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The smell of an NFL Sunday


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 Dave.Fleming@espn3.com.