This evening, the Super Bowl celebrates its 50th birthday. Already the nation’s largest sporting event, it’s going to become bigger still as it breaks yet more records for media attendance, merchandise sales and worldwide viewership.
Without an NFL team of its own, the state of Arkansas finds itself far from the enlarged spotlight. All-time, best-ever Super Bowl type lists have been compiled which include the glory positions of quarterback and running back. Few Arkansans merit inclusion there.
Pivot to some of the top defenders to ever play in the Big Game, though, and the conversation changes. Because when it comes to the top Super Bowl defenses of all time, Arkansans move to the head of the class. The biggest names here are the annual All-Pro guys like Dallas Cowboys’ Cliff Harris and the Washington Redskins’ Monte Coleman, along with former Hogs like Chicago Bears’ Dan Hampton and the Denver Broncos’ Steve Atwater. That quartet might have packed the most star power, but plenty other Arkansans played vital roles in their teams’ Super Bowl appearances too.
Two Arkansans, for instance, starred on Pittsburgh’s famed "Steel Curtain," arguably the greatest defense of all time and certainly the most successful. Defensive end L.C. Greenwood, a UAPB graduate, starred on a line that powered Pittsburgh to four titles in the 1970s. He was joined for the last two of those titles by linebacker Dennis "Dirt" Winston, a former Razorback out of Forrest City.
Winston says he grew up watching Greenwood tear it up for what’s now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff in the late 1960s. Both of Winston’s older brothers attended UAPB and one them played football for a year alongside Greenwood. "We all knew the same people," recalls Winston, who was born in Marianna. That Arkansas connection helped bond the two players when Winston arrived in Pittsburgh as a fifth round pick in the 1977 NFL Draft.
By then, the 6’6", 245 pound Greenwood had already etched himself into NFL lore by tallying a Super Bowl-record three sacks in Pittsburgh’s Super Bowl X win over Dallas. Along with stars like defensive tackle "Mean Joe" Greene, he was part of a group of talented players that in the late 1970s gelled into a great team in part thanks to young talent like Winston.
The 6’0", 225-pound Winston says he picked up the nickname "Dirt" in college not because he played dirty, but because he played with force and relished hitting with violence. Few peers could match the sheer velocity he brought to the gridiron, as Steelers head coach Chuck Noll made clear when he told reporters he thought Winston was the "the best pound-for-pound athlete" he’d ever coached. "I was surprised he made that statement. Chuck usually didn't give out a lot of accolades, you know," Winston says, chuckling. "It motivated me to even work harder."
Winston ended up starting on two Super Bowl winning teams in 1979 and 1980, providing a wealth of experience that he still draws on to this day as the defensive line coach for Eastern Illinois University. His most memorable play came in 1979 in Super Bowl XIII against the Cowboys, the team which had rivaled Pittsburgh for 1970s supremacy. That rivalry went to a new level when, in the days before the Super Bowl, Dallas linebacker Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson made fun of the intelligence of Steelers quarterback Terry Bradshaw. "Bradshaw couldn’t spell ‘cat’ if you spotted him the ‘C’ and the ‘T’", he told reporters.
This fanned some flames among Bradshaw’s teammates, to say the least. And Winston made the Steelers’ feelings clear during the game when on special teams he was assigned to take out Henderson, the lead tackler on the Cowboys’ punt coverage unit. His chance to make a statement came early when blocking for a punt return. "Our punt returner Theo Bell was told to set [Henderson] up by starting straight up the middle, then get to the [outside] wall, and we would have angle to mow them down like bowling balls," Winson told me for a January 2016 Celebrate Magazine article.
The plan worked. Henderson hardly had time to protect himself from a missile-like Winston before getting absolutely decleated. "I talk to Thomas Henderson and he always tells me, ‘I saw you right out of the corner of my eye, right before you hit me. If I wouldn’t have saw you, I’d probably be out now.’"
The Cowboys’ defense featured a six-time Pro Bowler in safety Cliff Harris, a Fayetteville native who played at Des Arc High School. Super Bowl XIII was the last of five Dallas’ Super Bowl appearances in the 1970s. Harris played large roles in all five runs, including the year before against the upstart Denver Broncos.
That 1977 Broncos team made its first Super Bowl appearance on the strength of an "Orange Crush" defense that included one of Winston’s Razorback teammates. Unlike Winston, though, defensive Brison Manor didn’t grow up dreaming of being a an NFL player. The New Jersey native played two years of junior college in Kansas before landing in Fayetteville in 1973. With the help of an excellent position coach in Jimmy Johnson, Manor sharpened his technique and earned his shot.
Even when Manor made the pros as a 15th-round draft pick, he didn’t exactly expect to shoot to the top right away. "I came off a knee injury in ‘75 and the next year I’m in the Super Bowl," recalls Manor, now a vice president for Simmons First Investment Group in Little Rock. "I’ve watched the Super Bowl for a long time. Did I ever think I’d be in one? ‘No.’"
Like the Steelers’ defense, Manor told Celebrate Arkansas he and his teammates played "like brothers" during Denver’s 12-win season. Unfortunately, though, Denver’s quarterback suffered an injury right before Super Bowl XII and struggled mightily. In all, Denver turned the ball over eight times in a 27-10 loss to Dallas.
Considering that, Manor feels like Denver kept it surprisingly tight against a Cowboys offense featuring quarterback Roger Staubach and running back Tony Dorsett. But "they made the plays when they had to make the plays, and we didn’t. We just couldn’t get over the hump."
Not getting over the hump became an issue for the Denver Broncos franchise in the next 20 years as it kept losing Super Bowls, even after Hall of Fame quarterback John Elway came on board. Even now, heading into Super Bowl 50 with Carolina, losing is expected of the 6-point underdog Broncos.
But as a franchise, Denver has already accomplished its major breakthrough in part thanks to another former Razorback, safety Steve Atwater. The eight-time Pro Bowler had one of the greatest Super Bowl performances for his position in Super Bowl XXXII. Atwater tallied six solo tackles, one sack, a forced fumble and two timely passes defensed in a taut 31-24 win over the Packers. Many argued Atwater should have been chosen Super Bowl MVP instead of running back Terrell Davis.
No Arkansan has yet won that award. But nobody can deny that in the Super Bowl the state’s contributions have been very valuable indeed.
Evin Demirel writes more about Arkansas (and Texas) football at BestOfArkansasSports.com.