By David Fleming
Page 2

The ride was as smooth as can be, but something still didn't feel right. Just before the season started I was cruising down Charlotte's outer belt in Steve Smith's new Porsche Cayenne when the game's most explosive wideout started humming a familiar tune. In my mind I was thinking, "What is that? Tupac? FiddyCent? Terror Squad?"

Smith kept singing, looking straight ahead, watching the road.

No. Wait. Is that? Can't be.

Kenny Rogers?

What the?

"You gotta know when to hold 'em (whentoholdem) ... know when to fold 'em (whentofoldem)," Smith sang, a rare smile leaking across his face. "Know when to walk away and know when to run ..."

I couldn't take any more. Not of Smith's singing. Kenny Rogers.

"Dude?" I asked him. "Kenny Rogers? What's up with that?"

I had already made a pact with myself that if he started in on "Islands in the Stream" I would eject myself onto the shoulder of the freeway.

"My new motto," Smith replied with a straight face. "Man you should've seen the look on the kid's face at Circuit City when I walked in there and asked for that album."

This was the first of many times, while researching a feature story for The Magazine, that I would discover a whole side to the supposed "problem child" who few people actually took the time to learn about.

During our drive, when it looked like a little kid might sprint out into the street, I watched as Smith prepared to steer his new gold Porsche into a tree without the slightest hesitation. I also learned that the guy from South Central now coaches his son's pee-wee soccer team. But what sold me was that in the basement of his home, Smith's game balls from the Panthers' Super Bowl run were crammed into a bottom shelf so that Peyton could have the top spot inside the trophy case to display his soccer hardware.

Smith was the breakout star of last year's playoffs. Reebok reps were hounding him at the Super Bowl to make sure he wore nothing but their brand. The Panthers then signed him to a $27.5 million contract. He was beginning to find some balance and peace in his life. He was head-shaking good in camp -- screaming, as only he can, that he was getting cornerbacks cut every day of practice.

Steve Smith
When Steve Smith was carried off the field, the Panthers were in deep trouble.

Life was good. The Gambler was on a roll. Nothing but aces.

So, of course, in the season opener Smith gets his leg snapped like a dry twig. He's likely out for the season. The baddest pass catcher in the game, reduced to riding around on one of those granny scooters.

It's a little hard to "blow up" at a maximum speed of 5.25 mph and a battle cry of "meeep-meeep."

Not too long after Smith got hurt, fans began seeping out of Bank of America stadium like butter through grits. At that point it was official: Charlotte could go ahead and splash down a fistful of Tylenol with some Gatorade and let its official Super Bowl Hangover commence.

I'd like to hold Kenny Rogers personally responsible and begin a global boycott of his music -- but, alas, the truth is the Super Bowl Hangover is a common occurrence in today's game. The Falcons followed up their Super Bowl loss with a 5-11 season. The Giants and the Rams went 7-9 after losing the big one, while Oakland managed just four W's in 2003.

Carolina is now 1-3 and staring at 4-0 Philly, which has had a week off to prepare for a rematch the team and town has been salivating over (more so than usual) since the NFC title game. Gulp.

(Before we go any further, some of you might be wondering if this entire concept isn't just a blatant rip-off of Brian Murphy's phenomenal, untouchable, grotesquely popular "Hangover" column. Perhaps. All I can say is I once saved Murph's life at a Denny's in pre-dawn San Diego so the dude owes me. Big time.)

You see, parity in the NFL has gotten to the point that each year at least one of the Super Bowl contestants will be a team that stayed healthy, got on a roll and rode an emotional tsunami all the way to fantasy island. Last year that was the Panthers, a team that won eight games on their final possession and 10 by a touchdown or less. Finally, the Black Cats and their seemingly cursed sports city had a run of good guys playing great football with a fantastic amount of luck which seemed to expire the minute John Kasay muffed his final kickoff in Houston.

Panthers fans should try to look at the this year's SBH like this: it shouldn't detract in any way from last season's glory. In fact, it should only help to remind you just how miraculous that run was.

Players who have been there say that, because of the intensity of the playoffs, those extra four games feel more like eight. Now, imagine if after all that, you ended up losing. I mean, the winners get immortality, a big payday, a parade and rings the size of a Cooper. The losers get, uh, all the shampoo samples they can carry from the team hotel.

Even before Smith's injury, when I met with Carolina's terrific GM Marty Hurney, he was already worried about depth on his offensive line after guard Bruce Nelson hurt his hip. Two days later, as if to foreshadow the impending mud slide, right tackle Adam Meadows retired and fellow linemen Matt Willig and Tuten Reyes were both injured on the same day of camp.

That was just the beginning.

Deep breath everybody ...

Pro Bowl running back Stephen Davis then needed surgery on his knee ... linebacker Mark Fields went out with back spasms ... special teams ace and No. 3 running back Rod Smart also mangled his knee ... in Denver, DeShaun Foster broke his clavicle ... "We are very thin [at RB]," admitted coach John Fox ... Thin? Very Thin? The team's next option -- fullback Brad Hoover -- is a good dude and a hard worker but I think he once lost a race with kudzu ... defensive tackle Brentson Buckner was then declared inactive with a knee injury and DT Kris Jenkins continues to be hampered by a bum shoulder ... this, in turn, allowed someone named Reuben Droughns (which, to me, sounds like a new sandwich dipping sauce from McDonald's) to snarf up 193 yards against Carolina's now 31st-ranked run defense ... "Very shoddy," said Fox ... Suddenly a team that lunch-paled it's way to the Super Bowl by running the ball and stopping the run could do neither ... This is how bad it's gotten in Carolina: DE Julius Peppers intercepted a pass and returned it a Panthers' record 101 yards but SOMEHOW DIDN'T SCORE ON THE PLAY ... Oh, and Matt Willig was injury-free for the game, or, at least healthy enough to chuck a ref's flag and draw an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that pushed the Panthers out of range for a tying field goal ... "A bonehead play," said Fox.

Kenny Rogers
You know you wanted to see good ol' Kenny, didn't you?

Thin. Shoddy. And boneheaded. Yeah, that about sums up the SBH.

Heading into Philly the Panthers are looking at Joey Harris as their starting running back. He's an undrafted rookie from Purdue who, thus far, has been holding dummies as a member of the team's practice squad.

You thought the post Super Bowl Raiders turning into the Graiders was hard to watch?

In Charlotte, this isn't a Super Bowl Hangover, this is a pass out in a mud-puddle on your 21st birthday, and then you have to be up at 6 a.m. to help your buddy babysit his 12 screaming cousins where the only thing to eat is a nice greasy pork sandwich served in a dirty ashtray.

"I don't think there's any quit in our football team, regardless of the circumstances," said Fox, who may actually be doing a better coaching job keeping this 1-3 team from imploding than he did during last year's Super Bowl run. "We've still got three quarters of the season left and whether there is injuries or not, nobody is going to come rescue us, so we've got to bow up and compete."

The Panthers can try more aspirin. Sometimes exercise helps. And maybe switch from Gatorade to Red Bull. They could turn it around, sure. But with this kind of SBH, there's little chance of these gamblers ever breaking even.

This makes me think Smith was awfully prescient that day in the car when he sang what amounts to the theme song to the Panthers' Super Bowl Hangover.

"Know when to walk away," he sang, "and know when to ... ruuuun."

Or, in the Panthers' case, limp.

FLEM GEMS -- NFL WEEK 5
30-SECOND COLUMN
Recently, when asked an emotionally charged question about his dead father, Dale Earnhardt Jr. responded with a straightforward, honest answer that just happened to include a pretty tame curse word. Predictably, NASCAR fined him 25 points for the remark, just enough to drop him out of first place and stir up enough controversy so that people would actually continue to talk about professional left-turnin' for one more week. I believe at the same time the NASCAR disciplinarians also announced that if Tony Stewart does just one more naughty thing -- just one more -- then he might have to face super-duper-gazilla-willa-extra-double-secret-probation. But what really struck me as odd with this latest hubcap hubbub, was that not too long ago Junior was docked the same amount of points for purposefully spinning his car out during a race and, one would assume, putting himself and other drivers at risk. In a field where drivers die with an almost barbaric regularity, with this latest potty mouth fine NASCAR has once again suggested that it values speed and sponsors far more than safety.
FLEM FILE FIVE
Top five things that should ease Charlotte's Super Bowl Hangover:

5.) UNC Charlotte 49ers' basketball

4.) Charlotte Checkers minor-league hockey

3.) Plans for my mid-day sports radio show down here fell through

2.) The proud memory of running (W)Hornets ownership out of town

1.) The Bobcats and their owner, BET founder Bob Johnson

T-FLEM FILE
By the time Tennessee rookie fullback Troy Fleming got to the team bus after the Titans destroyed Green Bay at Lambeau Field on Monday Night Football, he already had 60 messages waiting for him on his phone. And while checking those, 10 more people called to leave congratulations on his big night. The entire night, in fact, kicked off with Al Michaels announcing to the world, "Here's Fleming ... to return the kick." I mean, how long have we all waited to hear that one?

Fleming started the game getting flipped in the air on his way to a first down. Then he perfectly sealed off GB linebacker Nick Barnett to spring Chris Brown's second TD. And finally, T-Flem got into the act himself, catching a short out route from Steve McNair at the 14, then beating the linebacker to the corner before diving -- a la Bobby Orr -- into the end zone for his first pro TD. "Once I got to the corner I just told myself, 'I'm not going to be denied,'" says Troy, who also averaged 20.7 yards on three kickoff returns. "After that the only thing I was worried about was whether my arm was long enough to reach the end zone." It was. And the whole thing was captured brilliantly in Tuesday's Tennessean by photog Sanford Myers under the headline: Fleming gets first score for Titans.

The first time he walked out onto Lambeau Field T-Flem was "in awe" trying to handle two milestones at once: MNF and the evaporating Lambeau mystique. "And guys told me the game would be 10 times more intense than anything I'd ever seen," he says. "The whole night was just sort of overwhelming."

Hanging out on the field before the game, Troy and fellow rooks TE Ben Troupe and T Jacob Bell from FOOTBALL POWERHOUSE Miami of Ohio (the very same Lil' RedHawks who destroyed Kent 47-27 last week) noticed that the network was testing their skycam by following them everywhere they went. So Troy huddled up the guys and told them, "On the count of three you go east, you go south and I'll go west and we'll see what happens." The camera froze. The rooks chuckled.

With Skycam disabled and his rookie nerves gone, T-Flem showed the same kind of power and deceptive speed that made him -- a reader reports and T confirms -- the nation's second-leading all-time high school rusher. "I give all the credit to this column," I told him. T-Flem just chuckled, distracted. Time to check the voicemail again.

WHYLO
Before the vitriol -- just be patient, we'll get to it -- an update from, uh, down under on the Cup Column. Neil writes (from Australia), "Your column on wearing a cup probably should have been read by more athletes, especially those down under. On Sunday night in Australia the NRL (National Rugby League) Grand Final (U.S. equivalent: Super Bowl) was played between the Sydney Roosters and the Canterbury Bulldogs with the Bulldogs winning 16-13. The Roosters' Chris Flannery had surgery for a ruptured testicle on the Tuesday, sustained in the playoff the previous Sunday. Despite being unable to walk until Friday, Flannery played wearing a cup. On his first run in the game he was catapulted off his feet and spun 360 degrees by Canterbury's Sonny-Bill Williams in a massive tackle. Despite this Flannery played on and was outstanding in attack."

Proving once again -- the hate mail is coming, OK, reeeelax -- that I am a sucker for third-person nickname references back to myself, Big Joe writes, "Can you give some love to the Razorbacks in next week's column?  Just a line or two would be greatly appreciated. So, come on, Flem-Man, Flem-o-matica, Flem-all mighty, Show some love to the HOGS." Adding to that theory is Mitchell, who writes, simply, "Long live the Flem Docter."

The dudes from Arizona -- will you calm down, if you can't wait for the electronic garbage, SCROLL DOWN ALREADY -- called the Flem Squad are still pitching their man, TE Steve Fleming, as the FlemFile mascot. Believing I am a big enough narcissist to pull it off, they are sending me a Flem Squad T-shirt.

With this next e-mail my answer is 'Not really' but Chris writes anyway, "I would rather have someone do a horrible celebration than none at all, just like I would rather have sex with an ugly girl rather than none at all. Get it?"

Jordan writes, "When are you ever going to write something of significance?  Nobody cares about your lame opinions. Idiot."

Getting at the root of most of these missives, John from Philly says, "If you don't like the celebrations, keep it to yourself -- if I didn't have an inordinate amount of time on my hands today I wouldn't even bother writing this, but hopefully you have the decency to at least respond with your thoughts, or maybe 'bite me.'"

Josh, my Canadian buddy, has a better solution: "I feel like a loner ... your only fan amongst a group of morons, dirtbags, and haters. I find your opinions to be a breath of fresh air in the otherwise stagnant world of sports writing. You're like a cure for hay fever, I can finally breathe! Compared to everyone else you're Zeus man ... or Caesar ... or even Bono. So yet again I have come up with a saying that all your loyal (and not so appreciative readers) can live by ... ready ... here it is: "WWFD: What Would Flem Do?" In fact, now that I've discovered the guidance of your column I ask myself that question everyday."

Forgetting for a moment the major ingredient in bread is flour, Kent rages, "I guess the pressure of weekly deadline really got to you. I am of course speaking about your Flava Flav "Fight the Flour" comment. This might have been funny if flour had anything to do with grilled cheese sandwiches, but it doesn't. The only connection I can find is that one would cook a grilled cheese sandwich in the kitchen, and that is also the most likely place to find flour. If you can't do better than that, you would have been better off just leaving that comment out."

Kevin raises writa-hatin' to an art form, saying, "Despite my bitter hatred of your column, and you, I continue to skim over it each week. I guess its like looking at the toilet paper after (going to the bathroom) ... something you don't want to do, but it just always happens. Let me be the first and certainly not the last to say, I want to tailgate at your funeral. I am heading out to buy a foam finger and a twelve pack ... I hope others will join me in pre-celebrating what will be mankind's greatest day."

I get one of these a week. This one is from Sean: "I remember a lefty pitcher for the Mariners who went by the same name. Is that you?" (Flem note: despite the fact that this guy looks like Jim Belushi, the answer is NO! And, please stop sending me his card. I have 457 of them now.)

Josh then becomes the first WHYLO candidate to start his letter with the phrase "great column." He then adds, "The only item that I saw missing from the "Top five worst sports celebrations" list was the Mark Madsen celebratory dance when Madsen reinvented the Cabbage Patch. Please don't count this off your list. These things should not only be pointed out, but ridiculed in sports columns thereafter."

Well, I know a little something about ridiculing things in a sports column. Particularly when people write in to complain about the omission of items that ACTUALLY APPEARED IN THE COLUMN! Come on people, pay attention, just a little. And I repeat: "No. 3, TIE: Post-victory dancing by Mark Madsen and the Pats' Bob Kraft."

I'm sorry Josh, I gotta do it.

Gently everyone: Josh, Who Helped You Log On?

THIS COLUMN WRITTEN WHILE LISTENING TO: Kenny Rogers. Kidding. KIDDING. Juuuust kidding. The Clash's "London Calling."

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. Contact him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.




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