What it’s like to win a Super Bowl, from 23 men who know

Winning the Super Bowl is no small feat.

Hall of Fame quarterback Dan Marino never did it. Neither did running back Barry Sanders. Bills quarterback Jim Kelly was oh-fer in four tries and Fran Tarkenton in three.

So what’s it like when you reach the professional pinnacle? ESPN NFL reporters reached out to former Super Bowl winners to hear their stories.

Quarterback Kurt Warner, St. Louis Rams, Super Bowl XXXIV

Kurt Warner’s first championship at any level came at 28 years old, when he led the St. Louis Rams over the Tennessee Titans in Super Bowl XXXIV.

“You work your whole life to be considered the best at what you do,” Warner said. “To be a part of a team, a group that does that, kind of writes your name in history. It’s incredible. As far as sports goes, there’s no greater feeling than winning a championship. I always kind of liken it to the greatest things in life, when you get married, when you have your children. That kind of feeling in life.”

That win was the culmination of his journey from the University of Northern Iowa, to getting cut by the Green Bay Packers, to stocking grocery store shelves, to the Arena Football League, to NFL Europe, to NFL MVP, to Super Bowl champ.

“It took me forever to get that opportunity and fighting the battles and the struggles and being able to overcome all of that, and then in my first season to have a season like the season we had, success like we had, and to win a championship,” he said. “… From that, it was maybe even more special for me.” — As told to Josh Weinfuss

Quarterback Joe Theismann, Washington Redskins, Super Bowl XVII

“It was like a dream come true. You had to pinch yourself to make sure it was real. I don’t remember the first three to four minutes of the game. I know that because I took my dad about a month later to Redskins Park and said, ‘Come on, we’ll watch it together.’ As I watched it, I couldn’t remember the first six plays. It was such an emotional experience.

“As soon as I stepped in the huddle [on the last play], I knelt down and looked at all the guys and said, ‘Winning Super Bowl formation on two!’ Interestingly enough there are two pictures emblazoned in my mind. The first is Joe Namath after Super Bowl three waving the finger No. 1 as he runs off the field. And the next one is of Terry Bradshaw. It was one of their Super Bowls and I remember him running off the field with the ball held up in the air. Those images flashed in my mind and, if you recall, I put one finger up with my left hand and had the ball raised in my right. It was a memory of what I had seen before.” — As told to John Keim

Fullback Howard Griffith, Denver Broncos, Super Bowl XXXII

“During the week of practice. Phil Simms had come up to me and said, ‘Howard, the greatest moment will be when you’re in the tunnel and you’re being introduced, that there’s going to be a wave of emotions that’s going to come over you. You’re going to think about all the people that had something to do with your career getting you to this particular spot.’ I kind of brushed if off, didn’t think it was a big deal. And I was standing in that tunnel and that’s exactly what happened. It was an unbelievable experience. I started thinking about my journey to get there, all the people that helped me, the naysayers and also the people that supported me. It was an awesome experience, that emotional rush I got just before being introduced. It was almost like your entire life flashed before you. It was to me somewhat overwhelming.’’ — As told to David Newton

Giants kicker Lawrence Tynes, Super Bowl XLII

“Your family members get passes to get on the field after if your team wins the game. After the Patriots’ last touchdown, all the Patriots’ wives and girlfriends and family members made their way down to a certain area. And then after Plaxico [Burress] scores the winning touchdown for us, my wife Amanda and all of our wives and family members started making their own way downstairs as the Patriots’ wives started heading back up, like they were swimming upstream against the current. My wife laughed and told me, ‘We were coming down exhilarated. And they passed us going back up with the look of death on their faces.’” — As told to Ian O’Connor

Long snapper Zak DeOssie, New York Giants, Super Bowls XLII, XLVI

“We were giddy because it was euphoric and bewildering, but it was also grounded by this deep-sense satisfaction that we’ve done it as a team, reached the pinnacle of our sport. World champs. I was filled with a swell of pride and joy — I realize those are the words people use to describe a baby, and in a way, that makes sense, because aside from becoming a father — which was No. 1, two times over — winning the Super Bowl was the greatest moment of my life.” — As told to Jordan Raanan

Safety Ryan Clark, Pittsburgh Steelers, Super Bowl XLIII

“It was me and Troy [Polamalu] on the field, just grateful that Larry Fitzgerald didn’t get one last chance to embarrass us. On our last defensive play, LaMarr Woodley stripped Kurt Warner and they were going to throw a Hail Mary. Larry had just gone crazy. When it was over, the first thing we said to each other was, ‘Man, I was so scared.’ The way he was playing, he was definitely going to catch it, and it was going to be on one of us. I was relieved. To be honest, if you ask most people, that’s what winning the Super Bowl is like — it’s like relief. You’re just excited you didn’t lose it.” — As told to Jeremy Fowler

Center Matt Birk, Baltimore Ravens, Super Bowl XLVII

For center Matt Birk, it took 15 seasons and 227 games to reach his first Super Bowl. After winning it, Birk announced his retirement at a Baltimore elementary school, a nod to a reading program that has helped 100,000 children through his foundation.

“It is a great way to end it,” Birk said. “No one is entitled to a Super Bowl. But I’m so grateful and fortunate to be part of the team. It’s a special team and the run that we made, the championship we won, is something I’ll never forget.” — As told to Jamison Hensley

Quarterback Joe Namath, New York Jets, Super Bowl III

“There two [Super Bowls] before that between the leagues, and you could imagine being a player in the AFL and all the talk you had to put up with Green Bay dominating both of those games. Other players on other NFL teams, they were running their mouths about our league and whether we were championship caliber. I think we proved we were championship caliber.” — As told to Rich Cimini

Wide receiver Ricky Proehl, St. Louis Rams, Super Bowl XXXIV

“The biggest moment was Kevin Dyson’s play, when Mike Jones made the tackle at the goal line. From where a lot of us were standing on the sidelines, I thought he scored. I thought he was in. We didn’t realize that from the angle we were at, it didn’t look like he was a foot short. It’s an exhilarating feeling as a team. Being 4-12 the year before, not very good, to now being at the pinnacle of the sport as Super Bowl champs. It was the most amazing feeling for me, especially. I had been on a lot of losing teams over my first 10 years. … To always have dreamed about, prayed about what it felt like to be on a winning team, and to have that feeling and experience it, it was the most amazing experience I’ve ever felt in my life.” — As told to Mike Rodak

Linebacker Gary Brackett, Indianapolis Colts, Super Bowl XLI

“Emotions were riding high for the defense because we hit adversity that season with Jacksonville [rushing for 375 yards in a December game]. People were talking about how we couldn’t tackle and we were the reason that we were holding Peyton [Manning] and the offense back in winning a Super Bowl. Coach [Tony] Dungy always preached don’t let the outside perception become your reality. We felt good about ourselves after beating Chicago because the offense did its part, as usual, but our defensive unit forced five turnovers and had a sack on the biggest stage in the biggest game. And how we got there: We finally found a way to beat New England [in the AFC Championship game]. It made it even sweeter now seeing how they’re still successful to this day after all these years. They’ve been in the mix to get to the Super Bowl basically every single year. They’re a dynasty. We beat a juggernaut that season.” — As told to Mike Wells

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Safety Darren Woodson, Dallas Cowboys, Super Bowl XXVII

“After the game, we win, and it’s a blowout, so we get into locker room and it’s me and Kevin Smith walking in together. The young kids, 21, 22, whatever we were and of course you’ve got champagne, beers in hand and we’re celebrating, we’re partying. And that team could party. I mean we we’re flat-out wild partying. We’re laughing, having a good time and I remember standing on my locker and every game the guy sitting next to me is Bill Bates. Preseason, everywhere. We could be in Kansas City playing a game and Bill Bates’ locker was right next to mine. It’s how we rolled. Even at Valley Ranch, locker right next, is Bill Bates. I remember we’ve got bottles of champagne we’re shooting all over, laughing, dancing, joking. And Bill Bates and Mark Tuinei are on the ground crying. I’m like, ‘What the heck is this? Why are they crying?’ And I’m still partying and I’m looking at these dudes for the longest time, they’re hugging up on each other, talking to each other, saying, ‘We did it. We finally did it.’ It didn’t come to me until a few days later and we’re back in the locker room and Billy is sitting there and I asked, ‘Billy, you guys were pretty emotional, man. I know we won the game, but it was a blowout.’ And he said, ‘Look, man, we went through 1-15, we went through the last few years of Tom Landry. If you know me and Toooey, we’re not supposed to be here, man. We rode this thing out. You came in as a young rookie in his first year and you got it. This has been a lifetime for me.’ So winning that Super Bowl, that brought it full circle to how big that moment was for those two guys. Of all the things from that Super Bowl, that’s what I will forever remember.” — As told to Todd Archer

Linebacker Derrick Brooks, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Super Bowl XXXVII

After the Buccaneers defeated the Oakland Raiders, the Bucs were scheduled to return from San Diego around 8 p.m. Monday. Raymond James Stadium opened its doors to 65,000 fans who waited three hours in 40-degree weather to greet their championship team.

“The feeling was one of exuberation,” Brooks said. “It didn’t hit me until we got back to Tampa and saw all the support for our team and throughout the [Tampa] Bay area. That’s what stood out to me.”

The stadium was located just four miles from Tampa International Airport, and the pilots instructed the players and coaches to move to the left side the of plane. The pilots then dipped the wing and hovered so they could see the packed house that awaited them.

“That was a chilling a moment,” Brooks said of the flyover. — As told to Jenna Laine

Left tackle Roman Oben, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Super Bowl XXXVII

Oben has been the NFL’s director of youth and high school football since 2015. In 2001, he started 13 games in a row on a bad knee for the Cleveland Browns before he was benched for the final three games of the season. The Browns cut him after the season, and Oben signed with Tampa Bay.

“As an offensive lineman I kept to thinking to myself: Just get through those first few third downs with no sacks or any random tipped ball that ends up in an interception for the other team. Really, we won our Super Bowl when we beat the Eagles in the cold in the championship game, so we were very confident going into the Super Bowl.

“Being a left tackle on a 3-13 team in 2000 [in Cleveland], then being a left tackle on a Super Bowl championship team made a big difference in my self-esteem as a football player, for my family and my high school teammates, who were now able to say: I played with/against a guy who a Super Bowl.” — As told to Jenna Laine

Wide receiver Willie Green, Denver Broncos, Super Bowls XXXII, XXXIII

“It was the last-second on the clock and the confetti coming down and all the glitz that is taking place from the time the game ended till the time I got back to the hotel. The game in itself was so intense. So during the game you’re filled with so much anxiety and the headaches and aggressiveness in the game. For that last second to run off the clock, with the confetti and balloons falling down, it’s like a sigh of relief. Your mood goes from being in a cage fight to being able to relax and just really soak in everything. It was draining, but such a relief.” — As told to David Newton

Wide receiver Keenan McCardell, Washington Redskins, Super Bowl XXVI; Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Super Bowl XXXVII

Receiver Keenan McCardell was drafted by Washington in the 12th round in 1991, but he never played a snap for the Redskins and ended up on injured reserve. He was on the sideline when the Redskins beat Buffalo in Super Bowl XXVI, however, and he gleefully took part in the postgame celebration.

Eleven years later, he won his second Super Bowl ring with Tampa Bay. He said the feeling after that game dwarfed what he felt as a rookie.

“Man, this is a great feeling [in January 1992],” said McCardell, now a receivers coach with the Jaguars. “My next thing is I’ve got to be on that field and see how it feels.

“It was unbelievable [in January 2003]. To have it happen when you’re playing — it’s unbelievable.” — As told to Mike DiRocco

Coach Doug Pederson, Philadelphia Eagles, Super Bowl LII

The city of Moorestown, N.J., where he lives, named Feb. 24 “Doug Pederson Day” after the Super Bowl win. Pederson called that the coolest congrats he received.

“You get congratulation text messages, phone calls, all that. But that deal in Moorestown, to put that all together — the proclamation, ‘Doug Pederson Day, February 24th’ — which you are all invited to. That was pretty cool to have that. My hometown, they did the same thing. They sent a nice little proclamation. That was pretty cool. It was pretty special.” — As told to Tim McManus

Running back Brian Mitchell, Washington Redskins, Super Bowl XXVI

“As a little kid and a big football fan, I always watched the Super Bowl and to just be in that, it was the best feeling I can imagine. Best feeling I ever had in my life at that moment. It was sexual, to be honest with you. I’m serious. It was that type of feeling where it was absolutely remarkable to not only have dreamed it, but to be living it.

“It was crazy. My wife was my fiancée at the time and she was there, too, and my people were all there. So I’m spending time with everybody. We got married three weeks later; the wedding was better, I’ll say that. But people don’t understand. They think they do but when you go through it all the way and you think about it, you can win Pro Bowls and make money, but that ring — it’s a team sport and when you get the ultimate for a team sport, it’s the best feeling in the world. Nothing tops it.” — As told to Jason Reid

Wide receiver Antwaan Randle El, Pittsburgh Steelers, Super Bowl XL

The Steelers defeated the Seahawks. Randle El, in his fourth season, was a wide receiver and return specialist. A quarterback in college at Indiana, Randle El completed a 43-yard touchdown pass to Hines Ward in the fourth quarter.

It was “a childhood dream to be able to play on the same stage as those before me. I grew up in Chicago, so Walter Payton, Richard Dent, Jim McMahon and Mike Singletary — those guys did it. Wow. What a blessing. I thank God every day for that opportunity!” — As told to Jason Reid

Cornerback Malcolm Butler, New England Patriots, Super Bowls XLIX, LI

“It was so emotional but it felt great. I knew I was able to play in this league. I just wanted to inspire young kids and show them that anybody could do whatever they want to do if they put their mind to it. You just have to believe and have faith. I prayed on it. I had a vision that I was going to make a big play and I went out and did it.” — As told to Turron Davenport

Coach Tom Flores, Oakland Raiders, Super Bowls XV, XVIII

Here’s the thing about Pro Football Hall of Fame finalist Tom Flores — he won his “first” Super Bowl three different times. First, as a player with the Chiefs in 1970, then as an assistant on John Madden’s Oakland staff in 1977 and finally as head coach of the Raiders in 1981. He would win another with the Raiders in 1984. Each ring means something different to Flores, who said he was one of 20 players to play all 10 years in the AFL, so beating the Vikings in Super Bowl IV as a backup quarterback to Len Dawson was bittersweet.

“It wasn’t a relief as much as pride in that the year before, with the Jets winning, people said it was a fluke,” Flores recalled. “We wanted to dot that ‘I’ with that victory, and we won with style, class and we just overpowered them.”

A decade later, though, Flores was in his second season as head coach and the Raiders were struggling at 2-3, had lost quarterback Dan Pastorini to a broken leg and Flores was on Al Davis’ chopping block.

“Sid Gillman was coming up,” to replace the coach, Flores said of the rumor at the time. “But Jim Plunkett, we dusted him off and ran him through the car wash and got a new shine on him.”

And Flores held a meeting with the players, a gritty-and-grizzled group — it included Art Shell, Gene Upshaw, Cliff Branch, Raymond Chester, Bob Chandler, Kenny King, John Matuszak, Ted Hendricks and Lester Hayes — that propelled the Raiders to a Super Bowl XV victory over the Philadelphia Eagles.

“We’re not doing anything wrong,” Flores told the team, “we’ve just got to do it better. So we got that momentum going and we went the hard way, as the wild card. I thought that team was our finest day coaching. We had to Gorilla Glue that team together because we were on a downward spiral the next year. In 1983, we were loaded. But 1980 was a pleasant surprise.” — As told to Paul Gutierrez

Pass rusher Von Miller, Denver Broncos, Super Bowl 50

“When I’m done playing, leaving a legacy, that’s what matters to me now. … And when you win the Super Bowl, win it the way we won it — and you know I’ve said this — it makes this passion, you don’t want it to be over with. It’s everything you work for, everything anybody who cares about football wants to experience and when you get it done, it’s an unbelievable feeling, like better than everyone told you or better than you thought. But if you really care about what you do, you want it again because now you know exactly what it is, what it takes to do it and everything that needs to happen. I can see why guys like Tom Brady are the way they are, because they know exactly what it all is. Then it becomes something you want even more than you did the first time, and I’m not sure I thought that was possible. Now I don’t want Super Bowl 50 to be the high point, I want it to be part of a bigger conversation about doing it again.” — As told to Jeff Legwold

Linebacker Clay Matthews, Green Bay Packers, Super Bowl XLV

“I definitely didn’t take advantage of my second year and kind of enjoying the moment. I have like one picture with my family, in which I’m looking away. I didn’t even get to hold the trophy. You didn’t keep any souvenirs because you just figured [you’d get back]. … After my first year, we lost in the wild-card game and got hot, and then obviously 2010 went back, in ’11 you’re 15-1 and you’re going to win the Super Bowl, right? But it’s tough, it’s really hard to win in this league, and some teams have made it look easy. And we’ve made it look easy, too, in the regular season, and obviously have fallen on some tough times recently. But winning in this league is hard each and every week, and sustaining success is even harder. So you’ve got to be really proud of what we’ve done here for the past decade.” — As told to Rob Demovsky

Wide receiver Ricardo Lockette, Seattle Seahawks, Super Bowl XLVIII

“I fell on the ground and I made a snow angel with all the confetti. I fell on the ground — because that’s what I figured you do in the Super Bowl. The confetti’s falling and they’ve got the Lombardi Trophy, and it’s just a circus.

“The celebration in the locker room, man, that’s the real party. That’s the real party right there. That’s where you get a chance to let the tears out and there’s no cameras in there … and your buddies are right there. That’s when you get a chance to really let go and stuff you can’t say in front of the cameras, dances you can’t do, that’s that time.” — As told to Brady Henderson