Time to take off your cheesehead and pack up your terrible towel—you'd look foolish trying to get them through security before you board the plane for home. Wedged into that little airline seat between two big dudes spilling over your armrests, you're alone now with your memories—the big game, the big night boozing it up at Baby Dolls, the big sightseeing trip to Dealey Plaza where you bought that commemorative Lee Harvey Oswald travel mug.
You wonder which of those you'll still remember 10, 15 years from now—now that the hype is behind you and it's back to real life. You wonder, what if you'd been at the center of it all this weekend, playing on football's biggest stage, what's that memory look like decades later? You'd laid in bed that Sunday night, too tired and excited to sleep much—and then the next morning you woke up to a strange notion: This is you, Mr. Super Bowl champ, brushing your teeth. That's the finger, right there, where you're gonna wear that ring.
Then comes the slow forgetting, the moving on to other things, the honeymoon and another year of play, one after the other until you finally retire knowing that once, at least, you'd won it all.
In 1996, when the Dallas Cowboys played the Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XXX in Tempe, Arizona, they were still riding high in their dynasty; they rode limos to practice the week before the game and came away with a 10-point victory and the biggest, most expensive championship rings that anyone would make for years.
For some of the Cowboys, it was the third ring they'd won with the Cowboys, and ever since, it's been Hall of Fame plaques and endorsement deals, hotel rooms pre-stocked with swag. Troy Aikman called that game from the huddle and he'll call Super Bowl XLV from the Fox broadcasting booth. Jason Garrett spent that game as Aikman's backup, walking the sidelines just like he did last season as the Cowboys' head coach. Emmitt Smith, Michael Irvin, Daryl Johnston, Larry Brown and Dale Hellestrae all landed TV or radio gigs with that winning image.
But not everyone has known that kind of success. Of the six team captains who walked out for the game's opening coin toss, two would be dead within a decade—Mark Tuinei, from a drug overdose, and special teams captain David Lang, shot twice through a car window in the street by his home.
John Jett doesn't recall a lot of the action from the second of his two Super Bowl games. "I think I punted a few times," says Jett, who now spends his time with his family in rural Virginia. "I took pictures when we first walked back into the locker room, and I got 'em hanging up in my little boy's room." After finishing his career with the Detroit Lions in 2003, he's spent the last few years on the local school board. "I tell my kids, my nephews, younger people, you never know what life has got planned for you. I wasn't even good at football growing up."
Former linebacker Jim Schwantz still remembers the urgency when he got in the game: He couldn't wait to make his first tackle. "Early in the game...the realization hits you that you're in the Super Bowl. It's taken on bigger significance since I played in it," he says. Today he's the mayor of his hometown, Palatine, Illinois.
"Anybody that's ever been a part of a Super Bowl team will admit, it creates a lot of opportunity for you," says Chris Boniol, who kicked two field goals and three extra points that night in Arizona. "It doesn't get the job for you, but it definitely opens doors." Boniol taught middle school math for a few years after his retirement in 1999; today he's back as a kicking coach with the Cowboys.
Brock Marion, whose interception off Neil O'Donnell closed out the game, farms blueberries in Florida today. Along with his radio show in Phoenix, former offensive lineman Dale Hellestrae runs a custom cookie bouquet shop.
Many of the Super Bowl XXX Cowboys remained in the game to coach at some level—from the NFL down to peewee. And even if they've gone back to school, gone on to sales or farming, that ring ties them all together—especially when they run into other pro athletes.
"They get very braggadocious about their accomplishments," Derek Kennard says, "and I quietly slip in the room with my ring and hush the crowd." He likes to wear it around at celebrity golf tournaments, things like that, he says, "especially when Charles Barkley comes around."
Check Championship-Rings.net, though, and you may find a Super Bowl XXX ring, with that center star of hand-cut kite-shaped diamonds. One is currently up for sale with a $40,000 price tag. The company's founder, Timothy Robins, says there are a few reasons he ends up seeing rings like that one: "We call them the three 'D's: drugs, divorce and death. Right now, we throw an 'E' in the equation, for the economy."
Plenty of players give up their rings—dusty after years in storage or in safe deposit boxes, because they're moving on and need cash. "Their priorities seem to change. Keep in mind that an average player plays a little over three years, and then they retire," Robins says.
Chad Hennings says he still has his rings, but he doesn't miss the game. "I got that completely out of my system," he says, especially after years taking a beating on the defensive line. "What I do miss are the relationships in the locker room and the weight room," he says. Now he's a motivational speaker and a faith-based self-help author.
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Hurvin McCormack tore his PCL late in Super Bowl XXX going for a sack, and caught the end of the game from the training room TV. Flying home, though, he recalls sitting next to Leon Lett, also a defensive tackle, and trying to wrap his mind around what they'd accomplished. "I was like, 'Big Cat, this is surreal, man,'" McCormack says. "This was his third at this point, and he's like, "It's gonna take a while to really set in, what you've just accomplished.'"
The next morning, McCormack woke up with his right knee locked. "You've got something great that just happened, and you try to do your day-to-day, and you just can't," he says. Today he's in management at a pharmaceutical packaging firm in Florida. "You're asking me, have I ever experienced that kind of joy, and I haven't. Working in corporate America, yes it's a great opportunity, but waking up every day and ultimately doing what you love doing, that's huge to me."
Says Leon Lett, "After I retired, I wanted to get as far away from football as possible. I couldn't even sit around and watch a football game." Today, he's an assistant coach at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. "After a while, I started to really miss the game. It's just in me, football is in me."
The night after the Cowboys won their last Super Bowl, Jerry Jones threw a party for the team and their families in Tempe. In the early morning hours, Jett and Boniol ducked out and headed to the hotel's open-air hot tub, surrounded by the desert. It's the moment Jett goes back to now, when he thinks about that win. They puffed tobacco from pipes brought for the celebration, but there wasn't much left to say. "It was just like, wow!" he now explains, "and that's what you say: 'Wow!'"