Super Bowl Eve

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Courtesy of the NY Times, a handy guide to the refs' hand signals

Tomorrow we will crown the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Green Bay Packers as World Champions (never mind the fact that no other countries send contenders). Some are noting that this game is just about as evenly matched, statistics-wise, as possible. All the predictions seem to amount to a lot of conversations and nit-picking about things that may or may not matter, as statistically-based predictions always are. Yes, the Packers are “hot”–a team that hasn’t been on a winning streak doesn’t make it to the Super Bowl–and yes they lost to crappy teams in the regular season. Yes, the Steelers only lost in the regular season to playoff teams, and yes, Ben Roethlisberger is a creep. If you already have an opinion about who’s going to win the Super Bowl, the experts’ predictions probably aren’t going to change your mind. I came across a more interesting set of predictions that aren’t as concerned with percentages, streaks, quarterback comparisons, etc. Here are some of the best, written by fans:

  • The announcers overwhelm us with Brett Favre talk.
  • At least one woman in the house will say per usual “I’m just here for the commercials.”
  • Fox mentions that it’s Ronald Reagan’s 100th birthday, but there’s no mention that it’s also Tom Brokaw’s 71st birthday.
  • Aaron Rodgers is the leading rusher for the Packers.

And my personal favorite:

  • Roethlisberger repays the favor and humps Mendenhall after his score.

Football’s greatest hits

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A Viking takes down a Packer

Two types of football videos are popular on youtube: those that highlight incredible catches/unbelievable runs/exciting plays and those of powerful hits that make the viewer flinch. While I love watching great players in their greatest moments, seeing people suffer potentially life-altering injuries makes me sick. In fact, after watching a particularly painful hit, I often wonder why I love such a vicious sport, and if I really should condone such violence.

In a January 31, 2011 New Yorker article, Ben McGrath examines the future of football in light of the mortal danger to which players subject themselves. They are at risk every time they step onto the field, whether for practice or game time; in fact, as McGrath notes, 75% of hits are incurred during practice. Friendly fire is just as deadly as enemy fire.

Combat is an apt metaphor for the stress that football players undergo. However, even real combat can have lesser effects than a career in football. Col. Geoffrey Ling, a neurologist from the Defense Department, shares his view on the combat helmets that American soldiers wear: they can stop a bullet point blank, but they’re not good enough for the constant hits of the NFL. The helmets that players wear may even lead to increased chance of injury due to a heightened perception of invulnerability. Unfortunately, no helmet yet can protect the brain.

The brains of more and more retired football stars are being studied, with scary results. Many suffer from C.T.E, or chronic traumatic encephalopathy, and their midlife brains resemble elderly Alzheimer patients’ brains. Memory loss is frequent, and post-career depression seems to be quite common.

This hit cost James Harrison $20,000

What is the NFL’s responsibility to its players? This past year, they became proactive in limiting dangerous hits by fining players like the Steelers’ James Harrison for particularly egregious poundings he inflicted on opponents. Safety seems like a good goal, but where is its place in the inherent danger that’s written into the very design of the game? As much as I may wince when a player gets hit hard, I’m just as excited when the opponent’s quarterback gets sacked. There is a thrill in seeing someone go down, as long as they spring back up, ready for the next play. As McGrath says, “Averted danger is the essence of football.” Is there any way the game can retain that excitement–the very real specter of danger–if it became truly safe for players? It seems that the answer is no.

The most amazing, sensational, dramatic, heart-wrenching, exciting, thrilling finish…

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Sports are designed to be dramatic. They are a form of entertainment in which the outcome is unknown, which makes those incredible finishes (the Miracle on Ice, the Saints’ Superbowl win*, Secretariat) seem paradoxically more predestined. Athletes are our performance artists, putting their bodies through incredible trials with the hopes of creating some lasting beauty.

American Football, as I’ve noted this week, is no stranger to drama. While the first half of a game can fly by, the last two minutes can drag on for a half hour if the game is close. Sometimes teams will try anything to win it in the last minute, and sometimes a little razzle-dazzle goes a long way. Known just as “The Play,” a series of lateral passes kept a 1982 college football game alive between the UC Golden Bears and the Stanford Cardinal, ultimately upending the score, injuring a tuba player, and inspiring teams forever afterward to lateral the ball as the clock ticks down in hopes of recreating that drama. In the clip, my favorite part is the extreme disbelief and amazement on the part of the announcer; you can hear the adrenaline in his voice inspired by the spectacle unfolding before him.

While hundreds of plays qualify as thrilling football finishes, I will leave you with arguably the most important finish of the 2010-2011 regular season. In Week 15, the Philadelphia Eagles were trailing the New York Giants 31-10 with 8 minutes left to play. Michael Vick led a remarkable comeback that left the two teams tied at 31 with just 14 seconds left in the game. The Giants, expecting to settle the matter in overtime, punted to the Eagles’ Desean Jackson. His punt return is one of those plays that remains unbelievable no matter how many times you watch it. But the play didn’t just result in an Eagles victory. If the Giants had won, they would have finished the season 11-5, ahead of the Green Bay Packers thereby precluding the Packers from reaching the playoffs.

If the Packers win the Superbowl this Sunday, I think they should give Jackson an honorary ring.


Virtuosic Vikings

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Even though the 2009 Vikings didn’t make it to the Superbowl, they sure served up the heroes. It was easy to love rookie Percy Harvin:

Meanwhile, Adrian Peterson is always amazing:

How to be an NFL wide receiver


My team

What you’ll need: a fast 40-yard dash time, a good touchdown dance

Songlist: Outkast’s The Whole World (I catch a beat runnin’ like Randy Moss), Prince’s ode to the Vikings Purple and Gold

Further Reading: The Very Virile Viking by Sandra Hill, Gathering Moss: A Natural and Cultural History of Mosses by Robin Wall Kimmerer

1998: Year of the Tiger, year of Titanic’s titanic 11 Oscar haul, year that Bill Clinton denied he had sexual relations with that woman. Year that Nagano, Japan hosted the Winter Olympics and year that two Standford PhD candidates founded Google, Inc. 1998, year that a tall, skinny kid out of West Virginia was drafted by the Minnesota’s football team and forever changed my life.

Until Randy Moss’s rookie year with the Vikings, I didn’t understand why my dad and brother would sit around watching football for hours on end. On Thanksgivings, I gladly stayed in the kitchen making cranberry sauce instead of watching large men run into each other. For that’s all that it looked like to me: a human collision course. In seventh grade, though, my homework load increased and I left it for Sundays to finish in front of the TV. Watching Randy Moss in 1998 made me realize the true nature of football: it is stunningly beautiful. Or, as a New Yorker article this week referred to it, it is contact ballet. And thus I became a Vikings fan.

Carter, Moss, Culpepper

The Vikings went 15-1 in that 1998 season, a feat not achieved often or as gracefully. They scored a record 556 points on offense (a record since broken), never fewer than 24 points per game. Randy Moss caught 17 touchdowns, a rookie record; his jaw-dropping hail-Mary catches were balanced by the precision of veteran wide receiver Cris Carter, a man who would sooner break a bone than step out of bounds or drop a ball. Naturally, in my hero-worship state, I wished I could be as talented as those men; I wanted to be an NFL wide receiver who was paid millions to show how elegant a tough sport could be. While being a short female somewhat precludes me from an NFL on-the-field career, I wanted to live a life with as much epic drama every week as these men were showcasing.

Besides the incredible Randall Cunningham passes that spanned the length of the football field to end up firmly in the hands of Moss or Carter, we had another asset on offense: field goal kicker Gary Anderson. Hitting a perfect 35 for 35 attempts in the regular season, he seemed more trustworthy even than Carter (yes, this is where, if you remember what happened, your stomach drops). The Vikings rolled into the playoffs as the heavy favorites to win the NFC championship. They beat the Cardinals easily, then welcomed the Falcons to Minnesota’s Metrodome for the championship game.

I’ll never forget the moment when Gary Anderson missed the field goal attempt that would have put the Vikings into the Superbowl. My heart broke, my brother punched the table and left the room, and those of us left behind sat in stunned silence. It wasn’t just our brilliant season that ended in that moment, but my belief that my idols could do no wrong. I realized I could never have a job on which the hopes and dreams of thousands lay upon one single moment. It was too much pressure.

Our story turned out to be a tragedy (as all the great ones are), and I told myself I would never care as much again. But then a hero with a story so improbable as to be legendary joined the Vikings in 2009, and once again I started to believe. But Brett Favre threw an interception in the NFC championship game just over a year ago, the Saints advanced to the Superbowl and became America’s heroes, and my heart is still as broken as it was in 1999, still broken.