Every once in a while, when the NFL takes centre stage after the calendar flips, a bit player unaccustomed to the spotlight shields his eyes from the glare and takes over a leading role.
Playoff time in usually reserved for the game's brightest stars, not the also-rans and never-will-bes. But the football gods have a way of dragging someone up from the depths of obscurity and plopping them smack dab into the middle of the fun.
Doesn't happen often, mind you. But when it does, it makes for a whale of a story. My Top 10 unlikely NFL playoff heroes follows below.
10. Larry Brown, Dallas Cowboys
A 12th-round draft pick of the Cowboys in 1991, Brown won the Super Bowl three times. The biggee was Super Bowl XXX against the Pittsburgh Steelers, when he became the first cornerback to win the MVP award after picking off a pair of Neil O'Donnell passes. After that, it was all downhill. He signed with the Oakland Raiders but, after playing 12 games in two seasons, was waived. Brown finished his career with one final season as a Cowboy.
9. Ickey Woods, Cincinnati Bengals
There was a time, kids, when the Bengals actually played in the Super Bowl. I know, I had to check, too. Their second appearance in the big game came in 1988, thanks in no small part to the man who created the "Ickey Shuffle." In the AFC championship game against the favoured Bills, Woods ran for 102 yards and two touchdowns (he shuffled after both) as the Bengals won 21-10. Sadly, Woods was more known for his TD dance than his skill. He was out of the NFL by 1991.
8. Tommy Maddox, Pittsburgh Steelers
Maddox, a veteran of such notable pro football teams as the New Jersey Red Dogs and Los Angeles Xtreme, made his mark after taking over for Kordell Stewart against the Cleveland Browns in the 2002 AFC wild-card game. Maddox threw three touchdown passes during the final 19 minutes as the Steelers stormed back for a 36-33 win. He finished 30 of 48 for 367 yards in what would amount to his career highlight. Next week, with Maddox again at the helm, the Steelers lost to Tennessee.
7. Lamar Smith, Miami Dolphins
Smith ran for nearly 5,000 yards and 38 touchdowns in 10 NFL seasons so he wasn't exactly a washout. But nobody, even Momma Smith, could have expected him to break free for 209 yards and two touchdowns in the Dolphins' 23-17 overtime win over the Indianapolis Colts in their 2000 AFC wild-card game. Smith's 17-yard TD romp in overtime provided the margin of victory. His 40 carries in that game is still an NFL record.
6. Percy Howard, Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys herd of playoff heroes includes some of the biggest names in football. Don't count Howard among the true greats though. He saved his one shining moment -- and I mean one -- for Super Bowl X against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Getting a chance to play because Golden Richards was hurt, Howard caught a 34-yard touchdown pass from Roger Staubach (he's a legend) that gave the Cowboys a shot. Believe it or not, that catch was the only one Howard made in his career.
5. Vernon Perry, Houston Oilers
Sure, Perry played five years in the NFL with Houston and New Orleans after winning a Grey Cup with the Montreal Alouettes but, really, the safety wasn't one of those standout guys. Until the Oilers met the San Diego Chargers in the 1979 playoffs, that is. Perry, still considered a rookie, blocked a field goal and picked off future Hall of Famer Dan Fouts four times (more than a third of his career total of 11) as the Oilers won a defensive slugfest 17-14.
4. Frank Reich, Buffalo Bills
The Bills were, without question, Jim Kelly's team. But with Kelly ailing for the AFC wild-card game against the Houston Oilers on Jan. 3, 1993, Reich was pressed into service. Reich spotted the Oilers a 35-3 lead before getting serious. In the second half, he engineered five TD drives, four by way of pass, as the Bills recovered from the biggest deficit in NFL history to beat the Oilers. Interestingly, Reich was also the architect of the biggest comeback in college ball when he was with Maryland.
3. Don Strock, Miami Dolphins
Subbing for starting quarterback David Woodley in the 1981 AFC divisional playoff game against the San Diego Chargers -- now known as The Epic in Miami -- Strock led the Dolphins back from a 24-0 deficit to force overtime. He threw for 403 yards and four TDs, the best performance of his career by far, but even that wasn't enough to prevent the Chargers from winning in OT. Still, it was indeed epic.
2. David Tyree, New York Giants
Without Tyree, a career backup wide receiver (and special teams ace), the Giants never would have beaten the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. Tyree caught a five-yard TD pass from Eli Manning late in the game then made a spectacular grab -- he pinned the ball against his helmet with one hand -- for a 32-yard gain with 1:15 left that kept the Giants alive. Not bad for a guy who had a total of 54 catches and four TDs in the NFL.
1. Timmy Smith, Washington Redskins
Smith is the unquestioned poster boy in this category. A rookie making his first start -- George Rogers was injured -- against the favoured Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXII, Smith rushed for a game-record 204 yards and two touchdowns as the Redskins rolled to a 42-10 win. Two seasons later after a brief stop in Dallas, Smith, the one-time toast of D.C., was out of the NFL. Smith later spent two years in prison on drug charges, so, yeah, no happy ending.