Our series on the 50 greatest NFL championship competitors of the past 50 years continues with No. 24 Phil Villapiano, originally published on Jan. 27.
John Madden did his best to keep everything as routine as possible for his Oakland Raiders in the days leading up to Super Bowl XI. Practices and meetings were of similar length. Same amount of contact, same amount of film study.
The future Hall of Fame coach gathered the team in the locker room just before kickoff against the Minnesota Vikings at the Rose Bowl and delivered a simple message.
“John was pretty good at saying the right thing,” Raiders linebacker Phil Villapiano recalled. “He knew when we needed an ass-kicking, he knew when we needed something cerebral, he knew when we needed something different. We were all down on one knee, and he said, ‘Guys, this will be the biggest single event in your life, as long as you live. Let’s go!’ I was expecting a little more, but that was perfect.”
Villapiano, in his sixth year out of Bowling Green, was a key part of a defense that shut down the Vikings 32-14 and gave the Raiders their first NFL title. He made one of the most famous tackles in Super Bowl history, a play that set the tone for the game.
Late in a scoreless first quarter, the Vikings had first-and-goal at the 3-yard line after Fred McNeil blocked a Ray Guy punt and recovered. On second down from the 2, Villapiano blasted into the backfield and forced running back Brent McClanahan to fumble. Raiders’ linebacker Willie Hall recovered. Oakland’s offense drove 90 yards for a field goal, which represented a 10-point swing as the Raiders opened a 16-0 halftime lead.
Villapiano recognized that the Vikings were in what the Raiders referred to as a “Jumbo” package — extra offensive linemen, no receivers — out of which they ran only a couple of plays. He was practically giddy before the snap, bouncing up and down and screaming, “We got ’em where we want ’em.”
One of the quickest and fastest linebackers of the day, the 220-pound Villapiano blew past 280-pound tackle Ron Yary into the backfield, got his helmet on the ball a split-second after the handoff and forced the fumble.
Teammate Jack Tatum thought that Villapiano was coming unglued, so he went to Madden on the sideline and said, you better talk to Phil. Madden approached him.
“You alright?” Madden asked.
“Yeah, what’s up?” Villapiano said.
“You’re out there screaming, ‘We got ’em where we want ’em!’” Madden said.
“Coach, we did,” Villapiano insisted.
Madden laughed, turned and walked away.
“If you knew John, that didn’t happen very often,” Villapiano said. “He wasn’t a guy to laugh or crack jokes on the sideline during a game.”
Even in the Super Bowl, the Raiders had typical Raider moments. In the second half, Villapiano recalled that defensive coordinator Don Shinnick started replacing linebackers with five and six defensive backs. The Vikings managed a bit of offensive momentum.
“I went ballistic,” Villapiano said. “I knew as long as Ted Hendricks and I were out there, they weren’t going to get anything on us. I thought we got a little cute. I went to Shinnick and told him what I thought, and he told me what to do, too.”
Though the Raiders were in control, Villapiano said he wasn’t comfortable until Willie Brown’s 75-yard pick-six gave them a 32-7 lead.
“I’d been in the league a while and I’d seen a lot of strange things,” he said. “I was there for the Immaculate Reception. I knew games could turn around quickly. And look at (Minnesota’s) offense. Fran Tarkenton, Ahmad Rashad, Sammie White, Chuck Foreman. That team could score.”
Villapiano discovered that Madden’s pregame words, though brief, were prescient.
“The biggest thing that I’ve found over the years,” he said, “is that day is big, and I can’t believe how much bigger it’s become as the game has gone on and on and on, but you’ve got to win it. It puts you in an elite little club, of guys with Super Bowl rings.
“Here, we’re coming up on 40 years after I played and we’re still talking about it. You can’t believe what it can do for your life, as long as you win it.”