s the overriding feeling I have.
“But the thing I don’t like remembering about that game is that we lost.”
On a day of missed opportunities for the Seahawks and missed calls by the game officials — referee Bill Leavy admitted as much years later — Seattle led on an early field goal by place-kicker Josh Brown. But Pittsburgh went ahead in the second quarter, and the Seahawks were never able to overcome the deficit in an eventual 21-10 defeat.
Even today, the memory stings.
“I didn’t feel like we played our best football,” Strong said. “I felt like we played a good game, but I didn’t feel like we played our best and that’s what we needed … to overcome some of those calls that went against us.”
For the Seahawks, confidence was high before the game after a franchise-best 13-3 regular-season record and playoff victories over Washington and Carolina. Running back Shaun Alexander was the league’s Most Valuable Player, having rushed in the regular season for an NFL-best 1,880 yards and totaling an NFL record 28 touchdowns.
But on a day of disappointments, the Seahawks were undone not only by a very good Pittsburgh team, but also by a series of officials’ calls that cost Seattle points, momentum and ultimately, as many disgruntled fans still believe, the game. Among them, a dubious offensive pass interference call against Seattle wide receiver Darrell Jackson, which negated a touchdown; a TD given to Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, even though replays showed he was stopped short of the goal line; a questionable holding call on Seahawks offensive lineman Sean Locklear that nullified a pass that would have given Seattle a first-and-goal at the Pittsburgh 1; and an astonishing penalty for an illegal block on Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck as he tackled Steelers cornerback Ike Taylor after an interception.
That Super Bowl, Strong said, should be listed in the history books “with an asterisk because of all the flags that were thrown.”
The day after the game, the team was honored at a rally at Qwest Field (today CenturyLink Field). In his remarks, then-head coach Mike Holmgren told fans: “I knew it was going to be tough going up against the Pittsburgh Steelers. I didn’t know we were going to have to play the guys in the striped shirts as well.”
Speaking recently, Holmgren said he believes the reactions of his team to the officiating — and he included his own — had a negative effect as the game progressed.
“If I could change anything,” Holmgren said, “it would be to change the emotions of the players on the field and on the sideline as that game was going. With every (questionable) call after the beginning, our sideline just erupted. And I couldn’t calm them down partly because I was getting excited. So I didn’t do that very well.”
As it turned out, there was a surprising footnote to the controversy, one provided by Leavy himself. Visiting a Seahawks team practice in August of 2010, he met with a group of media for an impromptu news conference and, unbidden, raised the subject of Super Bowl XL.
“It was a tough thing for me,” Leavy told reporters. “I kicked two calls in the fourth quarter and I impacted the game, and as an official you never want to do that. It left me with a lot of sleepless nights. I think about it constantly. I’ll go to my grave wishing that I’d been better. I know that I did my best at that time, but it wasn’t good enough.
“When we (as officials) make mistakes, you’ve got to step up and own them. It’s something that all officials have to deal with, but unfortunately when you have to deal with it in the Super Bowl, it’s difficult.”
Looking back after eight years, Holmgren says he remains proud of the 2005 team, despite the Super Bowl defeat. Referring to his players and coaching staff, “I think they accomplished a great deal that year,” he said.
Marquand Manuel, a safety that season and today a Seahawks defensive assistant, said the Super Bowl experience “is another beast” compared to the NFL’s regular season. For players, the game’s intensity “is no different than the (preceding) playoff games,” he said. “But the magnitude of everything else that goes along with it, the distractions, makes the game seem way bigger than it is.
“Is it a once-in-a-lifetime experience? For some people it is,” Manuel said. “But at the same time, when you get in between the white lines and they blow that first whistle, you’re going to forget about everything around you.”
After his NFL retirement, “you realize how special and important it is to have been able to play in a Super Bowl,” said Strong, today a Seahawks radio and TV commentator. “The experience is surreal and that’s the perfect word for it. You just keep pinching yourself.”
Once the game begins, “you lose sight of the fact that it’s a Super Bowl because now you’re just playing football,” he said. “But everything up to that moment is all pomp and circumstance, and you really feel like it’s a big, big deal. It feels very much like fairy tale.”