Earlier this week, Jason Pierre-Paul sat back in his Pompano Beach, Fla., home and talked about the inspiration of his life.
"Growing up as a kid, my father was always there," Pierre-Paul explained.
And when Pierre-Paul -- then a precocious pass-rusher for the New York Giants only a month past his 23rd birthday -- found himself headed to Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis two years ago, he wanted to repay the debt.
Thing was, his father Jean, a Haitian immigrant, had never been to one of his son's football games. He's been blind since Jason was a baby. His hearing, along with his other senses, became so acute over the years in compensating for the loss of vision, that Jean never wanted to deal with the roar of the crowd. But two years ago, he made an exception.
And although Jason, the fourth of six children, had a game to play -- against the New England Patriots, no less -- he worried about his father.
"Is he going to be all right?" he wondered. "Does he need noise-canceling headphones?"
His father smiled and said, "Let it ride. I'm going to sit there and just watch the game -- hear the game."
The Super Bowl is the ultimate accomplishment for a player. When victory has been achieved, their first thought is usually to find the people who made that long journey with them. This sometimes desperate, dislocated search through the postgame chaos has produced some iconic images:
• Drew Brees, after winning XLIV in South Florida, cavorting with his son Baylen Robert, age 1. Baylen was wearing those noise-canceling headphones -- and a tiny No. 9 Saints jersey.
• Tom Brady, hands on head in amazement after the Patriots' victory in XXXVI, looking for his sisters through a blizzard of confetti.
• The Harbaugh brothers, a year ago in New Orleans, fighting through a scrum at the middle of the field and embracing awkwardly after John's Ravens defeated Jim's 49ers in XLVII.
Three years ago at Cowboys Stadium, Clay Matthews completed that journey, too.
"I was first looking for my family, not only because of what I had been through, but what you put your family through," Matthews explained recently. "It's the time and commitment that not only you sacrifice, but your family, your siblings, your significant other.
"Everybody is a part of this. And so you just want to share it with them."
Lipping the Lombardi
For Steelers linebacker Larry Foote, the aftermath of Super Bowl XL was almost as strenuous as the game itself. Pittsburgh beat Seattle 21-10 at Ford Field in Detroit.
"The rules in the Super Bowl are people can't come down on the field," said Foote, "so of course they were jumping over the rails. I had to catch every person in my family. And I had a couple of people that were plus-size -- I'm not going to say their names.
"We got all 10 women over without a problem but my macho uncle, Skip, had the hardest time getting over the rail; his leg got stuck. So when he reminds me of the time I missed a tackle or tries to make fun of me, I say, 'You couldn't even get your leg over in the Super Bowl.'"
Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel grabbed his wife Sarah, hoisted her on his shoulders and ran her over to the podium. Three years later in Tampa, when the Steelers came back to beat Arizona, there was an addition to their family, 10-month-old Jacob.
"To lift him up in the air and kiss him," Keisel said, "it was a special memory I'll never forget. I've got a great picture of him coming back on the plane. We passed around the Vince Lombardi trophy and my son, you could see him lipping on the trophy. It was remarkable, something I'll never forget.
"Around here, we call it hoisting the sticky Lombardi -- everyone puts their sticky hands on it and their sticky mouths. I don't think people care too much about sanitary-ness."
Hugging mom and dad … priceless
Even with the greatest game of their lives just ahead, shrewd players scout out the family section during pregame warm-ups.
Three years after the disastrous 1-15 season in 1989, the Dallas Cowboys surfaced at the Rose Bowl in Super Bowl XXVII. After bludgeoning Buffalo 52-17, Emmitt Smith knew precisely where to go to find his parents and goddaughter.
"I knew exactly where the family section was," the Hall of Fame running back said. "I wasn't married at the time, didn't have any kids, so I reached up and gave them a hug.
"My father didn't play college ball, he played semi-pro football and I'm sure he had some regrets about pursuing his career the way I pursued mine. To have that warm embrace, to see the excitement on his face and that joy on my mother's face, it's priceless."
An incredible moment
Nineteen years earlier, Dick Vermeil had been on the losing side of a Super Bowl, with the Philadelphia Eagles. But when Rams linebacker Mike Jones brought down Titans receiver Kevin Dyson as time expired in Atlanta's Super Bowl XXXIV, Vermeil was a winner at last.
"My first thought is, 'It's over, we are world champions,'" he said a year ago in Los Angeles. "My next thought is, 'Where's my family?'"
The answer was the stands behind the Rams' bench. The problem was that security workers on the field -- and guarding the railing in front of the seats -- were discouraging Vermeil's large extended family from joining him.
His wife, Carol, was undaunted.
"I'm coming down!" she screamed.
"No, you can't do that lady," the overmatched on-field security guard said, looking up.
"Well, you better catch me because I'm jumping," she answered. "We're coming over."
Vermeil laughed at the memory and shook his head.
"So she jumped and someone caught her," he said. "And by the time I got there they started handing down the grandkids, one at a time. I took the littlest one, Christopher, and put him on my shoulders and headed over to the podium to receive the Lombardi Trophy."
NFL Films captured the memorable scene:
"We won the Super Bowl, did we not?" Vermeil shrieked. "Did we win the Super Bowl? Did we win the Super Bowl?"
And Christopher nodded and yelled right back, "We won the Super Bowl!"
"Even to this day," he said, "when I start talking about it, I get emotional. It just pulls it out of you … "
And, sure enough, Vermeil started to tear up.
James Barnett was one of those grandchildren. He was in seventh grade at the time.
"It was the most incredible moment … ever," he said. "I can't even begin to explain it."
And then, the family's low threshold of emotion revealed itself again.
"I'm pulling a grandpa right now," he said, sighing. "I'm emotional just thinking about it."
A Super Bowl first
Jim Burt gets a little choked up when the subject of Super Bowl XXI comes up.
Not because it was the pinnacle of his professional career, but because he cherishes the memory of sharing it with his son and his father.
"Those are the people who helped sacrifice for that moment," the former Giants nose tackle said Wednesday in his elegant northern New Jersey home. "I think of the 4 o'clock rides to hockey games in Buffalo, all the games my dad went to. And when you have kids, the NFL is a demanding job.
"To have them there at the Rose Bowl, with the sun setting, that's something I'll never forget."
When the game got out of hand in the fourth quarter, when it became apparent the Denver Broncos were going to lose, the Giants pulled their starters. Burt yanked off his pads, ran and pulled Jimmy, his 5-year-old son, out of the stands.
In the game's final minutes they actually stood on the playing field. And when it was over, Burt hoisted Jimmy on his broad shoulders and ran around the field screaming. Television cameras captured the kisses and hugs.
In retrospect, it was one of the first memorable postgame reunions the Super Bowl had ever seen.
"I got letters, hundreds of them, from fathers saying they didn't know it was OK to hug and kiss their sons," Burt said. "And they were thanking me. Now, when I see it happening after every Super Bowl, it makes me happy. It brings me back to that moment."
Completing the journey
In only his second season, Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul found himself in the vortex of Super Bowl XLVI. He performed well, knocking down a pair of Tom Brady passes in the second quarter, and pressuring Brady on a game-ending Brady heave that did not find its mark.
"I just went down to my knees and closed my eyes," Pierre-Paul said.
And then, with the 21-17 victory complete, he went looking for his family.
"My teammates are running all over the field," he said. "The confetti was dropping. I've never seen anything in my life like it. The media just bum-rushed me. I did a couple of interviews, [but] I was getting pissed off because I couldn't find my family."
Eventually someone -- he doesn't remember who -- directed Jason to his parents in the stands. His blind father Jean was wearing a No. 90 Giants jersey, and he was smiling. His mother Marie had provided him with a game's worth of play-by-play.
"I ran straight to them and gave them a kiss and a hug and said thank you very much," Pierre-Paul recounted. "If my family wasn't there, I don't feel like I would have accomplished anything."
On the field he pointed to his father and told a camera crew, "That's who I was playing for."
The son gently lifted his father up on the podium and the whole family posed for pictures. After the last one, he and his sister guided him back to his wheelchair.
"I'm 60 years old," Jean said later, "and even if I die right now I'll be happy."