I once watched a grown man dive face-first into a steaming pile of horse manure to win Super Bowl tickets. It was not a cute little bag of reconstituted farm-grade fertilizer. Oh no. This was a 4-foot deep pile of rank, foul-smelling horse poop. And knowing that his golden ticket to the biggest sporting event of the year lay at the bottom of that mountain, the guy bored in happily, grinning from ear to ear (big mistake) only to emerge moments later screaming for joy.
Watching this, I knew no better metaphor existed to explain the hype and hysteria of the Super Bowl, an event that somehow inspires all of us to engage in extreme acts of voluntary degradation.
Since then, at each subsequent Super Bowl there always has been a Super Bowl Moment when I go, "Yep, OK, well, I guess I'm at the Super Bowl." Something always happens, trust me. If it's not a crap avalanche, it's Eugene Robinson winning an award for his depth of character, my annual Joe Piscopo sighting or waking up the morning after my first Playboy Party to find only two words -- Mars Rover -- in my notebook. (I still have no idea what that meant.)
|Note From Flem|
I received more than a hundred e-mail responses to last week's column, an excerpt from my book "Noah's Rainbow: A Father's Emotional Journey from the Death of his Son to the Birth of his Daughter."
Having written the book in what at times felt like an emotional vacuum, it's hard for me to express just how blown away I was by all your thoughtful responses and all the dads who fought back tears at work while typing up and sharing their own experiences. Because of the intensely personal nature of most of the e-mails I received, I'm not going to rerun any of them here, but I did want to make a point of saying thank you to everyone who wrote in, because your responses gave meaning to the book and, thus, to my own suffering. I will reply to everyone who wrote in -- no matter how long it takes. Thanks again, Flem.
This time around, even though I've only been back home in Detroit for 12 hours, I already have several nominees for this year's Super Bowl Moment. After watching and listening to a row of sports radio dudes directly behind us on the plane north, about halfway through the flight to Detroit, my 4-year-old daughter turned to my wife and asked, "Hey, mommy, how many beers is that guy going to drink?"
As many as he can, honey, I replied, it's the Super Bowl.
My wife took our kids to my dad's house and, as I drove from the airport into the city, I was flooded by potential SBMs. For starters, only in Detroit can you jump into your rental car, turn on the radio and hear David Lee Roth singing "Yankee Rose." I saw a billboard for Shady Records welcoming people to the city. Then there was an exit sign for Trumbull, where, some two decades ago, my older brother Bill (who is now an FBI agent) and I celebrated after the Tigers won the World Series.
That long-ago night, before things got out of hand and we were nearly trapped between a burning car and a row of cops on horseback, I had run into the stadium and stuffed a chunk of the outfield turf into my pants pocket as a keepsake.
It was only as I passed under that sign Tuesday night that I realized that hunk of grass is still growing under the oak tree in the backyard of the house I grew up in, in a suburb northeast of downtown. And even though I've been away for 20 years, the closer I got to downtown last night, the more I realized that -- just like the Tiger Stadium grass -- a part of me is still planted here in my hometown.
Listen, before I lose you in my own crap pile of nostalgia, I know I'm here to cover the Super Bowl. And yeah, I'm interested in all the story lines.
Like, is Matt Hasselbeck going to get burned by the Steelers' Fire Dog zone blitz? (And did you know that while formulating that scheme years ago at training camp, Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau used to throw it out every night and fish the plans out of the trash the next morning?)
Like, can offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt continue to transform Bill Cowher from a guy who was outcoached by simpleton Barry Switzer in his last visit to this game into a Hall of Fame coach? (And, by the way, is it me or will these two guys have morphed into the same person by the end of the week? I mean, look at them, they're like those old couples that start looking exactly like each other, right down to the cheesy mustache.)
Like, am I the only person alive who thinks Pittsburgh back Willie Parker is a far more compelling story and eye-popping talent than what's his name, that really nice, media-friendly butterball running back who grew up in Detroit but hasn't been a factor in the Steelers' offense for years? Willie Parker, you know, the kid who was so fast he used to race pit bulls growing up in Clinton, N.C.? Willie Parker, the guy Cowher says brought the team something it'd never had: "Speed." Willie Parker, the guy who wasn't good enough to start in Chapel Hill but somehow gained 1,202 yards for the Steelers? Willie Parker, the guy who, but for the grace of the football gods, would be working 9 to 5 right now if Steelers scout Dan Rooney hadn't settled in nearby Gastonia, N.C., and become a fan of his when he led the Clinton High -- get this -- Dark Horses to the state title with an 11.8-yards-per-carry average?
But on Wednesday of Super Bowl week, the game's a long way off. So it was kinda cool for me to land in Detroit and see the huge bold-print banner "WELCOME, WORLD" spread across the front of the Free Press, a paper I used to deliver before school when, on freezing cold mornings like this one, I'd warm my hands in the still hot-off-the-presses stacks of papers.
I drove down the Lodge Freeway, past the exit we used to take to go to Olympia Stadium. The old red barn of the Red Wings was torn down a long time ago, but when I was a kid (geez, did I just write that? whadda geezer) they never chained the doors shut very well and you could slip in and run around inside pretending to be Gordie Howe lifting the Stanley Cup.
I drove under the enclosed crosswalk that connects the parking garage to Joe Louis Arena -- the spot where I once got mugged before a Prince concert. (Something that's far more embarrassing to me than to the city of Detroit.)
And then I drove onto Jefferson Avenue, home to the giant, proud, sculpted fist of Joe Louis (which, in turn reminds me of Tommy "The Hit Man" Hearns and, for me, the golden age of boxing) and straight down the street from my church. The one that had to shut down once a year because of the noise from the Detroit Grand Prix course that ran just a few feet away from the front door.
A few blocks down is the Detroit River: home of the spectacular, beer-soaked summer ritual known as the hydroplane races. Here's what I remember about these "sporting events": warm Stroh's beer that smelled like dog food and a mutant, wicked sore throat that developed every time I jumped into the Detroit River to cool off between races. (That river, yikes, it was so thick with pollution at the time that it felt like you were cannonballing into a bowl of oatmeal.)
See, here's the thing: I'm not trying to pretend that Detroit is perfect. It's not. Far from it. Pollution. Poverty. Education. Racial tensions. Unemployment. The Lions. In other words, it has the same problems as any other city that's big enough to host a Super Bowl. Yet the vibe I'm getting so far is that no one here is trying to hide any of that, to pretend that it doesn't exist or that one bloated game and one giant infusion of cash, garbage and Steelers fans will turn things around. Perhaps, then, the Super Bowl serves an even higher purpose in a city like Detroit because it offers a chance, a start, a glimmer of hope and promise for -- yet another -- turnaround here.
Listen folks, sportswriters are gonna complain about Detroit. Many of us haven't stopped complaining about the last Super Bowl in Detroit. Like I said a year ago in Jacksonville, we will be staying in the nicest hotels, shuttled to the front door of every party, given a sweet seat to the game, force-fed by luxurious, never-ending buffets, and stuffed with quotes, notes and anecdotes until we burst. And by Friday, after we've finished unwrapping all the free hats, T-shirts and key chains we can stuff into our computer bags, we'll all be screaming about what a nightmare it has been here in Detroit.
Why? Because it's easy. And we're a group of people so lazy that, at any given moment, half of us are sporting sweatpants and B.O. because, well, a belt and a shower are too much work.
So as Super Bowl week in my hometown kicks into high gear, I have but one simple request. Detroit, don't make the same mistake as Jacksonville or Houston or San Diego: Don't spend your week in the world's spotlight holding your breath and whimpering like Sally Field -- "Do they like me, do they reaaaaallly like me?"
What I'm trying to say is, you're Detroit, damn it, home of Joe Louis, Tommy Hearns, Gordie Howe, Kid Rock, WRIF and the toughest, most loyal fans in the NFL -- now start acting like it. Will there be screwups? Yep. Will there be traffic and snow and crime? Yep. Will there be complaints about the NFL Experience? There'd better not be because my mom is working as a volunteer there. But either way, your answer to the pear-shaped spoiled babies who complain about Detroit should be: Get over it. (Two-fisted Eminem salute optional.)
Do the best you can. Know that even five disastrous days cannot erase the 50-year legacy of a phenomenal sports town. Have fun. Keep your 'tude. And know that, as with the Seahawks, people are (wrongly) expecting so little out of you that you can't do anything but exceed expectations.
That has certainly been the case so far. Every volunteer I've spoken to has been polite and informed; every venue I've seen has been spotless, organized and right on schedule. Maybe I just have a soft spot for this city. (Of course I do.) But so far this trip has been nothing but one Super Bowl Moment after another for me.
Upon checking into my hotel, just ahead of former Seahawk Franco Harris (yinz keep your e-mails to yinzelfs) -- see that's the Super Bowl right there, turn around in the elevator and you bump into half a dozen former greats and semi-celebs -- there was a reminder waiting for me that I had been invited to the Jenna Jameson Super Bowl party and that, if I needed to, I could set up interviews with some of the "actors."
I stopped for a second, wrote down the words Mars and Rover and had a good chuckle, then it hit me: Yep, OK, well, I guess I'm at the Detroit Super Bowl.
And let me tell you something, man, so far it really stinks.
David Fleming is a senior writer at ESPN The Magazine. His book, "Noah's Rainbow: A Father's Emotional Journey from the Death of his Son to the Birth of his Daughter," can be ordered through Baywood Publishing or Amazon.com. Contact him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.