Super Bowl XXIII. San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana takes the snap from center with over 14 minutes remaining in the fourth quarter and the Bengals leading 13-6. John Taylor releases from the Bengals 14-yard line, runs a deep slant with Jerry Rice in the slot. Montana throws the football and cornerback Lewis Billups cuts underneath Taylor's route, juggles the easy interception and lowers his head after the football falls incomplete.
A lasting moment with a historical impact that lingers even today. Montana completed the 14-yard touchdown pass to Jerry Rice on the following play, tying the game at 13. Jim Breech converted a 40-yard field goal later in the quarter, eventually setting up Montana's iconic 92-yard drive that ended with a game-winning touchdown to John Taylor.
How different does that game play out if Billups intercepts Montana's pass? Does Cincinnati, with a touchdown advantage, milk the clock, add a field goal for a two-possession lead and win the game? It's been 24 years and the Bengals haven't returned to the Super Bowl. What are the historical implications if Cincinnati wins? Endless questions, possibilities, parallel universes reflecting different courses.
Yet for all of our angst, complaints and endless "why us" shouts to a neglectful football God, the path Lewis Billups took caused suffering for others that led to a fatal accident and tragic end.
Billups loved the lifestyle. The best cars, an Orlando mansion and an appetite that eventually led to a destructive path. He missed part of training camp in 1990 after serving a 30-day sentence in jail during the offseason for pointing a handgun at two undercover police officers. A year later he held out for more money, though some suspected that he felt he wasn't welcome in Cincinnati. Mike Brown would have no part of either excuse.
"Now it's not, 'trade me,' it's 'pay me'. He wants more money," Brown told the Associated Press on July 20, 1991. We're not going to give it to him. He'll have to pay the consequences." For those of you refusing to acknowledge it, Mike Brown completely takes the lead from his father, who is beyond legendary in Cincinnati. Just go back to Lemar Parrish's demand for more money.
Regardless Billups entered an option year scheduled to earn $575,000 that season, fined $1,500 for each day missed until the 42nd day of his holdout when he signed a new contract. Billups would play only part of that season with the Bengals, leaving to sign with the Packers in 1992 but released early during the season.
And that's when everything collapsed.
Billups was charged in mid-December 1992 for, according to the Associated Press "allegedly raping a woman, videotaping the ordeal and threatening to show the tape to the victim's husband is she didn't pay $20,000, police said." He pleaded no contest to reduced chargers of criminal conspiracy and sentenced to three years probation. Billups was soon after charged for making threats against Rex Chapman, formerly of the Washington Bullets. Chapman's sister, who was dating Billups, testified that he threatened to break her brother's knees and that Billups had hit, slapped and choked her.
The Judge, who had refused bail in spring of 1993, told Billups that he was "a danger to the community and others if released." He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to one year in prison.
And then it was over.
Only six days after being released from prison, Billups was allegedly driving his corvette at speeds in excess of 100 miles per hour. A car changed lanes in front of him, trying to exit the highway. Billups lost control of his vehicle and slammed into the guardrail. His passenger died instantly while Billups was ejected, later taken to a local hospital where he died from his injuries.
It's hard to compose words of tragedy for someone that negatively affected so many lives off the football field. But for Bengals fans, and to a much lesser degree, the dropped interception has been felt for over 24 years.