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With the sports world on hold, we present a countdown of the 50 greatest moments in Wisconsin sports history over the past 50 years. This is No. 1.

When it came to kick returns in the 1996 season, Michael Bates was simply better than Desmond Howard.

Sure, Howard had been explosive in the final third of the season, averaging 26.9 yards per punt return in his final five games. He'd scored on two of his 15 returns in that span, and then he backed it up in the playoffs with a 71-yard touchdown return after San Francisco's first series of the game in the divisional round, plus a 46-yard return later in the first quarter.

"If I can catch it cleanly, I always think we can score," said Howard. "It's no trickery. It's nothing new. It's a matter of intimidation. We have very determined people on the return units who go out there and get after it."

That set up an NFC championship test at Lambeau Field against Carolina, whose own return man was the Pro Bowl pick that season. Bates, the 1992 Olympic bronze medalist in the 200 meters, had averaged 30.2 yards per kickoff return — the first to clear a 30-yard average since 1977 — and had been a standout all season.

"If they feel like he should have been in there (in the Pro Bowl), that's their own personal feeling," Bates said of Howard before the game. "But Desmond Howard hasn't done anything as far as kickoff returns. He's just a punt returner. If they wanted him down as a punt returner, that's a different question. But I made it as a kick returner."

The title of the Pro Bowl roster spot was "kick return specialist," after all.

"I understand what their gripes are also," Panthers running back Howard Griffith said. "Desmond put up great numbers. If you're asking someone in this locker room if Desmond should go over Michael, we have to say no. We have to go with our guy, Mike."

Fair enough. Bates deservedly got to play in the Pro Bowl in Hawaii.

Instead, Desmond Howard had the better kickoff average in the NFC Championship Game (26 yards compared to Bates' 14.8 over four returns apiece) as the Packers trounced Carolina, 30-13. Howard got to play in the Super Bowl in New Orleans on Jan. 26, 1997. Howard also got to fly to Disney World and appear on Late Night With David Letterman. He received a Ford Taurus and a spot in the NFL record book. He also got a Super Bowl MVP trophy that compared pretty favorably to the Heisman Trophy he won while playing at Michigan in 1991.

"This is definitely the most special trophy I've ever won," Howard said.

After Curtis Martin's 18-yard scoring run pulled the New England Patriots to within 27-21 in Super Bowl XXXI with 3:58 left in the third quarter, Green Bay was suddenly feeling the pressure. Then, Adam Vinatieri kicked off to Howard, who took the ball at the 1-yard line.

Ten seconds later, Howard was an immortal in Green Bay Packers history.

"Like I said through the course of the two weeks before this game, they can roll the dice and kick it to me if they want, but I have full confidence in my return team that they were going to allow me to pop one sooner or later," Howard said.

Special team

Don Beebe and Keith McKenzie threw the key blocks that helped Howard bolt up the middle of the field, virtually untouched for a Super Bowl record 99-yard touchdown. The subsequent 2-point pass between Brett Favre and Mark Chmura were the final points of the 35-21 win that returned the Lombardi Trophy to Green Bay, 29 years after the Packers had last held it. Howard became the first Super Bowl MVP for a player seeing the majority of action on special teams.

Howard, selected fourth overall by Washington in the 1992 draft, hadn't developed out of the gate. He couldn't latch on in Jacksonville, either, and might not have made it with the Packers had he not returned a punt for a touchdown against Pittsburgh in a preseason game.

"He goes from the brink of being cut in September to being a household name in January," agent Leigh Steinberg said.

Howard returned four kickoffs for 154 yards and six punts for 90 yards in the Super Bowl, though his touchdown return is the lasting image from the night that finally returned Green Bay to its place atop the NFL mountain, with a "robot" dance celebration to top it off. Vince Lombardi's Packers were the gold standard of football at the dawn of the Super Bowl era, but Green Bay spiraled into an ice age that only began to thaw when general manager Ron Wolf took the reins in 1991 and hired Mike Holmgren as coach in 1992. 

The Packers were 4-12 in 1991, then gradually improved in the subsequent five seasons until they were the best in the NFL. Trading for Brett Favre and signing Reggie White proved to be the pivotal moments.

"The Packers are a great story," Wolf said. "The tradition. The best stadium in the league. The best fans in the league. I believe we do it as well as anyone in the league. We have an identification now."

The Gunslinger and the Minister

Both Favre and White were inextricable from the Super Bowl success.

White set his own Super Bowl record with three sacks, registering them all against Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe after Howard's second-half touchdown return. Coupled with four Packers interceptions, the day was a tough ride for New England's passing game.

"I thank God I was able to step up when I did," said White, playing in his 12th NFL season and already the league's all-time sacks leader. "Eugene (Robinson) kept coming to me and saying, `Isaiah 40:31 says we must mount up with wings of an eagle, run and not get weary, walk and not get tired.'"

Then, there was Favre, who threw for 246 yards and two touchdowns. Both were impressive demonstrations -- a 54-yard pass to Andre Rison that opened the scoring and yet another record, the 81-yard touchdown pass to Antonio Freeman early in the second quarter, the longest in Super Bowl history.

Freeman shot past Patriots safety Lawyer Milloy, who was in bump-and-run coverage, and hauled in a perfect pass from Favre.

"I was licking my chops when I saw (Milloy) come up," Freeman said. "And when I caught the ball, I ran like I never ran before.

"When I was running all I could think about was all of those people that doubted me when I was coming out of college," said Freeman, a third-round pick in the 1995 draft. "They said I couldn't run across the middle, I didn't have 4.3 speed. Now, America, you have to be a believer now."

The play broke the record of 80 yards, set twice before.

Earlier, Rison had put a sweet move on Otis Smith and caught Favre's pass on Green Bay's second offensive snap of the game, then sped to the end zone for the 54-yard score.

"It was an audible," Rison said. "Brett came to the line of scrimmage and saw the safeties come down and he (called an audible) and changed the play. I had a post on (Smith) and caught him in man-to-man coverage. I just ran the route, and Brett just hit me with a great pass."

That play was exactly why the Packers took a calculated gamble and signed Rison off the waiver wire Nov. 19 after his release by Jacksonville. A four-time Pro Bowl selection with terrific skills, Rison had a bad-boy reputation at Atlanta, Cleveland and Jacksonville before his arrival in Green Bay.

"This week I've been kind of nervous because I knew all the eyes would be on me at some point and time during the game," said Rison. "I've been taking a lot of criticism and heat the last year and a half, and I just wanted to show the world that I am a receiver that can get the job done for a first-class organization."

Return to Titletown

In Green Bay, cars pulled into the Lambeau Field lot, like pilgrims to their holy land, in the aftermath of the Super Bowl triumph.

"I am saving the snow that fell on my car in the parking lot of Lambeau Field during the game," said Jim Gittings of Moline, Illinois. "I'm going to melt it down, put it in a jar and save it. I drove all the way from Illinois to do this."

At 8:45 p.m., a man dressed in green and gold and waving an enormous Packers flag burst out of Jean Lafitte's Old Absinthe House on Bourbon St. and went running down the block, screaming, "We won, we won, we won."

In the stands at the Superdome, author and essayist Dick Schaap said the moment was resonating with long-ago Packers legends.

"This means everything to them," he said. "They wanted it so badly. I was sitting next to Fuzzy Thurston the last few minutes of the game, and he was shivering, he was so excited. Bob Skoronski was here. Paul Hornung. Max McGee. Bart Starr was here. They're all excited."

It wasn't Green Bay's most dominant game, but it was unquestionably the most satisfying in a generation. After the prolonged lull for a franchise that saw itself as something more than a small-town curiosity, Packers fans finally had a moment to cherish again, not to mention a cast of unforgettable characters like Favre, White and Holmgren.

"I looked at the faces of my players and coaches and everyone, and I'm just overwhelmed by that," Holmgren said. "It's just a great, great sense of accomplishment.

"We've had a great season. We played a tough schedule. We battled through some injuries. How we compare with other teams, I'm not sure I care."

"We never had a doubt that we would win this ball game," Favre said.

How the moment lives on

There are perhaps three images that endure more than any other. There's Favre, with helmet off and hoisted into the air, running gleefully down the field following his touchdown pass to Rison. There's White, running a lap around the Superdome while hoisting his first Super Bowl trophy in the air. And there's Holmgren, lifted on his players' shoulders as confetti rains down.

Green Bay appeared to be on the brink of a dynasty, following the 1996 season with another 13-3 campaign in 1997, although this one ended painfully in an upset loss to Denver in Super Bowl XXXII. The Packers didn't get back to the pinnacle until after Favre was gone, but the Packers were back as a perennial threat. Football was fun again in the state of Wisconsin.

The Wisconsin sports icons of the past 50 years

We've written about the great icons of Wisconsin sports before; these are the 15 who most stood out in the past 50 years.

  • Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He came into the league as Lew Alcindor and led the Bucks to their first and only title in 1971, plus a return to the Finals in 1974. He is still one of the most iconic players in league history and the NBA's all-time leading scorer. 
  • Barry Alvarez. When he became head football coach at the University of Wisconsin, the Badgers hadn't had a winning season since 1984. But from 1990-2005, he turned the program around, bringing it to its first Rose Bowl in 30 years and winning that game in 1993 and then two more. Today, he's the UW athletics director, overseeing a program that has maintained sports success.
  • Giannis Antetokounmpo. He's only 25 years old, but already Milwaukee has seen the teenager from Greece rise from an unknown No. 15 overall pick into one of the most dominant forces in the NBA. 
  • Bonnie Blair. Blair, who moved to West Allis to train for her biggest events, is a five-time gold medalist and six-time Olympic medalist, with appearances in four Olympiads. She was one of Sports Illustrated's Sportsmen of the Year in 1994 and became the national face of speedskating for a generation.
  • Ron Dayne. From 1996-99 at the University of Wisconsin, he captivated college football and became the NCAA Division I all-time leading rusher — and still is, if you ignore the NCAA's unwillingness to calculate bowl statistics prior to 2002. 
  • Brett Favre. The three-time NFL Most Valuable Player emerged from relatively humble beginnings to make 11 Pro Bowls, lead the team to two Super Bowls and win one of them. He became the NFL's all-time leader in passing yards and touchdowns and helped resuscitate a long-struggling franchise.
  • Eric Heiden. He shied away from public life thereafter, but his five gold medals in the 1980 Winter Olympics stand the test of time. 
  • Al McGuire. One of the state's most colorful characters, McGuire was head coach of Marquette basketball from 1964 -77, reaching the Final Four twice and capping his run with the 1977 national championship.
  • Paul Molitor. Side-by-side with Robin Yount, he was the face of Milwaukee's arrival as a bona fide threat in the 1980s, and he became one of the great hitters in the game. 
  • Aaron Rodgers. Brett Favre was a seemingly impossible act to follow, and yet the Packers struck gold again with a second straight Hall of Fame quarterback. Rodgers led the Packers to a Super Bowl triumph and became the best passer in football after famously falling to the 24th overall pick in the 2005 NFL draft. He has two MVP trophies of his own and stands as the NFL's all-time leader in passing rating.
  • Bo Ryan. He first found success in the UW system at Platteville (four Division III national championships) and Milwaukee before becoming Badgers head basketball coach in 2001. Though the program had reached a Final Four in 2000, Ryan took Wisconsin to a new level, never missing an NCAA tournament and winning four Big Ten regular-season titles. The crown jewel was consecutive trips to the Final Four in 2014 and 2015.
  • Bob Uecker. It could be argued the face of the Milwaukee Brewers has ironically always been its voice. The charismatic and comically gifted radio voice of the Brewers have given Milwaukee fans entertainment even through the lean years.
  • Dwyane Wade. His time at Marquette University was brief but memorable, and he'll always be part of the Milwaukee sports community even though he found sustained career success in Miami. 
  • Reggie White. The landmark free-agent signing in 1993 catapulted the Packers to a new level of excellence. 
  • Robin Yount. He is the only member of the Baseball Hall of Fame who spent his entire playing career with the Milwaukee Brewers. From an exciting 18-year-old infielder in 1974 to a 37-year-old veteran in 1993, his 20 years in the organization made him the quintessential Brewer.

Rules of the 50 in 50 series

  • Moments are recorded over the 50-year window from 1970 to 2019 (sorry 2020, but you're disqualified)
  • These are moments and not achievements, although that largely goes hand-in-hand.
  • These are "greatest" 50 moments, so you won't see moments that are pivotal but ultimately heartbreaking (like the NFC Championship loss to Seattle, Kareem getting traded, etc.)
  • You also won't see (many) moments that came to be recognized for their greatness later, such as the day the Bucks drafted Giannis Antetokounmpo or the day the Packers traded for Brett Favre.
  • Moments considered include teams based in Wisconsin and Wisconsin athletes competing in individual sports or as part of national teams (such as the Olympics), or moments on Wisconsin soil.
  • These are singular moments. You're supposed to remember where you were when they happened.
More of the 50 greatest Wisconsin sports moments of the past 50 years
No. 29:   UWGB stuns Cal
No. 18:   Game 163
No. 11:   Easter Sunday
'The Next Ten'
'The Next 40'

JR Radcliffe can be reached at (262) 361-9141 or jradcliffe@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JRRadcliffe.

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