Other things you have to write.
Take the Super Bowl. (Please.)
It’s a fun week to be a sportswriter. You’re at Ground Zero of America’s greatest party. It includes a football game on Sunday. And that game is easier to cover than any high school football game in your career. You could schmooze all week, never leave the media hotel (except for a South Beach excursion), and only the most discerning reader (or sports editor) would know that you hadn’t attended a single live interview session (or the game). A buddy (at this de facto sportswriter convention) can catch you up on the day’s events. Or you can go to a thousand websites. Not to forget the NFL’s perpetual motion publicity machine producing "news" releases on everything everybody said or did.
Super Bowl week is the ultimate proof that the NFL does football better than anybody else does anything.
A fun week, I said. And it is, personally. Professionally, not so much – and for the same reasons. There’s so much going on of interest to so many people that the NFL has to impose order or there’d be hourly chaos. It becomes pack journalism at its worst. Everyone is herded onto buses and taken to tightly controlled interview sessions with the coaches and athletes, most of whom seem to consider the media sessions a chore if not a burden and/or a bore.
So the challenge is to create a win-win situation for your readers by writing the mandatory Super Bowl stuff while making it something you like to write. This is, I know, a challenge more easily met by the feature writer or a columnist than by a beat reporter obligated to make sure neither an X nor an O goes unexamined. For this I am grateful because it allows me and my kind to ask silly questions, though usually not so silly as one posed by a Japanese reporter before the 49ers-Bengals Super Bowl.
"Tell me," he said to Joe Montana, "why do they call you ‘Boomer’?"
My all-time favorite desperate-columnist question was put to a Denver Bronco defensive lineman by Tony Kornheiser of The Washington Post, a silly question of such proportions that it stopped being a silly question and became a desperate-columnist’s instruction/order/plea:
"I need your life story," Kornheiser said. "Start at the beginning, don’t leave anything out, and make it funny."
Some of us go to extremes to avoid seduction by the sensory excess. Here’s a lede written by Shelby Strother in the Detroit News, the wonderful Shelby, always wandering off in search of a real story, this time driving out of New Orleans to . . .
"CARVILLE, La. – Far from the rattle and hum of Super Bowl revelry, the annual pageantry of the athletically unreal, the dull throb of the pathetically real roams this God-forsaken land with a grotesque grandeur. For here is where the lepers live."
The Super Bowl mid-week leper-colony feature story is a big brother to the off-beat column that uses the game as subtext, like this . . .
"NEW ORLEANS – If you’re in this mysterious city for a football game still days away, you should hail a taxi and say, ‘Take me to the Rev. Cicero Zombie’s Voodoo Shop on Bourbon Street.’ The cabbie knows right where to go."
From the Rev. Zombie’s, the intrepid Mike Littwin of the late, lamented Rocky Mountain News led me to the Voodoo Spiritual Temple and Cultural Center, two doors down from the Gay and Lesbian Community Center on North Rampart Street.
"There," I wrote, "we meet Priestess Miriam Chamani, whose business card identifies her as the temple’s ‘Founder and Queen Mother.’" She told us that people had come to her for counsel on the Super Bowl, but she declined to place curses on either team. "To ask for one team to win would create an imbalance in the forces of nature," she said. "People have asked for balanced vibrations so that all things can go forward with freedom."
When journalistic duties call for you to talk to a real, live football player, it’s good to sit near a Jack Lambert. The Steelers’ great, fanged linebacker didn’t much like anything said by the Cowboy lip-flapper Thomas (Hollywood) Henderson, who had said Terry Bradshaw "couldn’t spell ‘cat’ if you spotted him the ‘c’ and the ‘a.’" Seated at an interview table, Lambert wore a yellow cap pulled low over pitch-black sunglasses. A cigarette shrouded his bearded face in evil smoke. He looked like a helicopter pilot who in the dark of night set down his machine with a load of guns for jungle mercenaries. "If they put a chimpanzee is a football suit," he said, grinding the words at the mention of Henderson, "he’d get interviewed in Super Bowl week."
The danger in talking to a football player is that one is liable to go off on a tangent and talk about football. Here’s Patriots’ lineman John Hannah explaining Buddy Ryan’s famous "46" defense:
"They have four down linemen. They take their backers and put them in an underlook. They introduce the end over on the strong guard. Instead of having outside backers on the weak side, they put two backers outside the tight end on the strong side and overshift the safety – only it’s an outside backer – and they put the safety on the weak side. It’s pretty simple, really."
It’s safer to just make a prediction. I did that in a Redskins year, but buried the score under ramblings that my boss, George Solomon, considered inconsequential. (How dare he!) So he turned the column upside-down to make the lede nothing but the prediction: "Redskins 27, Miami 17."
Which turned out to be the exact score.
And then, when I did a running, on-deadline column that the paper used as its lead-all on Super Bowl coverage, under a banner headline stripped across page one, I managed to have the right team winning. But in my hopeless romantic’s attempt to catch the glory of it all, I forgot to mention the play that gave the Redskins the lead for good, a 43-yard touchdown run by John Riggins on fourth-and-inches with 10 minutes to play.
Only the most famous play in Redskin history. Only won a Super Bowl. And I left it out of a story to run atop the front page of The Washington Post.
But Solomon, reading over my shoulder, whispered, "Riggins’ run."
And he wrote it in, bless him.
Dave Kindred’s next book will be "Morning Miracle," an inside-the-newsroom account of two years in the life of The Washington Post. Now a contributing writer at Golf Digest, Kindred is a Red Smith Award winner and member of the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame. He can be reached at email@example.com. He can be followed at Twitter.com/DaveKindred and facebook.com/people/Dave-Kindred/509353295