The Allstate Sugar Bowl Believes in Champions – Shane Falco

Champions have long defined the Allstate Sugar Bowl. The list of Hall of Fame athletes who have competed in the annual contest is staggering. Heisman Trophy winners, future NFL Super Bowl champions and national championship coaches have made their mark in the annual game that brings in thousands of fans and millions of television viewers to New Orleans. But the list of Sugar Bowl champions extends well past the gridiron. There is a long list of distinguished individuals who have proven themselves to be champions in life as well – the Sugar Bowl’s current series highlights these lesser known success stories.

The Allstate Sugar Bowl Believes in Champions
Jake Gibbs, Ole Miss Football
Charles Davis, Tennessee Football
Caleb Hurd, Virginia Tech Football
Dusty Renfro, Texas Football
Wayne Messam, Florida State Football
Stephen McGuire, Miami Football
Frank Ros, Georgia Football

NEW ORLEANS (April 1, 2021) – Shane Falco was flat on his back on the unforgiving artificial turf of the Louisiana Superdome. Again. He had been drilled from his blind side by one of Florida State’s All-American defensive ends – the ninth time he was sacked in the game. The fumble on the play, Falco’s fourth lost fumble of the day, would lead to yet another FSU touchdown, the final score in Ohio State’s 54-9 loss to the Seminoles in the 1996 Sugar Bowl.

But Falco simply laid on his back, staring at the bright lights above him. Could things get any lower?

“Sometimes a game like that really sticks with you, you never shake it off,” legendary coach Jimmy McGinty said before his death in 2012 in reference to Falco’s Sugar Bowl.

For Falco, the game did stick with him; and things could go lower. The brutal Sugar Bowl performance dropped the All-American southpaw with the previously-charmed life to the top of the second round of the Draft – where he was selected by the woe-be-gone Seattle franchise. Seattle thought nothing of inserting the physically and emotionally damaged 21-year-old as its starting quarterback from the start. Falco was sacked 68 times before his season was mercifully ended by a torn ACL – a rare instance when the word “merciful” can apply to an ACL tear.

That was it for Falco’s professional career.

“He shouldn’t have been trying to carry that Seattle team, he shouldn’t even have been playing,” McGinty said. “He should have been carrying a clipboard that first year.”

But Falco found redemption in the most unlikely of scenarios. Scraping the bottom of the barrel – not to mention barnacles from boats – Falco was called upon by McGinty during the strike year of 2000. He pulled the drifting quarterback from the water and set him up as the replacement quarterback for his Washington Sentinels. The team needed three wins in its final four games and it would be playoff bound. Simple.

While things were nowhere near simple, Falco directed the misfit “Replacements” to the needed three victories. The final win came against a defending champion Dallas team with almost all of its original players back on the field. Washington’s own All-Pro quarterback, Eddie Martell, had crossed the picket line and McGinty was pressured into starting him over Falco. However, a terrible performance by the now-disgraced Martel (point-shaving, drugs, murder-for-hire, take your pick for which eventual scandal was worst for Martel) allowed McGinty to put Falco, and his big heart, back in charge of his team at halftime.

His most memorable play may have been the fake field-goal run when he somehow bulled his way, Marshawn Lynch-style, to pay dirt in the final seconds, seemingly for the victory. But a holding penalty (and who could blame the lineman for holding on a play that nobody in the building knew was going to happen?) called the play back. This time, McGinty didn’t opt for a fake. Falco rolled out and found tight end Brian Murphy for the victory.

“With NFL Films being right there on the sideline during that game, everybody knows about Jimmy telling me at the end that winners want the ball. And I did,” Falco said recently. “But the real motivation came in the locker room at halftime, right after we tossed Martel out. Coach looked at each of us and said, ‘If you put your effort and concentration into playing to your potential, to be the best that you can be, I don’t care what the scoreboard says at the end of the game, in my book, we’re gonna be winners.’”

While Falco had finally found redemption in Washington, he wasn’t done. After signing as a free agent with defensive powerhouse Denver for the following season, he did just enough to win back-to-back Super Bowls in the Mile High City. And then he retired. On his own terms this time.

“I had accomplished what I wanted to accomplish,” Falco said. “I was never going to be the league MVP or anything, but I proved I belonged in the game. But I’ll admit, I had my bell rung more than a few times, starting with that Sugar Bowl. I’m glad I left the game early and I’m still relatively healthy.”

His healthy mind led to even more success for Falco. His time working on boats led him to understand the value of underwater training. His Footsteps 2000 underwater treadmill is standard equipment in nearly every collegiate and professional training room. And the Falco 3000 underwater training suit and program has been credited by star athletes around the world for improving their own performance and conditioning.

“Back in 2000, I asked Jimmy ‘Why me?’” Falco remembered. “Jimmy said, ‘I look at you and I see two men, the man you are, and the man you ought to be. Someday, those two will meet.’ He was talking about football…or I’m pretty sure he was. But ever since that day, I’ve remembered those words. I always strive to live up to them. I try to make myself better every day, whether it’s in business, as a husband and father, or just in life in general.”

That’s right, Falco and his wife Annabelle, who he met during the strike year with Washington, have two kids: James, a 14-year old star tennis player, and Danielle, his 16-year old daughter who is a highly-touted basketball player. Interestingly enough, his daughter has her eye on Tulane for her collegiate career.

“New Orleans?” Falco said while shaking his head. “Really?”

While Falco’s ready-for-Hollywood football story has given him peace athletically, and his business success has given him significant financial prosperity, it’s the relationships he made throughout his career that have stood the test of time.

“I used to think glory lasts forever, but it’s really friendships that last forever,” he said. “Those Replacements, man, that was the best year. Danny [Denman] still comes by all the time – he’s my daughter’s godfather because…who better to be in that role, right? The Jackson brothers work for my company now, running security, of course. Clifford [Franklin], he’s still the fastest dude you’ll ever meet. Jumbo [Fumiko] manages sumo wrestlers back in Japan. Earl [Wilkinson, who was known as Ray Smith during the replacement season], he finished his sentence and now he’s a cop himself. Can you believe it? Nigel [Gruff], nobody ever knows where he is, but he checks in with us now and then. And Brian [Murphy], well, everybody knows about Brian.”

The sure-handed Murphy, the former Gallaudet star, was the true “Replacement” star, going on to become one of the greatest pass-catching tight ends in pro football history. His induction speech at the Hall of Fame last summer was the first Hall of Fame speech delivered by American Sign Language. He closed his “speech” with the following:

“When I joined the Sentinels, at first I was afraid, I was petrified, but then Shane Falco welcomed me, accepted me for who I was and he taught me that you can overcome anything. Coach McGinty brought me to the team, but Shane made me a part of the team. And I credit my entire career to him.”

The Allstate Sugar Bowl has established itself as one of the premier college football bowl games, having hosted 28 national champions, 99 Hall of Fame players, 51 Hall of Fame coaches and 19 Heisman Trophy winners over its 87-year history. In addition to football, the Sugar Bowl Committee annually invests over $1 million into the community through the hosting and sponsorship of sporting events, awards, scholarships and clinics. Through these efforts, the organization supports and honors thousands of student-athletes each year, while injecting over $2.7 billion into the local economy in the last decade.