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From sordid to stupid, Super Bowl excess often can be unbearable

Are they in the lobby of the media hotel yet? You know who I mean.

The pipe fitter from Pittsburgh and his four buddies who drove all night in the nine-year-old Suburban, Steelers flag whipping from the radio antenna. The guy who works 4-to-midnight at the Georgia-Pacific plant in Green Bay, cranking out Angel Soft. The swell from Jersey, juggling cell phones and trying to score a ticket to P. Diddy's party.

Would-be playas are as much a part of the Super Bowl landscape as the ubiquitous, Roman-numeraled game logo, which hangs like skin from every vacant corner of the city.

Have they filled up the lobby at the Sheraton in Dallas?

If they haven't, they will. They will ask you for tickets. They will try to sell you tickets. They will note that you are staying at the Sheraton and they will offer to buy your room key. They will explain that there is someone on the 8th floor that they really have to see and that they can't get upstairs on account of the security guys guarding the elevator banks, checking for room keys and, c'mon, dude, can you help a man out?

I've been to 19 (XIX) Super Bowls. The last time I went, four years ago, a guy offered me $100 for my room key. He was stalking some minor celebrity. "I have cash,'' he informed me. The guy actually fanned five $20s in his hand. "A whole hundred dollars?'' I said.

"Absolutely,'' he said. He missed the sarcasm.

"No, thanks.''

It's wrong to say the Super Bowl has been overwhelmed by the extraneous. When hasn't it been? The NFL never called it the Pretty Darned Good Bowl. Its presence is announced in Roman numerals, you know? If any other sport attempted such naked self-reverence, it'd be laughed out of town. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to World Series CXI! With the NFL, it's mega-business as usual.

I never liked going to the Super Bowl. It was comically excessive. It could be morally weird. When the Overtown neighborhood of Miami exploded in riots the week of the '89 Bowl, the NFL responded by sending the leftovers from its lavish Friday night party to the stricken area of town. Meantime, we sports scribes sat on the balconies of our hotel rooms, which afforded a fine view of the smoke plumes from the burning vehicles and businesses a safe distance away.

In the buildup to the 2001 game, Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis was asked if he was complicit in murdering a man.

I always felt a little stupid, er, sheepish, attending the designated Media Day, on Tuesdays. I was an accessory during the fact. If you're not part of the solution, you're just another guy with a pen and a notebook, waiting patiently as some MTV chick asks Brett Favre to autograph her breast.

I was complicit in something I loathed. But the expense-account dinners were nice and the weather was usually better than in Cincinnati.

The stories were contrived, mostly. They still are. A couple injured Green Bay players were mad they were left out of the team photo. Ben Roethlisberger's character is on trial again, as if athletic prowess confers moral rectitude. Brett Keisel has a long beard. All these stories do is justify the money your boss spent to send you there.

I did a few I actually liked. In New Orleans one year, I drove an hour to Kiln, Miss., and spent a few hours with Favre's father, Irv. He lived on a bayou, at the end of Irv Favre Road. He talked about alligators eating his dogs.

Another year, also in New Orleans, I asked a cabdriver to take me to the Lower Ninth Ward, where Marshall Faulk grew up. Faulk was a star for the St. Louis Rams, who were playing Tennessee that year. I wanted to see the poor and mean area myself.

"I'll take you,'' the cabbie said, "but I'm not stopping, and you're not getting out of the cab.''

Ten years after Cincinnati fullback Stanley Wilson snorted some coke in his hotel room and went AWOL the night before the '89 game, I retraced Wilson's sad path in Miami. I happened upon a group of folks sacrificing a chicken in a city park. That was far more compelling than any interview I'd done that week.

The cult of celebrity bugs me, and it's rampant during the Super Bowl run-up. For lots of fans, the game has become incidental to the scene, to being there for the noise of the week. Right about the time the lobby playas became too much, my newspaper figured out the scam of sending someone for a week to write mostly about nothing, and stopped approving the trip.

On Wednesday I called Ed Pope, the sports columnist at the Miami Herald. He's one of three newspaper writers to have covered all 45 Super Bowls. I wanted to know why. I wondered if he felt the same way I did, about the grotesque, big-top bigness of the event.

He really didn't. Pope smashed that theory like a James Harrison shot to the helmet.

"I don't see that as unusual. It's the biggest game of the year, in the most popular sport in the country,'' Pope said, from his hotel room at the, um, Sheraton. "I've always believed it was going to be just what it is.''

And what is that?

"A championship showcase for the biggest sport in America,'' Pope said.

So that's it. Some years, I forgot.

Forgetfulness could have been prompted by the halftime-entertainment press conference (Paul McCartney one year, Mick Jagger the next) or the stacks of promotion slid daily beneath my hotel room door (happy-hour specials, tourist excursions, chamber of commerce welcomes and party invitations of all stripes) or the trip from downtown San Diego to the Callaway Golf plant.

The NFL hosted a press party one year, south of the border in Tijuana, at a dog track. I wandered a few streets afterward, which wasn't a good idea. A 12-year-old kid, um, offered me his sister.

By kickoff, you need to be reminded that it's only a football game you're covering.

It's quintessentially American, is what I'm told. Big and loud and full of itself. We still know how to have a good time. Nothing wrong with that. Better, though, to observe from afar, than advocate the madness by taking part in it. On Super Bowl Sunday, no one asks to buy my house key.

Duane Thomas nailed it. Talking about the over-attention focused on the Super Bowl, the iconoclastic Dallas Cowboys running back said 40 (XL) years ago, "If the Super Bowl is the Ultimate Game, why are they playing it again next year?''

Beats me. The money spends.

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