Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Are You Ready for Some F-f-f-football...?
Super Bowl XVI, Part Two

"After 15 games in warm weather climates, Super Bowl XVI was played in the Pontiac, Michigan. Pontiac Silverdome, 25 miles from Detroit. While surrounding areas shivered in below zero chill factors, 81,270 fans enjoyed 72 degree comfort in the huge, 5-year-old stadium." - www.superbowl-history.com/1982.php

Yeah, "comfort"...

A steamy haze of sweat and cigarette smoke quickly filled the dome. It was as if the entire crowd was thawing out. After our long wait in the frigid cold we all began to sweat immediately in the warm air inside with our many layers on, peeling them off slowly as we became warmer, but I can't say I was ever comfortable. Also, the shot of warm air made we want to fall asleep. But, hell, I was at the Super Bowl.

There was a special connection to the Super Bowl for my father. Super Bowl I was played on my first birthday, January 15, 1967, with the Green Bay Packers playing. I was born in Green Bay. My father was a journalist there and had known several of the players, even reputedly having had some over to the house for barbecues and such, so it was exciting for him that the Packers were to play in the Very First Super Bowl. (Football championships had been played for decades of course, but not until the National Football League merged with its rival American Football League did these games become Super.) To this day, my father tries to go to every Packers vs. Bears game whether played in Green Bay or Chicago. It was a big deal for him to be able to take his sons to a Super Bowl, and my brothers and I are still grateful that we went.

We were spectators, however, not fans. None of us had any emotional stake in either of the teams playing - the San Francisco 49ers nor the Cincinnati Bengals - but it was just so cool to be there. My oldest brother had chosen to root for the 49ers because he had followed the exciting rise of a young Joe Montana. Knowing nothing of either team, I brushed off the San Francisco team with ignorant male adolescent and mid-western bigotry by determining that they were from California and therefore freaks, and furthermore they were from San Francisco and must be gay. I chose the Bengals largely because of the aesthetics of their uniforms. The irony of my decision-making completely escaped me at the time.

I joined in the newly minted chant "Who Dey?! Who Dey?! Who Dey tink gonna beat dem Bengals?!!" and marveled at the players' super-cool helmets, which boldly sported not a logo but tiger stripes! Hell yeah! And not gay at all...

One of the most grueling aspects of the entire event was half-time. The entertainment was by Up With People. Remember them? You MUST, they also played for Super Bowls X, XIV and XX. Now, I know the organization has done a lot of good things, and I've even known a few people who have been in their touring shows, but really...Up with People? They danced around with hyper positivism in stripey jumpsuits to clappy, kicky choreography. The music was insipid, uninspiring, and downright annoying, like twenty year olds singing stuff from Sesame Street with unwaivering seriousness. The fans in the stadium looked around, puzzled, and many booed. And it went on ENDLESSLY. This was not entertainment for the football fans. It was entertainment for the football broadcast, live muzak carefully chosen for it's complete lack of controversy, long before the days of wardrobe malfunctions and Prince. Entertainment that allowed a viewer out there in televisionland to get up, take a piss and get more beer. We, however, were locked inside the dome with them. Ugh.

The Bengals lost 26-21 despite passing San Francisco in total scrimmage yards, 356 to 275. Joe Montana was named the MVP with 14 of 22 completed passes for 157 yards. I was disappointed by the loss but I don't know if I cared that much. "Who Dey?" got old really fast. It was time to go home. The whole thing had been supremely anti-climactic. I was exhausted.

We had planned to drive back home immediately after the game. It would be another brutal, cramped trip, but the whole thing was almost over. I couldn't wait. When we left the Silverdome it was dark and even more frigid than at the beginning of the day. Everything was covered with that dirty frost that shows up only in the coldest weather when every drop of moisture is squeezed out of the air. We looked out on a sea of gray, frost-covered cars and trudged hurriedly to ours. When we got in it was like sitting in a freezer. The little Accord started right up however and my father gave himself a pat on the back for deciding to take it instead of the Cougar. As we sat there waiting for the engine and the interior to warm up, we noticed several stranded drivers around us, their cars frozen and not starting. Suckers, we thought. Ours had fired up...

The car in front of us was one of the frozen ones and needed a jump. Sure, why not. My dad was ready to oblige quickly and then hit the road. We couldn't get the other car started however because the Honda didn't have enough power. My father went to help the other driver find someone else able to jump his big car. But as my dad looked around he saw row after row of stranded cars. Grabbing my oldest brother, he set out out to help whomever he could. It was another hour before we left the parking lot.

The snow started right away. This was the big winter storm that my father had been expecting. The winds were furious and the snow blinding. It piled up into massive drifts before our eyes. We crawled slowly westward toward Chicago with almost no visibility, our front-wheel drive pulling us through the tracks of whatever car was ahead of us. Through the blowing, falling snow we saw the shadows of dozen of cars and trucks off the side of the highway, either having pulled over intentionally or slid off, out of control. Certain stretches of the interstate looked like a parking lot. Still, we chugged along.

It was an eight hour, white-knuckle ride. My cramped legs were secondary to my worry. We all studied the road ahead and around us with great intensity, and my father reminded us of what a good decision he had made in taking the Accord and not the Cougar. "Look at all those big cars sliding around the road" he'd say. We all gratefully conceded.

There was nothing easy about that trip. And though there were a lot of great things about that game, it was not very satisfying to me because I had no connection to the teams playing. But I appreciated how important this was to my father and that he had gone through so much just to give us that experience, and how great it was that I had actually been to a Super Bowl. It was cool to show the program to my friends and brag about how I had been there, where they had only been in the record-breaking 85 million or so that had watched it on TV. Pfft...yeah...And, later, that little Accord that pulled us through the snowstorm would even become a pivotal prop in one of the most life-changing events I've ever experienced.

I don't care about sports at all anymore. I don't know why. They just don't interest me, even though I've played a lot: football, baseball, track, gymnastics. But, yep, my dad was right. I'm still talking about that frigid, exhausting, but cool Super Bowl XVI experience.

PS- Just a few hours before I wrote this the Green Bay Packers lost the NFC Championship game to the New York Giants at their home field, Lambeau. The temperature at kick-off was minus 1 and the wind-chill dipped to 24 below. My father, having high hopes for another Packers Super Bowl, is very disappointed. A friend back home in Chicago just sent me a text message out of the blue: "It's 4 degrees".

Brrrr...I live in Southern California now...

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Are You Ready for Some F-F-F-Football...?
Super Bowl XVI, Part One

January 24, nineteen-hundred and eighty-two. A bitter, blood-freezing wind blows across the Michigan plains, as two titans of the gridiron square off in the ultimate battle: Superbowl XVI. Or something like that...

At the time my father worked 6 or 7 days a week. So when he planned vacations or special events, he liked to plan them well. Real quality time. This usually meant long drives somewhere - Disneyland, Arkansas... One thing he wanted to do, before his boys grew too old and moved away, was take my brothers and I to a Super Bowl. We had gone on men-only vacations before, including an adventurous fishing trip, but this would be the biggie. Something to remember. Something to talk about years from now. Neither of "our" teams, the Chicago (where we lived) Bears nor the Green Bay (where I was born) Packers were in the championship that year, but my father wanted to treat us to what was possibly a once-in-a-lifetime event.

I was excited. I watched football...some. I played football...some (I was very fast, playing both offensive running back and defensive back; but my heart was never in it). I may not ever get (want) the chance again, so it was pretty cool.

We had decided to drive. It was only a 4 to 5 hour drive to Detroit from Chicago. My oldest brother had a comfy, roomy Lincoln Cougar that he had proudly restored and was offering for the trip . With me being the smallest guy in the family at the time, at 6 feet and 190 athletic pounds (uh-huh, oh yeah) comfort was a pretty important component to a long drive.

The day came to for us to leave, it was a partly sunny, crisp winter day. My brothers and I gathered outside with our luggage, and my father pulled up in the car: his 1981 Honda Accord hatchback.

Where was the Cougar? Not taking the Cougar, my dad explained. There was a big winter storm coming, and he wanted a car with front wheel drive.

What? Front what? Storm? Hatchback? What the...? Where is the...? Where am I gonna...? I was panicking. The hierarchical dictates of a family full of men stated that I, the youngest, got the shittiest seat in the car. Which was behind my dad. Who weighed 250 pounds. And had to fit in the drivers seat of a HONDA ACCORD HATCHBACK. The hierarchical dictates - and the fact that I was only 15 and didn't drive legally yet - also stated that I had no say in the matter.

We hit the road. Crammed behind the driver's seat, pushed all the way back, my legs were on fire from the start. I was extremely active at the time, with football and track. My large sprinter's legs could not be confined or immobile for long periods of time without serious cramping or pain. This was going to be a loooong trip.

I felt like a clown in a car. We were four large men, layered against the cold and crammed together. Our heads all brushed the roof. Mine, as I sat in the back seat, also bounced against the top of the sloping hatch, just behind me.

We must not have looked that imposing when my father chugged the Accord into Michigan, as we were set upon by some shithead in a tricked-out Charger with tinted windows. Threatening us with dangerous braking at high speed or side-swiping, and riding our rear bumper, the driver must have thought us an easy mark in our little four-cylinder with Illinois plates. This went on for some time. The car would disappear for awhile, ahead of or behind us, only to reappear and threaten us again. My father kept a level head, despite my brother's insistence we pull over and teach them a lesson. No, no, we had a schedule to keep, said my dad. But it went on too long and my father's patience was chipped away. Frustrated, anxious and angry, he gave in, and pulled the Honda over to the shoulder in a cloud of dust. The Charger pulled up right behind, ready for a fight, revving his engine. The four of us piled out of the car, out teeth gnashing, our fists clenched, and we began marching toward the Charger. Apparently underestimating the size of the occupants in that little Honda with Illinois plates, the driver of the Charger immediately floored it. Kicking up gravel, he sped back onto the interstate and disappeared far ahead, not to be seen again.

At least I got to stretch my legs.

Detroit. Finally. My father was anxious to get to there. He was picking up the tickets for the game from a friend of his and didn't want to be an inconvenience and make him wait. I don't remember it quite the way my brothers do, but I believe we waited for some time outside of a hotel or office building as my dad retrieved the tickets. I was so cramped up that I thought I would go crazy, and no one else thought it was any consequence if I said anything. I was the kid, so I should just suck it up. Them's the breaks.

Tickets in hand, we hit the road again toward Windsor. We were staying across the river in Canada because all the hotels in the Detroit area were filled up. It was getting dark. We hadn't eaten yet because my dad wanted to meet his friend on time, so he only then, many hours into the trip, decided to stop at a diner outside of Detroit. Again, I got to stretch my legs. This time, inside the restaurant, I pleaded for my brothers and father to switch up the seating arrangement just for the brief remainder of the trip. To my surprise they agreed, with a catch. I sat in the front passenger seat, but - unlike when I was in back - I had to push the seat all the way up, jamming my legs against the dash. I was practically leaning forward. Another battle lost by the youngest boy.

We finally reached the motel, tired, cramped and cold. The temperature had been dropping steeply all day. It would be nice to settle into a warm bed and rest well for the next day's excitement. I had to share a room - and in fact, a bed - with my dad. It was a large bed, but this is something no one past the age of two would ever want to do. Oh, well. This was a once-in-a-lifetime event. I guess I had to pay my dues a bit more. Sleep came uneasily, but eventually it did come. The weirdness of actually being in bed with my dad subsided enough to let me nod off.

Until the Hartford Whalers came into town. The Whalers - a hockey team, for those of you don't know - had played against the Detroit Red Wings that night, and, I'm told they won so they were especially exuberant that night. They also could not find a hotel to accommodate them in Detroit with all the Super Bowl ferver, so they chose the very same motel we were at there in Windsor, Ontario. And they were loud. One of my brothers doesn't remember them being too distracting, but my father and I do. Perhaps it was my already strained nerves, but at about 3am it sounded like they were tearing the place apart. So much for a good sleep.

I don't remember waking up, or eating breakfast or the drive to the Silverdome in Pontiac. But I do remember discovering that the temperature had plummeted overnight to sub-zero levels, and I remember what it was like as we approached the stadium. We were in the middle of nowhere it seemed, far from the bustling cityscapes of Detroit and Windsor. The stadium loomed up out of the plains like a strange rock formation, surrounded by vast fields of empty concrete that were its parking lots. It felt like we parked a mile away in some remote lot, and had to take a long overhead walkway to the dome. Overhead of what, I can't recall. More concrete, it seemed. Nothing, it seemed. The wind was ferocious and my eyes burned. Tears froze on my eyelashes and cheeks. I tried to cover every tiny spot of bare skin but it didn't seemed to work. We trudged on quickly. We would be in the dome soon, warm and excited.

We walked all around outside the stadium's perimeter until we finally found our gate entrance, and...we waited. The doors were not open yet. People crowded around us. Game time approached. And we waited some more. The temperature was deathly cold, and everyone - football fans, strangers - huddled together against the side of the building for warmth. Some people were so cold they cried, but choked back their tears so their cheeks wouldn't freeze. Closer and closer to game time and still no open doors. Ambulances arrived to treat some unfortunate fans overcome by the cold. People banged on the doors. Nothing seemed to be happening. The ultimate football championship was becoming a nightmare.

The doors finally opened, as I remember, very close to game time. There were some logistical problems - who knows what - that prevented them from opening up, but now we were all inside and thawing out. The air inside the dome quickly became a steamy, sweaty fog. All of our winter layers hung limply off our bodies. But we were finally there.