One minute you are running to a Super Bowl MVP, then that oddly-shaped ball squirts from your grip and you are responsible for the biggest turnover in the sport’s most important game. That is what happened to Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall on Sunday night.

Football is a nasty game.


Not only because of the bone-crushing hits or bad weather games are often played in, but the fine line between unforgettable hero to memorable goat.


One minute you are running to a Super Bowl MVP, then that oddly-shaped ball squirts from your grip and you are responsible for the biggest turnover in the sport’s most important game.


That is what happened to Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall on Sunday night.


Mendenhall rushed for 63 yards and a touchdown on 14 carries - a very respectable 4.5 yards per carry - but that is not what anybody will remember about his Super Bowl XLV performance.


When you mention Mendenhall’s name regarding this year’s Super Bowl, the only word anybody will want to talk about is “fumble.”


It may not be completely fair, but Mendenhall sunk any momentum the Steelers had compiled while trying to rally from an 18-point first-half deficit. Mendenhall was one of the catalysts in the Steelers’ comeback, then became one of the biggest reasons why they lost.


Near midfield as Pittsburgh is driving for what could be the go-ahead touchdown, Green Bay linebacker Clay Matthews knocked the ball out of Mendenhall’s hands, and Desmond Bishop recovered for the Packers.


Aaron Rodgers’ eight-yard touchdown pass to Greg Jennings less than three minutes later gave Green Bay an 11-point lead, and the Steelers fell short in a bid for the franchise’s seventh Super Bowl title.


“We did it to ourselves,” said a dejected Mendenhall, who rushed for a career-best 1,273 and 13 touchdowns this season. “We didn’t play well enough to win, and it is a long ride home.”


Mendenhall is not alone in wearing the goat horns for the Steelers.


Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger had a poor first half, throwing two interceptions, and he could not dig the Steelers out of a huge hole like he has done so many times in the past. The Steelers’ vaunted defense allowed the fewest points in the league this season, but got torched by Rodgers for 304 yards passing and 31 points.


“Those guys made plays, and that is the bottom line,” said Steelers linebacker James Farrior.


Pittsburgh turned the ball over three times, but also did not force any either. Opportunistic safety Troy Polamalu, the 2010 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, made an impact, and 2008’s Defensive Player of the Year, James Harrison, had little effect outside of one sack.


“When you spread out the offense the way they do, you’re able to put somebody on one side of the field and just work on the opposite side of the field,” said Polamalu, who had a team-best seven interceptions despite missing two games for a defense that forced 46 turnovers during the regular season.


Still, despite an uneven game from Roethlisberger and the defense being picked apart by Rodgers, the Steelers were in prime position to take the lead in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl until Mendenhall’s gaffe.


“You want to grow from every experience and just move on from here,” Mendenhall said.


Mendenhall is certainly not the only person to blame for the Steelers’ loss, but his roller-coaster night shows how quickly things can change for a player. If Pittsburgh had won, Mendenhall would have received serious MVP consideration, but he ended up making the most critical mistake in a game the Steelers erred plenty.


“It was a good year, but this is not the way you want to finish it,” said Mendenhall.


Paul A. Jannace writes for the Wellsville (N.Y.) Daily Reporter.