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My remembrances of Super Bowls past include a priceless line uttered by the late, great Dick Schaap, an incomparable fellow who was among the very finest sports journalists of his time. It was at Soupey VIII, in January 1974, which was not a very good year if you didn’t play football.
The pre-game show at Houston’s Rice Stadium had just mercifully concluded on a soaring note of patriotism. Battalions of flag bearers were stomping down the field. Waiting in the wings were the F-14’s which were about to scream over the stadium in a burst of glory. To be awash in such giddy nationalism was to never suspect that the presidency was crumbling, the economy was a shambles, and we were still ensnared in an endless, crummy war. Meanwhile, the morale of the country -- the NFL aside -- was squarely in the pits.
Pondering it all with his usual urbanity, Schaap suddenly rose in the outdoor press section and in his best network voice boomed: “My dearest dream, my fellow Americans, is to one day have a nation worthy of the Super Bowl.” Then, with much gravity, he sat down and we all applauded. Whereupon some ditzy celeb picked for his or her purity -- as I recall, it was either Pat Boone or Anita Bryant -- belted out the anthem. And we all booed.
The nice thing about this annual circus back then was that we in the media had not yet lost our fine sense of the absurdity of the thing. Over the first X or XII of them, all the best and brightest in the dodge went every year with the covering of the game, which was invariably ordinary, being no more than incidental. We were there for the show, for the panoply, for the nonsense, for the monumental excess, for the exposing of the fools and frauds inevitably drawn to such a flame in this culture, for the exquisite lack of taste that has always attended said culture’s most boisterous festivals. And we were never, ever disappointed.
That 1974 frolic conjured arguably the dullest and most one-sided game in the event’s checkered history. Don Shula’s high-riding Dolphins -- about whom you have already heard too much this season -- utterly dominated Bud Grant’s honorable but hopelessly dull Vikings. Larry Csonka spent the entire afternoon pounding the Vikes with sledgehammer thrusts off tackle. Three yards and a patch of mud; again and again and again. On the field, it was a royal snoozer.
But off the field it was an all-time epic featuring in the zenith of Soupey madness the fabled Battle of the Blue Fox, starring Hunter S. Thompson, the late crown prince of gonzo journalism, in a barroom brawl with bikers. Soupey’s always did have a way of coaxing the best of his lunacy from the faintly deranged Thompson. They lit up his keen sense of the outrageous like a bonfire. Then at the height of his dubious powers he strove mightily to upstage the game that year and almost succeeded.
At halftime, we were snapped from our slumbers by the NFL’s cadre of stewards dispersing our meals. Back in those good old days, nothing aroused a press box like the arrival of the free lunch. As usual, it was dandy. Pete Rozelle, a public relations genius, devoutly believed sports writers could never be bought with money but would always roll over for a fancy free meal. His seductions on this occasion included steak tips and crabmeat soufflé and lobster tails and choice desserts.
But Thompson was unimpressed. He began flinging stuff hither and yon and finally, after emptying all the contents of his fancy lunchbox in the aisle, jumped up and demanded, in a Pavarottian bellow that could be heard 20 sections away, “Where’s the acid?” The NFL’s security cops, swarming like so many KGB, were furious. Rozelle’s chief flack, a typically joyless football bureaucrat, wanted him kicked out of the park. But he backed off sensing that if he tried, Hunter’s media pals might have dropped him off the back wall of the stadium.
Peace restored, everyone dined elegantly. The game ground on drearily. And Thompson, presumably, found his ‘‘acid,’’ elsewhere. The next morning, the entire region was blanketed in an impenetrable fog that might have rolled off the Thames. It produced chaos at the airport with tens of thousands of football freaks and media wretches storming the gates. I had the mixed pleasure of hanging out through the crisis with Joe DiMaggio who had spent the entire week huckstering for Mr. Coffee. Not surprisingly, Jolting Joe was grouchier than usual.
In the end, of course, Rozelle won. He devoutly believed this was no mere game. He preached that bigger and bigger is always better and better and that everything was defined by the bottom line. He succeeded in selling the spurious notion that next to the military-industrial complex no institution was dearer to American capitalism’s competitive heart than the National Football League. He handed the keys to the kingdom to network television and watched with glee as the fools bid the rights into the billions of bucks. That this necessarily turned the game’s signature event into a bonanza for hucksters concerned him not a whit. Nor did he fret when the Fortune 500 high-rollers took over, swiftly chasing away ordinary people, save for the meatballs willing to pay three grand to a scalper to sit on the two yard line.
Pete Rozelle, you see, was an American prophet. He was to the modern evolution and proliferation of professional sports what St. Paul was to the growth and spread of Christianity. Take a bow, Pete, wherever you are.
Here’s a bulletin that should stop the presses. A lot has changed since 1974 and along the way, we of the media have changed a lot too. Rebels, nay-sayers, characters and cut-up’s are dying breeds. Clowns like Thompson have long ago been run off.
The stakes are higher, the games more serious, and the fans much fiercer in their loyalties. Don’t get caught doubting the honor of the home team. The wise guys are on the field, not in the press box. And don’t get caught suggesting it ain’t rocket science. Ivy leaguers rise in the ranks of management and don’t cotton to being taken lightly, let alone ripped. Iconoclasts are suspect. Conventional wisdom rules. Buck it too strenuously and you may find yourself running alone.
To those of us who arrived back in the ’60s -- a mostly dead breed -- such joyless conformity seems odd. But then we had a helluva time while all I hear from the modern breed is that it’s not much fun anymore. All work and no play, they say. When covering sports becomes an ordeal you need to get out, I say.
While this is written several days before the transcendental moment, XLI years of Soupey history tells us precisely what to expect and that is a whole lot of folderol. Good stories are out there, like the shameless selling of the event to big business and the petty ripping off of the event by countless little businesses. Television’s increasingly perverse and shabby role needs to be examined. Then there’s the scandal of rampant ticket scalping. With a week to go, tickets on the Internet are going for seven grand. Isn’t scalping in most civilized places, still a crime? Good stories. But don’t look for much action on them.
The cheerleaders of the New England media delegation will be much too busy rooting for the home-boys so that they can proclaim them “the greatest team that ever lived,” a totally untenable thesis that can’t be proven and is ultimately irrelevant. And then, of course, there is the dear quarterback’s high ankle sprain to worry about, and many will. One trusts he’s getting a boot out of the game he’s playing, whatever it may be.
The world should little note nor long remember any of it. But the game itself, could be mighty interesting. Times have changed. You read it here first.