Brad Johnson had played in the Super Bowl before. Maybe not the games watched annually by millions of people, but the games he played in his imagination and on the fields of his tiny hometown, Black Mountain, N.C.
"I've seen myself here before," the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' quarterback said Sunday. "I've practiced this a thousand times with my father. I've visualized this and hoped that one of these years it would come true."
At 34, after kicking around the NFL for more than a decade and winning merely one of the four playoff games he started before the Buccaneers began their unlikely journey to Qualcomm Stadium and Super Bowl XXXVII, Johnson had his dream season.
Johnson completed 18 of 34 passes for 215 yards and two touchdowns Sunday -- and mixed in a crucial, 10-yard run that fueled a drive for Tampa Bay's first touchdown of the third quarter -- as the Buccaneers routed the Oakland Raiders, 48-21, for the franchise's first title. "It's an incredible feeling," he said. "It's one time in life when you can say you're the best in the world.
"It may not last long, but we can say that tonight."
It took him many years to say that, years of wondering if those childhood dreams would come true. But the arrival in Tampa this season of Coach Jon Gruden, who Johnson said inspired him to want to keep playing straight through to next season's mini-camp, revived his championship hopes.
"There was something special about him the first day he got in the building," said Johnson, who had signed with the Buccaneers as a free agent in March 2001. "He wanted me to get excited about football. I always was, but he motivated me even more. He's one of the most positive people I've ever been around."
That was a welcome change for Johnson.
He had always heard about what he didn't have -- quick feet, great mobility, a strong arm. Teammates knew those criticisms bothered him, and they were as happy for his vindication Sunday as he was.
"Never doubt an athlete," said wide receiver Keenan McCardell, who caught touchdown passes of five and eight yards from Johnson. "Never doubt a man's courage and will to be the best. Brad has shown he can go out with the best and win."
Said fullback Mike Alstott: "He's the reason the offense did what it did today and all season. When we weren't doing well, he kept working hard to the point where we got better and better."
It seemed to Johnson he was never good enough in one area or another, and that he had to prove his physical and mental strength. Those doubts should have been silenced Sunday, as he orchestrated a balanced and effective offensive effort by a team that was supposed to be carried by its defense.
"It seems like every year, from middle school on, I heard I was too slow or I didn't have enough arm," he said. "I'm used to that. But coming from a small town, and having the support of everyone there, to be a world champion is something quite special....
"I stayed the course. People said some things when I was in Minnesota and then when I was in Washington, but I always played winning football. But everyone was always looking at my 1-3 playoff record. This is where you make yourself. My winning percentage in the regular season is pretty high [.645, second only to Brett Favre's .646 among active passers], but to do something special you have to win the Super Bowl."
And now he is, and he has.
"People always told me that to have a legacy, it's going to take a Super Bowl," he said. "There were people who said I made a mistake [in signing with the Buccaneers], that Tampa's defense was going downhill and we would never win a Super Bowl. But we kept getting better and better and so did our offense....
"The first quarter tonight was a great learning experience. We were sluggish and couldn't get a rhythm but we didn't panic. We stayed together as a team.
"This is the ultimate team game. We have one of the best defenses in the history of football, and it's just been a lot of fun to play with this team."