Sports

Myriad of classic moments have shaped Super Bowl

Pardon the query, but when did the Super Bowl hijack our lives and demand our attention?

At which point did the NFL's signature event evolve from a game to an unofficial national holiday? A number of us lived it -- from Bart Starr to Terry Bradshaw to Ken Stabler to Doug Williams to John Elway to Tom Brady -- but can anyone determine the exact moment it wove into our culture?

I believe it was a piecemeal process, the drip-by-drip marriage of a country and a happening, a reason for a celebration in the dead of winter. It helped that there was a Joe Namath guarantee here and a Joe Montana drive there, but the game itself seldom delivers on its grandiose promise.

No, other forces were at work here, beginning with a marketing genius in former commissioner Pete Rozelle. More than anyone else, this graduate of San Francisco State understood his product and the perfect conduit -- television -- for his product.

Other professional sports (tennis, golf, track and field, etc.) seem to wallow through their respective seasons and exit the stage with a limp rather than a full strut. Here is where the NFL truly understands its place. It closes with a bang, a definitive finale, a king crowning with all fires ablaze, and they promote it 24-7, year-round, like a lunar landing.

Duane Thomas, the enigmatic star for the Dallas Cowboys, tried to make it real long ago with his epic line, "If it's the ultimate game, how come they're playing it again next year?"

Well, isn't there a part of us that wants to be swept off our feet, if only for four hours? We gladly postpone life for a day because the Super Bowl offers a perfect excuse for everyone from the season-ticket holder to the amused bank clerk.

We convene today for the XLIInd time with our taste buds longing for deli sandwiches and our eyes open. Each year, the NFL sells the game as Armageddon, the last two teams standing, the collision for all time. Deep in our heart of hearts, we know we've been conned most years. The trumpets blare, the CEOs trot out their best ads, the balloons are released, and the final scores sometimes blink 52-17, 46-10, 55-10 and 34-7.

Guess what: We're actually a step ahead. We understand the game can't possibly match up with the hype, and we're good with it. Sometimes, it's more fun to laugh with friends and pay more attention to the commercials. "Another Super Bowl lemon," we joke, "and can you pass the spinach squares?"

Which brings us to today and, one more time, we're dangerously close to tumbling off the roman-numeraled cliff. To no one's shock, the New York Giants vs. the New England Patriots has been billed as the game to surpass all games. For fans in Northern California who've forgotten what a good team looks like, it's delicious bait.

This one doesn't feel like Dallas-Buffalo, Denver-San Francisco, Miami-Minnesota or other Super Bowls that fell flatter than day-old soft drinks. The Patriots, the first 18-0 team in NFL history, bring the entire package -- authenticity, intrigue, controversy and, just maybe, a day to remember.

They've already won three Big Ones this decade. They're led by Brady, already an icon, a former sixth-round draft pick who's a leader, a father, and the boyfriend of Gisele Bundchen. They're inspired by coach Bill Belichick, grouchy and grumpy in the mold of Vince Lombardi, and there's no better NFL mold. Simply, they're poised to make history.

The Patriots also are surrounded by a cheating scandal that partially has been covered up by both themselves and an all-too-enabling league front office. The NFL tried to inoculate itself by fining Belichick $500,000 and docking the team $250,000 and a first-round draft choice. Alas, the controversy isn't going away and, in fact, has been used as a handy motivational prop.

So in one corner are the Patriots, black-hatted and in pursuit of immortality, against the New York Giants. This is an NFL fantasy in real time: the unbeaten and favored heavyweight against the underdog from the nation's No. 1 media market. Big Apple aside, the Giants are nothing more than the foil. The Patriots deflected the heat with a lot of static regarding Brady's sore ankle, but they're the story line and they know it.

Meanwhile, much of the nation tries to buy into the idea that the Giants, who nearly upset New England in Week 17, can stun the world. They'll come close but not close enough -- Patriots 38, Giants 31.

Yes, I again believe we'll witness something special. Once again, we'll again admire a product of our area -- Catheys Valley's Logan Mankins for New England, who follows Atwater's Bernard Berrian (Bears) and Sonora's Josh Parry (Eagles) as Super Bowl role players. We're willing captives for a day because there's nothing else in our world that truly stops traffic cold.

Chips and dip, anyone?

Bee sports columnist Ron Agostini can be reached at ragostini@modbee.com or 578-2302.

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