Super Bowl XLI really left its mark on me.
Just below my right scapula to be exact.
That is, in fact, where I got hit by a corner of the Lombardi Trophy as the Colts offensive linemen passed the (surprisingly hefty and, well, rather pointy) Tiffany trophy back and forth for a series of silvery smooches and camera phone pose-offs inside the Colts' steamy, cramped, postgame locker room.
The visiting digs at Dolphin Stadium are about the size of a college dorm suite. And by the time I got there after the game, it actually looked just like one, filled with dudes and littered with dirty socks and balls of used athletic tape and smelling of sweat and grass stains while oozing the kind of palpable, pure joy you almost never see anymore in professional sports.
The game was a wet, wild, wonderful mess and the postgame scene under the stadium was exactly the same. It was an amazing sight: the buttoned-down, billion-dollar NFL forced to just let the wild party continue unabated. It was as if Roger Goodell threw up his hands and just said, "Aw forget it, we'll clean up in the morning before my parents get home." I never realized how much fun the normally uptight Super Bowl can be if you just add water. The slipping and sliding. The fumbles and loose balls. The rapid change of possessions. If the game is lame next year they should wet down the field at halftime.
There were TV crews dashing one way, golf carts and stadium security zigzagging the other way. Banshee wails echoed off the concrete walls. Every last inch of ground was soaked. Little rectangular pieces of confetti were stuck to everything like the tabs of toilet paper you blot on your face after shaving. So many cables were snaking everywhere the ground looked like it was moving. Metal crowd barriers jutted out in odd angles at every entrance, manned by overzealous security staff who were pretty much ignored by the crowd of players, families, staff, media and league officials constantly rushing by.
Colts badass safety Bob Sanders dashed by holding the trophy yelling, "Careful now, I don't want to drop this thing." A few seconds later Adam Vinatieri waltzed past in the other direction. Jim Irsay's eyes were already bloodshot from crying. Wait. Was that Bill Polian? And was he was he smiling? And then, right on cue, as if unfolding inside a dream, Biff from Letterman waddled by, stopping only long enough to ask people to kiss him on the forehead.
Nice guys finished first at Super Bowl XLI.
To some extent we all reacted the same way. I mean, no matter how many times I watch Manning work I'm still utterly amazed at the innate ability he has to recognize pre-snap pressure and then deliver the ball to the hole created directly behind where the pressure just came from like a matador plunging the final, fatal, razor-sharp sword into the heart of the bull. Some quarterbacks can read and detect defenses. Some also have the intelligence to process all that pre-snap info and the poise to execute the play in the face of such pressure. A few more also have the arm and the footwork to deliver the ball on target. But Manning is one of a very select few who can do it all -- and make it look easy over and over again.
Watching Manning and Tony Dungy, his pupils dilated to the size of pinholes by all the camera flashes, it was clear that the game had left an indelible mark on more than just my scapula. For once the universe seemed to be in perfect balance, a place where ego and talent were as they should be -- inversely related. Where hype was tripe and the good guys finally finished first. This was a Super Bowl for every self-effacing, decent, talented guy in every office, team or group who spends his time and energy perfecting his craft with dignity and honor while silently hoping that character, talent and results will eventually trump the politicking, bullying and bravado that seem to allow everyone around him to rapidly fail upward.
Dungy grew up in Jackson, Mich., the son of a high school English teacher and a college biology professor. His father, who died in 2004, had perhaps the greatest influence on Dungy as a coach. All great ones think of themselves as teachers first. And Wilbur Dungy always reminded his son that the sign of a great teacher is someone who brings out the best in every one of his students, someone who can do it without tricking them or bullying them or wanting credit for their achievements.
"I think this does send a message to owners and other people around the league," Dungy said. "People said, 'Oh he's too nice, he doesn't have a mean streak, he doesn't yell and you just can't win this way in this league.' But I think that will be our [legacy] -- that you can win in this league, win a Super Bowl and do it in a certain way with respect and class and dignity."
His pants still soaked in Gatorade and his shirt collar covered in confetti, Dungy stood with his feet crossed and his hand leaning on the edge of a trash can in the middle of the Colts' locker room. At that moment, after all he had overcome in the last year, he was truly a man in full. And one of the most poignant points he made was how when he was a kid growing up in Michigan he never saw any coaches on TV during the Super Bowl who looked like him. He never saw an example, in living color, of the dream forming in his head of one day coaching in the NFL. But now he knew that an entire generation of kids who watched this game had looked at their TV set and, after seeing the coaches on each sideline, could now think and dream, "Yeah, hey, I could do that too."
Dungy had turned what was once nothing more than a dream into a reality for himself and the men who follow him onto the sidelines. Now that's a legacy more precious than any Super Bowl ring and more powerful than anything else Dungy and the Colts have accomplished.
In stark contrast to the Colts' celebration was the somber silence of the Bears' locker room where quarterback Rex Grossman stood in his football pants below a sign that read: Official Game Clock 00:00. Boy, I'll say.
Rex was almost shockingly calm and unemotional after the game. And after getting badgered by questions for his litany of bungled snaps and downfield ducks, he cleared his throat one last time and whispered, "I just don't want to go through that again, I'm sorry." (Yeah, well, don't worry dude, I thought, it's only gonna get brought up about a half gazillion more times between now and September.)
Then, after stepping away from reporters, Grossman was asked for an autograph. He didn't think twice. He stopped and signed for the guy. So maybe he's not the quarterback for the Bears. After one full season I don't know how you could tell, especially since his errors -- throwing off his back foot, not recognizing DBs who are decoying him downfield -- are pretty typical of a young QB. But let me say this: Any list of Bears players who should be run out of town based on their Super Bowl performance should also include Brian Urlacher.
I mean, where did he go? Worried about Peyton's deep ball, the Bears kept their safeties deep the entire game and it gave you an idea of just how much help and support Urlacher and the rest of the Bears' linebackers must normally require. What was clear from this game is that Urlacher is not a linebacker on the same level as, say, Ray Lewis, a guy who can take over games all by himself.
The Colts ran the ball right down his throat most of the time. And when they wanted to change the pace they simply sent a backside tackle a few yards downfield to seal off Urlacher and create the kind of huge cutback lanes Prince would have felt safe running through. Yeah, I predicted in this game that finesse would yield to physical. I just never dreamed it would be Indy who would end up manhandling the Bears.
But that's the beauty of the Super Bowl I suppose. When it's good you get to see things you'd never dream of.
Like, I never thought I'd see 250-pound men dressed in skintight and wildly colorful parakeet bodysuits, either, but there they were lining up in the end zone before the Cirque du Soleil pregame show.
I never thought I'd walk down the South Beach boardwalk and see Jesse Jackson giving a thoughtful interview 100 feet away from a guy dancing around in nothing more than a Boston Red Sox thong, but there they were on Saturday afternoon.
I never thought a single issue could one day bankrupt the almighty NFL, but I'm starting to wonder if one more successful lawsuit from a disabled former player who was denied reasonable compensation could open the door to a flood of litigation just like the cigarette industry.
I never thought the NFL would put me up in a hotel where the iron was chained to the ironing board, but that's what happened. (This brought up several interesting points. For starters, what's the crossover of thieves who actually iron their clothes? And, to be honest, the chain actually backfired in a way because I hadn't even thought about stealing the iron until I noticed it was so heavily guarded. Then I wanted to take it just to be ironic.)
I never knew just how dumb the NFL thinks its fan are, and then I noticed the giant video screen inside the stadium just before halftime actually instructing the crowd on how to follow along with the "We Will Rock You" chant. I kid you not. Several times fans were reminded that the sequence was Stomp! Stomp! CLAP. Stomp! Stomp! CLAP.
I also never knew how good the halftime show could be until Prince showed up. I had a clue, I guess, when he blew the dang doors off his impromptu news conference during the week. But watching Prince I realized the reason the halftime show usually stinks is because it requires a unique, powerful talent to microwave the funk and energy of an entire performance down into a 15-minute set. Most acts can't handle it. Prince was certainly more than game. At one point I was like, "Is he playing a freakin' Foo Fighters song?"
And I don't know about you but I have a sneaking suspicion that behind closed doors Prince is the most normal, coupon-cutting, pick-up-the-dog-poop-in-the-bag, TiVo-watching, hang-out-in-my-gray-Minnesota-sweats kind of guy. Because if the Good Guy Bowl taught us anything it's that normal is the new weird.
I never thought I'd attend a Super Bowl where the only PR person to recognize me all week was the one working for Playboy. I wonder, does that mean I've reached the pinnacle of my career or the absolute rock bottom? And I certainly never thought I'd say this but I'm sorry to report that the party was just OK this year. It seems to be living off its rep a bit, kind of like Urlacher. Hosting the party inside the hoops arena was a bad idea. It felt too much like a paper company convention cocktail hour.
I never thought the jet fighter flyover would be more of a thrill than the Playboy party, but it was. I also got a big kick out of seeing those same pilots playing catch on the field after the game in their blue flight suits.
Long after the Good Guy Bowl had ended, after the Lombardi trophy had stopped doing its Stanley Cup impersonation and the Colts had left the stadium, I sat in the stands, soaked to the bone, watching as these grown men with very serious jobs joyously played catch on the soggy end zone turf below.
And right then it hit me.
Ya know, I never think I'll be sad when yet another NFL season, and another string of Flem Files has come to an end.
But I always am.
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.