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IN THE COMPANY OF BEST SUPER BOWLS

It's all about seeing stars

Not to be upstaged, players pay price to make game a big hit

HOUSTON -- At the end, it takes a football game played by football players to humble something like a Super Bowl, which is no more simply a football game than Woodstock was simply a band concert. In fact, a Super Bowl is a band concert. It is also a festival of unbridled corporate excess, a vehicle for unbridled civic hubris, and a fortnight of heedless consumption that makes Mardi Gras look like the First Vatican Council. Even the game itself takes place in a spun-mad maelstrom of performance filigree. Between the lights and the noise and the explosives, the ungainly pas de deux between Mr. Timberlake and Ms. Jackson was probably only the third-most immodest moment of the half-hour halftime. And, by the time the massive security operation realized he wasn't actually a part of the show, a man in a jockstrap managed to perform the entire finale from "Riverdance" at midfield. In fact, the Super Bowl differs in its essential atmospherics from the average Arena Football game only in the size of the hall and a rather less liberal approach to naked people.

It's remarkable how quickly it all faded to background noise when two teams with concrete chins finished slugging each other for 37 points in the fourth quarter of a game that the wiseguys estimated should have had just about that many in total. There was no spotlight brighter than that in the eyes of Adam Vinatieri after he'd won his second Super Bowl in three years, and there was nothing in the rafters more explosive than Carolina's Jake Delhomme, whose two long touchdown passes seemed culled from some Hollywood football melodrama of the 1930s. And there was no dance number as intricately choreographed as the way these two teams wound themselves around each other, punching and counterpunching, refusing to surrender the stage, moving as if the two of them were a single entity performing at the top of its ability, which was the way it was, truth be told.

"It was like, I don't know, a snowball coming down a hill," said Tedy Bruschi, the Patriot linebacker who watched a defensive struggle spin out of anyone's control. "We'd make a play. Then they'd make one. I'm standing there, thinking, what's going on here? How do we make this stop?"

"This," said Delhomme, his head dropping against the glare of the television lights, "is the worst feeling I've ever known."

They were the real moments at the end of a week in which so very much was unreal, or surreal, or simply didn't try very hard to be real at all. These were men who were humbled -- by their teammates, by their opponents, and by the game that was at the heart of all the stuff and nonsense. It all fell away, and the effort to get beyond it -- to come out and simply to play -- had left the Patriots joyful and spent, and had left the Panthers sorrowful and spent. Exhaustion sat in both locker rooms as if it were everyone's teammate.

"Can you feel it?" New England linebacker Mike Vrabel asked his young son, as the boy reached out and touched his father's shoulder pads. "There are a lot of bangs in there. Can you feel the vibrations? Can you still?"

In fact, the whole week was a search for the humble, and this in a town that zoned it out years ago, and this at an event that has less use for it than it has for naked people. You had to look hard for it all week. But, if you looked for the humble, long after a conspicuously modest New England football team had won a conspicuously excessive 32-29 victory, you could find it there in the players' eyes. . . .

Media Day is the unofficial beginning of Super Bowl week and, if nothing else, it's become the preeminent American postmodern moment -- what with cameramen filming players who were filming other players who were filming a representative of the Nickelodeon cable channel who seemed to be dressed as a flying carrot.

"Look at him," said Bethel Johnson, a rookie wideout. "What's his story, do you suppose?"

Johnson made his mark on the New England season back in November when his 92-yard kickoff return helped secure a vital win over Indianapolis. On this day, though, adrift in the roiling media, Johnson was as much of a rookie as he'd been the first day of training camp. Nothing in Corsicana, Texas, prepares you for the first time an NFL safety gets into your grille, and nothing at Texas A & M prepares you to be interviewed by representatives of every late-night host except Ted Koppel. And, of course, you have to learn how to cope with close personal hometown friends you never knew you had.

"Tickets, man," Johnson said. "I wasn't ready for that, you know? It's ridiculous. If I didn't know you when I was young, that's just too bad. If you didn't get to know me by the time I was 3, you're too late.

"You have to learn a lot," he continued. "Every day, from the first day of camp. Like, for me, right? When I was at A & M, we didn't run a lot of short routes. It was always, `Bethel, go long.' Here, though, I had to learn to be patient with that.

"I'm just taking it all in, the way I have been all year. The biggest thing is that everybody up here can play. I mean, everybody . . . can . . . play. And you're a rookie, you have to know that all the rookies are going through what you're going through."

Five days later, though, at the end of a game in which he did not make a single catch and in which he returned four kickoffs for a total of 78 yards, Johnson was out in the middle of the field, confetti falling on him like a jeweled rain, hugging veteran Willie McGinest, crowing to the NFL Network, "That's the last rookie thing I'll ever have to do. I'm not a rookie anymore." By the time he'd hit the locker room, however, something more serious had settled in him.

"All the stuff," said Bethel Johnson, no longer a rookie, in a quiet voice like he'd come to church, "it all went away when you saw what guys were doing out there. It was a football game, wasn't it?". . .

But is football art? And not in the sense of Vegas lounge performance art, or patriotic pageant, but art of a type you could hang on a wall. Or several walls. Could you take it and hang it, say, amid exhibits of African gold and American collages and just down the hall from a collection of pre-Columbian art?

Partly through the largesse of Robert McNair, the millionnaire owner of the still-new Houston Texans, the city's Museum of Modern Art hosted an exhibit entitled "First Down Houston: The Birth of an NFL Franchise." It consisted of a series of black-and-white photographs by Robert Clark, and represented, according to the museum brochure, "the first time that the inaugural season of a professional football team has been documented from start to finish." The exhibit was dominated by a huge photo of the Texan cheerleaders, and a print of a fan dressed as Elvis Presley covered the opposite wall. There is a stand in the middle of the exhibit selling various Texan gewgaws, which sets it apart from the other exhibits in the museum. For example, there is no stand in the middle of the collection of South American gold at which you can buy a Quetzalcoatl baseball cap.

The NFL plays for history in the Now. Everything the league does is calculated for instant immortality -- from the glorious Wagnerian propaganda of NFL Films to the brand-new NFL Network, the ubiquity of which at this, its first Super Bowl, lent to the proceedings an air that you could safely call Orwellian, even given the beating that word's taken over the past few years. The extremely big head of Tampa Bay's Warren Sapp, whom the network hired for the weekend, was a constant presence, beaming itself off

of large, flat TV screens tucked into every corner of every venue. For example, when commissioner Paul Tagliabue gave his annual state of the game speech in midweek, he inveighed ponderously against the sudden outbreak of end-zone stoogery. Cellphones! Sharpies! What could be next? Of course, on the night of the game, the commissioner's stand against public vulgarity was rather undermined both by the impromptu performance of the Dancing Jockstrap Fool, and by the entertainment officially engaged for halftime, including Kid Rock, whom Chris Rock (no relation) once called "the substitute pimp."

But the NFL's art is not based in its dubious gift for showmanship, or in its inflated opinion of itself. It's based in what the people who play in the league are willing to do to themselves in order to play. The mediums of the NFL's art are blood and bone and sinew. The most astonishing statistics of this Super Bowl came late in the week, when a study was released in the Houston Chronicle that revealed, among other things, that 65 percent of NFL players retire with permanent injuries; that the suicide rate for active and retired football players is six times greater than the national average; and that 78 percent of NFL players are unemployed, bankrupt, or divorced within two years of leaving the game. The art of the NFL depends in no little measure on voluntary self-destruction.

They talked about it on Saturday, when they announced four new members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. One of them was Carl Eller, a mainstay at defensive end on the great Minnesota Viking teams of the 1970s. Eller looks older than his years, a craggier Samuel L. Jackson.

"I'm getting older and I'm feeling more and more of those pains," he said. "I'll wake up, and I'll feel something new, and I'll say, `Damn, when'd I do that? Who did that to me? I don't remember getting hit back there.'

"But it's worth it, you know? I'm here today, and it's nice to have recognized that what you did mattered, that it was important, and that people valued it."

If you look for the humble, look for it in the way Carl Eller walks, and how that may be the future for people like Carolina lineman Todd Steussie, who met the press with a circular bruise around his biceps like some sort of cuff title he'd earned with his own flesh. "We knew we could stand up to them," Steussie said. "I don't know now if we'll ever consider this a successful season."

Or look for it in Rodney Harrison. All year, he'd been the guided missile in the Patriots secondary -- a hitter's hitter, from the first day of camp, when he'd leveled Troy Brown. In the fourth quarter Sunday, while slamming a Panther receiver out of bounds, Harrison landed awkwardly on his right arm. He left the game, leaving the depleted New England secondary even more vulnerable to Delhomme's heedless gift for the big play. Later, in the locker room, tears welling in his eyes, his arm in a sling and a cast on his arm, Rodney Harrison talked about how much the game had meant to him, and there was even a greater impact in his lowered voice than he'd ever made on the field.

"It's a very emotional thing for me to put into words," he said, "to have the opportunity to be sitting here right now." Your arm, he is asked. Is it broken?

"All I know is it hurts really, really bad," said Rodney Harrison, who knew so very much more than that, but who wasn't telling any of it, keeping it safe within him, like ancient gold in the earth. . . .

At the end of it, Houston is a town too familiar with that shadowland in which ambition passes unnoticed into greed, and airy dreams unnoticed into profane appetites. The monument to that place is at 1400 Smith Street, not far from where all the Super Bowl street parties roared deep into the night. It is a huge slab of folded glass and curdled ethics. Once, in this building, the Enron Corporation controlled a mighty universe of its own delusions, and, when it fell, it took real people with real lives down with it.

But, if you want the actual, honest-to-God point of it, walk across the street to the little stone church. Go in and talk to Reverend Nathan Johnson, who presides over the Antioch Baptist Church. He is the latest in a line of clergymen that goes back to 1868, when the church was founded by freed slaves and their freed children. Go into the prayer room, with the fading photographs and the old organs, and talk about the sermon that Pastor Johnson sees out his window every morning.

"If you suffer from the illusion of invincibility," he explains, "you're setting yourself up for a great fall. Those who thought that money alone would determine who's powerful should come here and look up and see how people forgot it discovered that there's a power greater than money."

The Super Bowl is awash in cash, but, if everyone is really lucky, all the money and all the trappings fall away in a breathless instant. And, through the smoke and the noise and the big silliness of a big, silly football game, there are Tom Brady and Jake Delhomme, different but alike, commanding your attention, with nothing in common except a confidence that has nothing to do with what they park in their garage at night. Or there is Tedy Bruschi, fighting to make plays while the game is spinning away from his ability to do so. Or, finally, there is Adam Vinatieri -- again, by God's own chance -- standing alone in the middle of the field.

"I guess if you've done it once," he said later, "you sort of know what it's like."

Or there's Mike Vrabel -- the essence of the New England Patriots -- who managed to put up a statistical line that people are going to ponder wonderingly when the Super Bowls have moved into the M and C categories of Roman numerology: six tackles, two sacks, one fumble caused, and a touchdown reception. Listen to him talk about the moments before his touchdown, his body aching with every small movement as he talks, his eyes alight with joy but drained of all energy, his small son tugging at his hand.

"I told some people," Vrabel said, "I told them, `Let's go out there and change our lives.' "

There's a lesson there, and you can't set it to music, and you can't dance to it, and it doesn't need fireworks or sparklers or even naked people. It's a lesson not from the gilded tower, but from the little stone church below. If you want to search for the humble, even in a Super Bowl week that ended in the greatest of all Super Bowls, it's not all that hard to find.

Chances are, it just went to a football game.

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