Tuesday December 1st, 2015

As part of our countdown to Super Bowl 50, SI.com is rolling out a series focusing on the overlooked, forgotten or just plain strange history of football's biggest game. From commercials to Super Bowl parties, we'll cover it all, with new stories published every Wednesday here.

The greatest Super Bowl story never to run in Sports Illustrated began in a limousine ride across Miami on the night of Jan. 29, 1995, hours after the 49ers beat the Chargers 49–26. Inside that car sat four men: Agent Leigh Steinberg, quarterbacks Steve Young and Kerry Collins, and SI writer Peter King, the story’s author. Within the hour, one of them would require medical attention.

Then again, the greatest Super Bowl story never to run in SI may also have been written that same year, by a different SI staffer and from a decidedly different perspective. That one began, to the best of anyone’s memory, in a bar in Key West. ... Or maybe it was poolside with Eddie DeBartolo Jr. Or perhaps at some roadside shack. No one knows for sure, because no copies exist. But upon one thing all agree: That story starred someone named Sidedoor Pullman-Kid.

When you begin working at a new job you’re bound to hear certain tales, perhaps apocryphal, perhaps embellished. For those of us who arrived at SI around the turn of the millennium, such was the story of Rick Telander and the Super Bowl hobo. The tale usually came out over beers at some dive bar, late on a hazy New York City night when the magazine had been put to bed but we were still wired. Inevitably, someone would bring up the story about the time that Telander, the bard of SI, decided to write the magazine’s biggest story of the year from the perspective of a hobo. As the tale went, Telander wrote the piece on a Sunday-night deadline, filed at 6 a.m. Monday, and then was ordered to rewrite it—on no sleep, in a matter of hours—before the Monday night close. As reporters, we loved this anecdote because, for starters, Who writes that story to begin with? The balls on Telander! Second, He wrote a Super Bowl gamer in two hours!? We also derived a measure of comfort from it all. Even Telander got his copy ripped by editors; we could all feel better about our own failings.

For all the tellings, however, we never found out if that story was true, perhaps out of some fear that it might disappoint.

But it does not. It is grander and stranger than we imagined.

When Telander received the assignment to cover Super Bowl XXIX, in 1995, he was less than overjoyed. Back then, the game was reliably lopsided. The AFC hadn’t won in a decade; if viewers stuck around after halftime, it was often for the commercials. That year promised more of the same. The 49ers were favored by 19 points, the largest spread in history. When San Francisco played Dallas for the NFC championship two weeks earlier, SI’s cover read, “THE REAL SUPER BOWL.”

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At the time, Telander was 46 years old and 14 years into his career at SI. One of the magazine’s best writers, he specialized in eloquent, thoughtful stories. Two decades earlier, just out of Northwestern, he’d embedded in the New York City basketball scene to write Heaven is a Playground, a classic. But now, covering what he recalls as the ninth Super Bowl of his career, he was feeling burnt out. There are only so many paeans one can write, after all. The culture of the game was changing too. With each year, it became more of a caricature, accompanied by grandiose parties and marketing tents and Downtown Julie Brown.

Still, Telander felt a great responsibility knowing that three million-odd people would read his story. Remember: This was just before the Internet forever changed sports coverage. The first Netscape Navigator browser had debuted only a month earlier; people still waited until a magazine arrived in their mailboxes, four days after a game, to read the definitive take or breaking news. When Rick Reilly broke the story of Michael Jordan’s second return to the NBA on the back page of SI in March 2001, it held for days.

After some thought, Telander finally hit upon a creative approach—a concept grounded in literary nonfiction that would also depict the bloating and event-ification of sports with a capital S. Rather than covering the game, he would write about the Super Bowl from the perspective of the proletariat.

And he knew just how to do it. He would invite Sidedoor to Miami.

Peter King had a different assignment at the Super Bowl that January. At the time, two years before the launch of his Monday Morning Quarterback column on SI.com, the 37-year-old King handled the SI’s Inside the NFL column, wrote occasional feature stories and worked as a reporter on Monday Night Football. During Super Bowl week, however, his SI assignment was to dig for nuggets and quotes, then send a file to Telander. Some of what King found would make the story; some wouldn’t. That’s how SI operated for big events. All hands on deck.

Upon arriving in Miami, King began searching for angles. He was joined on the SI team by senior writer Paul (Dr. Z) Zimmerman; staff writer Michael Silver, who in his first year at SI was tasked with writing a sidebar piece; and two young reporters, Candace Putnam and Chad Millman.  They all set up base at the media hotel. King stuck close to 49ers president Carmen Policy. Silver sniffed around for potential scoops, relying on a flip phone that Putnam recalls being “the size of [Mike’s] head, with an antenna to match.”

Telander? He headed to the train station. 

The old man holding the cardboard sign—MANKATO IF YOU PLEASE—had been trudging along the side of a winding country road in Minnesota when Telander first spotted him. He wore a neat white beard and an engineer’s hat.

This was the summer before Super Bowl XXIX, and Telander was on assignment writing about the so-called Cheese League, a circuit of five NFL training camps staged in the small towns of Wisconsin and Minnesota. En route to Vikings camp in Mankato, Minn., Telander figured he’d give the old-timer a ride.

The man turned out to be a hobo—“not a bum,” he made clear; “hobos will work if they need to”—headed to his next train. Seventy-seven, with bright blue eyes, Sidedoor Pullman-Kid (real name: John Francis O’Connor) based himself in Phoenix, where Social Security checks paid for a tiny apartment, but he spent his days hopping freights. Telander was intrigued. Once upon a time, he’d hopped trains himself, finding an open boxcar, leaping in with a bedroll and laying on his back as he watched the night stars roll by. In 1972, he wrote about the experience for the Chicago Sun-Times magazine, a rollicking tale of jumping a Union Pacific freighter destined for Salt Lake City, befriending fellow travelers, choking down grain alcohol and reflecting on Kerouac. Telander considered himself, like Sidedoor, a restless soul.

Back in Minnesota, the two men hit it off. Sidedoor was smart, and good company. On a whim, Telander invited him to tag along on his trip. So, over the next few days, the unlikely duo visited training camps and drank pints in backwoods bars.

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The story Telander turned in was a meditation on football and life. SI’s editors loved it and ran the piece over 10 pages in the July 18, 1994 issue. But Miami was different from small-town Wisconsin. You can imagine how well a 77-year-old man wearing an engineer’s cap—Putnam describes him as “a George Carlin figure in overalls”—fit into the Super Bowl scene. If Sidedoor possessed one trait, though, it was confidence. This was a man who, when Telander first picked him up, had been headed to the annual Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa, where he would be named that year’s King of the Hobos.  

So when, on his first day in Miami, Sidedoor accompanied Telander and Silver to interview Eddie DeBartolo, the 49ers’ owner, at the upscale Doral Hotel, the hobo king didn’t hold back. Upon seeing DeBartolo poolside, Sidedoor stuck out his hand, introduced himself and asked Eddie if he’d ever hopped a train. Silver stood by, dumbfounded.

But then, as Silver recounts, “Eddie falls in love with Sidedoor.”

As it turned out, DeBartolo had always wanted to ride the rails himself. The two men traded stories about the owner’s hometown of Youngstown, Ohio, locomotives and long-forgotten bars. “At the end, Eddie says, ‘Here’s my phone number, here’s my assistant’s number,’ ” recounts Silver. “ ‘I’m available 24 hours a day. If I find out you’re ever [in] Youngstown and you don’t contact me, I’ll have your f------ legs broken. We’re going to hop a train.’”

Asked about it today, DeBartolo laughs at the memory. “I was talking to Marcus Allen and somebody introduced me to this man and we hit it off,” he says. “I remember the way he dressed, like he belonged on a real train, and he was very, very bright and knowledgeable.” Though the pair never did hop that train together, DeBartolo says, “it’s a wonderful memory.”

Nearby, Telander stood by, soaking it all in: The owner and the hobo, poolside at the Doral. His story was coming together.

The 49ers, meanwhile, were trying to stay focused amidst predictions of a historic blowout. The least-watched Super Bowl ever, media predicted.

Silver heard a rumor that, if true, provided him a killer sidebar. Word was, Niners players had talked coach George Seifert into suspending curfew their first two nights in Miami. On the third night, a handful of players still stayed out late. The next day, in a team meeting, Jerry Rice stood up and declared, “This isn’t the 49er way. We came here to win titles.” To which Deion Sanders, one of the late arrivers, responded, “Last time I checked, we beat this team by 23 points during the regular season.” Later, Silver heard, the pair of future Hall of Famers got into it again poolside and needed to be separated. If true, it was a telling clash of styles between the old guard and the hotshot brought in to win another ring. 

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Silver’s reporting would have to wait, though. Telander had an idea: Road trip with Sidedoor to Key West. It would add color to his story. And life, after all, was about adventures. Initially, DeBartolo was involved. “The plan was for us to get on a plane with Eddie and go on a bender,” remembers Silver. “But Eddie got pulled into work stuff.” So on the Friday before the Super Bowl, while King headed off to work his sources, Telander pulled onto Highway 1 with Sidedoor riding shotgun and Silver, Putnam and Millman crammed in the back.

The night started out well enough. Hemingway look-alike contests. Happy hour. The crowd walking out en masse to applaud the sunset. Telander heading off to see some old friends. And then, as Silver puts it, “an air of darkness descended on the bar.” An ominous character took issue with Silver, the loud Californian, and perhaps Sidedoor as well. As collective memory has it, Sidedoor may even have offered to “stick a shiv in that guy if you need me to.” 

Just when things were getting really ugly, Telander showed up. He ran interference and got the crew back on the road to Miami, his story now one anecdote richer.

Finally, the game. Two minutes in, on a muggy, 76-degree night, the 49ers scored on a 44-yard catch by Rice. At the time, it was the fastest touchdown drive in Super Bowl history. Not long afterward, San Francisco scored again, and the rout was on. Young was the unquestioned star, throwing for a record six touchdowns.

Watching the performance, King made a decision: Postgame, he’d tail Young, who was euphoric, hugging everyone and everything in sight, having finally escaped the massive shadow of Joe Montana. Or, as DeBartolo puts it now: “I think he got every monkey in captivity in America off his back.”

As Young walked from the locker room back out to the field, granting dozens of interview requests, King settled in for the long haul. “It must have taken two hours,” remembers King. “At one point he looks at me and he goes, ‘Hey, is there anything to drink or eat? I’m kind of famished.’”

The writer began searching underneath the stands. “I found a bunch of food trays that had been taken away from the suites. I found some sugar cookies. I found some Gatorade and a couple apples. I brought them out and Steve drank two bottles of Gatorade in 15 seconds, and he ate the cookies like a starving man.”

Finally, hours after the game, Young walked to a limo that would take him back to the Hilton Miami Airport where he could celebrate. On one side of him sat his agent, Steinberg, who was overjoyed after Young’s long, tortured rise. On the other was King, who had convinced Steinberg to grant him the type of access that reporters dream of: exclusive time with the Super Bowl MVP in the moments after a historic performance. Rounding out the quartet, across the car, was Collins, an about-to-graduate Penn State quarterback and a prospective client of Steinberg’s.

As the limo stuttered through Miami traffic, Young began to look pale. 

“Let’s stop,” Steinberg remembers saying.

Young shook him off. “He’s a football player,” explains Steinberg.

Emotionally and physically drained from the game, the quarterback turned white. Leaning over, he sent forth a torrent of red Gatorade, dousing Steinberg’s shoes.

Later, at the victory party in the wee hours of the morning, Silver finally nailed down confirmation of the Sanders-Rice showdown, as well as some news about 49ers offensive coordinator Mike Shanahan’s impending departure. Then he hurried back to his room to write it all up.

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At the same time, King was madly finishing his own file. After the limo ride, he’d joined Young in the QB’s hotel suite, which was packed with friends and relatives. Young had wobbled in and collapsed, only to have Miami-Dade Fire Rescue EMTs arrive to provide two packs of intravenous saline. But Young, intent on enjoying the moment, didn’t want anyone to leave. “He’s lying on the bed with his arms outstretched, like a death-bed scene,” says Steinberg. “Like the last supper or something.” At one point, someone in the suite yelled, “Joe who?!” referencing Young’s predecessor under center in San Francisco. But, as King recalls, Young spoke up: “No, no; don’t do that. Joe’s a good guy.”

For King, it was an epic (and exclusive) scene. And after staying with the QB until roughly 3 a.m., he was back in his hotel room, writing it all up. Altogether, it was less a file and more like a complete story—he estimates 1,500 to 2,000 words long; Silver guesses more like 3,000—with a scene opener, dialogue and a ton of details, topped by the symbolic moment of an exhausted Super Bowl MVP purging himself. It was, King knew, journalistic gold.

Meanwhile, across town, Telander was also riding the creative lightning as (to the best of his recollection) Sidedoor slumbered on the floor nearby, a blanket draped over him. In the pre-dawn gray, Telander believed he’d written something special, maybe even profound. At some point he received King’s file, but he doesn’t recall how closely he looked at it.

As the sun brightened the Miami sky, he sent his story to New York using an antiquated email-like system, and he began packing for his flight home.

Sadly, no one can recall the exact details of what transpired in SI’s Manhattan offices that Monday morning. Those involved—NFL editor Steve Robinson, executive editor Peter Carry, managing editor Mark Mulvoy, associate managing editor Rob Fleder, chief of reporters Stefanie Kaufman—only remember the basics. Putnam, who flew back to New York that morning in order to fact-check the story with Millman, heard what happened later, through the grapevine, as did Silver.

Apparently Mulvoy—a charismatic, decisive man, the type who on his birthday walked through the office with a cart of ice cream sandwiches, handing them out—read Telander’s story hot off the printer. About two pages in, he threw it in the air. Paper fluttering to the floor, he yelled, as Silver heard it, “God f------ damn, Rick!” (Mulvoy, now retired and living in Florida, remembers few specifics, but, he says, “At that time, we were still a news magazine. Today, the hobo approach would work perfectly.”)

In Miami, Telander got the call. Rewrite. Now. And this time, make it about the game. 

Back in his hotel room, he typed away furiously. Robinson, the NFL editor, says he suspects Telander had a backup story in his hip pocket, ready to go, considering how quickly he turned around the rewrite. Telander, who had no time to mourn the demise of his Sidedoor opus, says he just fired it out. “It was one of those miserable, F---, now I’m exhausted things.” 

The result, a cover story that ran under the headline “SUPERB!”, was a breezy, fluid 2,500-word feature about the game. It began with Rice’s early touchdown, focused on the Niners’ dominance and hit a lot of the right notes. Nothing wrong with it, nothing especially memorable. Sidedoor's name never appeared. As for King’s file about Young, the Gatorade and the hotel suite? Telander incorporated only a brief mention—150 words or so, at the very end.

King didn’t see any of it until later that week. “I shook my head when I got the magazine,” he says. “When I left Miami, I thought: I know I’m not worthy of writing the Super Bowl story, but I wish someone had believed me when I called at 2 a.m. and said, ‘I have it!’ But I didn’t do that. You didn’t do that stuff back then. So I filed, got to bed by maybe 5 a.m. and got on a plane the next day.”

Looking back now, it all seems almost comically anachronistic. You’ve got Steve Young in the back of a limo, puking, and it’s an aside?! 

But this was sports journalism frozen mid-evolution. And not just in terms of delivery—from curated perspective to nonstop coverage—but in focus. In the years that followed, much of sports media shifted increasingly toward the action itself, a world of analytics and fantasy sports and men in blazers drawing Cover 2 schemes on your TV screen.

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Today, both stories would run, of course. King’s column, full of details and no doubt pushing 5,000 words, would be posted by 8 a.m. Monday morning. It would be read, tweeted and shared by millions.

Telander’s piece would run too, in the magazine or online. Rather than competing, the two tales would be complementary—a portrait of the game and a reflection on what the game represented.

Which brings us back to the Sidedoor version. Was it profound? Overwritten? Telander has searched. So have folks at SI. Sadly, no one has turned up a copy.

Putnam remembers it having “so little to do with the game, it was comical. Reading it, it was like, Was there a game?” she says. ”The first couple paragraphs, there wasn’t even a score. I think that’s probably what put Mulvoy off. I can just imagine what he thought of that thing.”

Says Silver: “My understanding is that the lede was along the lines of, ‘To survive the inevitable blowout letdown that is the Super Bowl, you need faith, booze and a whole lot of levity. So I called my friend Sidedoor Pullman-Kid, the king of the hobos.’ And he wrote a first-person story: ‘I brought the hobo along, and this was our Super Bowl experience.’”

As for Telander, he recalls bits and pieces. “I know,” he says, “that I filtered things through this paradox of all this wealth, and Sidedoor, this innocent observing it from a different vantage point. I was so proud of it. I thought it would be a different, edgy story—a connection with the past, with romantic times, with things that are vanished.

“It may seem like a joke, or trying to be rebellious. I was taking a chance. But it was a chance for the magazine, which was my life. I literally learned how to write by reading SI and novels.” Here he pauses. “I see [certain] stories in SI and I’m like, Damn, I haven’t read this anywhere else. That’s what I was trying to do with my hobo. Maybe the story has become legendary because nobody read it. Maybe it was a piece of s---. But I agonized over it all night long.”

Says Silver, “In fairness to Rick, that Super Bowl really was horrible. And he did the same thing with the Cheese League story, and [the editors] loved it, like it was greatest thing.” He pauses. “But here’s the thing about that [Super Bowl] story: I bet you it was good.”

The following year, Silver wrote his first Super Bowl gamer. He now works for NFL.com. King is a three-time National Sportswriter of the Year and runs SI’s NFL site, TheMMQB.com. Millman is now the editor-in-chief of ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Putnam married KNBR radio host Brian Murphy—who she met that weekend in Miami—and lives in the Bay Area. And DeBartolo is in Tampa, with his family and his three dogs; he is a finalist for election to the NFL Hall of Fame next year.

As for Sidedoor, he passed away in 2008, at age 90. Six years later, Telander helped pay to move his late friend’s ashes back to the site of the Hobo Convention, in Britt, and he still keeps in touch with Connecticut Shorty, one of Sidedoor’s cohorts (and the 1992 Queen of the Hobos). 

“This summer, I’m going to visit his grave,” says Telander, who left SI in 1995, not long after that Super Bowl story, and now, at 66, is a columnist at the Chicago Sun-Times. He still harbors a dream of hopping a train again some time and riding it, wherever it goes. No rules. No oversight. As he says: “Just get on that thing, man, and go.”

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