It was a harmless incompletion in the second quarter of Super Bowl XXIX. It will never appear on great plays of football’s championship game, but it is still one etched in Tyronne Drakeford’s mind.
Drakeford, then a rookie cornerback for the San Francisco 49ers, stepped in front of an out-route pass delivered by San Diego Charger quarterback Stan Humphries intended for wide-out Andre Coleman on a third and 18 play from the San Diego 12 yard line. The only things in front of Drakeford were the green grass of Miami’s Joe Robbie Stadium, the end zone and opportunity.
At the time, the 49ers were holding a 21-7 lead early in the second quarter of what would become a 49-26 rout. But for a player who prided himself on being sure-handed, possibly adding his name to Super Bowl lore ended when the ball glanced off his hands and bounced off the field.
Given the stage and scenario, Drakeford endured some good-natured ribbing from his friends and former Virginia Tech teammates in the days after the game.
“I dropped an interception,” Drakeford admitted with a good-natured smile Tuesday night inside The Castle at North Central High School (NCHS) where he presented his alma mater with a commemorative golden football from the NFL to celebrate Sunday’s 50th playing of the Super Bowl.
“The guys, the guys back in college, gave me a hard time. They were calling me after the game and said, ‘How can you drop the ball in your rookie year and you had an opportunity to get a pick in the Super Bowl?’ That was probably my biggest disappointment from that game because, overall, it was a great game,” Drakeford said.
As he recalled that particular play, Drakeford said he was not thinking about getting a pick six or how much room he had to roam in front of him. He was in the moment, he said. It was just an uncharacteristic mistake on the part of a player who would record 16 interceptions and score a touchdown in an eight-year NFL career.
“Actually, I wasn’t looking up the field. I just dropped the ball,” the 1989 North Central graduate said with a laugh. “I always prided myself on having really good hands … I just really don’t know what happened.”
As it turned out, the 49er offense did not need any more help on a night in which quarterback Steve Young set a Super Bowl record with six touchdown passes while stepping out of the long shadow cast by his predecessor, Joe Montana.
The Chargers’ decision to go after the young rookie was hardly unexpected given the fact Deion Sanders, who signed with San Francisco in the off-season, was patrolling the other side of the field. Drakeford said he knew Humphries would stay away from Sanders and would try and pick on him.
“Of course,” Drakeford said when asked if he knew he would have a full workload. “Anytime you have Deion playing you have to expect the ball coming to you about 90 percent of the time. You could not have been in a better position than being in the Super Bowl where you could have a lot of action coming toward you. If you’re a guy who likes to make plays, you have to accept that challenge. I was definitely willing to accept that challenge.”
For Drakeford, he was also up to the challenge posed by playing under the glaring spotlight of the Super Bowl. The Chargers, meanwhile, wilted when brought to the biggest show in sports.
The 49ers entered the Jan. 29, 1995, contest as an 18 and a half-point favorite -- the largest margin a team has been favored by in a Super Bowl by the betting public. Head Coach George Seifert’s explosive offense and suffocating defense did little to make the oddsmakers look bad as San Francisco jumped to a 14-7 first quarter lead which stood at 28-10 at halftime and 42-18 heading into the fourth quarter.
It was a mismatch and another in what, at the time, was becoming a long string of Super Bowl blowouts.
The Chargers won the AFC title after having knocked off the visiting Pittsburgh Steelers, 37-34, to earn the right to face the 49ers who held off the host Minnesota Vikings for the NFC crown, 21-14.
Drakeford said the 49ers came into south Florida with a ton of confidence but also were a bit let down when the Chargers held off Pittsburgh.
“We were hoping that we were going to play the Steelers that year because they had a really good defense and we had a really good defense. We wanted to see who had the best defense,” Drakeford said of a matchup which never materialized. “Going into the game, we were very confident that we were going to win that game.”
Winning a Super Bowl ring in your first season was pretty heady stuff for Drakeford. As part of a franchise which had become used to winning championships, he never imagined that it would be his only trip to the Super Bowl.
In 1995, the 49ers lost to the visiting Green Bay Packers in the NFC Divisional playoffs. It would the beginning of a three-year run in which Green Bay would put an end to San Francisco’s season with the first two of the three coming in the NFC Divisional playoffs with the Brett Favre-led Packers topping the 49ers, 23-10. The 1997 NFC Championship game at 3Com Park in San Francisco came in what would be Drakeford’s final season with San Francisco before signing a free agent contract with the New Orleans Saints.
Drakeford said he came to expect playing in more than one Super Bowl after having been spoiled as a rookie.
“Definitely, especially when you have good players on your team like Jerry Rice, Deion Sanders and those type of guys who, at the time, were seasoned veterans and All-Pro players,” he said. “You think that you are going to come back the next year or two years later. Then, you realize just how tough it is to get back. I was shocked to have only done it once.
“When you have all those good players and because of free agency, you don’t get to keep a lot of your key players because either their contract is up or, they end up going to a different team. You try to replace those guys but you can’t replace them like you think you can and you find yourself coming up a game short.”
For Sanders, his 49er career lasted that one season. By 1995, he was in a Dallas Cowboy uniform. Before he left San Francisco, however, had made a lasting impact on the player who would take his place at cornerback.
For all the glitz, glamour and showmanship which Sanders brought to the field with him, the veteran was not so concerned with himself that he would not make the time and make himself available to help out a 23-year-old rookie like Drakeford.
Sanders, the man who is still called “Prime Time,” took the former North Central three-sport standout under his wing and taught him how the game was played in the NFL. Not long afterward, various media outlets started calling Drakeford “Baby Prime.”
“He helped me tremendously,” Drakeford said. “A lot of folks see him as a showman and all the things that go along with that. But when you were out at practice or in the facility with him, the guy really studied films hard and would teach you the little things you need to know because he had been around awhile before I got there. Just being around him every day and watching film of how he would do things and trying to assimilate how he would do things really made a difference for me.”
The 5-foot-11, 185-pound Drakeford’s career was shortened by shoulder injuries. He would play two seasons in New Orleans before signing with and playing for the Washington Redskins in 2000. His NFL career came full circle when he played for the 49ers in 2001 before retiring.
Married to his wife, Cindi, since 1994 after they graduated from Virginia Tech, the Drakefords have three sons, all of whom played football at some level. Julian, the oldest, played at James Madison University.
These days, the Drakefords have returned to and make their home in Virginia. As for the head of the household, he continues to watch NFL games albeit with the eye of an admitted critic while paying close attention to how the defensive backs go about their job.
“You’re kind of more of a critic than a fan of watching the game because you have played it,” he said. “I find myself kind of coaching, a little bit, as opposed to enjoying the game.”
Each time when Super Bowl week rolls around, Drakeford said he finds himself thinking about his experience. This week has not been different. To this day, he is still met by people who want to know what the Super Bowl experience was like as a player who played in the game.
“It was unbelievable,” he said of his time preparing for Super Bowl XXIX. “Every time people ask me about it, I tell them that it was probably the best week of my life in terms of the atmosphere and all the things that go along with it. Especially for me having come straight out of college and being a rookie. It was something that you never forget.”
Drakeford added another memorable experience on Tuesday when he returned to his high school alma mater with his wife and other family members for the ceremony which came between the playing of the schools’ girls and boys basketball games.
“It’s very special for me to be able to come back and present the ball to the school where everything really started for me,” he said minutes before the presentation of the commemorative football to NCHS Principal David Branham. “To see the transformation of the school from when I went here to now, it’s just super.”
What could have been a more appropriate an ending for a Super Bowl celebration.