XLII Years Of Living

February 05, 2008 |

I grew up in Baltimore.  I was born July 14, 1966.  The Baltimore Orioles won their first World Series when I was literally 3 months old.  The Baltimore Colts won their most memorable Championship 8 years before I was born.  My perspective of  sporting events in my lifetime, of those that I can recall with absolute clarity, is based upon this.

Super Bowl I was played when I was 7 months old.  I am as old as the Super Bowl.  Most of my sporting recollections and the times of my life are often framed within the context of the Super Bowl.

For instance, as the New England Patriots sought perfection (and failed) last night in the 42nd annual affair, my memories were drawn to 1972.  I remember quite clearly riding in the back of my father’s station wagon (Mercury Crown Victoria, to be precise) on our way home from Canaan Valley, West Virginia.  It was mid-January, we had spent three days skiing as a family, and the sun was shining brightly as I sat alone in the far back seat of that wagon, listening to some distant radio signal as the Miami Dolphins played the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII.  As a young Baltimore Colts fan, I recognized the clarity of that day.  Win, and the Dolphins would be unbeaten, perfect, forever memorialized as the most invincible team in the history of the NFL.  Lose, and then George Allen and his admittedly “Over The Hill Gang” would have spoiled the party.

I can still vividly recall Garo Yepremian’s flub of a bad snap on a field goal attempt that led to the Redskins’ only touchdown in that game (it was Mike Bass who scored off of Garo’s comical attempt at a forward pass).  I also still see Don Shula (a man greatly despised by true Colts’ fans – just ask one why) being carried off the field by his jubilant players following the Dolphins’ victory.

As much as I disliked the Dolphins as a six year old, I admired that big fat 0 in their loss column.  It made that cool helmet logo even more legit in my eyes.  That logo represented an absolute standard of perfection, and made me realize that it would take the best effort imaginable by a team to change that perception.  The Miami Dolphins were my gold standard growing up in Baltimore in the early 1970’s as a Baltimore Colts fan.

That’s what made Toni Linhardt’s field goal in the December fog at Memorial Stadium so memorable.  It was actually possible to slay the beast.  On any given Sunday.

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I was too young to remember Super Bowls III or V.  Both were dramatic, and both were a huge part of the fabric of professional football in Baltimore (though I’ve always believed that III precedes V in many peoples’ minds, even though we lost III).  Regardless, it left an indelible mark upon me: Baltimore mattered in the games that mattered most in NFL history.  Professional football always owed a huge historical debt to the capital city of the Land of Pleasant Living.  From 1958 to 1984, Baltimore mattered. 

Then Robert Irsay moved my Colts to a cornfield somewhere in the Midwest, and everything changed.

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Super Bowls came and Super Bowls went.  The NFC destroyed the AFC for the better part of my 20’s.  Joe Montana, Doug Williams, Jerry Rice, Emmitt Smith and Lawrence Taylor won titles and grabbed headlines.  There were no upsets to report.  The utter predictability of an NFL regular season imposed the feeling of “here we go again” when it came to Super Bowl pre-game hype and actual results.

For 13 long years, I tried to care about football.

But the only thing that excited me about the Super Bowl was that it meant Spring Training was only two weeks away.  Because I had no team in football (and no seeming hope of ever having one).  The NFL had abandoned my hometown and me.  It had publicly used us, chided us and effectively put out a “No Vacancy” sign in the fraudulent 1993 Expansion Derby. 

Jacksonville?  Really?  C’mon, Tags.  We know better.

But I still cared about what it all meant watching Super Bowls.  Interesting or not, I still did, even though the league’s emperor didn’t care that I cared.  Because football, and its history, could not hide from Baltimore.  My hometown.

Besides Super Bowls XXIII and XXV, were there any memorable games with close finishes?  Most were blowouts.  The league was almost forcing me to not care.  Especially about the Redskins (but that’s a whole other column).  The game, as it boomed in popularity, had almost lost competitive balance at its most important showcase.  55-10, 42-10, 46-10, 52-17, etc…..Good God, could anyone in the AFC play? 

What happened to my youth, to the days of AFC dominance?  Why did I still feel drawn to Super Sunday as a de-facto national holiday, even though the NFL didn’t acknowledge my potential fandom?  I was in danger of becoming a generic “anyfan” with no absolute interest or attachment to the teams playing.  I was totally apathetic and cynical about Tags and his cronies (for the record, those feelings haven’t changed).  I spent my best years as a fan without a team.  I was young, virile and able to drink copious amounts of adult beverages.  I was the absolute marketer’s dream for any NFL franchise.  I was 18 to 31 years old.  I was ignored.

I had no team.

I had no allegiance.

I was as old as the Super Bowl and not related to it anymore.

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I was married in October 1995.

Art Modell moved the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore one week later.

Suddenly, I cared about Super Bowl XXX.

And it’s redefined the history of my life since then. 

Especially since January 28, 2001. 

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Now I know what it means.  How it feels.  The everlasting tingle you get when you remember certain plays, plays that defined the utter magic your team produced.  Whether you remember Duane Starks or Dwight Smith, Troy Brown or David Tyree, the imprint is indelible.  Those improbable moments are what you wait forever for as a fan. 

Because they generally don’t happen twice.

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Which makes this 42nd Super Bowl so memorable.  The fact that an undefeated team that had scored more points than anyone else in history could only manage 14 points against their opponent makes it noteworthy enough.  The fact that New England was undefeated under their current coach in previous Super Bowls added to the potential legend.  Top it all off with an unblemished record and what the New York Giants did is damn near legendary. 

And who can argue with that?  The Giants have cemented their place in history by virtue of yesterday’s victory.  When significant cultural events occur, I try to make mental notes of them.  I can tell you where I was when I heard President Reagan was shot, when Pope John Paul II was shot, when the Challenger exploded.  I can still hear Howard Cosell telling a Monday Night Football audience that John Lennon had been shot (he was a member of a rock-and-roll band known as The Beatles for those who are too young…).  These are touchstone moments in the times of my life. 

So we all are inclined to frame things in the reference of our times.  That’s just basic human nature.

Framed in those terms, remember what you witnessed yesterday.  And consider a few questions here:

Will any other team enter a Super Bowl undefeated in your lifetime?

Will there ever be another instance where a team from New York is cast as the prohibitive underdog?

Will you remember this game, and where you were while watching its stunning conclusion, thirty years from now, even if you weren’t a fan of either team?

 Don’t you believe that your team is capable, in any single year, of matching the Giants’ performance these last five weeks?  After all, it happened here from November 2000 to January 28, 2001.  It happened in Pittsburgh from December 2005 to February 2006.  It even happened to the (I won’t name them here) last season.

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As I’ve aged, I’ve become more acutely aware, year by year, that nothing is a certainty.  Life, in its many ways, continues to ask questions that I simply cannot answer.  Even when my convictions are well-based and backed by a “0” in the loss column.  My assurances of a Patriots blowout were wildly wrong.  I know it and I saw it.  But I believed that perfection was only sixty minutes away. 

So 42 years into this, what have I learned?   If I use the Super Bowl as a guide for life, here are my best guesses:

  1. You never know what you think you know.
  2. Beware the Wild Card road warrior team.
  3. I’d rather lose in October when nobody’s watching than on February 3rd with 1 Billion viewers tuned in (with 99% rooting against you).
  4. I’ve still seen many more blowouts than close games.
  5. Don’t have a public persona like Bill Belichick.
  6. Whether you make it to the Big Game or not, always chase the hottest babe available.
  7. Perfection – at least as defined by wins and losses – is damn near impossible.
  8. Savor the moment – you never know if it will happen again.

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When I was 8 years old, I played football every afternoon following school.  One of my classmates was a huge Larry Csonka fan.  He absolutely loved the Dolphins.  I had been conditioned to want to beat them.  Andy wore a Dolphins t-shirt all the time.  Those teams went to three straight Super Bowls, winning their last two.  They were the NFL gold standard.

Just as New England has been for the past seven years.

Yet, immortality and a place alongside those ’72 Dolphins is gone.  Certainty has become disbelief; granite is crumbling; history is, once again, a mystery.  The dream of becoming immortal is futile for the majority.  Perfection is elusive and arbitrary.  There really isn’t a higher power acting on your behalf.  Games are individual entities, devoid of relation to previous exploits.  History is perfectly irrelevant to today’s matchup.

That’s why the ’72 Dolphins stand alone and always will. 

Because we won’t let anyone get there without immense scrutiny and unbearable outside pressure.

Because the world was so completely different in my 7th Super Bowl than my 42nd.    

Because the other team simply would not let it happen to them.

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Today New York, New York is a different place.  It has to be.  There is no easy way to explain how any team from that city can be an underdog, in any sport, to one from Boston.  This is totally opposite from my life from Super Bowls IV to XXV.  But it happened.  And so did a Giants’ victory. 

For all lifelong Baltimoreans, the idea of rooting for a “NY” logo is repugnant.  That’s the team Johnny U. and Company beat twice for NFL titles, the ’69 memory of Joe Willie, the Mets, the Yankees, etc.  I cannot, on principle, ever root for a New York team to win in any sport.  Sorry.

But I’ll tell you this: I wasn’t rooting against New York last night.

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So I still see Linhart’s kick sailing through the uprights, and people streaming onto the dirt infield at 33rd Street, and my father quickly hustling us out of the stands for fear of being trampled.  It was exhilarating and frightening all at once.  The sense of pride and superiority in having slayed the beast was palpable.  It only won a Division title, but man, it felt good…tell all those Dolphins fans their time had come and gone!  A new day was dawning! 

Perfection wouldn’t repeat itself, no matter how hard they worked for it.

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XXXV years later, perfection is still impossible.

The New York Giants slayed the beast.

And something tells me when I’m XXXV years older, it will remain so.  At least in the NFL.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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