Re-living ‘99: A week-to-week look back on one of the greatest seasons in NFL history.
As much as I tried to sum up the legendary career of Isaac Bruce in a single post last time, the truth is that it would take a book with at least 40 chapters to begin to summarize his impact on the NFL. The same could be said for many members of the 1999 St. Louis Rams, which is why they were so dominant and why they could be the most undefeatable team of the 90s, if not all-time.
I won’t pretend to sum up the life of Tony Horne today, but I can surely fit his football career onto this page and without taking up 30 minutes of your time.
In Rams history there have been 27 kickoffs returned for a touchdown. Two of them came on November 24, 1985, as Ron Brown — a gold medal winner in the 4x100 relay in the 1984 Summer Olympics that were held in Los Angeles, an honor he shared with Carl Lewis, among others — returned the opening kick for a touchdown and then did it again in the second quarter after the Green Bay Packers had scored to tie the game moments earlier.
Brown would score his third kickoff return touchdown later in the 1985 season and then he did it a fourth time in 1997. There have been two other Rams to do it three times — Vitamin Smith had three in October of 1950, Cullen Bryant had three in the 70s — but only one other player in franchise history to total four kickoff return touchdowns.
Tony Horne was born on March 21, 1976 in New York, but played high school football in Rockingham, North Carolina. Horne went to Richmond High, which has now produced at least three other Super Bowl champions other than Horne: Dannell Ellerbe, Oscar Sturgis, and Perry Williams. It is also where Melvin Ingram and Mike Quick went. A school known for talented athletes, Horne was the starting quarterback for Richmond by his sophomore season.
I’ll be pulling info from a 2011 interview Horne did with ‘Pro Interviews’:
Horne : I never played junior varsity football ever in my life. I have always been on varsity. My high school football career started off in the 10th grade, I was on the varsity, I was the backup quarterback. And I played safety and quarterback but by the mid-season. I was starting at quarterback
Horne says he had been a quarterback since 7th grade, but when Clemson had been recruiting him to come play for them, they just saw him as the “athlete type” per Horne and their biggest need at the time was at receiver. Horne says he really wanted to play defensive back but at 158 pounds, he got a lesson from a teammate and future Hall of Fame defensive back.
The transition was different. I was very small going into Clemson; I think I was like 158. I feel like I had the skill set, but I didn’t have the size. My most memorable moment at Clemson that made me really start hitting the weights. I lined up against Brian Dawkins who was, you could tell he was intimidating, he was big, he was strong, he was fast, it was just intimidating! He now plays for the Denver Broncos. As I lined up against him, he jammed me on the line and he hurt my shoulder, I separated my shoulder. And from that point on, I knew I had to hit the weight room. And man, by springtime, I had gained like 20 pounds, but that was my most memorable moment of college.
Over his first three seasons at Clemson, Horne wasn’t much to talk about. Not even as a returner and in fact, Horne returned 30 kicks in college and not a single one went for a touchdown. (Perhaps there were moments that got called back for penalties and whatnot but on the record, there are none.) As a senior he did return 32 punts, one of which did go for a score.
As a receiver, Horne was more productive.
He had 23 catches for 448 yards as a sophomore and 20 catches for 339 yards as a junior, catching four touchdowns in that period of time. Horne moved into the role of the “number one” as a senior however and it wasn’t even close, catching 70 passes for 907 yards and eight touchdowns; no other player had more than 30 catches or 400 receiving yards on the team that year.
He also returned 19 kicks for 536 yards, but again, no touchdowns.
Feeling like he had built a good case for himself as an NFL player, Horne was roundly frustrated when the 1998 NFL Draft came and went without his name getting called. The St. Louis Rams had not only drafted a receiver in round four (Az-Zahir Hakim, who would become a notable receiver/special teamer of course), but they had also drafted two of his teammates: running back Raymond Priester in round five — a player who Horne described as one of his best friends in school — and guard Glenn Rountree in round six.
Neither ever played an NFL down.
My draft day was bizarre; I didn’t get drafted as high as I thought I should have. I had no experience I was going to the St. Louis Rams, cause I opened up a Sports Illustrated one day and I see all of the St. Louis Rams coaches. They were all older guys I’m like, “Wow I hope I’m not going there.” I was so frustrated with the draft, I felt like going to dairy queen. So I went to Dairy queen with my daughter. By the time I got back, St. Louis had called me. I got back in touch with them and everything, they wanted to sign me and bring me out there. I ended up in St. Louis, and that day was frustrating day, very frustrating, but it turned out to have a happy ending.
A happy ending and a Blizzard.
Horne spent three years as a non-prospect on Clemson than did barely enough to get signed as an undrafted free agent with a camp invite. Horne took that camp invite and excelled in an area he had not really excelled at in college, eventually making the team as the kick returner and playing in all 16 games in 1998. Priester and Rountree didn’t make the team and in fact Hakim wasn’t even returning punts as a rookie; Eddie Kennison had those honors.
Horne’s first big “breakout” game came in Week 9 of his rookie season when he returned seven kicks for 175 yards against the Atlanta Falcons. The team doesn’t want to return seven kicks ever, but a 25-yard average kept giving the offense a chance. Four weeks later, the Rams were hosting the Falcons and Horne returned the opening kick of the second half 102 yards for his first career touchdown.
His top two game of his rookie season both came against Atlanta.
In year two, Horne made his second career kickoff return touchdown in Week 5 against the San Francisco 49ers but he was completely overshadowed by Bruce’s four-score day, which had come a week after Hakim’s four-score day. Horne didn’t have a notable day in St. Louis’s first win over the Falcons in 1999, but he’d show up for the rematch.
Week 2 - BYE
Week 6 - St. Louis Rams at Atlanta Falcons, October 17, 1999
The Rams are now 4-0 but this has happened 10 times previously in franchise history and where it was in Cleveland, Los Angeles, or St. Louis, the franchise hadn’t closed any of those seasons out with a championship since 1945. In fact, they had been 4-0 in 1995 with players like Bruce and Jerome Bettis and Kevin Carter and D’Marco Farr, but finished 7-9. The Rams were beating teams easily but as always, caution is ever present.
Especially as they went on the road to face the Falcons, a division foe who had been to the Super Bowl only eight months prior. Though Atlanta was 1-4 with a loss to St. Louis at the time, they were a field goal against the Minnesota Vikings and OT against the New Orleans Saints from potentially being 3-2. We know now how over-matched the Falcons were at the time, but back then, there was every reason to believe that the Rams were the “real” underdog.
They had years of disappointments to overcome and it only took minutes before it was obvious to everyone that this game would not be another one of those.
St. Louis opened with the ball and after two Marshall Faulk runs, Kurt Warner hits Isaac Bruce on third-and-six to establish who the dominant power on the field would be that day. Warner found Bruce again before giving way to 15 and nine-yard runs by Faulk, getting the Rams to the Atlanta 30. Three plays later, Warner-to-Bruce (their fifth touchdown in the last five quarters) made it 7-0.
Following a quick drive by the Falcons that went nowhere, the Rams got the ball back on their own 40. On that series, St. Louis faced 3rd-and-26 and were now on their own 37, having gone backwards; Faulk took his next carry 30 yards and I wonder how many backs that broke on that one play. Could you be any more exasperated than putting the NFL’s best offense on 3rd-and-26 and you give up a 30-yard run?
Soon after, Warner hit Faulk for a nine-yard gain on 3rd-and-10, then Faulk ran it in from the six on fourth down. 14-0.
The teams traded punts but then solid field position helped Falcons quarterback Chris Chandler drive his team 44 yards for a touchdown to cut the lead to seven. And that’s where Tony Horne comes in to say, “No. You should not be here.”
Standing one yard deep in his own end zone, Horne received the ensuing kickoff and began to ran it back. Atlanta could seemingly only slow him down for a moment and then Horne found his crease and was unstoppable, resulting in a 101-yard touchdown return — his second in as many weeks.
The Rams forced a punt on the next drive, then running back Robert Holcombe fumbled the ball back to the Falcons. Perhaps all part of their ploy to trick Atlanta into thinking they were still good, as Chandler had first and goal at the nine but his pass was deflected in the pocket and hauled in by Rams defensive end Grant Wistrom — who somehow looks as fast as Horne as he returned it 91 yards with under two minutes left in the first half.
In the second half, some field goals happened and Holcombe scored a touchdown. Faulk also added a 49-yard run to his 30-yarder earlier.
FINAL SCORE: Rams 41, Falcons 17
Kurt Warner: 13-of-20, 111 yards, 1 TD, 0 INt
Marshall Faulk: 18 carries, 181 yards, 1 TD, three catches, 32 yards
Leading Receiver: Isaac Bruce, six catches, 48 yards
Torry Holt: four targets, zero catches
Sacks: Jeff Zgonina, Charlie Clemons, Keith Lyle, Grant Wistrom/Ray Agnew
Interceptions: Grant Wistrom, Billy Jenkins
Returns: Tony Horne, two returns, 127 yards, 1 TD
Game Recap (LA Times):
“Warner Contained; Rams Aren’t”
Kurt Warner finally had one of those days when he wasn’t spectacular for the St. Louis Rams, and it didn’t bother him at all.
Warner didn’t have to do anything special Sunday as the Rams got a 101-yard kickoff return from Tony Horne and a 91-yard interception return from Grant Wistrom to remain the NFL’s only unbeaten team with a 41-13 rout of the Atlanta Falcons.
“They wanted to take away the pass and get guys up in our face,” Warner said. “We’re going to do whatever teams allow us to do, whether it’s running or passing the ball. We have all of the facets going right now.”
“Marshall did a great job, as did the guys opening the holes,” Warner said. “That’s what this team is all about and that’s why this team is 5-0.”
Coach Dick Vermeil had praise for the Ram defense too.
“I’ve said all along the defense is good, and they don’t get much credit because the offense has been so flashy,” he said. “The defense was the one that provided the momentum. I think we are becoming a complete football team.”
As Kevin Carter would also put it: “This team has been beating people in every phase of the game.”
As to Faulk’s 181-yard day, Dick Vermeil said that the running back told his teammates before the game: “Boys, I’m ready to take this one over.”
The Rams were now 5-0 for the first time since 1989 and 1985. In ‘89, they finished 11-5 and lost in the NFC Championship; that team followed a 5-0 start with a four-game losing streak. In ‘85, the Rams finished 11-5 and ran into the Chicago Bears, losing 24-0 in the NFC Championship. Was the ‘99 edition going to run into an all-time juggernaut or be an all-time juggernaut?
It certainly felt like the latter after another blowout win.
Not only was St. Louis the only 5-0 team in 1999, but through five games they were first in points scored and second in points allowed, giving up only 60 through those contests. Consider that the Rams scored three offensive touchdowns in Week 1 and five in Week 3, giving them eight through the first two games. The defense had only allowed five total touchdowns through five games, and a sixth score came on a fumble recovery. The offense got everyone’s attention, but the defense was as good as any in the league.
To this day, the ‘99 Rams +123 point differential through five games remains the best we’ve seen since the merger. The 2019 New England Patriots were +121 and didn’t even win a playoff game. The 2006 Bears were +120 and didn’t win the Super Bowl. The 2007 Patriots were +117 and didn’t win the Super Bowl. So this was just a start for St. Louis.
And maybe it was the best start ever.
Tony Horne wouldn’t return another kick for a touchdown during that regular season — but we will get back to him again. He had a 103-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in 2000 but was injured that season and the Rams traded Horne to the Kansas City Chiefs in 2001 where he was reunited with Dick Vermeil. The injury from before never got right and after efforts in Kansas City and the CFL, Horne never did play in the NFL again after 2000.
But he doesn’t sound like he has any regrets based on the fact that he will always be a part of something special.
When I hear people talk about, “The Greatest Show on Turf”, I can’t help but to smile because I’m going to always be in the book. I’m always going to be talked about in the “The Greatest Show on Turf”. That’s a point in my life as a child growing up, that was one of my dreams to play in the Super Bowl, and I actually played in the Super Bowl, and we won the Super Bowl. No matter what you think you can take away from me. No one can ever take away that I’m a Super Bowl champ. I’m a Super Bowl champ, for the rest of my life. I can bring it out, I can pull out my ring and, it’s a Super Bowl ring. The fact that I lived out my childhood dream, and I actually got a chance to go on and win it.
Horne also insisted in this interview — which happened in 2011 — that he was attempting a comeback and in talks with NFL teams. That did not happen and as of today, I do not know what Tony Horne does. I know what he did though and it was pretty special.
Up next: The expansion Cleveland Browns