The Super Bowl’s most surprising heroes ever, now featuring Mecole Hardman

“I blacked out,” said Kansas City Chiefs receiver Mecole Hardman, of scoring the game-winning touchdown in overtime of the Super Bowl. And based on how his season had gone, Hardman must still be dreaming.

A second round pick of the Chiefs in 2019, Hardman’s career never developed as he or the team had hoped, resulting in him signing with the New York Jets in free agency as depth piece to give Aaron Rodgers. So buried on the depth chart was Hardman that the Jets sent him back to the Chiefs for a sixth-seventh round pick swap in October after he had only caught one pass for six yards.

Hardman had only caught eight passes in his return to Kansas City, until the Chiefs needed him to soak up snaps with Blaine Gabbert at quarterback in a meaningless season finale, which is where 77 of his 124 yards came from this year.

Andy Reid would call on him for over 40 snaps in the first two playoff games, but Hardman had 0 total yards (5 receiving, -5 rushing) and fumbled twice in the divisional round against the Bills. It seemed his career would be over and he played a single snap in the AFC Championship, but in the biggest game, Hardman would have his biggest moments.

First, Hardman caught a 52-yard pass from Mahomes in the second quarter that should have setup the Chiefs to tie or take the lead, but Isiah Pacheco fumbled the next play.

The 58.2 air yards was the third-longest throw of a completion in Mahomes’ entire career.

Next, a seemingly inconsequential 2-yard reception by Hardman in the third quarter setup Harrison Butker to make a 57-yard field goal, the longest in Super Bowl history.

And then, of course, Hardman perfectly executed a play the Chiefs call “Tom and Jerry” to win the Super Bowl, the third championship ring of his career. Mahomes said that Hardman was in so much shock at the time that the quarterback had to tell him “We just won the Super Bowl” before he realized it.

Hardman was probably still in disbelief when he was the only Chiefs player on the Super Bowl stage after the game besides Mahomes and Travis Kelce.

From buried on a Jets depth chart behind such receivers as Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb to being interviewed by Jim Nantz while next to Andy Reid, Mahomes, and Kelce. What an unexpected career turn that is for any player.

But he’s not the first shocking Super Bowl hero. Just the most recent.

These are some of those who came before him, in reverse chronological order.

Super Bowl LVII – WR/PR Kadarius Toney

We wouldn’t be talking as much about Rashee Rice or Hardman if Kadarius Toney had lived up to his billing as the 20th overall pick in the 2021 draft. Picked by the New York Giants after they had traded down with the Bears, who wanted Justin Fields, Toney was arguably the most explosive and electric receiver in that class. But his Giants career, as most of his Chiefs career, has been marred by injuries, inconsistencies, lack of discipline, and none of the advertised explosiveness.

Until it was the biggest moment of his life.

New York traded Toney to the Chiefs for a third and a sixth in 2022 when Kansas City needed a spark following the Tyreek Hill trade. He wasn’t that in the regular season, playing only 109 snaps in seven games, but his open field running skills would be evident at just the right time. Trailing the Eagles 27-21 in the fourth quarter, Toney caught a 5-yard touchdown pass from Mahomes to give Kansas City a 28-27 lead with 12:04 remaining.

That alone could make Toney an unexpected hero. It didn’t end there.

After the Chiefs defense forced a three-and-out, Philly punted and hoped to pin Kansas City deep in their own territory to stay in the ballgame. However, a meager 38-yard punt was returned by a 65-yard return from Toney, setting up Skyy Moore for a 4-yard touchdown reception to extend the lead to 35-27.

In a way, Toney was responsible for two touchdowns in three minutes of game time in the Super Bowl.

He has since overshadowed that moment by lining up incorrectly and costing the Chiefs a win against the Bills, but he shouldn’t let people forget about his return.

Super Bowl LVI – TE Brycen Hopkins, Rams

Not all surprising heroes are created equal and Hopkins’ impact is certainly not the same as all, but his presence in the Super Bowl was the shocking result of a long list of injuries.

A fourth round pick in 2020, Hopkins has not been the successor to Tyler Higbee, as Sean McVay had hoped. He caught zero passes as a rookie, then one pass for nine yards in 2021. He had only played in 10 games in two years, usually because he’s been a healthy scratch. But then Higbee went down in the NFC Championship and was ruled out for the Super Bowl, necessitating a bump for Hopkins. Not only that, L.A. had already lost several receivers, including Robert Woods in the regular season and Odell Beckham Jr. in the first half of the Super Bowl.

All Hopkins did was caught four passes for 47 yards, including two first downs when the Rams were facing third down, a 16-yard catch on first-and-10, and a nine-yard catch on another first-and-10. In the Super Bowl, Hopkins increased his career catch total from one to five.

Then he dipped back into obscurity and has rarely been seen since.

Super Bowl LV – WR Antonio Brown, Bucs

An unusual pick on this list because of course Brown has a Hall of Fame football resume, but his presence on the Bucs in 2020 and helping them beat Mahomes in the Super Bowl was wholly unexpected. Brown was traded to the Raiders in 2019, never played for them, then barely played for the Patriots. He rejoined Tom Brady in 2020, catching four touchdowns in the back half of the regular season, but his biggest moment came with :06 seconds left in the first half of the Super Bowl.

Brown caught a one-yard touchdown to extend Tampa Bay’s lead to 21-6, a backbreaker for K.C.’s hopes.

Special mention to Leonard Fournette for gaining 135 yards and a touchdown.

Super Bowl LIV – RB Damien Williams, Chiefs

I want to break course and give one to a defensive player, but can’t do it now. Williams entered the Super Bowl as a career backup who had rushed for 1,231 yards in six years with added value as a receiver. Both skills showed up in the Super Bowl.

Trailing 20-17 with under 3:00 minutes left, Williams caught a 5-yard touchdown pass from Mahomes to give Kansas City the lead. After the Chiefs defense forced a turnover on downs, Williams had two carries on the next two plays, the latter of which was a 38-yard touchdown to guarantee Mahomes and Reid their first Super Bowl win.

Williams has since played for three teams in the last three seasons, scoring three total touchdowns.

Super Bowl LIII – C David Andrews, Patriots

Hard to pick a hero in a game as bad as this one, so why not give it to the unlikeliest of names? The Rams nearly had the momentum to take an early lead as John Franklin-Myers sacked Tom Brady in the first quarter and forced a fumble that could have setup L.A. in New England territory. It was Andrews, the fourth-year center, who jumped on the ball to avert an early disaster. With a 13-3 final score, that fumble recovery might have been the difference.

Oh, he also plays good center.

Super Bowl LII – QB Nick Foles, Eagles

It’s crazy to give it to anyone else. Foles threw for 373 yards and three touchdowns and until Jauan Jennings on Sunday, was the only player in Super Bowl history to throw and catch for a touchdown in the championship game. Before and since, he’s almost exclusively been a backup.

Super Bowl LI – Patriots defensive line

Aside from the role that the semi-famous Tom Brady played in the 28-3 comeback, not much would have been expected from New England’s defensive line in those moments. Not only should the defense theoretically be tired in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl, the defense didn’t have a single player with more than seven sacks in the regular season and only 34 total on the season.

During the comeback, they were bullying the Falcons offensive line play after play.

Trey Flowers forced a holding penalty on Jake Matthews at the end of the third quarter, setting up a three-and-out. When Dont’a Hightower forced a sack-fumble on Matt Ryan on the next drive, Alan Branch made the recovery. On Atlanta’s next drive, setup at the Patriots 23 and in range for a huge field goal try that would have made it 31-20, Flowers sacked Ryan for a 12-yard loss. Still in field goal range, Chris Long forced Matthews to hold him and the Falcons had no choice but to punt with a 28-20 lead and 3:38 remaining.

The Patriots were saying before the game that Matthews was “light on the edge” and proved it at key moments.

The game went to overtime and the Falcons never saw the ball. Under the new playoff overtime rules, they would have, but unfortunately they was all she wrote and besides, Atlanta proved no match for the Patriots defense anymore.

Super Bowl 50 – DT Malik Jackson, Broncos

Though they had Peyton Manning, maybe no Super Bowl team in this century has had a bigger deficit to overcome at quarterback than the 2015 Denver Broncos. Manning flat out could not pass the ball, was slow, and only Brock Osweiler being among the worst backups in the NFL could have compelled the Broncos to start him in the biggest game of the year. In the Super Bowl, Manning threw for 141 yards, fumbled twice, was intercepted, and scored no touchdowns.

Even Malik Jackson scored a touchdown, a key reason why Manning finally got his second Super Bowl win.

A late bloomer, the former fifth round pick didn’t become a starter until his fourth season in 2015. Jackson had a good season and was also surrounded by insane talent like Von Miller and DeMarcus Ware, a duo that combined for 4.5 sacks of Cam Newton in the Super Bowl. On Carolina’s second possession of the game, Miller strip-sacked Newton at the 4 and Jackson came up with the touchdown recovery to give the Broncos an early 10-0 lead.

If Carolina had recovered, it was anyone’s game. The Broncos defense would assure that no comeback was coming.

Jackson signed a big free agent contract with the Jaguars after the season and was a Pro Bowler in 2017, but nothing could top his Super Bowl fumble recovery.

Super Bowl XLIX – CB Malcolm Butler, Patriots

An undrafted free agent rookie who played college ball at Hinds Community College, Alcorn State, and West Alabama, Butler first had to be a surprising player who made the 53-man roster out of training camp, then had to go through a rollercoaster season in which he had nine games as inactive or zero defensive snaps.

Butler again didn’t play any defense in the Patriots divisional round, then 15 snaps in a blowout win over the Colts in the AFC Championship.

Even in the Super Bowl, Butler played just 18 total snaps but it would be his last that guaranteed Tom Brady and Bill Belichick their first Super Bowl championship in 10 years. If not for Butler, we don’t call Brady a “seven-time” Super Bowl winner.

In the most famous play in Super Bowl history, facing second-and-Goal from the 1, Butler cut between Russell Wilson and little-used receiver Ricardo Lockette (preventing him from a Mecole moment) to intercept the pass and end the Seahawks bid to win back-to-back titles.

But perhaps just as inspiring as the play was the career that Butler turned it into. With the confidence now that he could be an NFL starter, Butler made the Pro Bowl in 2015 and was a second-team All-Pro in 2016. He parlayed that success into a five-year, $61 million contract with the Titans in 2018. That essentially made Butler’s Super Bowl interception a $30 million play, the amount he was guaranteed by Tennessee.

Will Mecole parlay this into a career rebound next season?

Super Bowl XLVIII – LB Malcolm Smith, Seahawks

Smith, a seventh round pick in 2011 who played for Pete Carroll at USC, had a pick-six off of Peyton Manning to extend Seattle’s lead to 22-0, then a fumble recovery in the third quarter, and capped it off by making the final two tackles of the game for good measure. The Super Bowl MVP started 16 total games for the Seahawks in four years, then played six more seasons with five different teams.

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