Sports

‘The Superman Play’ at 20


TEDDY LEHMAN WAS twice an All-American at Oklahoma. In 2003, the stout linebacker won the Big 12 defensive player of the year award, the Dick Butkus Award and the Chuck Bednarik Award. In 2004, he was a second-round NFL draft pick, and he went on to spend parts of six seasons with the Lions, Buccaneers, Bills and Jaguars.

But the moment he’s best known for, the moment he spends each October reliving, is one he said came about because he just so happened to be in the right place at the right time. He was still coming into his own back then, in 2001, only half-heartedly rushing the quarterback and counting to three before looking up at the exact right second to have history literally fall into his hands.

That’s when his star teammate Roy Williams took flight and etched both their names in the storied history of the Oklahoma-Texas rivalry — when “The Superman Play” was born at the Red River Showdown.

And for that, Lehman said, “I think we all owe Roy a beer.”

The play, which led to a Lehman touchdown and effectively won the game for Oklahoma, cemented Williams’ legacy as one of the best defensive players in program history.

Twenty years later, ahead of the latest installment of the Red River Showdown (Saturday, noon ET, ABC), Williams’ teammates and coaches recall that moment, a seminal play in their careers — even if their involvement was only a matter of luck, as Lehman insists his was.

Lehman said he can name 100 plays in his career during which he performed better individually, but they all pale in comparison.

“All right,” he said with a laugh, “I’ll ride Roy Williams’ coattails for the rest of my life.”


WILLIAMS ALWAYS STOOD OUT.

In the summer of 2000, Lehman called home one day to let his folks know how things were going at Oklahoma.

A freshman, Lehman had grown up 150 miles east of Norman in Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, where he was kind of a big deal. As a senior in high school, he led the Tigers to the state championship game, recording an eye-popping 151 tackles while rushing for 1,252 yards. As if that wasn’t enough, he also averaged a Class 4A-best 39.6 yards per punt.

But what Lehman saw during his first week on campus was something he felt he needed to tell his dad about. There was this kid from California who was dominating all the player-led practices. His name: Roy Williams.

Williams was a year ahead of Lehman, a sophomore safety who hit like a linebacker and tracked the ball like a cover corner.

“In 7-on-7, typically no one ever gets a hand on the football,” Lehman said. “There’s no pass rush. It’s an offensive drill. All summer, I think I touched one ball the entire time we were in 7-on-7.”

But it was nothing, Lehman explained, for Williams to come away with double-digit pass breakups and a pair of interceptions.

“It was a never-ending parade every single day of Roy Williams highlights,” he said, “and that’s before I ever saw him play in pads.”

That season, Williams emerged as an All-Big 12 selection, helping lead the Sooners to an undefeated record and the BCS national championship.

But the following season truly made Williams famous. In 2001, he won the Big 12 defensive player of the year award, the Jim Thorpe Award and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy.

Oklahoma offensive coordinator Mark Mangino remembers what a chore it was to go against Williams every day in practice.

Williams was so disruptive, Mangino said, and his “football aptitude was off the charts.”

“He’s thudding running backs up at the line of scrimmage. He’s blitzing the quarterback and slapping him on the butt as he goes by,” Mangino recalled. “I mean, [on] inside drill, you can’t get by him. Some days I’d get so mad I’d say, ‘Roy, I’m going to cut you.’ And he’d say, ‘Come on, Coach! Come and cut me!'”

Defensive assistants Mike Stoops and Brent Venables didn’t try to fit Williams into a box, dropping him back to play a more traditional safety role as often as they pulled him down into the box to play a sort of hybrid linebacker position.

Williams defied explanation, so they created a new term: “Roy backer.”

Sooners wide receiver Andre Woolfolk said Williams wasn’t the biggest or the fastest or the strongest, but he could always find a way to hit you. Williams was always around the ball, “whether it’s scooping a fumble, causing a fumble, getting a timely interception.”

Woolfolk said it reminded him of Hall of Fame linebacker Ray Lewis.

“Because I’ve never thought that Ray Lewis was, like, the greatest athlete in the world. I just felt like he really knew football,” Woolfolk said. “And that’s how I look at Roy — like he really knew football. He would find a way, like, ‘Oh, man, I know that’s not my guy out there but it’s downfield and the running back is open and somehow I get there’ or ‘Oh, this guy’s in the flat and this corner is playing a little deep and I’m just gonna go steal this thing right now.’ He just knew how to use exactly the right talent at the right time and has been around football enough to know what he can and cannot do.”

To make the most out of Williams’ nose for the ball, coaches devised a special plan against Texas, which Sooners receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. said was “really kind of strange.” He remembers talking to Venables during the week, who told him they were going to lean heavily on their nickel package — five defensive backs and two linebackers — and “we’re gonna try to keep Roy on the field regardless of what their personnel is.”

“And [Venables] said, ‘It’s amazing how natural he is at filling that position. It’s amazing how good his stance was and how good his reads were and how he could step to the gaps,'” Spurrier recalled. “You could forget he hadn’t played linebacker.”


THE TEXAS-OKLAHOMA RIVALRY, carrying all its tension, is unlike almost any other. Take it from longtime sideline reporter Jack Arute, who has covered more than his fair share of Sooners-Longhorns games and worked the 2001 contest for ABC.

The only comparison Arute could make was outside of college football.

Arute said it was like watching heavyweights Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier do battle in the boxing ring in that “neither one of those guys was gonna blink, and they were gonna beat the living crap out of each other.” They didn’t like each other, he said, “but they did respect each other because of what they did.”

Oklahoma and Texas have that kind of relationship, Arute said, which is only magnified by the setting of the game.

“You put them 100 miles away from their respective campuses,” he said. “Then you take them to this rickety old Cotton Bowl in the midst of the Texas State Fair where there’s already a quarter of a million people and now 100,000 are coming out for game day.”

It’s into that Dallas mass that each team’s buses have to navigate.

“The first time you get an interaction with the atmosphere is when you’re coming in through the fair,” cornerback Josh Norman said. “I remember my freshman year was just like, ‘What in the world?’ You’re going through a sea of people. They’re banging on the bus, pushing the bus, like the bus is kind of rocking as you’re going through the crowd. The Texas fans are flipping you off and cussing at you. That just kind of sets the tone for what to expect once you get in the stadium.”

But rather than rattle players, Arute thought it fueled them.

“You knew that it was going to be the very best effort from both sides,” he said, “Nobody dogs it. This isn’t playing North Texas State. This isn’t even playing Nebraska. OK, this is your archrival.”

There was something about it, Woolfolk said, that made you want to throw the horns down.

“You just find a way to morph into a Texas hater,” he said.

The scene was so supercharged with emotion that Arute would walk outside of the stadium during the game and feel it.

“There would be just a normal play, maybe a stop on third down, and the noise from that bowl would come spilling over on to all of the people that were waiting for corn dogs,” he said.


THE 2001 GAME was no different. With Oklahoma ranked fifth nationally and Texas third, a lot was riding on the Oct. 6 matchup.

Williams, speaking to ESPN in 2011, said the Sooners had a chip on their shoulder, feeling overshadowed by the Longhorns and their quarterback, Chris Simms.

“They kind of downplayed us, as if we were nothing,” Williams said then. “But we weren’t much for talking. We were going to let our talk be displayed out on the field.”

And for the better part of 3½ quarters, neither side flinched.

Facing fourth-and-16 from the Texas 28-yard line with 2:12 remaining, Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops had a difficult decision to make.

The Sooners were clinging to a 7-3 lead. A successful field goal would provide breathing room, but a miss would leave Texas with favorable field position to score a go-ahead touchdown.

Stoops turned to his brother and co-defensive coordinator, Mike, for advice.

“Let’s pooch it down there,” Mike told him. “We’ll stop ’em.”

In what would have been a wildly unpopular decision today, Bob opted for the punt — only with a wrinkle. Oklahoma lined up as if it was going to attempt a field goal, but when the ball was snapped to the holder, he flipped it back to the kicker who punted.

Out of sorts, Texas’ Nathan Vasher fielded the ball on the 3-yard line.

“What was Vasher doing?” announcer Brent Musburger shouted on the broadcast. “It was headed for the end zone. Oh, my!”

“We said maybe someone would make a big mistake,” play-by-play analyst Gary Danielson responded. “Is that the big mistake?”

Instead of starting the drive on the 20-yard line with a touchback, Texas took over backed up against its own end zone on the 3-yard line.

A timeout was called and both sidelines huddled. Oklahoma’s defense watched Texas carefully.

All day Oklahoma had been one step ahead of the Longhorns, understanding their tendencies based on personnel and formation. Lehman spied Texas running back Brett Robin preparing to come on the field, which told the linebacker it was likely going to be a pass. The probability, he said, was around 90%.

“We’re going through the different calls that we may be in if they go in 12 personnel,” Lehman said. “If they’re in 11 personnel, this is what they’re going to try and do. So, we think they’re coming out in 11 personnel, and that’s what it was. And Mike Stoops, Brent Venables, Bob, they’re all standing there in the huddle and said, ‘We’re coming with a blitz.'”

The play was called “Slamdogs.” Williams would blitz and shoot the gap between the left guard and tackle.

Bob Stoops grabbed defensive end Cory Heinicke and told him not to bother putting his hand in the dirt. To speed up his drop into coverage, he instructed Heinicke to play from a standing position and fall back as soon as the ball was snapped to cut off Simms’ throwing lane to Texas’ top receiver, who happened to be named Roy Williams, as well.

Thankfully for Sooners fans, no one approached Oklahoma’s Williams with any last-minute advice before play resumed.

On a similar defensive call earlier in the game, Williams had broken one of the cardinal rules of football by leaving his feet. He had leaped to try to make a tackle, lost leverage and was easily taken out of the play by a block at his knees.

Looking back, it’s fair to wonder whether that was all a setup.

“Roy has great instincts, and you don’t want to overcoach him,” Mike Stoops said. “He did what he thought was right, to make the right decision.”

This time, Williams blitzed and easily knifed through the offensive line on a path to Simms. But when Robin dove at Williams’ knees for the cut block, the running back came up with nothing but air.

Williams was already flying overhead.

“He took a calculated chance,” Mangino said. “But if you see when he leaps, his legs are coiled. He just didn’t say, ‘Well, I think I’ll jump up in the air.’ He’s like springs going over the line of scrimmage.”

Williams later said he felt “like I was in the air forever.”

His body horizontal, his arms stretched out in front of him, Williams looked like the comic book hero Superman minus the cape.

His timing was perfect, dive-bombing into Simms right as he was starting his throwing motion.

If Simms had dropped back any further, Williams said, “There wouldn’t have been a ‘Superman Play.'”

That opened the opportunity for Lehman’s big moment.

“I didn’t know he left his feet,” Lehman said. “I think I just barely kind of saw him passing by Chris Simms’ backside, as the ball kind of flipped up in the air. … The ball popped up, and I grabbed it.”

Lehman made the interception — which could have easily been ruled a fumble — and ran into the end zone for a touchdown, icing the game. An extra point made the score 14-3 with 2:01 remaining.

“Luckily, I didn’t have time to think about it,” Lehman said. “If I would have thought about it, I probably would have dropped it.”

Ironically, Bob Stoops saw none of that. Neither did Mangino or Woolfolk.

“My eyes are dead-on Cory,” Stoops said. “I see Cory out there and I’m like, ‘Yes! He did it!’ So, Cory gets a great drop and then all of the sudden I hear everything explode. Everyone is going crazy. And I don’t know what happened. I didn’t see the blitz. I was watching the D-end. So, I’m running around and asking, ‘What the hell happened?'”

“We’re all looking around on the bench at each other,” Mangino said. “The offensive kids are waiting to go back on the field, and before they start cheering, they’re looking around at each other like, ‘Did we just really see that happen?’ It was unbelievable.”

“All I hear is a roar that’s going the other direction,” Woolfolk said. “I said, ‘Whoa! Uh-oh. Either something’s rolling up and they’re running right behind me because they broke a play out or we did something.’ Then I turn around and I’m like, ‘Oh, my God.'”

Woolfolk said he would wind up watching the play hundreds of times trying to figure it out.

“Roy knew I only have one shot to get this and I’m going to go all out,” Woolfolk said. “And when you’ve played long enough, there’s a certain emotion that takes over — the dog in you that makes you want to scratch and claw and fight. And basically, he already knew the jig was up, I’m already here and all I can do is soar over the top. Either that or I’m going to be dead in the water and filling a gap. He wanted to be better than that. He wanted to be great.”

Arute compared Williams’ effort to Kirk Gibson’s walk-off home run in the 1988 World Series.

“What was it Jack Buck said? ‘I don’t believe what I just saw,'” Arute said. “That’s pretty much what came into my mind.”

Norman said the play is on the level of the Joe Washington punt return and the Keith Jackson reverse.

“I mean, you can go back as far as my recollection of the ’70s and watching all those great things in the ’70s through the ’80s and ’90s, and to me it stands up there as one of the top five plays in Oklahoma history,” he said. “Because it’s iconic and the impact that it made on the game. That play virtually won us that game.”


CURRENT OKLAHOMA COACH Lincoln Riley, whose sixth-ranked Sooners will play No. 21 Texas on Saturday, was still in high school in West Texas when Williams soared into the chest of Simms and took over the 2001 Red River Showdown.

Riley said he knew it was a big play in the moment, but its importance has only grown with time.

“The more you watched it over the years and saw the replays and just became pretty amazed just by all it took for Roy to make that play,” he said. “I mean, the athleticism, the timing, the instincts, the willingness to take a chance in a big moment, you know, it was an unbelievable play. And then it was such a good game. It would have been a great play at any point, but in such a critical moment and in such a game that’s so important every year, it just really magnified.”

What’s been lost over the years, Bob Stoops said, is what happened next.

After the kickoff, on Texas’ first play from scrimmage, Williams did it again, clinching the win by intercepting Simms for the fourth time that day.

“I’ve been lucky between Florida and Oklahoma to coach some incredible players, and he really stands at the top of them all or right there with anybody,” Stoops said of Williams. “He’s by far and away one of the very few best defensive players I ever coached in every way — coverage skills, tackling, maybe the best at blitzing, whatever we asked him to do.”

Mangino remembers the team breaking into groups to watch film the following Monday.

He said he had no doubt what play was being shown in the defensive meeting room when he heard a chorus of laughter and cheers from down the hall.

“Roy was a humble guy, not one to brag,” Mangino said. “But he enjoyed it.”

Williams turned pro rather than come back for his senior year.

Spurrier also left at the end of the season to join his dad in the NFL with Washington. Spurrier remembers defensive coordinator Marvin Lewis asking him a lot about Williams during the lead-up to the draft.

“He was as good a defensive player as I’ve ever been around,” Spurrier said.

Washington traded down from No. 18 to 32, which was well out of reach of Williams, who was taken with the eighth pick by the Cowboys. He would wind up making the Pro Bowl five times.

“I remember however many years later, Marvin saying, ‘You know what? Looking back, we should have found a way to make sure we drafted him,'” Spurrier said.

Eleven years later, Spurrier was again with his dad, this time at South Carolina, when the most viral hit of the 21st century occurred when defensive end Jadeveon Clowney split the offensive line and launched himself into the chest of Michigan running back Vincent Smith, dislodging the football in the process.

But as great as Clowney’s play was, Spurrier said, it’s hard to compare it to Williams’ in 2001.

“Honestly,” Spurrier said, “that Oklahoma-Texas game, that meant more.”

Which is why for the past two decades, Lehman can’t go the month of October without hearing about the play from someone. It’s weird, he said, because he thinks he was lucky to be on the receiving end of Williams’ heroics. Lehman happened to be in the right place at the right time.



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