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Top 50 Moments: Stanford Jennings Returns Kickoff in Super Bowl XXIII


Call it the high tide of Bengaldom as the third quarter closes on the beaches of Miami. 

Running back Stanford Jennings has just raced 93 yards to return the second-ever Super Bowl kickoff for a touchdown and the Bengals have overcome a crippling injury to Pro Bowl nose tackle Tim Krumrie and the shocking Super Eve drug suspension of fullback Stanley Wilson to lead the favored Niners, 13-6, heading into the fourth quarter before a bewildered crowd at Joe Robbie Stadium trying to digest the stunning events of Super Bowl XXIII.

NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, architect of the Super Bowl, will later call it that night of Jan. 22, 1989 the most exciting one of them. That's why it deserves two moments in the Most Memorable Top 40 because as every Cincinnati kid knows, there are two parts to it all.

There is euphoria. And then there is the final 3:20.

Krumrie, literally the heart and soul of the Bengals 3-4 defense that stuns the world this night by bottling up the Hall of Fame duo of Joe Montana and Jerry Rice, breaks both major bones in his left leg in one of the most grotesque moments ever caught in television on just the 13th play of the game.

Despite the pain, Krumrie, the bloody-nosed, dog-earred throwback, refuses to leave the locker room until he sees his teammates at halftime and tells guys like defensive end Jason Buck "to play your hearts out."

"Tim Krumrie's injury was crucial to us because he is the centerpiece of our defense," says head coach Sam Wyche after the game. "When we lost him, we lost our best tackler. (Rookie backup) David Grant played a whale of a game, but you always miss a star." 

Wilson isn't a star, but he's an integral part of the Bengals No. 1 offense and when the news breaks Super Bowl morning that he has been banned from the biggest game of his life for drugs, his offense's sluggishness seems to have an explanation.

Reports piece together one of the saddest falls ever. Wilson, banned from the league for a year twice (in 1984 and 1987) because of drugs, apparently has a relapse the night before the game. He misses dinner and a meeting and when the door to his hotel room is taken off its hinges, club officials find him in a cocaine-induced stupor.

Before the game, general manager Paul Brown notes that according to the league's three-and-out rules, Wilson has played for the last time in the NFL.

"Tragedy," Brown says.

On to this stage steps the 26-year-old Jennings, a third-round pick out of Furman in 1984. He waits at the goal line with Ira Hillary with 50 seconds left in the third quarter of a game San Francisco's Mike Cofer has just tied at 6 with a 32-yard field goal.

Jennings' wife, Kathy, just gave birth to the couple's first child Saturday night back in Cincinnati, about the time Wilson was destroying his life. Now Jennings writes his own bit of history when he repeats history from earlier in the season. He broke up a close game in Kansas City on a 98-yard touchdown return, about the time the Bengals changed their return scheme.

With defenders blowing up returns by circling the wedge and making tackles from behind, the Bengals resort to more of a drive blocking system. At about his own 20, Jennings finds a hole up the middle formed by the wedge of (left to right) tight end Jim Riggs, linebacker Leo Barker, tackle David Douglas and offensive lineman Jim Rourke. The Niners' Terry Greer grabs him at the 5, but they sprawl into the end zone and the Bengals are now 15 minutes and 34 seconds (remember those number of seconds) from winning it all.

Doesn't it always work out this way? In a battle between the Bengals' Boomer Esiason, the NFL's reigning MVP, and Montana's two Super Bowl rings, the only touchdown scored for the first 75 minutes is by a career special-teamer that never returned a kick all the way before '88 or since.

"It was just a matter of them getting on their blocks," says Jennings, one of the most respected men in the locker room. "I think it gave us a little bit of a lift for a little while. It would have been great with a victory, but without that it's hard to give it much."

But nothing. Jennings has just sent everyone from Anderson to Xenia bonkers with the whiff of a championship. In Cincinnati, a little baby girl, Kelsey Amanda Jennings, has no idea the fuss she has helped stir.

"That one was for Kelsey," Jennings says with eyes glistening in a locker room of tears.

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