Local NFL veteran recalls his Super Bowl appearance
With Super Bowl 50 days away, former L.A. Rams offensive lineman Dennis Harrah and quarterback Vince Ferragamo share memories, insight
–When the Denver Broncos and Carolina Panthers face off in Super Bowl 50 on Sunday, Feb. 7 there will be around 68,500 fans filling Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara cheering on the teams along with millions of viewers taking in the excitement online, around their local television set, or at their favorite pub. There’s perhaps no one better to give insight regarding the anticipation and thrill of the game than a former NFL player and Super Bowl participant. Recently, I had the chance to talk with not just one, but two such players – former Los Angeles Rams offensive lineman and Paso Robles resident Dennis Harrah and quarterback Vince Ferragamo – about their experience playing in Super Bowl XIV and their thoughts about Sunday’s big game.
After a less-than-spectacular 1979 season with a 9-7 record, the Rams earned a chance to face the AFC champion Pittsburgh Steelers in Super Bowl XIV after beating the Dallas Cowboys, 21-19, in the Division Playoffs and shutting out the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 9-0, to win the NFC in the conference championship game.
“We went and played against Tampa Bay, in Tampa, and we were expected to lose but we beat them,” Harrah said. “And we went to play the Dallas Cowboys in Dallas; we were expected to lose that game but we beat them, too.”
On Jan. 20, 1980, in a Super Bowl game that was referred to as “Dynasty vs. Destiny,” the Rams led 13-10 going into halftime and 19-17 in the third quarter. The Steelers took control of the game in the final quarter to earn a 31-19 victory and their fourth Super Bowl trophy in just six years before the crowd in Pasadena’s Rose Bowl Stadium.
PRDN: First of all, tell me about Super Bowl XIV – what are your best memories?
Harrah: My highlight was playing against Hall-of-Famers Mean Joe Green and Jack Lambert; it was such an honor. You’ve never been cussed until you’ve been cussed by Jack Lambert! I would hold him just for the sake of holding him; he’s got no front teeth, there’s spit coming out of his mouth, he is so red that he is purple, and he is cussing me so hard because I am holding him. I have never enjoyed anything else in my life than being cussed by him! Fun? It was one of the highlights of my life!
Ferragamo: I look at the big plays in the game, even from the sidelines watching [Terry] Bradshaw throw the bombs on us – those were pretty exciting plays even though they were coming from the other team. They killed us with those plays, but they were sure things of beauty to see. I look at the interior, the line, and some of the brute force that we were able to display as well as some of the great play by our offensive line, Wendell Tyler’s run, Kent Hill’s pull-around, and the great catches that Billy Waddy, Preston Dennard, and Terry Nelson made. It was a culmination of all kinds of plays but, in the end, you look back and we left everything on the field. There was nothing to be remorseful about, everybody played their hearts out and we just weren’t the best team that day; we didn’t have the power or the pizzazz to get the job done. Whereas [the Pittsburgh Steelers] had the experience and they had the great players – so many Hall-of-Famers. They were fun to play against and I still consider [the Steelers] to be the best team that has ever won a Super Bowl, in any era.
PRDN: As a former NFL player and Super Bowl participant, what do you imagine the players are thinking about in the days leading up to Super Bowl 50?
Harrah: There’s a lot more media hype and everything now; there’s so much more marketing, in my opinion, than there used to be. For two weeks, we scrimmaged and beat each other to death before even making it to the Super Bowl. Now, they don’t practice much during those two weeks before the game – it was a different philosophy back then. If I was talking to a young player today I would tell him to take a deep breath and cherish this moment. Back in 1980, I was 27 and going to play the biggest team of my life and unfortunately I didn’t realize it. The Rams made the playoffs every year, and I didn’t think much about it. But I never went back to the Super Bowl; I wish I would have cherished that time a little bit more.
Ferragamo: There is a lot of hype and there are high expectations for both teams. You have two weeks of preparations; the first week is putting the game plan together and the second week is brushing up on information and details, zeroing in on the little things that can make a big difference in a game. With all of the interviews and the excitement that continues to build, every day getting closer and closer, the excitement starts brewing inside you and you are just so ready. There are a lot of butterflies right before the game and that’s common, especially if you’re in the Super Bowl for the first time.
PRDN: During the regular NFL football season, is making it to the Super Bowl the ultimate goal for the players and their teams or do they stick to the thought process of ‘one game at a time?’
Harrah: As you’re working in the season, and the off-season, it’s more of propaganda and a ploy the team uses when they say they’re going to make it to the Super Bowl. If you look that far ahead, as long as the season and pre-season is, you can lose perspective of what you’re doing. It’s an old cliché that you have to ‘take one game at a time’ but it’s absolutely true! You have to be willing to go through the grind, there’s going to be injuries, and you have to have a lot of luck. On paper, you can have the best team in the NFL going into the season and then, four weeks later, you’ve lost four of your key guys and you’re just scrambling to keep your head above water. When we went to the Super Bowl, I believe we had the worst record of any team that had ever gone to the Super Bowl. It was just one of those fluke things that we got hot at the end of the season, we started to gel, and we starting believing in ourselves. It’s almost like a feeling, a swagger that you can’t be beaten and that you are invincible. It’s something that every coach in every speech that they give tries to implement that feeling on a team, it can be a positive or a negative, and it’s a feeling that comes over you.
Ferragamo: Everyone talks about ‘one game at time,’ which is true – you can’t look beyond the game you’re playing or you’re going to get beat. Each game is important in its own respect; the intra-divisional games are really important because it’s like winning two games when you win. But everyone’s goal at the very beginning of training camp is building a team that’s going to put you in the Super Bowl and get to the end; that’s why you play the game – you play for the glory and to get to that spot. But it’s a team game as a whole and each contributing factor is vital to the total sum. So when we went [to Super Bowl XIV] we were rebuilding for a long time and had a great defense and had a couple players here and there on offense that really made the difference.
PRDN: There’s been a lot of talk about this year’s Super Bowl quarterbacks – Peyton Manning, 39, and Cam Newton, 26 – and their age difference and experience. What is your take on that?
Harrah: You’ve got one quarterback, Peyton Manning, who is so intelligent and so experienced. Then you have one that is not only intelligent, but he is a man among boys as far as quarterbacks and that’s Cam Newton. I’ve seen linebackers come at hit him and bounce off; he is a stud. Manning is a great athlete, but Newton is a freak – there is no doubt in my mind. It’s just a pleasure to watch him. If he was my quarterback, I would do everything I possibly could just to give him some freedom because he’s going to make it happen. But Manning, if you can give him enough time, he can look at one, two, three receivers and pick the one that’s open – he can get it done if you give him enough time.
Ferragamo: That’s a good question. Certainly experience makes a big difference; Peyton has played in the Super Bowl before. The only drawback to that might be is whether he will be playing at the high level that he played when he was there before. I don’t think he is really at that same level, but he certainly has the experience and the knowledge and the gift to manage the game. The Super Bowl game is made up of big plays; the question is going to be who will make the bigger plays? Is Peyton capable of making the big play when the time comes and when his team needs it? If he is, then they can win the game. Cam Newton is a very talented young quarterback and he does a lot of things that you can’t defend against, so in those areas that favors Carolina. He’s a perfect player, he has a lot of confidence, and he’s big and strong. Certainly Carolina is feeling its oats right now; they are a very, very good team. They almost went unblemished, 15-1 going into playoffs. They are ready, they are very confident going into the game, they are well-balanced, they have a great offensive line and great defensive line, so they have the ingredients to win this Super Bowl. So does Denver, they have a great defensive line and they were rated No. 1 in the NFL, but they are going up a really good offensive line, and a lot of times that’s the neutralizer in this game. In the end, it will come down to who makes the most mistakes will not win the game and the team that comes up with the big plays will win.
PRDN: Do you have a prediction for who might be named Most Valuable Player?
Harrah: It’s either going to be the old man or the freak – Peyton or Cam. Sentimentally, I am rooting for the Broncos – I am pulling for the old man, pulling for Peyton. But I like Carolina and how they match up, and if I was to say who I thought was going to win I would say Carolina.
Ferragamo: It usually comes down to who makes the big play and usually the quarterback has a good shot of doing that. I suspect if Carolina wins, the MVP will go to Cam, and that’s the difference between that team and most other teams – he really is the star of the team. Usually teams are fronted by players in all different positions, but he stands out over and above everyone else. The Broncos have a pretty balanced team and, with Peyton as the quarterback, if they win he could be the MVP; either him or a running back, or if someone on defense steps up and makes a key interception and maybe returns it for a touchdown.
PRDN: Let’s take a step away from the Super Bowl for a minute. Tell me how you feel about the recent announcement of the Rams returning to LA.
Harrah: I’m excited about the fact that they are finally back home. I couldn’t be any more excited with them coming back – to me, I’ve been signing autographs for 20 something years and I put LA Rams, and now, when I sign I just think ‘they’re really coming back home!’ It’s wonderful – it was like a bad divorce for so many years and now it’s like we are getting back together. I went to St. Louis to be with the Rams and there was nothing there, there was no love.
Ferragamo: We are excited! We have a lot of Rams fans here and it’s like a homecoming in a way because the Rams have been gone for 22 years. It’s going to be fun – playing at the Coliseum for two or three years until the new stadium is built; it will be state-of-the-art and probably the nicest stadium in the NFL. I think we’re going to see a different team, I think there are a lot of incentives for this team that will push them to greater heights. St. Louis was a fun place for the team but there’s nothing like Los Angeles. I think it’s going to drive them to be bigger and better and hopefully being back here will drive them to be a dominant team in the West, end up in the Super Bowl, and win it this time!
More about Dennis Harrah and Vince Ferragamo
Dennis Harrah, a retired NFL offensive lineman who played 13 seasons with the LA Rams, played high school football in Charleston, West Virginia and college football for the University of Miami, where he was inducted into its hall of fame. In 1975 he was a first-round draft pick and joined the LA Rams. He helped the Rams win the NFC West six times and the 1979 NFC Championship. During his tenure with the team, the Rams led the NFC in points scored in 1976, total yards gained in 1980 and yards rushing in 1976 and 1980. Harrah served as team captain for six years and played in the Pro Bowl six times.
Harrah and his wife, Theresa, have lived in Paso Robles since 2004. “I came to Paso Robles back when I was playing football for the Rams, for pig hunting, and I fell in love with the area a long time ago,” Harrah said. “When we had the opportunity to buy something here, we purchased an 80-acre ranch near Cass Winery, so basically what I do nowadays is feed the horses and weed-eat. I also I do speaking engagements.” Theresa has been a personal trainer for 30+ years and owns and operates Gotta B Fit, a personal training studio located at 573 12th St. in Paso Robles. Together, they are the parents of two sons – Blake, an orthopedic surgeon, and Tanner, a sales rep.
Vince Ferragamo was an All-American high school quarterback at Phineas Banning High School and was selected as Los Angeles City Schools Most Valuable Player. He was drafted to the LA Rams from the University of Nebraska. He was the only quarterback to take the Rams to the Super Bowl. While with the Rams, he set many club records, including passing 509 yards against the Chicago Bears making him second in NFL history. He compiled over 11,000 passing yards and had a career passing percentage of 56 percent. He also played one season with the Buffalo Bills and one with the Green Bay Packers and the Canadian Football League (CFL).
Since retiring from the NFL, Ferragamo has owned and operated Touchdown Real Estate in Southern California. He does speaking engagements and makes numerous radio and television appearances. For the past seven years, his family has been growing grapes in his estate vineyard and, as a nod to his Italian heritage, producing a gold-medal winning Tuscan-style wine called Caressa J after his three daughters, Cara, Vanessa, and Jenna. Ferragamo is frequently called upon to judge wine competitions. His wife, Jodi, is a culinary cook, and together they enjoy good food and wine, entertaining friends, and participating in local events and fundraisers including Jodi’s annual Fight With Grace breast cancer awareness event yearly and a yearly golf tournament through his non-profit, the Vince Ferragamo Foundation, to raise funds for Special Olympics, Ronald McDonald House, and other children’s organizations.