Shall I Compare Thee to a Goal-Line Stand? (Part Two)

It’s Sunday afternoon in the Universe and one of the appliances in my apartment insists on telling me that football is back. I change the channel to make it stop, but there are at least several other voices on other channels screaming the same thing. I flip over to Turner Classic Movies, which is showing Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion, and I could swear Cary Grant is telling Joan Fontaine that football is back. (Probably trying to make her crazy or paranoid or something…)

Once upon a time and not all that long ago, I would have been tingly and warm all over with the idea of football being back in my life. But I’m not feeling it so much now. Given what’s been happening with professional football over the last few years, I can’t imagine any sentient being with any degree of empathy embracing block-and-tackle football with unconditional love and abandon. Fear and loathing may be closer, but still too extreme in the other direction.

Speaking of fear and loathing: Hunter S. Thompson once characterized pro football as “a hip and private kind of vice to be into.” He was, at the time — 1974 – applying those words in the past tense since by that time, then-commissioner Pete Rozelle had already been referring to professional football as “The Product.” Thompson yearned for his version of the good old days of watching the 49ers play at decrepit Kezar Stadium in the mid-1960s “with 15 beers in a plastic cooler and a Dr. Grabow pipe filled with bad hash” while trying to avoid the mean drunks looking for reasons to punch somebody out, especially if the Niners were losing, as happened frequently in those days.

But even in those funkier times, pro football had already become a “Product” with competing brand names (a.k.a. NFL vs. AFL) willing themselves toward merger through the irresistible might of television revenues. The outlaw mystique that Thompson pined for was by 1965 already being nudged aside for what would, by the country’s Bicentennial 11 years hence, become a family-friendly franchise of hype and muscle itching to spread its influence beyond the USA’s boundaries.

The astonishing rise of the National Football League from sandlot outlier to global money machine remains the prevailing narrative of American-style football, a bedtime story the management class loves to hear before drifting back to sleep. You can tell, though, that even the NFL begins this season more nervous and self-conscious about its own standing.

What’s been called “the health crisis” is the biggest factor and the cumulative effect of concussions on pro players’ lifespans isn’t the half of it. (The league’s ham-handed attempts to degrade, if not outright lie about the evidence are even worse.) But what that scandal has done most tellingly is widen the space for scrutinizing other discomfiting aspects of America’s Game that are killing or, at least, muting the buzz of unconditional fandom.

 

Almond on Football cover

 

Against Football (Melville House) is written by Steve Almond, who describes himself as a long-time and, more recently, long-suffering Raiders fan. It’s probably a given that he writes this silken-swift j’accuse more from sorrow than anger; though he still sounds pretty mad at the NFL and, in equal measure, with “the two disparate synapses that fire in my brain that when I hear the word, “football”: the one that calls out, Who’s playing? What channel? and the one that murmurs, Shame on you.” This is from his introduction. He has me at “Hello.”

Almond goes on to debunk, among other things, the fallacy of the league’s “socialism” based on its revenue-sharing policy, which, through “a canny form of market manipulation” along with deft congressional lobbying allowed the NFL to circumvent anti-trust regulations. He also stretches open, to wince-inducing degrees, the homophobia, sexism and racism, conscious or otherwise, that fester beneath the sleek, supposedly more humane surface of 21st century play-for-pay tackle football. One chapter is entitled, “The Love Song of Richie Incognito,” which, given the story behind that name, sounds like a movie worth making, if not seeing. Another chapter title, “Their Sons Grow Suicidally Beautiful,” is taken from a James Wright poem about football (the best such poem from an American) and takes up the myriad ills of “amateur” football at all levels; not least of which the manner in which the collegiate game has become little more than a feeder system for the pro league in both manpower and added publicity, which, at this point, it can never get enough of. (I’m kidding.)

These and many other defects tabulated in Against Football aren’t exactly news to those old enough to have read the first-hand accounts of such renegade players of the sixties as Dave Meggysey, Bernie Parish and Peter Gent. But because Almond’s book is aimed as much as his own psyche as it is at ours, the passages that sting the most delve into the psychology of football fandom. He quotes, from Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, how the book’s autobiographical surrogate “gained…the feeling of being alive” from watching Giants games in dive bars. “His hero,” Almond writes of Exley, “looks to the Giants each Sunday to awaken him from the spiritual stupor of his life. That could be religion – or addiction.” (Italics added.)

I envision millions of people who hate the game but love a fan in their lives nodding their heads in rueful recognition of this phenomenon. And yet neither Almond nor I have easy answers as to whether being ambivalent about the game, but watching it anyway is a more destructive equivalent to substance abuse than loving the game while completely ignoring its moral and ethical lapses. That the question is posed at all raises this book above the level of a mere screed.

As trenchant as Almond is, he remains solicitous and compassionate throughout towards those whose devotion to football remains absolute. At one point, he quotes a close friend who, upon hearing of the book Almond intends to write, implores, “Please don’t take this away from me.” Towards the end, he’s utterly abased by a conversation he has with a young woman, a lifelong Philadelphia Eagles fan who tells him that football “was what kept her connected to her hometown, and to her dad especially.” Guess how low he felt when he answered her query as to what his book was about.

 

 

Eagles encyclopedia cover

 

 

The Eagles. They do seem to inspire a river-deep-mountain-high devotion in their fan base. I spent eight years living and working in Philadelphia and though I was never converted to the Eagles cause (I do think you need to have grown up there to truly belong), I appreciated the city’s collective investment of passion somewhat more than those who from a distance view Eagles fans with varying degrees of alarm. Having interviewed those fans in full fury (and illumination) against their team, I can say that while they can be…how to put this…vivid in their expressiveness, I felt very safe in their company – as long as I never told them that I’d grown up in a Giants household. Such intense devotion along with a substantial historic legacy in professional football deserves more than one measly championship in the last 55 years to show for it.

Ray Didinger grew up an Eagles fan and spent most of his professional life writing about them for at least two local newspapers. He walks the walk, talks the talk of the true fan, but he’s so much more composed and rational about his engagement, which makes the second edition of The New Eagles Encyclopedia (Temple University Press), revised by Didinger from the 2005 edition he’d composed with the late Robert S, Lyons, both an invaluable tonic for the stressed-out Eagles follower and an absorbing read for anyone who savors colorful history and folklore, no matter where it’s from or what it’s about.

To pluck one example from many: Didinger’s chapter, new for this edition, about the team’s rivalry with the Dallas Cowboys. OK, OK…like, almost everybody has a rivalry with the Dallas Cowboys; at times, the Cowboys even hate themselves. But with the Eagles, it’s as if there are festering internal injuries that haven’t healed with time. And Didinger, who’s got the memory of an intelligence agency’s deep-background file system, reaches back to the mid-1960s when the two teams traded a series of wins and losses that climaxed with a jaw-breaking, teeth-severing clothesline tackle on Philadelphia running back Timmy Brown by Dallas linebacker Lee Roy Jordan. Eagle partisans maintain to this day that Jordan’s hit was late and cheap. Jordan insists otherwise. What Didinger characterizes as a “blood feud” was established from then on.

Brown, for what it’s worth, retained sufficient enough use of his oral equipment to have to a respectable career as a screen actor. (He’s in Nashville! Singing!) But in the context of this species of football book, physical injury is just the spoke on a wheel whose hub is the process of professional athletics itself. And even at a time when thoughtful people are coming to grips with their long-term affection for a brutal sport, Didinger’s book reminds you that devotion to a team and the people who live and die with its every game isn’t the only thing to think about when thinking about football. But for many people, it’s everything…and, much as some of us may disagree, enough.

Shall I Compare Thee to a Goal-Line Stand? (Part One)

Football anthology cover

 

 

 

Baseball books don’t need my help, or anybody else’s. There’ll always be waves of rhapsodists and elegists waxing year after year about the aesthetic virtues and time-tested verities of what used to be The National Pastime. Football books are another matter. For whatever reason, the literary/intellectual muse can’t get as revved up by what is now certified, for better and worse, as America’s Game.

A example, slight, perhaps, but mine own: In the 1992 Norton Book of Sports, edited by that would-be quarterback George Plimpton, there are roughly 70 stories, poems, essays and book excerpts covering baseball, boxing, basketball, horse racing and even skiing. Football, by my count, gets just three items. (Just saying…)

People give lip service to the idea of “beauty” emerging from the jolting, amoebic flow of a block-and-tackle football game. But most of the books published about that sport seem to have more to do with business than with beauty. The sport itself is often used as a metaphor for corporate culture with CEOs imagining themselves as the true legatees of Vince Lombardi and Bill Walsh, the heart and brain, respectively, of football coaching Valhalla. The push-pull collisions get taken as analogies for the rest of us working stiffs sticking our heads into the morass for the risk of reward and, as has become distressingly clearer in recent years, the reward of risk.

Rarely do I encounter a printed account of a breakaway run or a two-minute drill as lyrical as, say, John Updike’s oft-anthologized valedictory to Ted Williams’ final at-bat. But there may be built-in limits as to how best such moments can be persuasively rendered on a page. Baseball prose is allowed to bend and pitch to Mozart-ian levels; Prose about boxing, since we like stretching analogies till they scream in pain,  can, at peak performance, surge ahead like a big-band swing orchestra blasting away in 4/4 time on a printed page.

The best, most evocative writing found in Football: Great Writing About the National Sport (The Library of America) comes across like vintage rock-and-roll with varied applications of blues, country and even a little gospel. Because I happen to know that the anthology’s editor John Schulian is a knowledgeable patron of blues and country music, I suspect he did as much reading with his ears as with his eyes when choosing selections. Even the elegies (Frank Deford’s homeboy-from-Ballmer memoriam to Johnny Unitas; Wright Thompson’s “Love Letter” to Ole Miss football; John Ed Bradley’s impassioned reverie about walking away from playing days at LSU) emit streaks of syncopated roughhousing. (“Unitas” Deford writes, “was some hardscrabble Lithuanian, so what he did made a difference, because even if we [Baltimoreans] had never met a Lithuanian before, we knew that he was as smart a sonuvabitch [sic] as he was tough. Dammit, he was our Lithuanian.”)

Schulian’s jukebox carries lively, varied selections that dare you to mix them around at will. You can punch up vivid reminiscences of pro football’s primordial days from gypsy leatherhead Johnny Blood (as rendered by the late Steelers broadcaster Myron Cope) or watch as Richard Price struggles to shake free of goddam-Yankee self-consciousness before entering the lair of Alabama demigod Bear Bryant. Coaches, generally, are the strangest of all the characters in this anthology, whether it’s George Allen, blustering and fidgeting his way through New Year’s Day 1968 after being ash-canned by the Rams (His daughter Jennifer is affectionate without being indulgent towards her dad’s fulminations) or Tom Landry, an oracular icebox of contradictions and piety who both bemuses and exasperates Gary Cartwright.

The editor’s own portrait of the greatest of Philadelphia Eagles, Chuck Bednarik is so richly textured that you stop regretting that he didn’t include the all-but-definitive description of Bednarik’s shattering 1960 tackle of Frank Gifford found in Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, a segment of which otherwise shares space in this collection with chapters from Paper Lion, the aforementioned account of George Plimpton’s adventures in training for exhibition football; Instant Replay, Green Bay offensive guard Jerry Kramer’s journal of the Packers’ last championship season under Vince Lombardi and Friday Night Lights, Buzz Bissinger’s by-now-canonical examination of playing out the fall season at a Texas high school.

Of the articles from magazines and newspapers selected by Schulian, I’m especially partial to the flamboyant deadline artistry Dan Jenkins deploys in his wry dissection of the hype-deflating Greatest-Tie-Ever-Played between Notre Dame and Michigan State in 1966 and to the consummate reportorial chops Arthur Kretchmer shows in his 1971 account of an up-and-down season in the career of the Chicago Bears fabled middle linebacker Dick Butkis. All the game’s elements — the harsh drudgery of practice, the moments of grace emerging from the sloughs of serial bashings, the grim spoils of brutality and their stoic acceptance by players – are contained and elucidated in Kretchmer’s masterly profile, whose closest counterpart in baseball is Al Stump’s landmark account of Ty Cobb’s final desperate days (even though Kretchmer’s subject is far less psychotic, if almost as mean.)

One feels like an ingrate to submit a qualm or two. Still, I wish Schulian hadn’t locked out entries more fictional than Exley’s novelized memoir. It would have been intriguing to see how the climactic football game from Richard Hooker’s M*A*S*H* would have stood with this crowd along with that venerable warhorse from Irwin Shaw, “The Eighty Yard Run” and some metaphysical hors-d’oeuvres from Don DeLillo’s End Zone.

Also, speaking from a racially chauvinistic perspective, I would have liked some representation in this book from such influential African-American sportswriters as Michael Wilbon or the late Ralph Wiley, whose gaudily Kafka-esque examination of O.J. Simpson’s guilt or innocence (though it likely doesn’t belong here anyway) remains for me the most thorough and persuasive dissection of that sordid episode in American celebrity jurisprudence.

But as George Blanda might have said if he were doing a commercial for Football: Great Writing About the National Sport, I can’t kick about a collection whose rapture over the written word and romance with a endangered species of sports journalism don’t prevent it from acknowledging, as Schulian writes in his introduction, the “storm clouds hanging over both the NFL and the NCAA” that are “bigger than any before them.” The collegiate clouds, mostly having to do with both abuses of NCAA rules and the association’s often myopic efforts at enforcing them, don’t get taken up in the anthology. But the NFL’s clouds are resolutely explored in such pieces as Mark Kram’s 1991 study of veteran players’ physical deterioration and Paul Solotaroff’s 2011 coroner’s report on Dave Duerson’s melancholy post-career slide into psychological despair in which the one endeavor the ex-Chicago safety was certain would have lasting value was taking his own life – and making sure his damaged brain was left intact for scientists to continue their inquiry into long-term effects of concussions.

The more one is made aware of cases like Duerson’s, the more one wonders if there’s any point in looking at football at all, much less remaining a steadfast fan. In addition to Football, there are new books that embody both these variables and I’ll tell you about them in the next installment.

What the NFL is Really Afraid Of — And Should Be

So I watched last night’s PBS Frontline report on brain damage in the NFL and learned little that I hadn’t known before – except that things may be even worse than we now know, and that the professional football oligarchs are even less willing to deal with the ramifications.

Kids make up the relatively undiscovered country for those probing the causes and effects of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which afflicts hundreds, perhaps thousands of those who’ve played American tackle football. The frightening evidence emerging towards the end of “League of Denial: The NFL’s Concussion Crisis” implies that even those who haven’t played football for very long or been hit in the head very hard are susceptible to CTE. The program’s producers and reporters are scrupulous enough to say such research is preliminary. Still, the idea of high school players becoming as suicidal or disoriented by CTE as veteran lineman who have battered each other senseless for decades makes you almost as queasy as watching human brains delivered and unpacked at laboratories for poking and gazing.

As noted, most of the details in “League of Denial” have been covered before, notably by HBO’s Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel, ESPN’s Outside the Lines, the recently-released documentary, The United States of Football and the New York Times’ Alan Schwartz (among those interviewed), who’s been growling and snapping at a recalcitrant NFL for almost two decades about the mounting evidence of CTE-related illnesses and deaths among retired and active players. As its title suggests, “League of Denial’s” real story isn’t about those who have suffered the effects of CTE, but the elaborate degrees to which the NFL has resorted to Cover Its Ass (CIA) against the revelations dislodged by Schwartz and others. That the documentary was aired on PBS and not on ESPN, which was pressured by the league to withdraw from a partnership with Frontline on the program, only buttresses the points put forth by reporters Jim Gilmore, Steve Fainaru and Mark Fainaru-Wada. You cringe more in anger than dread over how the NFL tried to discredit, sometimes to the point of humiliation, doctors and researchers trying to counter the arguments made by the league’s own research team – whose own findings were, saying the least, dubious, almost irresponsibly dismissive of any alarming trend.

But, as somebody somewhere once said, scrape an arrogant bully and you’ll soon reveal the squirming coward within. The NFL is wily enough to equivocate its way towards “improving safety” and other CIA gestures; it’s also smart enough to fear the consequences of inaction. The $765 million settlement the league made with players over concussion issues may buy enough time to figure out what to do next, especially since this furor has dealt mostly with long-term effects.

So far, anyway. But still…

I wonder if NFL commissioner Roger Goodell knows enough about boxing history to acknowledge what happened – or started to happen – to that sport on the night of March 24, 1962 when Benny Paret and Emile Griffith met again to fight for the welterweight championship. The fight was broadcast live on the ABC network back in a time when Friday Night Fights was as much of an American sports TV ritual as Sunday Night Football is now. The story of that ill-fated match and its lingering, dismal aftermath has been well and fully chronicled in a haunting 2005 documentary, Ring of Fire: The Emile Griffith Story. For a long time, the story was simple enough: Paret taunted Griffith in the days leading up to their third and final bout as being a maricon, a derisive word for homosexual. Since then, others have speculated that it was the beatings Paret, as incumbent champion, had taken in his previous title defenses that made him more vulnerable to what would happen. Whatever the case, one thing is certain: During Round 12, before millions of viewers in addition to hundreds at Madison Square Garden, Paret somehow got tangled in the ropes and Griffith unleashed a vicious flurry of 29 successive punches, mostly to Paret’s head. Paret slumped to floor and never regained consciousness. He died almost ten days later. (The moment, horrific as it was, summoned the very best of Norman Mailer’s prose. I have had journalism students whose resistance to Mailer was worn down by his descriptive powers here.)

 

 

Among the myriad effects of that fight, the most immediate was the end of live boxing broadcasts on network television. A lot of people thought boxing itself would, or should end, too, especially after another fighter, Davey Moore, died in the ring a year later. But boxing didn’t quite die; indeed, it subsequently enjoyed a majestic decade-and-a-half dominated by such larger-than-life personalities as Ali, Frazier, Foreman, Leonard, Hearns and others stoking its momentum. It wasn’t until people saw what boxing had done to Ali that the once mighty and singular stature boxing once enjoyed in American life diminished to its more-or-less cultish following. The fight aficionados whom I know, love and respect may disagree with this assessment. But not even they can deny that Benny Paret’s death marked the beginning of the end of…something.

Imagine the nightmares Goodell must have these days about something similarly shocking happening to a football player on the field, especially in a nationally televised game. We’ve already seen career-ending broken legs and life-long paralyzing injuries transmitted through our home-entertainment centers. How could you not wonder about the percentages for or against a fatal collision with players getting bigger, faster and stronger? How much padding or protection is enough? Or, even, too much? And if an on-field death from tackling does happen, what next? Well, for starters, there will be howls for football’s banishment as loud as those seeking to outlaw boxing in the wake of Paret’s death. Football won’t end. There are as many waves of people who want and need to play the game now as there were generations of hungry young boxers waiting in 1962 for their Main Event. But what will happen is the slow erosion of football’s romantic allure, its cozy, family-friendly aura of escapist fantasy and high-wire adventure. The mystique, far more than the muscle, is what’s been raking in billions for the NFL since that twilight evening in December, 1958 when Johnny Unitas drove the Baltimore Colts offense on Yankee Stadium’s turf like a white-and-blue T-Bird to shatter a post-regulation tie. I’ll miss that mystique, but what could be put in its place is the kind of rakish, outlaw abandon once associated with pro football in its grayer, dustier days. Bye-bye, Pete Rozelle. Welcome back, Johnny Blood.

I’m still hoping it wont come to that. I think even the people behind “League of Denial” hope that, too. We’d all be damned fools to think it couldn’t.

The Niners (or: Sports? We Do That, Too)

Rooting for a baseball team is a heart-soul function nourished by one’s childhood or community, ideally both. Same goes for a college team in any sport. I am one with the point-of-view that says unless you went to the school you’re rooting for, you’re not a legitimate member of that school’s fan base. I’m willing to expand the rules to include spouses or children who attended or are attending the school in question. But that’s as far as I go.

 

Professional tackle football, on the other hand, is a different animal; a bigger, furrier, wealthier animal with retractable claws, a broad reach and a twelve-room mansion in Amagansett. The National Football League is a brand-name product with thirty-two littler brand-name products that, whatever their regional loyalties, have the same mass recognition as Colgate, Nissan and Olive Garden. Loyalty to the home team is, for many, a consummation devoutly to be wished. But no one seems to make a big deal if you glom onto a sexier, sleeker product playing the same day as your regional telecast. Hence, your Green Bay Packers fans shouting about the power of cheese in Albuquerque, your Philadelphia Eagles fans in a midtown Manhattan bar throwing darts at LT’s picture or Dallas Cowboys fans in Warwick, Rhode Island who wouldn’t venture south of Delaware on a bet.

 

So do I have to explain why, this weekend, I shall be rooting for theSan Francisco 49ers to beat the New York Giants?  I might, rabbit, I just might…

I am not from the Bay Area, NoCal or anywhere else west of West Hartford,Connecticut. I have visited San Francisco a handful of times in my life and, as has been the case with many visitors before and since, came away every time more in love with it than before. I wanted to live there, maybe could have lived there, but didn’t. I have a few good friends and at least one relative living there now. But I have no ancestral link to Baghdad-on-the-Bay or any of the surrounding territories now served by BART.

 

Nevertheless, I am a 49ers fan of forty years standing. If you’re counting correctly, that pre-dates the Camelot that came into being thirty years ago last month with Joe Montana’s epoch-making heave at Dwight Clark’s out-stretched hands in the NFC Championship game against the Dallas Cowboys, to whom (as any true red-and-gold-veined Niner fan knows) the team used to perennially lose in perennially heart-breaking fashion in those same title games in the early seventies (and would again in the early nineties, but I digress…) I mention this at the outset to prove I didn’t clamber onto the bus when Bill Walsh and Eddie DeBartolo put it into high gear. I remember rooting for John Brodie launching surface-to-air-missiles to Gene Washington and Ted Kwalik. I know who the Fudge Hammer was and read up on enough team history to know who constituted the Million-Dollar Backfield of the fabulous fifties. I never went to Kezar when the team played there, but showed the proper reverence when I actually encountered the place on one of those aforementioned visits. And I made the trip to Candlestick for the 1984 NFC title and screamed like a banshee when the Big Bad Bears were shut down 24-0.

We get it, you say. You like the 49ers. But why?  A good question, given that I grew up in a New York Giants household. My late father lived and died and, every once in a while, rose from the dead by the G-Men since the distant days when you actually had to say, “New York Football Giants,” to distinguish them from the baseball version, Every fall, through several decades, men-in-blue named Andy Robustelli, Frank Gifford, Sam Huff, Alex Webster, Dick Lynch, Ernie Wheelwright, Homer Jones, Joe Morrison, Pete Gogolak, Carl “Spider” Lockhart, Dave Jennings, Harry Carson and many others showed up for Sunday dinner to either get chewed out or backslapped by the Old Man. In the wilderness period between 1964 and 1980, a.k.a. “Sixteen Years of Lousy Football,” Dad was especially fond of Lockhart, Carson and the now-forgotten Morrison, an all-purpose player whose dogged, unassuming excellence at the nadir of the Giants’ decline was a source of solace and pride.

 

My younger brother, however, had adopted the then-Los Angeles Rams as his team. I always assumed it was the helmet design that initially grabbed him. (And I admit, the logo’s coolness has traveled well to St. Louis, whether the team sucks or not.) As has been historically the case with younger brothers, he became protective of his Rams to the point of being utterly obnoxious about it. So one October afternoon during the 1969 season, I watched as his belligerence began to wither under the televised assault of a Rams-Niners game during which L.A., by far the better team that year, couldn’t shake their long-time rivals loose, even though the game ended with the Rams winning by a touchdown. I figured any team that could shut my brother up was worth adopting as one’s own.

 

It was an impulse buy that grew on me in a relatively short time. And here, basically, is why I kept faith: The 49ers played, to me, like artists. Their methods, on both sides of the ball, appealed to my aesthetic sense of what pro football should be: a ground game based on quicksilver slashing over head-first pounding, defense that dueled more with swift, martial-arts flair, especially in the backfield, than with relentless, stone-fisted pummeling. And an aerial attack that looked especially grand when going long and deep in several directions. Win or lose, that style of play was what made the 49ers distinctive, especially during the dynasty years when the Niners were habitually labeled – or, to some, slandered – with the classification of “finesse team.” Fine, we Niner fans insisted. We’ll be your “finesse team” as long as whatever you imply by that image keeps your teams from noticing how beat up and bruised they get from trying to outrun, outshoot and outwit our guys.

 

Now the 49ers are emerging from their own wilderness years – and doing so mostly with a hard-assed defense and a formidable ground game. As long as I’ve been conscious, I’ve never known a 49er team that entered the playoffs wielding the most dominant defense of any other NFC title contender. Not that our team has never engaged in effective brutality (or do you all need to be reminded after all these years of the Greatest Free Safety in Human History?) But this swaggering brick-wall-and-mailed-fist image is something one will have to get used to, especially now that it seems to have brought the team to the brink of its sixth Super Bowl.

 

Do I think they’ll get there? Of course I do. That last couple of drives Saturday almost screeched “Destiny!”  I can already imagine an episode of “America’s Game” with Jim Harbaugh, Alex Smith and Vernon Davis, the latter still getting choked up over what I’m calling, “The Catch 3.” Who at this point can you imagine appearing in a comparable installment for any of the other four contenders? I thought not.

The Catch 3

Still…oh, hell, as long as we’re here, let’s weigh all the possible combinations for the Rilly Big Shew in Indy:

 

1.)    Pats vs. Giants – This is the re-match everybody wants, most especially the respective constituencies of each franchise; the former, to avenge the shocking denial of their bid for undefeated immortality; the latter, to prove to America, the world and maybe even (especially) themselves that the 2007 championship wasn’t a fluke. I’d throw a party for that contest, but you KNOW what happens to games that everyone wants to happen, right? The football gods, including former commissionersBell and Rozelle, believe granting fans’ fervent wishes makes mortals too soft, too spoiled. (In case you’re wondering, in a pinch, the G-Men can always count on my vote in situations such as this. I ate too many Sunday dinners with those guys to cut them out of my life completely.)

2.)    Giants vs. Ravens – This is the re-match that hardly anyone cares about, not even the two franchises. Who’s left of the 2000 Giants on the team now? On the other hand, there are at least a couple of Ravens still active who played in that game. But what’s in it for them besides a sentimental journey to their finest hour? Which, for what it’s worth, won’t be repeated in this hypothetical bowl. Different teams, different times…

3.)    Ravens vs. 49ers – Bro vs. Bro helped fill a couple of Thanksgiving pre-game TV dinners for a day or two. America, be honest: Do you really, really, really want two whole weeks of talking heads breaking down the Harbaugh family tree in search of exotic blood compounds? Me neither, so let’s move on.

4.)    49ers vs. Pats – Unimaginable – and hard to hype unless you want to make it all about Tom Brady playing against the team he grew up idolizing and, by the by, getting psyched to match his hero Joe Montana in the number of Super Bowl wins (four). You know what? That would be altogether ideal for the Niner Nation since the gasbags would be so busy talking about Brady that they’d barely notice the relatively anonymous slugs on the other side of the field. Guess who wins that one.