“Jimmy; was it dead mother, blind father or blind mother, dead father?”
The legendary yell for clarification, addressed to Oakland Raiders quarterback Jim Plunkett before the 1981 Super Bowl, by a reporter anxious to cross the Ts on another inspirational story.
As it happens both Plunkett’s parents were blind, only his father was dead. The flippancy of the query still stands as a symbol of the cynicism of Super Bowl week.
Tomorrow night’s spectacle in New Jersey — although state boundaries have been scrubbed to market this as the New York Super Bowl — will include a sideshow matching the best offence against the stubbornest defence in the NFL. But the main event is X-Factor on Adderall, or X-Factor on whatever it is none of the players will be caught taking this time of year.
The Bruno Mars half-time show might be so 2012 as far as Simon Cowell is concerned, but he’d shoot the John Lewis bear for a slice of tomorrow’s advertising action; four million bucks for 30-second promos.
And even Cowell’s best people, the ones who package the personal misfortunes of young dreamers into uplifting tales of hope, could learn something from the way the American media helps the NFL fill its coffers by painting a human face on some of the 92 men who will ‘suit up’.
A handful are superstars beyond their adopted cities. Many are rich from heavy lifting, but for many more, this is the crest of a wave that might plunge them back on the sand at any time. Some will be out of work Monday.
So, in a week like this; a blind mother and a dead father is gold.
Gridiron might be America’s game, but half of America will be tuning in to their only game of the year. A backstory helps, at least if you want to, as Louis Walsh might put it, steal the hearts of the nation.
Some of the stories genuinely inspire; notably, this year, Seattle fullback Derrick Coleman — the first legally deaf player to make the NFL.
Teammate Malcolm Smith too — who caught the pass Richard Sherman tipped to bring Seattle this far — has overcome a swallowing disease that makes eating difficult. Not what you need in this game.
Then the guys who have crossed the tracks. Denver receiver Demaryius Thomas, whose mother and grandmother are in jail since 2000 for drug dealing.
Or Broncos tackle Orlando Franklin; in jail twice for robbery and stealing cars by 15. Or Seahawks linebacker Bruce Irwin; described this week as “high-school dropout, occasional drug dealer”.
That is the main message being sold this week; the big show as the big way out.
It is not a week to talk about Irwin missing the first four games of this season because he tested positive for a “prohibited substance”. It is not the time to wonder how four games might be considered a suitable ban or to reflect on why the Seahawks have had six players hit by drugs bans in three years.
It is certainly not the week to bring up the three-and-a-half year average career; the concussions; the danger of a half-life after the hits; the probability of going broke within five years of retirement.
Two years ago, the inspirational Super Bowl story was Mark Herzlich of the Giants. He didn’t suit up, but he won a ring. He had just beaten cancer.
Herzlich is a free agent now, started two games this season and in a NJ.com “keep ‘em or dump ‘em” poll this week, rated a 55.6% dump.
Jim Plunkett is 66 now, works in the media and appears to be healthy. Last year, in a forum on concussions, he counted his blessings.
“I have so many friends or people I’ve played against just going through a hell of a time at this stage of their lives. I know something’s got to be done. Exactly what it is, I’m not sure.”
How many of them were sold the dream on inspirational stories like Jim’s? At least X-Factor, once done with its young dreamers, mainly just breaks their hearts.
One for the barrack-room lawyers
One of the motions to be discussed at the GAA’s annual Congress this month would make racism a red card offence. A laudable, if belated, proposal, on the face of it. But is there a danger the people behind it might be underestimating who they are dealing with? Are they setting themselves up for the first Suarez-style ‘cultural differences’ saga? Because you know there are plenty in the GAA who would have got Suarez off.
The brief the Liverpool striker had at his side when he faced the FA might have had an OBE, but he could never hope to match the intrepid exploiters of loopholes and semantics at the disposal of most GAA clubs. You may think shame alone would deter these resourceful characters from picking apart an open-and-shut racism case. But if it made sure their best man lined out in the county semi-final? We have seen shame shouted down before.
Surely, the simpler solution would be to rectify the current laws that make some people on a GAA pitch more equal than others.
Any threatening or abusive language or conduct towards an official currently, according to rule, earns a red card.
The same tirade or gesture towards an opponent or teammate is worthy only of a black card, recently upgraded from yellow. Throw in another upgrade to red; give the current sledging bubble a soft landing, and spare us the inevitable DRA hearing exploring what constitutes racist language.
Dark forces fire timely reminder
So, the dark forces that Richard Keys has often told us about are still out there. Watching and waiting. And they have acted decisively when Andy Gray looked set to rehabilitate himself on British TV screens.
Andy mightn’t exactly have smashed it on FA Cup duty for BT Sport at Stevenage-Everton, but his familiar brand of Bob The Builder-style, self-inquisitory co-commentary — “Can he reach that? Yes, he can” — provided some relief to subscribers who have endured six months of Michael Owen.
Six months, during which it has become clear — surely even to BT — that the one thing that might loosen football’s hold on the hearts and minds is Michael Owen explaining football.
So Andy must have been close — maybe one more emotional interview regretting his sexist past — to having it all back.
But sure enough, another old clip appeared, with Andy and Keysy inviting Sky’s Claire Tomlinson to get her “tits out for the lads”, and Andy throwing in a bonus request to give her “fronties a tweak for the lads”.
It was cynical timing, alright, by the dark forces. But maybe they were reminding hearts and minds that we don’t know the half of it with these fellas.
HEROES & VILLAINS
STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN
Sam Allardyce (above): “Out-tacticed” is an early contender for word of 2014 from the 19th century strategist.
Wayne Rooney: Enjoys a 100% record as United boss since he took over from David Moyes.
HELL IN A HANDCART
South Carolina high-school student: Admitted this week to pouring bleach into the opposing team’s Gatorade cooler at a basketball game. That’s just not cool, kid.
Jim White: I’ve written this before he’s even started the Deadline Day countdown but he disturbed you last night, didn’t he?
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