ATLANTA — Dan Reeves, the retired NFL coach, sounds certain the Los Angeles Rams and New England Patriots aren’t the only ones toiling as Super Bowl LIII approaches.
“Unfortunately, the devil never stops working,’’ Reeves told USA TODAY Sports. “He works 24-7.’’
This week has been free of controversy for the Rams and Patriots. But counting on it to remain that way before kickoff on Sunday would be tantamount to tuning out Reeves. He and retired NFL coach Sam Wyche dealt with two of the biggest scandals in Super Bowl history.
Twenty years ago, the night before Reeves’ Atlanta Falcons played the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXIII in Miami, Falcons safety Eugene Robinson was arrested for soliciting an undercover officer for sex.
Thirty years ago, the night before Wyche’s Cincinnati Bengals played the San Francisco 49ers in Super Bowl XXIII in Miami, Bengals running back Stanley Wilson was found high on cocaine.
Clouded by those scandals, the Falcons and the Bengals lost the next day. Although Wyche made no dire predictions about potential scandals erupting before Sunday, he did say the environment at Super Bowl contributes to poor judgment.
“One of the things I remember most about the Super Bowl was getting on that bus and riding to our practice facility,’’ he said. “The sirens were going, the motorcycle cops were stopping in the intersection so we could go on through and people were running out of storefronts and jumping up and down. And, man, it’s a real kick. Not just playing the game but everything around it. And sometimes you lose track of reality and you get that temptation that you can’t turn down.’’
On Jan. 30, 1999, the morning before Super Bowl XXXII, Robinson, an All-Pro safety, received the Bart Starr Man of the Year Award that is meant to honor the NFL player who best exemplifies character. At about about 9 p.m., that night, Robinson was arrested in downtown Miami after he offered the undercover officer $40 for oral sex, according to a copy of the police report.
“Of all the people I thought I’d have a problem with, if I ever thought I’d have a problem, he’d have been the last one I’d have picked,’’ Reeves said this week. “All I can tell you is that the police arrested him because he had made a proposal to the undercover agent. But the undercover agent said (Robinson) wasn’t serious. He was just finding out just kind of jokingly. But they knew who he was and they arrested him.’’
Robinson did not return phone messages left by USA TODAY Sports this week and efforts to reach the undercover policewoman through the Miami-Dade Police Department were unsuccessful.
Reeves said he slept little upon learning of Robinson’s arrest.
“I spent a whole bunch of time with Eugene and his wife,’’ he said. “That’s the one thing you worry about. He and his wife, it was all just a terrible, terrible thing that happened and trying to explain it is difficult and wanting her to try to understand, cause he is such a great guy you’re hoping it doesn’t mess up a life, a marriage, anything.’’
At the same time, Reeves said, he was helping Robinson decide whether to play in the big game in light of the inevitable fallout.
“Because certainly the news is going to come out, that he was arrested,’’ Reeves said. “The team’s going to know it. How are you going to approach that? All those things you’re thinking about, you’ve got to make a decision on.’’
Robinson decided to play, and in retrospect, Reeves said, it’s clear the arrest had an impact in the Falcons’ 34-19 loss to the Broncos.
In the second quarter, Robinson gave up an 80-yard touchdown reception to Broncos receiver Rod Smith. He also missed a tackle on Broncos running back Terrell Davis that led to a long gain in the fourth quarter.
“How much did it hurt us? I think it did hurt us a lot,’’ Reeves said of the arrest. “It had to hurt Eugene mentally. And he was kind of the one that controlled everything in the secondary.’’
With a slight chuckle, Reeves added, “And it didn’t help me. I didn’t get much sleep that night. I was up basically late. I called offensive plays, so I can blame that bad game that I called (on the arrest).’’
Looking back, Reeves said, he should have enforced a curfew the week of the game. But he expressed no ill will toward Robinson, who lives in Charlotte, N.C., where he serves as a color analyst for the Carolina Panthers, co-hosts a TV show called “Charlotte Today’’ and coaches at Charlotte Christian School.
“I still have the greatest admiration for him and what kind of person he is,’’ Reeves said. “I know what kind of person he is, and unfortunately the devil works 24 hours a day.’’
On the evening of Jan. 21, 1989, after Wilson had completed what Wyche called a “great week of practice,’’ Wilson failed to report for a team meeting. Wyche said he dispatched running back coach Jim Anderson to find him, and when Anderson finally did, Wilson was high on cocaine at the team hotel.
Informed of Wilson’s condition, Wyche went to meet with him in the running back’s room.
“I had to tell him, ‘You’re not going to play,’ ” Wyche said. “He had already flown his parents in. He had a great week of practice. Had a terrific season. No one suspected anything.
“Talk about a guy that was on a mission all season long not to let that drug win the fight. And he knew he was vulnerable. He openly admitted it, this drug is trying to overcome me and take my life away from me and I’m not going to let it happen. So when it happened, it shocked everybody.
“I can remember saying to the team, ‘Stanley’s not going to play tomorrow,’ guys throwing their books on the floor, dropping their head into their hands, because they’d invested time in him as well to try to hold him straight.’’
Wyche said he’ll never forget the conversation he had with Wilson that night.
“When I went up to talk to him, I said, ‘How did you get started with this? You’re a good guy. Man, I love you. I cannot believe you got into drugs. How did it happen?’ ” Wyche recalled this week. “He says, ‘Well, i was at a party after a game, we won a big game and everybody was coming up to me, ‘Just take take one.’ I didn’t drink. I didn’t smoke. And they were trying to get me to take a puff of a joint and finally after a while I gave into the peer pressure. I took one puff and’ — this is the words that stay with me forever, when he said — ‘and I started to take another puff and my life has been on a death spiral ever since.’’’
That was the last night the two spoke, Wyche said. In 1999, Wilson was sentenced to 22 years in state prison in California for burglary.
“I wrote to him and just never got a response back,’’ Wyche said.
Looking back, Wyche said, Wilson could have played a key role in a game the Bengals lost 20-16 to the 49ers on a sloppy field.
“I believe to this day that if we’d had Stanley, and he was hot because of the conditions, shoot, he might have had a couple of hundred yards rushing,’’ Wyche said. “We would have ended up controlling the clock and maybe having a better chance to win.
“It changed the course of the careers of maybe a lot of players. You win the game, you’re in a totally different category than if you just played in it.’’
Added Wyche, “My hope is that anybody hearing about his experience learns from his experience before they have to go through it. Or before they’re faced with the same type of temptation.’’