Twenty years ago Thursday, a very big man produced a very big play to help the Bears clinch their final NFC Central Division championship.
Facing the Jaguars in the 2001 season finale at Soldier Field, Bears defensive tackle Keith Traylor intercepted a Mark Brunell pass and rumbled 67 yards before being dragged down at the Jacksonville 9. The memorable play early in the second half set up Jim Miller's 9-yard touchdown pass to David Terrell, giving the Bears a comfortable 20-0 lead en route to a 33-13 victory.
After the game, jubilant Bears players laughed as they recalled watching Traylor lumber down the field as if he were carrying a piano on his back.
"Was there a sundial to time how long it took for him to get down there?" asked Miller.
"He did a great job of running in slow motion and stumbling and bumbling down there and giving us a chance to put points on the board," said receiver Marty Booker.
"That was hilarious for me," added linebacker Rosevelt Colvin. "He looked like he was going to pass out on the 10-yard line … and just shut it down. But that was a tremendous play by Keith to come up with that interception."
Overshadowed by the highly entertaining return was the interception itself. Traylor diagnosed a screen, drifted to his left, tipped Brunell's pass with one hand and caught it with the other. Surrounded by offensive linemen, he somehow eluded the crowd and found some running room.
"I was surprised because there were a lot of people around me," Traylor said. "When the ball landed in my hands, there were two or three people there. But once I got going, I did the best I could. I was looking for somebody to pitch it to, but nobody showed up."
Bears defensive backs Mike Brown and Jerry Azumah were a few yards behind Traylor and gladly would have taken the ball from their teammate.
"We were screaming for him to pitch it, but he just didn't see us," Brown said. "Jerry was on his right and I was coming up on his left."
During the return—which seemed to last an eternity—famed play-by-play broadcaster Dick Enberg exclaimed: "Look at him rumble … watch out, the earth is shaking!" Color analyst Dan Dierdorf added after the play: "Chicago already has a 'Refrigerator;' maybe they've got room for an ice-maker."
As Traylor lumbered downfield, Bears coach Dick Jauron was concerned that the 300-plus-pounder would aggravate a hamstring injury that nearly prevented him from playing in the game.
"I thought it was a great play to catch it, and then when he started running I started worrying about his hamstring, which he hurt in pregame," Jauron said. "He twinged his hamstring, so I was very concerned that he'd play at all. I was actually on the sideline telling him to get down. I'm glad he didn't; I'm glad he kept going."
It was the second and final interception of Traylor's 17-year NFL career. Having entered the league as a linebacker with the Broncos in 1991, he had returned his first pick 62 yards for a touchdown in 1997—when he was much more svelte.
"I got in the end zone last time; I was 25 pounds lighter," Traylor said with a laugh.
As you'd expect, Traylor's interception return was featured on scores of national highlight shows, frequently accompanied by an interview in which he detailed how he picked off the pass, looked in vain for a teammate to lateral to and then ran out of gas.
"I've seen the replay a lot and I love the replay," Jauron said the day after the game. "But I really like the interview better. I thought the replay and the interview together were really phenomenal."