The Flem File was born at the Super Bowl.
It was 3:45 in the morning in Phoenix, several hours after the Cowboys had beaten the Steelers and I was tapping away madly on a laptop the size of a small piece of luggage, collecting my thoughts from the perfectly named Super Bowl Triple X when a buddy who was crashing in my room woke up, saw me still working by the silvery din of my computer screen and screeched, "What the f--- are you doing?"
Trust me, many times, looking back during the last 11 Super Bowls I have asked myself the exact same question. Why just this morning I had that very thought while reviewing e-mails from Bears fans about the NORU column. But back in '96 I knew right away -- or at least as soon as I saw a fan in Phoenix dive face-first into a steaming hot pile of horse dung during a contest to win Super Bowl ducats -- that my sleepy friend was wrong.
Sure, who knows, this crazy, mixed-up Internet thing might not ever catch on, but the Flem File and the Super Bowl, well, they were made for each other.
I knew it all the way back in 1996, the minute I heard a verbose and very serious reporter ask then-Steelers lineman Justin Strzelczyk if his beard was a symbol of how the physical, rugged and old-school Steelers differed from the flashy, fast Cowboys. Strzelczyk replied, in a perfect deadpan: "Naw, it's pretty much just a symbol of how I don't like to shave." Strzelczyk, you'll recall, died in 2004 after leading police on a high-speed chase on the New York State Thruway that ended in a horrific, fiery, head-on collision. (You may insert your own metaphor to the fate of the Flem File here.)
Even 11 years later, though, it's amazing how many details from the game and the week still stand out in my mind. With SB XXX it was mainly the plight of poor noodle-armed Neil O'Donnell and his two infamous passes right into the bread basket of Dallas corner Larry Brown. In an instant the microwaved hype of this game turned Brown from a nobody to a household name. That's the power and the lure of this game, I suppose.
Afterward it was telling that not a single player in the Steelers' crowded, crappy locker room at Sun Devil Stadium offered so much as a word in O'Donnell's defense, even though the tape would reveal that at least one receiver (and maybe both) cut the wrong way.
As I remember, the Super Bowl that gave birth to the Flem File (I was with Sports Illustrated at the time) was also a tribute to the once grand team-building acumen of one Jerry Jones, who built a club so strong it could win a championship despite having Barry Switzer on the sidelines. And while everyone always said it was the Cowboys who had all the characters that year, the Steelers held their own in the wacko department. Rod Woodson rushing back from knee surgery, Strzelczyk, running back Bam Morris, who would later serve time for driving around with a trunk full of weed, and linebacker Kevin Greene, who showed off his collection of military-style weapons during our interview at his home.
Coach Cowher's confidant one day, cut the next -- such was the life of Levon Kirkland.
From a Super Bowl god to a shell of a man slumped under an end table. I think that's why the Super Bowl is so special: it's like being able to read the future. You know a memory -- good or bad -- is going to be made this week in Miami; it's just that right now, we all have no idea who it will be, when it will happen or why. We just know that it will.
Anyway, after that auspicious start in 1996, I'm happy to report that the Internet, the Flem File, the Super Bowl and that dude sleeping in my room in Phoenix have all managed to survive the last 12 Super Bowls. (That guy ended up becoming my editor at ESPN The Magazine, where, coincidentally, he still yells the same thing at me on a regular basis. He has asked that his name be withheld from the column. It's Chad Millman, by the way.)
Here, then, are a few of my favorite highlights from the now long, happy, weird marriage of the Flem File and the Super Bowl.
SB XXXI: Green Bay 35, New England 21 in New Orleans
After the game, I rode in a limo with MVP Desmond Howard from the Superdome to the Packers' team party. Howard was practically in shock. His 99-yard kick return in the third quarter had sealed the deal for Brett Favre. And as we rode through the streets of New Orleans, Howard fidgeted with a victory cigar still in its plastic wrapper while taking advice from his agent Leigh Steinberg, who was hammering home to him the strategy of steering all conversations away from his special teams performance and toward his overall play -- so as to better position himself for impending free agency. They also discussed logistics for his trip to Disney and the victory celebration in Green Bay.
But the whole time Howard only seemed concerned about getting his new SUV back home after the season. Finally, Steinberg leaned forward in the limo, put his hand on Howard's knee and calmly said, "You're the Most Valuable Player of the Super Bowl I think we can get someone to take care of your car." The light finally went off and this wide grin and sense of calm overtook Howard's face as he realized what he had done and how his life was changing by the second.
At the end of the ride we all went racing in some back entrance and straight to the service elevators as if Howard was the president. The doors opened and the rest of the entourage leapt into the elevator. I stayed behind, needing to dart back to my hotel to begin writing. And as the doors closed Howard had a look on his face like Alice on her way down the rabbit hole.
SB XXXII: Denver 31, Green Bay 24 in San Diego
A friend of mine and one of the all-time Page 2 greats, Brian Murphy, almost got me killed at this Super Bowl. We were at a Denny's. It was 3-something in the morning. (And we all know the Golden Rule: nothing good happens at a Denny's after, like, 1:45 a.m.) But we were starving. So when a plate of hot fries went past our table, at my urging Murph reached up and helped himself to a few tasty taters. Bad move. You can almost guess the rest, right? The food we "borrowed" was actually headed to a table full of, like, Hells Angels or something who then, of course, wanted to kill us. No, wait. That's wrong. They wanted to gut us, do wheelies through our entrails and then kill us. The fries were that good, I guess.
Needless to say, we didn't stick around for our Grand Slams. In fact, I think we sprinted all the way back to the media hotel, taking only a few short breaks to pause and laugh ourselves silly. Knife fights, hash browns and motorcycle gangs. Good times I tell ya. Good times.
The next day KISS performed before the game to a crowd of preteens all made up in Kiss Army makeup. It was over the top, creepy, funny, nuts, stupid, expensive and quite entertaining (except the fire balls on stage that nearly singed off my eyebrows) -- the epitome of everything the Super Bowl halftime show used to be before the league got smart and handed over the biggest stage in the world to the biggest stars on the planet. (And yes, I mean Prince. Show some respect.)
At the end of this game I sat in the Broncos' locker room for what seemed like forever waiting for John Elway to get cleaned up. But it was worth it. Sometimes when you've been expected to do something your whole life and you finally do it, there's a huge letdown when the reality doesn't live up to the dream. (I think Tony Stewart of NASCAR is like this.) But not with Elway. As he slowly got his battered and bruised body dressed there was a look of pride and accomplishment and childlike wonder on his face that I will never forget. It's the kind of look and feeling no one can give you and no one can take away. And I haven't seen it on any other athlete since.
SB XXXIII: Denver 34, Atlanta 18 in Miami
I learned something about being a fan at this Super Bowl. I had been given an extra ticket to the game and so I invited my dad, a lifelong diehard psycho Browns fan, to join me in Miami. As it turns out there was an opportunity for Pops to meet Elway at some function. But having suffered through the Fumble and the Drive with his fellow Dawgs, when I asked my dad if he wanted to meet the most famous athlete on the planet (which I thought was pretty cool) he responded with something like, "You keep that son of a bitch away from me."
All week in Miami my dad kept asking me how this town and this game compared to all the other Super Bowls. And all week I just kept saying, "Something's missing but I just can't put my finger on it." And then we woke up and heard the news buzzing through the lobby of our hotel that Eugene Robinson, who had just won an award for his deep faith and values, had been arrested for soliciting an undercover police officer.
Now, I told my dad.
Now it's officially a Super Bowl.
SB XXXIV: St. Louis 23, Tennessee 16 in Atlanta
I have a lot to answer for when I move on from this life, but No. 1 on the list will be my behavior at the Atlanta Super Bowl. You see, the week of the game an ice storm hit the town and so we were mostly trapped in our hotel rooms where I passed the time drinking free beer from Budweiser delivered anonymously to my hotel room (God I love this game) while laughing at people down below on the street as one after the other wiped out on a hidden sheet of ice that sent them chin over shin, sliding, like, 50 feet on their keisters. One portly fellow who was unable to regain his footing, simply rolled the remaining 15 feet -- over and over and over again -- until he reached the door of the bus he was trying to catch.
Funniest thing I have ever seen and the hardest I have ever laughed in my life.
I don't care about the karmic consequences. I would do it all over again.
Don't know what "football is a game of inches" means? Ask Kevin Dyson.
SB XXXV: Baltimore 34, New York Giants 7 in Tampa
What stood out the most from this game was the courageous performance of Ravens kick returner Jermaine Lewis, who returned a kick 84 yards for a TD, somehow finding the strength and courage to honor his son, Geronimo, who had been stillborn a month earlier. (We don't have to get too far into it, I imagine most people are sick of my bringing it up, but I was going through the same thing at the time and Lewis' example of strength was truly an inspiration for me and, I'm sure, thousands of other dads in the same situation.)
Anyway, I also remember watching Ray Lewis spring, Crouching Tiger-style, from sideline to sideline. Periodically during the game I just looked at the reporters sitting next to me who were also shaking their heads in amazement knowing that we were watching another Super Bowl performance for the ages.
Styx performed before the game, accompanied by hundreds of dancers in white unitards that had giant sails sewn into the backs, which they flapped in unison during the chorus of "Come Sail Away." It was the saddest musical thing I had ever seen at a Super Bowl until the game in Houston, when Eddie Money performed before kickoff next door to the actual stadium inside the Astrodome.
SB XXXVI: New England 20, St. Louis 17 in New Orleans
I know everyone focuses on Adam Vinatieri's 48-yard game-winning field goal. As they should. The guy is the greatest clutch kicker in the history of the game. (Although the kick against Oakland was on a smaller stage, it was by far his most impressive kick.) But what I remember are the two passes Tom Brady made to get the Pats in position to pull the upset. Remember, back then, The Greatest Show on Turf was considered unstoppable. Again, this is why the Super Bowl is so special. Brady went from sixth-round fluke to legend in one drive. Remember? Three short passes to start. Thirty-three seconds left. Then an incompletion. Then two unbelievably clutch throws for 23 and 16 yards to Troy Brown and Jermaine Wiggins. Ball on the 30. Seven seconds left. The rest is history.
Censored -- that's what else I remember from this Super Bowl. I went to the French Quarter at 5 a.m. to do a column about what the world's biggest party looked like the morning after and, ugh, I gotta tell ya it was horrific. It was like a frat house basement on 'roids and 'shrooms. It freaked me out. It was one of the many moments while doing this column -- I'd say covering the nudist colony at the Atlanta Olympics is a close second -- when I stopped in the middle of an assignment and tried to figure out if I could still get into grad school.
At one point during my investigation I nearly slipped and fell face-first into a giant pool of chunky vomit on the sidewalk of Bourbon Street. Naturally, I thought it would be hilarious to run this as a photo in my Flem File, so I spent a good deal of time chatting up a local "dancer" gal while I captured this yak in hi-def with my digital camera. The photo, sadly, never made the column. Higher-ups yanked it from the Web.
But I'm told the original editor of the Flem File still uses it as his screen saver.
SB XXXVII: Tampa Bay 48, Oakland 21 in San Diego
Bucs future Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks put it best when he told me that Tony Dungy was like the Tampa team's Moses. "He led us right up to the promised land," Brooks said, "he just didn't get to go in with us." Well, maybe that will all change this week. It's hard not to root for Dungy -- a man who has changed the game without it ever changing him. A man who has proven you can lead football players without head games, bullying and an ego twice that of Trump's.
The game ended up being a total blowout. A rarity during the Flem File's Super Bowl Dirty Dozen. During the last seven years, at least, four of the Super Bowls have been decided by a TD or less and three of those have come down to the final play. Visiting for the week from L.A., my older brother Greg set what I'm told is the world record for charges to a hotel room during a seven-day period at the Super Bowl. Just 147 more payments and I'll have that all paid off.
SB XXXVIII: New England 32, Carolina 29 in Houston
I spent a few hours with wideout Steve Smith at the team hotel in Houston, where he had Super Bowl freebies, including a new video game console, piled up in the corner of his room like a mound of dirty laundry. While signing a stack of photos for a merchandise creep, Smith got a call from his shoe rep who had gotten word that he had been seen an hour earlier for a split second in public wearing Nikes instead of Reeboks.
What rules the Super Bowl? The game? The players? The parties? Dollar bills, ya'll.
You know what no one remembers from this game? The fact that Carolina's normally steadfast and reliable kicker, John Kasay, blew this game for the Panthers. Kickers can be the reason you won the Super Bowl but they should never be the reason you lost. After a 12-yard pass from Jake Delhomme to Ricky Proehl tied the game at 29 with 1:08 to go, Kasay inexplicably kicked the ball out of bounds, which stopped the clock and gave Brady the ball at the 40. Five plays later Brady hit Deion Branch for 17 yards on a third-and-3 (of course) and Vinatieri did the rest.
As great as the game was, I usually sum up the Houston Super Bowl with two words: Mars. Rover. The morning after my first Playboy Party I found these two words scribbled into my reporter's notebook. It took me a long time to figure out the message I was trying to leave for myself but I think this is it: I had always known that a whole other world existed on Mars but until the Rover landed on the red planet I didn't know it for a fact. Well, I had always known that a whole other Playboy universe existed, but until my first PJ party with the bunnies, I didn't know for a fact that it actually existed.
At one point during the party I was sitting between two Playmates clad in nothing more than their undergarments, while balancing an ice cream sundae in my lap (from the all you-could-eat buffet), a game controller in one hand and an ice cold beer in the other while playing Madden.
At the time I thought nothing could possibly make that story better. And then the next morning I learned that my buddy from SB XXX (you know, the screamer) was out the same night in Houston where, in an emergency, he was forced to pay a $20 cover just to use a Port-A-John.
Antics or not, TO's Super Bowl performance was one for the ages.
This game changed my definition of character. It's been buried under an avalanche of bad press and stupid, childish, churlish behavior, but Terrell Owens' nine catches for 122 yards in this game while playing on a leg bone he splintered late in the regular season is simply one of the most amazing -- and yes, courageous -- things I have ever witnessed. If a player from a losing team ever deserved to be the MVP of the game, it was T.O. It's easy -- and right -- to bash this guy for his behavior since this game, but if true character in sports is how you react to adversity on the field and in the heat of battle, than on some level, T.O. showed more character this day than perhaps any other player I have known. But instead of getting to enjoy and celebrate this performance, T.O.'s infantile behavior and long string of obvious cries for help have overshadowed what he did in the Super Bowl. And rightfully so, I suppose.
SB XL: Pittsburgh 21, Seattle 10 in Detroit
Very cool to have the game played in my hometown, the place where I used to watch Tigers games from the bleachers and run around inside the Red Wings' abandoned Olympia Stadium before it was torn down. Even cooler was that the city of Detroit was able to pull it off in such grand fashion, setting the bar for all cold-weather Super Bowl sites. Although one of the lasting images I have is seeing all the boarded-up buildings on my way home after the game.
It wasn't until the summer, however, while traveling in Switzerland with Steelers QB (and fellow Miami University product) Ben Roethlisberger that I got a good gauge on what the game means to the players. We were on a nearly vertical tram heading up to the top of the Swiss Alps when Ben confided to me that the main advice he got from older players in the league was to pick a specific moment of the Super Bowl and pause for just a split second and lock it into his brain for safe keeping. They told him to do this because the whole event is so huge and bizarre that when you're on the inside it can actually go by in a blink without your actually noticing.
So as the ball was kicked off and Ford Field sparkled with flashbulbs, Roethlisberger closed his eyes and took a moment to soak it all in. And that day in the Alps (now there's a beginning of a sentence you don't see too often) Roethlisberger closed his eyes and said he could still see, in his mind's eye, the kaleidoscope of flashing lights from the start of his Super Bowl.
SB XLI: Indianapolis vs. Chicago in Miami
Well, who knows how No. 12 in the Flem File's dirty dozen Super Bowls will go down?
Will Peyton Manning take his place next to Tom Brady or Dan Marino? And if he wins, I think the NFL should force Bill Belichick, that sourpuss weasel, to fly down and shake his hand. Or will the Bears stop whining about respect and actually earn it on the field? Will my theory that the bigger the game the more that finesse teams yield to physical teams be proven correct? Will this become the Super Bowl where the league's focus shifts from the lack of diversity in coaching to the despicable treatment of retired players? Will the next Eugene Robinson please step forward? Will my Playboy pals be back? Will there be manure? Will I have finally figured out an answer for Chad after 12 years of Super Bowl Flem Files as to what the heck I'm doing? Will there be an ice storm? Fiery crashes? Vomit? Butt cleavage from Prince? The KISS Army? Who knows?
Things certainly seemed to be getting off to a very good start, though. Moments after checking into my room on Miami Beach, which is within a Hail Mary of the Atlantic, I hadn't even unpacked my Tylenol and my Page 2 PJs when my phone rang.
"Yes Mr. David, this is the front desk speaking, I'm very sorry but can you come back down to the lobby, sir, we forgot to give you your free drink coupons."
I'm on my way.
David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His first book was "Noah's Rainbow: a Father's Emotional Journey from the Death of his Son to the Birth of his Daughter." His next book, based on the controversial 1925 NFL Pottsville Maroons (ESPN Books 2007) has been optioned as a movie by Sentinel Entertainment. Contact him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.