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The entire week leading up to Super Bowl XL, the buzz surrounding the Pittsburgh Steelers swirled around large men with gigantic personalities: Ben Roethlisberger, the quarterback who goes by Big Ben; the massive Jerome Bettis, who answers to Bus; and Joey Porter, a linebacker equally adept at smacking heads and talking smack.
But the players who stole the spotlight in Sunday's 21-10 victory over Seattle were the little guys, the ones who had happily flown under the radar for most of the week.
This wasn't just one for the thumb — a fifth Super Bowl ring for a storied franchise — but one for Tom Thumb, the smallish men who made a big difference.
There was whippet-fast Willie Parker, whose 75-yard touchdown run was the longest in Super Bowl history; receiver Antwaan Randle El, the former college quarterback who stunned the Seahawks with a touchdown pass on a reverse; and cornerback Ike Taylor, who looks shorter than his 6-foot-1 listing, and helped clinch the victory with a critical interception.
And the biggest little man, the one who walked away with most-valuable-player honors, was stocky receiver Hines Ward, who has long said that since he doesn't fit the mold he therefore doesn't always get the respect he deserves.
"My whole career's been that way," he said, ice packs sitting like shoulder pads under his newly minted championship T-shirt. "All the naysayers say, 'He's not the prototypical wideout. He's not 6-5. He doesn't run a 4.2 or 4.3 [40-yard dash].' I just like to think I'm a great football player."
And Sunday at Ford Field, he showed it. He set up the Steelers' first touchdown and scored their last one, bookend big plays that helped propel Pittsburgh to its first hoisting of the Lombardi Trophy since January 1980.
The first of those plays came late in the second quarter, when Roethlisberger rolled left on third-and-28 and — on one of his few good passes of the day — found Ward at the three. Three plays later, Roethlisberger scored on a keeper, apparently just breaking the plane of the goal line, although the Seahawks argued he was stopped short.
There was no debate about Ward's touchdown, which came near the midway point of the fourth quarter and gave Pittsburgh its final advantage. He was on the receiving end of Randle El's 43-yard pass and, once he crossed the goal line, joyously skipped through the end zone.
With 100 spinning gold "Terrible Towels" for every green Seahawk knockoff, Ford Field could have been mistaken for Heinz Field with a roof.
"It was like an away game for us, there's no question about that," Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck said. "But if there were 90% Steelers fans and 10% Seahawks fans, I thought at least the Seahawks fans were just as loud, if not louder at times."
The loudest cheer for Seattle might have come when cornerback Kelly Herndon returned an interception 76 yards — another Super Bowl record — to thwart a Steeler threat and pull the Seahawks back into the game.
Running back Shaun Alexander, the league MVP, finished with a game-high 95 yards rushing in 20 carries ... and an uncertain future. He's seeking a long-term contract, and the Seahawks have agreed not to apply the franchise-player designation to him for a second consecutive season. Either they sign him to a deal, or he's playing somewhere else in the fall.
"I definitely think that if I come back to Seattle we'll be back" in the Super Bowl, he said. "Where's the Super Bowl next year? Miami? Yeah, Miami's good."
For the Steelers, the game wasn't just a victory, it was a validation. It showed the world that the Steelers, the first sixth-seeded team to reach the Super Bowl, were indeed the NFL's hottest team, not one that feasted on good fortune with jaw-dropping road triumphs at Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Denver.
And it reinforced the notion that loyalty pays. Coach Bill Cowher, the league's longest-tenured coach, finally fulfilled his dream of winning a Super Bowl trophy for Steeler owner Dan Rooney after coming oh-so-close five previous times.
"Who am I to tell an owner what to do?" Cowher said. "... But obviously patience is a virtue if you have the right person."
Asked if he thought of his late father, Art, a Pittsburgh icon, when he accepted the trophy, the folksy Rooney said he did.
"It's great to continue a legacy and things like that," he said.
The Seahawks, playing in their first Super Bowl, won the clock battle by roughly six minutes and often looked like the more efficient team. But they made several errors — among them drops by tight end Jerramy Stevens of three potentially game-changing passes — and wound up paying for their sloppiness.
"You work so hard, starting from the first day of mini-camp," said linebacker Lofa Tatupu, who finished second to San Diego's Shawne Merriman in the defensive-rookie-of-the-year balloting. "So to have your last game a loss is a tough ending."
It was a glorious ending for Roethlisberger, even though it was far from his best game. He set two records, one of which he might like to forget. On the positive side, with his 24th birthday coming next month, he became the youngest quarterback to win a Super Bowl. Then the forgettable: his 22.6 passer rating was the lowest ever by Super Bowl-winning quarterback.
"When you think about the Super Bowl, you imagine yourself coming out and playing your best football," he said. "And it wasn't that way. I couldn't get it done throwing the ball today for whatever reason. So we ran the ball a lot and I threw a block in there."
The game belonged to the little guys, and everyone came up big.