The smell of an NFL Sunday

Ever wonder what an NFL Sunday smells like? Then take a whiff of Sunday's Bucs-Panthers game.

Updated: November 11, 2003, 3:32 PM ET
By David Fleming | ESPN The Magazine

30-second column
I don't think any of us fully appreciate what the Colts did against Bucs on Oct. 6 when Indy became the first team in NFL history to come back from 21 points down with roughly 4:00 to play. Had I not been given the assignment of reviewing the game film for an upcoming piece in The Mag I would have missed it. So don't you be like the Bucs fans who left early. Study this game, review it, be prepared when your grandkids ask you about it and be able to speak to the magnitude of the event because it truly was an instant classic and one of the few things worth saving from the first half of the 2003 season. Like an assistant coach in Tampa told me, "on 15 plays everything that could have gone wrong for us went wrong and everything that could have gone right for them, went right." The Colts had no timeouts left, did you know that? Peyton Manning, who had passed for 66 yards in the first half, was out of his head in the fourth quarter, completing laser-guided bullets through triple coverage on several seemingly impossible conversion downs. There were costly flags. Bizarre no calls. Defensive hubris. Offensive genius. This game had it all. Did you know that the game-winning kick was a shank, but it was re-directed back between the goalposts by one of the Bucs defensive linemen? Do yourself a favor. Go get a tape of that game, like I did last week, and watch it again and again and again.
Flem File Five
Five More NFL Guarantees:
5. If Miami coach Dave Wannstedt gets a 'Vote of Confidence' I guarantee he's gone.
4. I guarantee a healthy Mike Vick will change the landscape of the playoffs.
3. You're guaranteed to enjoy watching the smug 1972 Dolphins squirm far more than watching the 2003 Chiefs go undefeated.
2. I guarantee that Oakland CB Charles Woodson is blaming his missed tackles against the Jets on bad coaching.
1. I guarantee Marvin Lewis and Jon Gruden will ban player guarantees.
Flemister File
Wherein we continue to follow the exploits of FlemFile mascot and Washington TE Zeron Flemister.

The week started out kinda rough for ZFlem who, in the midst of a nasty losing streak, had to make a fan appearance at a local sporting goods store to sign autographs. At first, angry fans pummeled him with questions about Steve Spurrier, the offense, the personnel decisions, the Cowboys, the quarterbacks and just about everything else under the sun short of cold fusion.

"Fans are serious here man," says Z Flem, "they're educated, informed and they want answers -- now." But he also got a lot of pats on the back and "glad-you're-backs" from fans who brought in Flemister # 89 jerseys, copies of his columns and his rookie cards to get signed.

"If I wanted to I wouldn't have to ever interact with fans," says Z. "But it's stuff like this that you'll remember and appreciate long after you finish playing. Just the fact that so many people are rooting for you, even with the high expectations and the tough season we're having. That's pretty cool." The good vibes continued through to Sunday where Z collected one pass for 8 yards and threw a key block on the 'Skins back-breaking flee flicker TD.

The WHYLO (Who Helped You Log On) of the Week
Henoy from Jamaica sums up a lot of the emails from last week when he asks, "Hey Flem, have you been fired from ESPN? I need your column. Come on, hook a brother up." Not everyone was quite as bothered by my week off, though. El Californio writes, "like the Steeler secondary, you're terrible." Jesse another big fan from Pittsburgh says, "This email can serve a number of purposes -- to point out the mind-numbing hackneyed blandness of pretty much every column of yours I've ever read; to note the disgusting self-congratulatory direction your WHYLO section has taken in that it now chronicles items of obsequious fan mail with one token dissenter thrown in and trashed in narcissistic, painfully self-righteous language; and to bemoan the narcissism oozing from EVERY orifice of your column (like listing the exploits of a football player apparently because he has a name similar to yours.)"

That, people, is how you write a hate email. On a lighter note, Ranjit writes, "I'm giving you props for mentioning to your readers the hottie rock goddess, Liz Phair." And finally, Nathan from St. Louis writes, "I liked the column on Marc Bulger but did not appreciate the barb thrown at Kurt Warner via the Brenda Warner comment."

Defending Brenda Warner?

That's an automatic WHYLO.

Flem Gems
Carolina-Tampa Scene No. 1: The Bucs success may have indeed gone to their head. Bathroom mirrors inside the team's practice facility have been etched with the logo from Super Bowl XXXVII. ... OK so we need help running our game clock but OH MAN what an impressive 33-10 win over 17th ranked BGSU by my Lil' RedHawks of Miami University last week. The win moves MU to 16th in the BCS poll and into the national top 25 for the first time since 1976. All we have to do is roll over Marshall this Wednesday night (ESPN2) -- and avoid any ugly post-game brawls -- to earn our first MAC (east) title. Prediction? Miami 74, Marshall 0. Tune in, if for nothing else, but to see some more hilarious taped pieces of Miami students trying to spell Ben Roethlisberger's last name. BTW, that was my old frat house in the background of the first clip by the basketball arena. ... CTSN2: While waiting to speak to Bucs wideout Keenan McCardell on Friday I watched Maury which featured a 700-pound teen who, with the show's help, managed to somehow gain 84 pounds. Speaking of huge, McCardell's Pro Bowl-type season is one of the few bright spots in TB. ... CTSN3: In the mail last Friday Warren Sapp received a signed Lavar Arrington jersey. ... CTSN4: Did you know that Carolina DE Mike Rucker once almost talked Chicago center Olin Kreutz into pummeling his own QB? ... CTSN5: Carolina coach John Fox: "This league is all about winning your close games. Last year we win a few more of our close games we're in the playoffs. This year we lose a few more of these close games and we're out of the playoff race." ... CTSN6: Will someone buy the Bucs a Panthers' roster and show them that Ricky Proehl is on the team and eligible to catch passes? Thanks.

THIS COLUMN WRITTEN WHILE LISTENING TO: Outkast's mind-blowing new double CD, Speakerboxx/The Love Below, where you get several wild mixes of music -- on each track.

A few weeks ago I visited with the Carolina Panthers nasty defensive line during their lunch break. Deep inside Ericsson Stadium aromas from the team's lunch buffet -- meatloaf, chicken, cornbread and creamed spinach -- wafted through the hallways and into the team's locker room, where defensive tackle Brentson Buckner had decorated his locker with a huge poster from Outkast's album Stankonia.

Stankonia. Hmm. The sour smell of wet grass. The powdery aroma of athletic tape. Port-a-Johns. Hibachis. Spilled beer. Blood. Meatloaf. Urine soaked concrete. We surely know what the NFL looks like. We know what it sounds like. We even have a pretty good idea what it feels like. But have you ever wondered what it, uh, smells like?

And so on Sunday, under the shadow of Ericsson Stadium, I step out of my car and inhale the day's first deep breath. Fall. Crisp. Clean. Cool. Icy. I could be blindfolded right now and still know exactly where I am because of the distinct and bountiful bouquet of NFL tailgating: red-hot charcoal, pungent lighter fluid, the smoky smells of burning wood, the greasy whiff of hamburgers and hot dogs with the char-broil tang so strong you know without looking they're already burnt black. And somewhere in the distance, I swear, the opening chords of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit are blaring.

Of course, it doesn't take long for the other, not-so-lovely side of the parking lot to cross the shnoz. Urine. Check. Vomit. Check. Beer. Check. Imposter designer perfumes? Double check. The head-shaking, acrid chemical masking agent of the Port-a-John. Check. Cigarette smoke. Cheap cigars. Oh -- cough -- yeah. The greasy, Vaseline whiff of face painters. The unmistakable odor of pleather Panthers jackets and the plastic smell of insta-rain ponchos. And the powerful punch from a sewer backed up with leafs. Check.

Does BreathRite make a clothes pin?

Closer to the stadium now, the airwaves reek with the hollow homerism and hyperbole of local radio. Backed up cars waiting -- the air thickening with exhaust, oil, gas -- for the masses to cross the street. I can almost sense these people turning their noses up at this column: Hey Nostrildamus, the emails will declare, YOU'RE THE ONE WHO STINKS! THE NFL STANKONIA IS ON YA! The thought broken by a guy with a sign: I NEED TICKETS. Standing next to him is a street vendor who is pushing a stuffed Dino doll dressed in a Wesley Walls #85 jersey for $19. Nevermind the fans or the fumes or the fact that Walls is now a Packer I tell myself, just breath in the sweet perfume of capitalism my friend.

In nice white tents, practically under the south stands of the stadium, the corporate types listen to a cover band topping Bobby Brown's version of Every Little Step. The smells here are distinctly different than in the parking lot. They reek of NFL elitism, of brunch, of gourmet cuisine, of eggs, cheese, toasted fancy breads and Bloody Marys. These are the folks, in a town that has never really sniffed a pro sports championship, who will drain out of the stadium like snot from an infant's nose when the Bucs take a 21-20 lead with 4:44 left to play.

Inside now, there is the dank, dead, airless, cold concrete smell of the hallways deep inside the stadium. Across the plastic smell of new carpet and up a freshly Pledged lemony elevator, there is the usual Waffle House smorgasbord of smells in the press box. It's a mélange of dandruff and hot dog water, where the tang of egos barely mask the underlying odor of inadequacy; the same way an extra splash of cologne never really hides the lack of a shower.

Back down closer to the field -- finally, whew, exhale -- the first whiff of grass. It sure beats the field inside a dome, which usually smells like dirty, fraternity house carpet, only with less padding. Here, though, the grass smells wet, mildewy and muddy like the bottom of cleats. Twenty-five minutes before kickoff, the Bucs come off the field and file into their locker room for one last pre-game speech. What's the smell? Tension? Fear? Anger? Anticipation? I can't make it out over all the wool, polyester, dry cleaning and shoe shine paste from the men and women of the Armed Forces who will be honored at halftime. Wait. I've got it. No. It's gone, overpowered by the doofus behind me eating a bag of Doritos.

Outside, heated by the sun, the grass smells golden, like hay almost, like driving by a freshly mowed field. Except, of course, between the hashes, where the dead grass carries the heavy acrylic scent of green spray paint. It's the same smell that Panther safety Mike Minter will have stuck in his facemask after diving, face-first into the turf to pick off Bucs quarterback Brad Johnson. Johnson will come on strong late with a clutch, gutsy performance. But he really reeks in the first half, completing 9 of 19 passes for 73 yards, a pick. (Of course, when it comes to the best, but worst smelling NFL quarterback, no one beats the, shall we say, chronically flatulent Brett Favre.)

Early on I'm glad to see Bucs corner Tim Wansley trading in the stench of toast he picked up during the Colts' comeback for the sweet smell of redemption after picking off two Panther passes.

"Blood-n-mud." That's what Dallas defensive tackle La'Roi Glover says it smells like in the trenches. And what a nasty, physical war at the line of scrimmage in Carolina on Sunday. Eye gouging. Trash talk. Earth rattling collisions. Scraping. Clawing. On every play. All to see who controls a few inches of turf. And you know Carolina defensive end Mike Rucker, who talks more trash than BFI, was breathing that sewage into every blocker's earhole. After the game, Carolina defensive end Julius Peppers looked down his nose at reporters wondering when his sack production would increase. "I answered some questions about where I've been," he snorted. "Because today I was around Brad Johnson -- all day."

Poor Tampa tackle Kenyatta Walker, after dealing with this Teal Curtain he looked like he needed a fistful of smelling salts.

So did the Bucs defense, which never did quite pick up Ricky Proehl's scent as he repeatedly blew past the confused coverages for 133 yards and a touchdown. Panther quarterback Jake Delhomme sniffed out single coverage like a Cajun bloodhound. The Bucs seem so unwilling to adjust late in games that one gets the feeling the Tampa defense has begun to think it's you-know-what doesn't stink. Well, it does. And, sniff, sniff, you smell that? Horse manure? No, that's Simeon Rice's victory guarantee.

"Hey why would they adjust to me?" Proehl said after the game with more than a whiff of sarcasm. "They're one of the best-ever defenses, right? They sure seemed over confident at the end, though, kinda like, 'No way are these guys scoring on us.' They were in total shock. You could see it in their eyes."

Down on that empty field after the game the cold, crisp air smells clean, I guess, like the way bottled water kinda just tastes clean. The swirling air inside the darkened stadium is cut by the slap-in-the-face-stank of spilled beer. Inside the Panthers locker room the scent of freshly cut oranges mixes with the baby-powder like smell of athletic tape, dirty work clothes and the stale odor of wet carpet.

Doesn't matter, really. The Panthers, 7-2 overall and undefeated in the NFC South, are smelling like roses.

The Bucs pile into their bus. They stink ... of a Super Bowl hangover. The bus motors away into the night. Diesel. Brake dust. The team reeks of exhaust fumes and exhaustion. The champagne and cigar olfactory overload that is the Super Bowl has been replaced by the putrid, unwashable whiff of mediocrity.

I follow them out of the stadium. Across the gravel parking lot that now smells only of garbage and stale beer. I make my way to my car. I smell smoke. Garbage. Rain? I anticipate the final whiff of the day: ahhh, that chemical yet buttery new car smell.

A tailgater dressed in a giant teal Panthers jacket steps out of the crowd and yells something to me as I approach my car. Something smells fishy. Cracked plastic. Scorched metal. Burnt rubber. Oh no.

"I hit your car," the woman says, handing me my passenger-side mirror.

I can already smell the oily-gasoline rag handshake of the BMW repairman and his cologne of condescension. And, ah yes, the powdery, metallic scent of insurance form carbon copies and the mop bucket scent of cheap waiting room coffee.

After everything I've inhaled on this day, this turns out to be the only thing that really stinks.

David Fleming is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at