Bulger makes triumphant return

Marc Bulger might have downplayed his triumphant return home, but it was a masterful performance.

Updated: October 29, 2003, 10:53 AM ET
By David Fleming | ESPN The Magazine

30-second column
Dawson
Dawson
Former Steelers all-pro center (and future Hall of Famer) Dermontti Dawson:

"I know some players have a problem leaving this game but for me, it wasn't all that hard. I had opportunities to keep playing but, ya know, I was determined not to just let this thing drag on out. And I'm glad, really glad, now with the way I ended my career. I mean, after one year I stopped thinking about it. But then again I never really did live for the extra stuff, the hype and whatnot, associated with the NFL. I feel great. I've lost 35 pounds. Twenty of that just came right off when I stopped playing. It was like I was shrinking or something. I had to put extra notches in my belt. I was ready, prepared, for life after football and that made it easier I think. I'm in real estate. I have some laundry mats. I'm playing Mr. Mom now. I'm helping my wife because she did it all by herself for so long while I played. I take my kids to school and pick them up, too. Every day. As far as my life away from football, man, I love it."

Flem File Five
Top Five Lowlights of Danny Kanell's professional sports career:
5. Cut by the Falcons.
4. Played for the Arena League's NY Dragons.
3. Replaced Jose Canseco at first base for the Newark Bears.
2. Sent a letter to the Vikes asking for a job and got a reply back that their coaching staff was full.
1. While being interviewed by yours truly at his New York condo, dog sitter informed Kanell that another dog pee'd on his puppy's head that day in the park.
Flemister File
Wherein we continue to follow the exploits of FlemFile mascot and Washington TE Zeron Flemister.

Flemister
Flemister
Z-Flem's bye week was all about family. On Friday he flew home to Sioux City, Iowa, with his significant other, Corie, to check in on his mom, who is having elbow surgery this week, and to watch his younger brother, Julian, play ball for Wayne State in Nebraska.

"Zeron doesn't get to watch his brother play very often so it worked out nicely," Corie wrote in an email. "When we weren't watching football we spent our time hanging out and catching up with some of Zeron's childhood friends. They were very eager to tell me stories from their childhood together."

Corie, who lives in Denver, says she's glad to see him back, once and for all, with the 'Skins. "I'm not a big fan of the whole orange and brown combination," she says, "I wouldn't mind seeing him in orange and blue though."

Back in the land of burgundy and gold, Z says the Redskins can't help but get caught up in all the Spurrier talk as they head into Cowboy Week. (Don't forget it was against the Cowboys last Thanksgiving that Z broke out his Turkey TD Dance that promptly swept the nation. This year he promises a Halloween Hula Holla if he gets to the house.) "It's not all Spurrier, though, it's a little bit of everything with this team," says Z. "We have to treat this team like a big family: stand by each other no matter what." That's our Z-Flem, a family man to the end.

The WHYLO (Who Helped You Log On) of the Week
We may have to change this section to World Wide WHYLO. After reading last week's column on trying to make sense of the topsy-turvy NFL, Jens from Stockholm writes, "What I like about the FlemFile is that it feels personal. It really feels like you write what you want without trying to please anyone but yourself. It's always interesting no matter whether I agree or not." Says Keith, "I just wanted to take the time to tell you what a tremendously entertaining article 'Making Sense of the NFL' was. I haven't seen too many writers (even on ESPN) use a fun creative side and still get their point across." Writes Jamal, "Flem, as always, top notch stuff. Sadly, the only thing that does remain constant is the sorry state of the Lions. They and the Cards should be perilously close to having their NFL charters revoked." Jake adds, "keep up the good work. My only request is that you make your columns longer, so it takes me an entire sandwich to get through it." Going back to the tackling column, Jason, however, was still mad about me hatin' on Deion's (complete lack of) tackling. He writes, "Ripping on Deion for not tackling would be like ripping on Joe Montana because he couldn't scramble and run for 100 yards a game. Just my 2 cents."

And finally, Jim didn't quite get the 'tone' of the column. In a very serious note he wrote, "You seem puzzled as to what is happening in the NFL. The answer is simple. They're called turnovers." Then, using a multi-colored chart, Jimbo listed for me the teams with the best turnover ratios in the NFL. Trust me Jimmy, there should be a stat about how many stats I have access to in this job. However, I choose to ignore most of them and WATCH THE ACTUAL GAMES. As much as I loath stats, though, I hate multi-colored charts even more.

So in a way you might appreciate Jim, let me ask, Who Helped You Log On?

Flem Gems
Pittsburgh Scene No. 1: There were times here on Sunday when Bill Cowher was so mad that his chin jutted out so far I thought he was going to swallow his own head. ... If you have kids, can you spend a better 26 bucks than on Sesame Street Live? ... PSN2: Saw a few bald wigs with tiny tufts of blond hair in the back in honor of Terry Bradshaw's return to Pittsburgh. ... As a frequent traveler I would just like to thank whoever is responsible for the program Art in Airports. So far I'd say Atlanta is the airport to beat. ... PSN3: Fans booed Deion Sanders more than Boomer Esiason when each gave a congrats to the Steelers' 1,000th game on the Heinz Field JumboTron. After the first video message from P-Diddy, I suppose anyone would be a let down. ... DATELINE: Oxford. Ohio. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday. Nov. 4. Live. On ESPN2. The. Best. College. Football. Game. Of . The. Year. My Lil' RedHawks of Miami take on the Falcons of Bowling Green. PREDICTION? Miami 87, BGSU 3. ... After he threw for 4,436 yards and 36 TDs while playing for the Panthers in 1999 I played a round of golf with Steve Beuerlein near his home in Dallas. This is the kind of guy Beuerlein is: Just a few days after some offseason surgery he gutted out a charity event even though he couldn't button his own tux. After finishing up on 18, I asked him if there was one thing he wanted me to be sure to include in the piece. "No matter what happens from here on out," he said, "they can never take this season away from me." In light of his latest (and perhaps last) disappointment, I hope we all remember this -- especially Beuerlein. ... The NFL has decreed that it is OK to tackle Ricky Williams by his dreadlocks. … PSN4: Odd scene: Terry Bradshaw and Greg Lloyd sharing an umbrella on the sidelines during the first half. ... PSN5: This is an actual line from the Rams media guide: Kurt Warner, "Biggest success story in NFL history." ... PSN6: In the first half, Tommy Maddox took a huge drop, had plenty of time, stepped into a throw and barely got it 50 yards. ... PSN7: No pass rush and no run game. Chuck Noll must have thought he was in the wrong place Sunday. ... PSN8: Even in the pouring rain it was worth it to hit the field after the game to hear them blast U2's Elevation. I've heard rumors of the lads having a new album out this fall. Details people. Send me details.

THIS COLUMN WRITTEN WHILE LISTENING TO: R.E.M. and Bob Seger...go figure.

There was only one element of his triumphant return home to Pittsburgh that St. Louis Rams quarterback Marc Bulger seemed willing to open up and get downright emotional about. It wasn't getting to see family and friends. Nah, he spent all of an hour and a half with them back home in Squirrel Hill on Saturday night. It wasn't about playing in Pittsburgh after starring at the local prep powerhouse Central Catholic. Nope, he already did that when he was at West Virginia. How about a little home cooking then? Sorry. Strike three. He had pizza. Plain cheese. No toppings. I'm guessing he washed it down with water. Tap. No ice.

But hey, Marc, how about that daylight savings, huh?

"Oh that extra hour is the best," Bulger practically roared. "I loved it. I wish they would do that every month."

Excited about sleep. That, my friends, is Marc Bulger in a nutshell.

Forget that he just added his name to Western Pa.'s amazing cradle of quarterbacks that includes Johnny Unitas, Joe Montana, Joe Namath, Jim Kelly, George Blanda and Dan Marino (a fellow CCHS alum). Forget that he's now 11-2 as a starter. Or that he helped the Rams win on the road for just the second time in their last 11 tries. Or that St. Louis is now 5-2, surging and about to get Marshall Faulk back. Or that half his passes in the relentless rain went for 20 yards or more against what was the NFL's second-best pass defense. (Good god, did I mention it was raining?)

Yawn.

What this kid goes absolutely nuts over is an extra hour of sleep.

FlemFilers, meet your new favorite NFL player.

"It's just not about me and where I'm from, it's about our team winning on the road, beating a good team in a tough environment," Bulger said. "(On Saturday night) I went to my parents' house. Had some pizza. Came back. Had our team meeting. Went to bed. It was nothing special."

Until he hit the field, that is.

On the Rams second drive Bulger, 26, lofted a perfect rainbow bomb that seemed to slip between the sleet and land ever-so-softly in wideout Torry Holt's shirt pocket. Afterward, Bulger celebrated by dropping his arms to his sides and walking straight as an arrow down the 45-yard line to the team bench. His feet never left the chalk. I checked. This guy is so down-to-earth and friendly that even Brenda Warner can't come up with anything nasty to say about him on the air in St. Louis. Yet.

"Oh man, we could run our routes with our eyes closed the way we are clicking right now," says T-Holt. "This was a huge win for this football team. But I'm still trying to figure out if everybody (on this team) understands how big this win was."

For people who follow NFL QBs, it doesn't getting any bigger. In a league full of plain cheese pizza at the position, Bulger is deep dish with everything, drinks on the house and served up by your waitresses, Halle Berry and Liz Phair.

At times the guy who had to be coaxed out of quitting his high school team as a sophomore seemed almost preternaturally suited for coach Mike Martz's vertical offense. "Marc's pretty remarkable, actually," said Martz. "His decision making was impeccable. He's getting better every week."

And there are still nine weeks to go, folks.

Bulger's quick release (which, at times, is up to half a second faster than even Mike Vick's) combined with his semi-odd ¾, sidearm release can be harder for DBs to follow than a knuckleball. He is deadly accurate, thanks, he says, to so many games of catch with his old man, Jim Bulger, who is one of 18 quarterbacks from Western Pa. to play for Notre Dame. Did I say Cradle of QBs? Western Pa. is more like a Playpen of Passers.

Shoot, even Martz was shaking his head about the in-game adjustments Bulger was able to pull off against the Steelers. What's more, Bulger truly understands the importance in the St. Louis scheme of getting the ball into the hands of the playmakers right as they reach maximum speed. He also seems to read and recognize the weak spot of today's uberdefense "Cover 2" (behind the 'backers and between the safeties) like some kinda NFL Neo.

Just don't ask him to get even mildly emotional about it all.

Any butterflies?

"I thought I might be nervous but I really wasn't."

How about threading the needle on your pass to Dane Looker?

"That was pretty lucky, it could of gone either way."

Did you have a lot of friends and family in the stands?

"My whole family was here and that's what counts."

When I asked him for just one favorite moment from the day he shifted in his blue suit and kinda sneered at me, saying, "I don't really have one, I mean, I'm not planning on retiring or anything at the end of the year."

OK then.

"See, he just hasn't bought into the recognition or the coming-home hoopla," T-Holt said. "He just wanted to win a game on the road."

And as the game clock ticked down Sunday toward the realization of that goal, most of the Rams were covered in parkas, ponchos, towels and hats to protect themselves from the drizzle in the sky and the Iron City dribble in the stands.

Marc's pretty remarkable, actually. His decision making was impeccable. He's getting better every week."
Mike Martz, Rams coach

"You guys are still the Cardinals to me … go BACK TO ARIZONA?!!" burped out one rather distilled Steeler fan.

Bulger ignored the comments and walked to midfield. He wasn't wearing a jacket. (He's a local kid, remember. In Pittsburgh, rain is a reason to smile because, hey, it could be snowing.) And by now it was freakin' pouring. Yet he looked perfectly dry and clean, untouched by the elements, the Steelers or the hoopla.

He chatted with some old teammates from West Virginia about the big upset of Tech. He posed for pictures. Then he spun around and -- despite all his mighty protestations to the contrary -- Bulger took a few moments to soak in the scene. He took a deep breath and let the accomplishment, along with a warm smile, wash over him. He took in a panorama of the stands then jogged across the field and into the Rams locker room.

And at that moment, just seconds after the best day of his young NFL career, you know exactly what a guy like Bulger must have been thinking.

Ah, nap time.

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at Dave.Fleming@espn3.com. Also, he'll be in chat Thursday at 4 p.m. ET. Click here to leave him a question.

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