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Super Bowl ring 'a symbol of excellence'
By Greg Garber

NEW ORLEANS -- This Super Bowl ring, like so many out there, is no longer in the possession of the player who won it.

"It's gone," says the longtime Dallas Cowboy, a victor in Super Bowl XII in January 1978.

He offers a long and involved explanation of where it went and why. Something about a failing company, a charitable foundation and collateral. He has other rings, he says, but that one was something special. He would do anything, he says, to get it back.


The man, a memorabilia dealer, who bought it from the player more than a decade ago for $10,500, isn't so sure. He traces the path of the ring through a handful of owners, collectors, he calls them. The man who has it now wouldn't mind parting with it -- it would be a nice reunion story, wouldn't it? -- just as long as he gets a little something for his trouble. The ring cost him $16,500 a few years ago, so maybe $17,500 or $18,000 might be enough to shake it loose. Make me an offer, he says.

Trouble is, the dealer says, the player doesn't have the money. Maybe that's why he hasn't returned his calls. Typical, the dealer says with disgust. Typical.

Super Bowl rings, those gaudy chunks of gold-encrusted diamonds, symbolize the pinnacle of a player's career. So why do so many players lose theirs? The Triple Ds, according to Scott Welkowsky, a California collector.

"Death, divorce, drugs," Welkowsky explained. "Those are the usual reasons. Some guys are gamblers, some make bad investments. Some might not be into flashy jewelry. Some, if they're lucky enough to be on threee or four Super Bowl winners, might give one to a best friend or a brother, and that's the one who gets on hard times."

Few former players will admit their rings are gone; it's merely human nature to be proud. Only two of a dozen players who had reportedly lost their rings that were contacted by ESPN -- in preparation for a feature that will air Super Bowl Sunday on NFL Countdown -- said they were without their rings.

One cruel collector from Canada called the former San Francisco 49er who sold his Super Bowl XXIX ring. The player told him it was in a safety deposit box. No, it's not, the collector said, it's on my finger."

The ring is the thing
If you talk to the NFL players, it's all about the ring.

"Oh, that's everything," said Rams running back Marshall Faulk, who is looking for his second ring in three seasons. "There's so many guys who play this game that have never gotten the opportunity to win a Super Bowl, let alone win one. There's no sense in playing if you can't ever get the feeling of standing on top of that mountain and saying, 'I'm the king of the hill.' "

The Rams won their first ring after the 1999 season with a dramatic victory over the Tennessee Titans. Faulk, who keeps his in a small box in his St. Louis home, sees it every day.

"It's a symbol of excellence, man," said teammate Torry Holt. "It's a symbol that you are the deal, the best to ever do it. What it all boils down to, yes, we're in it to make money and we are in it to network and do all those great things, but you want to win a Super Bowl ring.

It's a symbol of excellence, man. It's a symbol that you are the deal, the best to ever do it.
Torry Holt

"It's no greater satisfaction than winning a Super Bowl ring -- because it's so hard to do."

Mike Martz, the Rams' head coach: "It's a very personal thing to me because it signifies a relationship with players and coaches that you can never go back and replicate."

Shannon Sharpe, the Baltimore Ravens' tight end, has three rings after winning two with Denver and another last year when the Ravens scalded the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV. Familiarity, apparently, does not make the heart grow fonder.

"I've always said, no matter how many rings I won after the first one, the first one would always be the most important, because there's nothing like the first," Sharpe said. "Your first car, you'll always remember it. Your first girlfriend -- I don't care if you marry Halle Berry -- you'll always remember your first girlfriend.

"The first one was the greatest feeling that I had."

Sharpe gave his first ring to brother Sterling, an ESPN analyst, who was forced to retire with a neck injury before the Green Bay Packers collected their most recent ring in Super Bowl XXXI. When Denver owner Pat Bowlen heard the story, he had another ring made for Shannon.

"The Lombardi Trophy represents a world championship for the Baltimore Ravens, for the city of Baltimore, and that was a very special thing," said Ravens coach Brian Billick. "The Super Bowl ring represents a Super Bowl victory for Brian Billick, for Shannon Sharpe, for Ray Lewis -- it's a very personal, individual thing. It's something that's a source of pride and satisfaction that I don't think anybody without one can truly understand."

All that glitters
The man who designs most of these rings is a charismatic fellow. He works for Josten's in Minneapolis and he dreams up the rings that wind up on the fingers of champions. His name is Charlie Anderson.

"I visualize the ring and then I pull out all the different features on the computer and there it is!" he said triumphantly, pointing to his screen. "I've got a great job."

Josten's has made 23 of the 35 Super Bowl rings, including the two most recent that went to the Ravens and Rams. The NFL annually offers $5,000 per ring for 125 rings (this year, the number will swell to 150), but most estimates place the real value of the rings closer to $10,000.

"The problem that you have," said Al Nuness, a Josten's vice president, "is that the owners have seen the previous ring and it's like one-upmanship."

The NFL says it polices the ring companies, inspecting the rings after they come out of the factory. But, seriously, how does Josten's keep the owners and the league happy?

"It's easy to tell you how we do that," Nuness said. "Obviously, we eat it."

The most recent Super Bowl ring, belonging to the Ravens, is a distant cousin to the very first Super Bowl ring, which was simple and elegant and designed by Vince Lombardi.

"The last quarter of the Super Bowl, the players were coming up to me, `OK, now, are we going to do platinum?' " said David Modell, son of Ravens owner Art Modell. "I'd be getting calls from the guys after the season, saying, `We want to make sure the ring is gaudy. It needs to be gaudy."

The Ravens' ring features the Ravens ruby-eyed bird-head logo on a field (literally, 100 yards worth) of diamonds. The 40 diamonds around the rectangular top represent Art Modell's 40 years in the NFL. There are several inscriptions: Set the Standard and Invictus, both rallying cries of the team last year. Oh, and there's lots and lots of diamonds.

"It was just the basic consensus that the ring had to be fairly huge and sparkly -- we had to keep up with the Joneses -- generally, not specifically," Art said. "The ring, frankly, is a way we express ourselves in sports. You ask any golfer in America what it means to put on a green jacket at the Master's, and that's the same feeling."

Charles Haley, now an assistant coach with the Detroit Lions, knows that feeling better than any player. He is the only man to win five rings as a player, two with the 49ers and three more with the Cowboys.

That's a worthy goal for a player like the Rams' Holt.

"Twenty years from now when I'm sitting on the back porch with my grandkids, smoking on a cigar and chilling and playing some golf, I got two rings on my hand, man. I went down in history, you know? I was the best as what I was doing at that particular time."

Wait a minute -- two rings? Was Holt playing for the Ravens last year, or did he miscount?

"Well," he said, smiling, "I have one from '99 and I will have two, with the one from this year."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for