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Thursday, January 23, 2003
Garner's fatal case of Me-Shawnism

By Jim Caple
Page 2 columnist

SAN DIEGO -- My parents grew up in the depression when much of the country was thrown out of work, Hoovervilles sprang up virtually overnight, fathers left their families and road the rails in search of jobs, thousands starved and vast acres of farmland literally dried up and blew away in the great dust bowls.

My childhood was much rougher. I had to play electric football.

What an awful game. The object of electric football was to simulate a real football game but the only time I ever saw a sporting event that remotely resembled it was at Candlestick Park during the earthquake in the 1989 World Series. And at least during the earthquake, the players seemed to be scurrying off the field with a sense of purpose.

An electric football game was almost entirely spent laboriously lining up your team for a play. You would twist and tweak the delicate (and useless) directional fibers under the base of each player, study the defense, angle your blockers and running backs with a protractor, position your quarterback, carefully tuck the tiny sliver of felt that represented the football under his arm and then doublecheck with a ruler to make sure no one was offside.

And then your brother would accidentally knock half the offensive lines over with his elbow and you would have to do it all over again.

Charlie Garner
The Raiders offense could use a few more running plays.

After about 45 minutes of this, you would finally be ready. You would grab the electrical cord, hold your breath,turn on the juice and watch your running back jiggle his way out of bounds for a six-yard loss.

Pass plays were even sadder. You would go through the same process, hope your receiver broke free from the scrum of players, then cut the power. Then you would put the football in your quarterback's hand, carefully pull back his arm and fling the football in the general direction of the receiver. You rarely came close. A good season would be 102 attempts, six completions, 16 yards. It was hell on quarterback efficiency ratings.

I was reminded of all this, and how far we've come, as a society, when I found myself at a local hotel for PlayStation's annual Game Before the Game to watch Tampa Bay wide receiver Keenan McCardell taking on Oakland running back Charlie Garner.

Yes, that's what Super Bowl week has reduced me to: covering a virtual game. Pathetic, yes, but it did have the considerable advantage of having neither a PlayStation Media Day or a PlayStation Halftime Show. And the referees didn't blow a single call.

Because it was a virtual football game, the PlayStation people, appropriately enough, hired a virtual person to be the announcer. Pat O'Brien, easily the smuggest person in broadcasting. As much as I hate watching him, it was oddly comforting to seem him reduced to this.

Then again, at least he wasn't charting the drives of a PlayStation game, as I was.

Lynn Swann provided the expert analysis, or at least what analysis was needed for a video game. I remember when Swann was the sideline reporter after the Broncos lost their record-tying fourth Super Bowl. He delivered the usual softball question after the game to Dan Reeves -- the requisite "You came up a little short but the season still was a great success, wasn't it?" question -- which quite frankly is the sort of question best left to reporters like us non-athletes, the kind who bring no bonafides to the game. Someone like Swann should deliver the question that you know he really wants to ask:

"Coach, I went to the Super Bowl four times and we won every time. So how does it feel to go to the Super Bowl three times and lose every time?"

Anyway, the McCardell-coached Buccaneers whipped the Garner-coached Raiders 28-8. I wouldn't put much stock in the outcome though, even if the winner of the previous seven PlayStation Bowls has gone on to win the Super Bowl. One, the law of averages is bound to catch up, and two, I'm certain that Oakland coach Bill Callahan will come up with a more imaginative game plan than simply giving the ball to Garner every down.

Which is what Garner did. If Garner wasn't having Rich Gannon hand off the ball to Garner every down, he was having Gannon pass the ball to Garner. Good Lord, even Keyshawn Johnson would have mixed in an occasional quarterback bootleg.

McCardell, on the other hand, ran his team with all the cool efficiency of John Elway directing a fourth-quarter comeback. It's clear this man plays a lot of video games. Rather than humbling Garner, I'd like to see McCardell take on a true video master, Minnesota outfielder Torii Hunter, who is such a devotee that he has a complete set of all the video games that he appears in to preserve his evolution as a player.

"I have every baseball game that came out since 1999," he said after signing his contract extension last week. "At first I sucked. My son even said I sucked. But I might even be a good player on the 2003 games. I might be hitting home runs on the PlayStation now.

"I want to be able to show them all to my grandkids, so I can show them, 'Look how I sucked at first.' It will be like my eight-track."

Hunter estimates he spends up to six hours a day playing video games, and that's during the season. During the winter, he's able to really devote himself to his craft, playing up to 10 hours a day.

Sure, 10 hours a day sounds like a lot. But I suppose I spent an equivalent amount of time on electric football when I was a kid.

Of course, nine of those hours were spent lining up the players for kickoff.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.