Maybe you're not a fan. Perhaps you're not among the millions who
tune in on TV or lay their money down. Maybe you'd rather spend
your time praying or fishing or watching The Bachelor pass out
Fine, but know this: If you're standing in a stadium or, better
yet, on the sideline when the anthem ends and the air gets thin
and the pom-poms shake and the earth seems ready to quake; and
then the foot meets the ball and it rises into the sky and hangs
there--at that moment, for just a second, nothing seems
The idea was to capture the essence of football, its place in the
American social fabric, as a terror-stricken nation deals with
the first anniversary of 9/11. We mapped out an overdose of a
trip, a five-day odyssey that only a famished fan or maybe a
crazy frequent flyer could love: From last Thursday to Monday,
photographer Robert Beck and I traversed the country, bouncing
from pro to high school to college games and back. At first, on
the surface at least, the players were simply locked into the
task at hand, while a lot of the fans seemed concerned with
winning, drinking, breasts (admiring and/or showcasing them, as
the case may be) and America--in that order.
Then on Sunday evening it happened. Instead of unearthing
football's magical healing powers, a gimpy notion at best, I ran
smack-dab into Sept. 11's enduring force field, in the bowels of
Denver's Invesco Field, when Broncos wideout Ed McCaffrey emerged
from a joyous locker room after a 23-16 upset of the St. Louis
Rams. Denver coach Mike Shanahan had won his Clash of Geniuses
with his Rams counterpart, Mike Martz, deftly calling a weakside
pitch that rookie halfback Clinton Portis turned into a 15-yard
gain. It came on fourth-and-one from the Denver 38, no less, with
8:34 remaining. That set up the game's signature moment:
McCaffrey's sliding, 23-yard touchdown catch with 5:55 left. It
was a wondrous development given that the highly respected
veteran had spent the past year fighting his way back from a
career-threatening broken leg.
When I asked McCaffrey what he was thinking after his triumphant
touchdown catch, he unexpectedly led me back to that horrific
morning from which we all have a story.
"I broke my leg on Monday night, last September 10," said the
normally laconic McCaffrey, his eyes glassy and alert. "They did
the surgery in the middle of the night, and I guess the doctor
spoke to me afterward, but I wasn't sure any of that had actually
happened. When I came to in the morning, I was on a liquid
morphine drip, still in shock. Then I turned on the TV, and I saw
the first tower burning. I told myself, This has to be a movie;
it's not real. But why would Bryant Gumbel be in a movie? I was
sick to my stomach, and I could barely sit up, because it made me
dizzy, but I had to watch. And then the second plane hit the
tower! This couldn't be happening, but it was, and no one knew if
or when it was going to end. I just wanted to be with my family,
and here I was in a hospital bed, and I couldn't even move. I was
He paused, so I started to ask another question. But he wasn't
finished. "I mean, I was helpless, utterly helpless," he added
softly. "Just like everybody else."
Tony Soprano, or Simon and Garfunkel? That's the musical dilemma I
face as I emerge from the Lincoln Tunnel in New Jersey and stare
out the rear window of a Town Car, across the Hudson River, at
the eerie emptiness of the lower Manhattan skyline. Woke up this
morning, got myself a gun? Uh, no thanks. I turn around and peer
out at Giants Stadium. Counting the cars on the New Jersey
Turnpike, they've all come to look for....
For the first time in its 83-year history, the NFL, in yet
another stroke of p.r. genius, scheduled a stand-alone,
Thursday-night opener. The honor goes to the New York Giants and
the San Francisco 49ers. John Madden digs the concept, too.
"Baseball makes Opening Day a big deal," he says. "In football
we'd always just go out and start playing. Now people will get
excited about this game, and that will build interest for Sunday,
and on Monday night it'll peak."
The stars are all out on opening night: Madden and Bradshaw and
Boomer and Boomer, Lesley and Suzy and Tuna and Toomer. There's
Bill Walsh pointing to the spot where Jerry Rice made his
game-winning catch and dash against the Giants 14 years earlier
(the Niners' third Super Bowl season). "When Phil Simms had
already made that touchdown gesture he always did with his arm,
and Joe [Montana] did it right back at him," Walsh says. There's
the Grateful Dead's U.S. Blues blaring from the speakers (Wave
that flag, wave it wide and high/Summertime done come and gone,
my oh my), and New York City police officer Daniel Rodriguez
belting out a stirring rendition of God Bless America. There's
Lawrence Taylor, eyes bugging out of his head, nearly racing onto
the field in the first quarter after the Giants nail 49ers
quarterback Jeff Garcia--the great LT looking, as he did in Any
Given Sunday, like a used-up legend longing to make one more
The only problem is the game. Both teams are tentative,
mistake-prone and utterly unspectacular. At halftime I'm
introduced to Marilyn Heard, the mother of Niners receiver
Terrell Owens, who's sitting in the east end zone stands. "I just
think the game plan is too conservative," she says. In the final
two minutes Owens makes the play that decides the game, a 33-yard
reception that sets up the winning field goal in a 16-13 San
Francisco victory. As the winners file into the locker room, they
look as if they've just learned that training camp will be
extended three weeks next summer. "We've got to give the fans a
little better show next time," says running back Kevan Barlow,
whose 29-yard catch helped set up his team's only touchdown.
"Let's roll," Joey Florence says to the bus driver, and the
hourlong ride south from Denton, Texas, to Fort Worth's Clark
Stadium commences. Florence, 36, is the coach of the Ryan High
Raiders, last year's Class 4A Division I state champions and
currently the Associated Press's No. 1-ranked 4A team in Texas.
In what is believed to be the biggest turnaround in the state's
storied high school football history, Florence took over a team
that had gone 1-9 in 1999 and, in his first season, led Ryan to
the state title game. "We got lucky," Florence insists. "We had
some talented kids, and we won a bunch of close games. The bottom
line is, if you have talent, you can do a lot; if you don't,
I seek a second opinion from Kris Slivocka, one of Florence's
assistants. "He made those kids believe they could fly to the
moon," Slivocka says. "He told them, 'We love you, we care about
you, and there's nowhere I'd rather be than coaching you.'"
The Raiders are a tight-knit bunch. While the school is
predominately white, the team has a large African-American
representation, including blue-chip prospects like 6'7" defensive
end Jarvis Moss. "The best thing about this team is that
everyone, black and white, gets along great," says junior
defensive tackle Derek Lokey, whose 12-year-old twin brothers,
Taylor and Tyler, are the team's ball boys. ("Do you root for the
Cowboys?" I ask. "Very much, sir," the twins answer in unison.)
Ryan will be facing another highly regarded team, Fort Worth
Dunbar, at an urban stadium where fans must pass through metal
detectors to enter. "I grew up with that this-and-that, so it
ain't nothin' to me," says defensive tackle Waymond (Way Way)
Roberts. "I'm sure some of our white boys mighty-mighta be
intimidated, but I let 'em work it out for themselves. Gotta
learn to handle your business."
At least that is what I think Way Way said; the 18-year-old
senior has a unique vernacular that amuses his teammates and
coaches, one of whom endearingly describes it as "alien talk."
Call it country-bonics: Roberts seems to delight in confounding
vanilla speakers like me, but he's a lot of fun to interview.
When you won the state title, were the girls all over you?
"I always got girls, I did. I don't need sports, no, to get 'em."
Denton must have been off the hook when you won it all.
"We were all crunk, goin' back-to-back like dat."
What kind of town is Denton?
"Just an ol' country place to me now. I love it, yeah?"
Florence loves Roberts as much as he does any of his players, if
not more. "The kid's five-nine, maybe 170 pounds soaking wet, but
he's quick as a cat, strong and plays hard all the time, so we
stuck him at defensive tackle," Florence says. "Way Way's the
reason you coach. When I took the job here, he'd been in a bunch
of trouble. They had him in a contained classroom all day, away
from the other kids. If I was a betting man, I'd have bet he
wouldn't have played a game for us. And here he is, starting for
a state championship team, living out what will probably be one
of the highlights of his life. He'll be in Denton forever,
talking about what he did on the football field."
On the Ryan sideline the giant with the blue oxford shirt and the
Super Bowl ring is attracting attention, which is the way it
always seems to be with the 6'5", 300-plus-pound James Parrish, a
friend I've invited along to provide perspective on football's
role in society. Parrish is a financial adviser with Morgan
Stanley, but before that he was the ultimate football vagabond, a
brainy tackle drawing paychecks at various times from two World
League teams, one Canadian Football League club and nine NFL
Having played for so many coaches, including great ones like
George Seifert, Jimmy Johnson and Bill Cowher, Parrish is
eminently qualified to talk about why some succeed and others
fail. Here's the deal with football players: To be a good one,
you've got to force your body to perform actions that your mind
is dead-set against. For a player to accept that bargain on a
consistent basis, he'd better have a sense of something greater
than individual gain, be it faith in a god or a coach, a bond
with his teammates or a profound fear of failure. Football
filters out insincerity in a hurry, and the great coaches know
how to inspire their players.
"It's like this implicit contract you have with the coaches,"
Parrish says. "You've prepared so hard, and they've taken you to
the brink. When it's finally time to play, there's almost an
audacity about you when you take the field. You have such a faith
in your teammates and what you've been through that you feel
indomitable, and when that happens, the coaches know they can
Parrish sidles up to a Ryan offensive lineman with a cast on his
right hand. "I broke my right wrist once," Parrish says. "Let me
ask you something, because it confounded me: How do you wipe
There's a Dunbar fumble, and now something beautiful is
happening. There's a race to the ball. Way Way gets there first,
scoops it up at the 12 and sprints into the end zone--the third
touchdown for Ryan in a 51-22 laugher, and the first TD of Way
After the game most of the Raiders are back on the bus when the
cops move in to break up a fight in the parking lot. I see Taylor
or Tyler Lokey, I'm not sure which, and ask when his first middle
school football game will be. "Next week, sir," he says.
"Remember," I tell him, "it's all about having fun."
"No, sir, it's not," he shoots back defiantly. "It's about
We arrive in Tampa on Saturday morning and zoom north up I-75
toward Gainesville, past the Benzes and Beemers with their GOD IS
A GATOR side-panel decals, past the tasteless billboards (WE BARE
ALL; COUPLES WELCOME; FREE TRUCKER SHOWERS). Everyone in Florida
seems to be heading to this rare and enormously hyped meeting
between perennial national powers and bitter rivals.
"I've never seen it like this, ever; the stadium seats 85,000,
and there's twice that many here," screams the bouncer at the
Swamp, not the stadium but the bar and restaurant on University
Avenue. Pity the buxom Florida coeds who encounter the shirtless
Miami fan with the face paint, orange Afro wig and foam red nose
outside the stadium. The recent UM graduate stops one coed after
another, asking each to pose for a photo, displaying an
unflattering sign just before it's snapped, and then leading his
crew of guys and gals in spirited chants of "Gator whore!"
The Clown, who moonlights as Kendall resident Michael Plasencia,
will shed tears of joy later, after Miami's Maurice Sikes picks
off a Rex Grossman pass and scurries 97 yards for the touchdown
that starts the Hurricanes on their way to a 41-16 blowout. As
the game turns into a rout, the Clown is lifted by the crowd and
passed upward from the front row of the raucous Miami section
until he disappears into the green-and-orange abyss. When he
comes up for air, he vows that Gainesville will turn into
Canesville tonight: "We're gonna destroy the town, walk in big
groups and talk a lot of trash."
It's not enough that the Hurricanes humble the Gators; their fans
feel compelled to humiliate them, too. In the fourth quarter
Miami fans loudly assail the manhood of Grossman, who looked like
anything but a Heisman candidate, completing 19 of 45 passes and
throwing two interceptions. The verbal assault is interrupted
when cops clear a path through the Miami section for a man who
looks not unlike an older, muted version of the rowdies on
fraternity row. "Jeb Bush!" someone screams as the governor and
First Brother reaches the bottom row and is suddenly shoulder to
shoulder with the Clown. Leading with his rank breath, the Clown
initiates a hug, and the governor looks as crossed-up as a senior
citizen counting butterfly ballots.
To the Clown the celebrity moment is merely a sideshow. The main
event is the thrill of not only reacting to but also feeling as
if you're influencing the game, the crowd feeding off the
players' energy and redirecting it back at the athletes. Or, as
the Clown puts it, "That's the best thing in the world--the joy
you feel when your team just scored, and that's all that
I admit I've had that feeling, albeit in scant helpings, during
my years of humiliation as a Cal fan. It's nearly midnight back
in Berkeley by the time we arrive at our hotel in Tampa--check in
at 2:48 a.m., request a 5:50 wake-up call--and my cellphone rings.
A bunch of my friends and fellow alums are calling from a bar
with news of the Golden Bears' victory over New Mexico State. One
of them hands the phone to Adam Duritz. "Dude, we're 2-0!"
screams the dreadlocked Counting Crows singer. "And Stanford's
The Broncos and Rams are a mile high as Sunday's kickoff time
approaches at Invesco, and a former Denver running back, Derek
Loville, screams over the rising din of the crowd, "They say
baseball's America's pastime, but I think most people would agree
now that football is. Six months out of the year, people are
lost, they're channel surfing through life. Now they have
something to focus on."
The teams charge out of opposite tunnels, and I stand in the end
zone, a perceptible tingle rising through my backbone. Marshall
Faulk, the best player in football, smiles broadly, reminding
himself of the unfettered delight this game has brought him since
he was a kid dodging sin in the New Orleans projects. Kurt Warner
prays, and Ed McCaffrey hyperventilates. "For a year, I thought
about this moment and how I couldn't get too emotional when I did
get back," he says later. "But once I got through the tunnel, it
seemed like my heart rate shot up to 250, and it took about a
quarter before I could really breathe."
Up in the fifth row of section 108, Ed's decidedly unsentimental
wife, Lisa, sits with the couple's four young boys and tries to
compose herself. During the national anthem, the tears had come
pouring out. A former high school cheerleader at Ransom
Everglades near Miami, where she also lettered in four sports,
Lisa has been around football all her life, but she had never
felt its power like this.
Hours afterward, as Ed relived his moment of glory in the locker
room, Lisa, with one-year-old son Luke in her arms and an
ambivalent smile on her face, tried to make sense of it all. "I
was thinking about what Ed's been through the past year, but it
was bigger than that," she said. "I can't think of the injury
without thinking of September 11." She put down Luke and dropped
the smile. "I guess that will always be there."
Steelers versus Patriots, new Gillette Stadium, Foxboro, Mass.--the
end of the line. I'm running on fumes, vitamin C and Red Bull,
but when I see Pittsburgh coach Bill Cowher's awesome jaw before
the game, it perks me right up. I ask the Steelers' excitable
leader if he still gets the opening-kickoff tingles.
"Absolutely," he answers. "When you lose that, it's time to get
There are lots of lifers in the NFL, but none more confirmed than
Cowher's boss, 70-year-old Steelers owner Dan Rooney. The man has
as much right to strut as anyone in football, but in an era of
increasingly high-profile owners, Rooney operates without a whiff
of pretense. You cannot find his bio in the team's media guide,
and he still walks to home games from his North Side residence,
mingling with the fans who share his passion for the game that
he's helped to shape.
Last month, for one of the few times in his life, Rooney dropped
his name to get some preferential treatment. He was piloting his
Beechcraft Bonanza from training camp in Latrobe, Pa., back to
Pittsburgh when an electrical failure put him in peril. He called
911 from his cellphone and was patched through to the Allegheny
County Airport's control tower. "I told them who I was," he says,
"but the guy didn't believe me for the longest time."
Just after sundown Rooney crash-landed the plane safely in a
grass field and walked away unscathed. The next day he flew
another aircraft back to Latrobe. He was far more fortunate than
the passengers on United Flight 93, who 11 months earlier went
down in a field about 30 miles southeast of where Rooney landed
his crippled plane. Remembering the memorial service last
September that he, Cowher and the Pittsburgh players attended,
Rooney chokes up with emotion. It's Monday night, the start of
another season. Rooney knows how lucky he is to be here.