By David Fleming
Page 2

The biggest challenge with a Wednesday follow-up column to what has already been universally recognized as a pretty weak Super Bowl is that normally there are very few, what we like to call in the industry, "fresh" anecdotes to draw upon. And then I remembered Deanna.

Miss Deanna Brooks, Playboy Playmate of May 1998, to be exact. A 107-pound "free-spirited, seemingly shy but secretly confident" aspiring sports anchor who hates hairy backs but loves being touched on the lower back, along with well-planned romantic evenings.

You and I, we may never speak of Super Bowl X-tremely L-ame again. But Deanna? I'll be bragging to my buddies in the nursing home about Deanna.

While chatting before this year's superb Playboy Party, Deanna, a former banker -- swear to God -- from Dayton, Ohio, and a devout Cincinnati Bengals fan still upset over Kimo's KO of her boy Carson, confided that sometimes, on promotional trips for Playboy, she likes to get in her PJs, jump into her hotel bed with some of the other bunnies and talk NFL for half the night. "The last time we did this," says Deanna, "I turned to one of my friends and said, 'This is like a commercial for the NFL.'"

Now, at this point most normal dudes would have lost their cool. But I just stared back coolly at her and replied: "Haarmmmphhglobbinzoid."

Maybe it was the skintight, unzipped, blue-velvet jumpsuit that Deanna and the other bunnies were wearing. Maybe it was how effortlessly Playboy transformed a giant dumpy hangar at the Detroit City Airport into the 8-Mile High Club, in a way that made all other Super Bowl parties look, well, skanky by comparison. Maybe it was the sushi, the celebs, the ubiquitous, sublime buttocks of the go-go girls, the mega Playboy freebies (merchandise, you sickos), and DJ Sky, who, judging by her music selection, must have been sitting next to me in my high school homeroom. Or maybe it was the fact that on top of the dessert buffet, above the lemon tarts and chocolate-covered strawberries, sat two women wearing nothing but paint.

Come to think of it, it might have been the fact that earlier in the day I had received word that my alma mater, my very own lil' fighting RedHawks of Miami (Ohio) University, had just been elevated to No. 1 in the national collegiate hockey polls. Maybe it was the fact that, although I am absolutely biased, I think my hometown of Detroit has now set the standard for hosting cold-weather Super Bowls. Or maybe it was the fact that the night before I had spent time sipping vodka drinks and talking music with Piper, the MC of Flipsyde, the wicked, progressive, multicultural, break-the-mold band that just nuked ESPN's Next party on Friday night.

Whatever it was, before arriving back at my hotel room around 4:35 a.m. the day of the game, I had already guaranteed myself a successful Super Bowl experience independent of the play on the field.

Good thing. Because I've been to 10 of these suckers now and I can't remember a single one where at the end of the game I walked away thinking, "Man, the NFL's got problems."

I don't really want to spend too much time on the game itself. You saw it. It was sloppy and uninspired, to say the least. Let me put it this way: It was not the kind of game Playboy bunnies stay up late at night talking about in their hotel rooms. And for that I shall never forgive the NFL, the Steelers, the Seahawks or the refs.

I mean, Big Ben looked like he was throwing left-handed. The Bus' best run came during introductions. I still think an investigation should be launched to see who was actually playing in the uniforms normally assigned to Troy Polamalu and Joey Porter.

"We played bend but don't break most of the game," says nose tackle Casey Hampton, "even though we aren't a bend but don't break defense."

And please don't even get me started on the Seahawks. The dropped balls. The super soft I'm-just-blessed-to-be-here play. The poor clock management. The truth is the refs were the least of their problems. Yet I don't disagree with their protests against the officiating.

One thing's for certain after Super Bowl X-tremely L-ame: The NFL has a serious problem on its hands. (No, not the lack of a new CBA. No, not the annual spring festival of off-the-field lawlessness that infects every offseason. No, not the backlash against parity. No, not the laughable record of hiring minority coaches.)

I'm talking about when the league's best crew misses, by my count, seven crucial calls in the biggest game of the year. And here's the most disturbing aspect: The refs are now clearly handicapping calls knowing they have replay to fall back on. Case in point: On Roethlisberger's mystery TD, linesman Mark Hittner clearly hesitated before raising his hands to signal the score as if to say, "Aw heck, I don't know, let the dang replay booth sort it out."

Still, when I hear the Seahawks complain about the officiating, deep down I can't help but think they're just deflecting something that's far too painful to acknowledge -- that they just royally blew a golden opportunity to capture the greatest prize in sports and secure their own immortality.

Really, the only guy from either team who distinguished himself on the field was Seattle QB Matt Hasselbeck. Lightning-fast reads. Gutsy leadership. Superb throws. He was the only one in blue who played like he expected to win the game.

Remember at the end of the third quarter when he scrambled for a first down at the Seattle 15 and then placed the ball defiantly on the turf right in linebacker Clark Haggans' nose? Well, it turns out Haggans was hurt on the play. And so during the TV timeout before the fourth quarter, Hasselbeck walked right into the heart of the Steelers' defense to apologize to Haggans.

A few moments later, it was the NFL that needed to beg your pardon. If you're interested in knowing exactly what the league thinks of you as a consumer, then I wish you could have seen the instructions on the jumbo screen for the fan participation segment of the halftime show. While using dim-witted language and oversimplified instructions that a dog would have found condescending, the NFL also felt it necessary to employ giant flashing red arrows to indicate for fans exactly where to point their colored flashlights during the Rolling Stones performance.

Watching this, one couldn't help but wonder, "Is this how they train their officials, too?"

Don't feel bad, the NFL treats everyone this way.

After the game, Bill Cowher, who at the moment was the most powerful man in the NFL, was taken by the hand and led like a third grader by a league official to the space-pod podium for the presentation of the Lombardi trophy. At the same time, in the midst of all the madness -- the confetti, the hugs, the swarm of fans, family and media -- I saw Ben Roethlisberger stop to adjust the size and work the brim of his new championship cap. And just then it hit me: My God, 22.6 passer rating or not, he's just a kid, a 23-year-old kid.

Hours later in the locker room, there was MVP Hines Ward still clutching the keys to his new Caddy in his mangled, taped and dirty hands. There was D-coordinator Dick LeBeau, deep creases carved into his face from his years in the game, looking like the fifth member of the Rolling Stones. There was O-coordinator Ken Whisenhunt trying, in vain, to explain the gut feeling that triggered his decision to call the reverse pass that sealed the game.

There was me, in my comfy media bus headed to a postgame buffet with shrimp the size of horseshoes, staring out at the gutted and boarded-up buildings two blocks from Ford Field, knowing that for Detroit, the real work starts now.

And finally, back at the hotel, there was the lone Steelers fan, dressed in a Roethlisberger jersey and black and gold mardi gras beads, his face just a few feet away from a TV replaying highlights from Super Bowl XL. In his hand was a nearly full glass of champagne.

It wasn't a pretty sight, but somehow it seemed fitting.

Because even though the guy was passed out cold and snoring loud enough to drown out the TV, somehow he hadn't spilled a single drop of his champagne.

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.




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