Streets' big play an understatement
January 08, 2003
THE GOOD news for Tai Streets from the 49ers' 39-38 hornswoggling of the New York Giants is that he remains only slightly better known than the Bulgarian Minister of Agriculture, Tourism and Greco-Roman Wrestling.
A man, if memory serves, whose name is Phil.
Under normal circumstances, the man who catches the winning touchdown in a riveting playoff game would attract considerably more attention, but Streets, whose aversion to publicity borders on the pathological, was quoted less often in the nation's newspapers after Sunday's game than J.J. Stokes.
Yes, that J.J. Stokes.
The final word count, in fact, was 80 for Stokes and 66 for Streets, at least in the 60-page handout of clippings from the 49ers on Monday. And Streets' reaction, as far as anyone can tell, is that 66 words was a little too gabby for comfort.
Now you could understand the attention lavished upon quarterback Jeff Garcia, especially since Bill Walsh literally said he was only one Super Bowl ring away from Canton. You could fathom the credit showered upon Terrell Owens, even for his Churchillian halftime speech, although, as near as anyone could tell, the speech consisted mostly of Owens saying, "Stop losing the game."
And Lord knows we had great amounts of pleasure watching the NFL squirm its way through another four-star, platinum-edged, highway-flare quality officiating gaffe.
But lost in the pigpile of available topics was the man who actually went to the trouble of catching the winning score. Even Monday, when the media had a chance to digest the entirety of the day in more detail and to redress the absence of Streets Talk, he was asked two questions, and both of them were about Owens' discursive skills.
Streets politely admitted that he was inspired by the call to glory, but he gave off a vague sense that he was being slightly less truthful than polite. If Owens thinks he'd changed the game by informing his teammates that they needed to do better, then what's the harm in letting him think it?
Besides, Streets was just as happy slipping out the door unnoticed, as though the winning touchdown had actually been caught by eligible receiver Scott Gragg.
"I don't know," he laughed when corraled halfway to freedom. "Maybe my mother just raised me that way."
Streets got his share of publicity as an all-state athlete at Thornton Township High School in Harvey, Ill., a southern suburb of Chicago. He was the Chicago Tribune's Prep Athlete of the Year in 1994 while playing with current Raiders linebacker Napoleon Harris, Steelers wide receiver Antwaan Randle-El and Eagles linebacker Barry Gardner. He was a star in basketball, playing with current Clipper Melvin Ely. He won the state long jump title as a junior.
He was, in short, a fairly big deal.
He was a fairly big deal at Michigan as well, where he was voted the Wolverines' MVP and a second-team All-Big 10 performer as a senior, and caught two touchdowns in the Rose Bowl as a junior to help Michigan win one of the last pre-BCS national championships.
"I've had my share of attention," he said of those halcyon days before he discovered the benefits of being elsewhere. "But I kind of got used to this now. All I have to do is play ball and have some fun. I don't have to be recognized."
At that, he has been a spectacular success, from the day in 1999 that he was drafted in the sixth round. Jerry Rice was being eased out, drip by painful drip. Owens was making noise (big surprise there) as Rice's logical successor. The 49ers were ending a long run of winning records and playoff appearances, and Stokes was still the intriguing but as-yet disappointing third receiver.
Rice left, Stokes never emerged, and the 49ers needed a defense-worthy foil to Owens, but Streets was still a work in progress. Even after 72 receptions this year, plus the 13-yarder that sorta kinda sealed the Giants' doom, he remains in the background, averting his eyes from Owens' sight-searing gift for attention.
Which, even in the wake of his finest moment as a pro, looks to be a chronic condition.
"It doesn't bother me," he said. "I know what I'm doing. I could care less about the attention."
Maybe he sees what the attention has done for, and to, Owens. Maybe he sees what the attention does for, and to, every noteworthy 49er. Remember that until Sunday, Garcia's status was being downgraded in the area as sort of the old-school alternative to Tim Rattay. Remember that in his rookie year, Rice was considered the Betamax at his position.
Or maybe Streets just likes slipping out that important side door.
Still, that choice probably should have been removed from him Sunday, given its impact on an otherwise disquieting 49er season. The man caught the winning touchdown, and he was no more vital to the scene than the guy who holds the boom mike in those Publishers Clearing House Comes To Your House While You're In Your Pajamas ads.
Then again, Streets doesn't exactly grab a room the way Owens does, and it wasn't exactly an extraordinary feat of physical skill he performed, either.
"All I had to do was get open," he said with a smile and a shrug. "That, and catch the ball."
Which he did, after a brief eternity waiting for the ball to arrive. "It did seem to slow down a little bit coming to me," Streets said. "But I knew I was open, so it wasn't like I was panicked or had to do anything special. It was right there."
And having caught the ball, he merely spiked it before being mobbed by his teammates. They thought at the time that it would be the ultimate play of a spectacular game, coming back from a near-death experience being a fairly rare thing even these days.
Instead, it became merely a line in the next day's sheets. Given the two fights, the bad snap, the penalty flag that was and the one that wasn't, and ultimately the hilarious events of the next day, it's amazing that anyone remembered Streets at all.
Amazing, and to him, gratifying. If his choices are between getting lots of attention, not enough attention, or being completely ignored, he is still at the "I'll Take Option C" stage of his career. It may come at some point, but in the meantime, we are destined only to know him by his back as he tips out the door, leaving behind the circus and all those therein.
That is, until he is asked to give the rousing halftime speech that saves the fellows from sure doom. Now there's an NFL Films moment for the ages.
Or, knowing Streets, a moment for the first edit.
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