New Orleans, January 1981. My first Super Bowl.
I'm trying to ask questions of Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Charlie Smith at the first media availability.
He'd recently broken his jaw, the wires in his mouth standing sentry against solid nourishment and reducing his speech to what under different circumstances would pass as beginner's ventriloquism.
(Confession: Bourbon Street overmatched me on my first night in town. My condition was probably worse than Smith's. To be fair all these years later, he may have spoken perfectly understandable King's English, but to my ears he sounded like a man speaking underwater.)
Smith was an important part of the Eagles team I covered for the Philadelphia Daily News. He'd been injured in the final regular season game and had missed the postseason to that point.
Would he practice? Could he play? How would he keep up his strength?
He tried his best to answer. But in a crowd three deep with the noise of my first Super Bowl media experience exploding around us, I looked at my notebook after 30 minutes. I had written down exactly one sentence.
"I can't eat meat."
That was Super Bowl XV, nearly 30 years ago. Since then, the annual Super Bowl tradition known as Media Day—it happens again today in Miami—has come to represent the NFL at its silliest and smartest.
Proof There Is Such a Thing as a Stupid Question
It's the place where a Japanese reporter once asked of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana, "Tell me, why do they call you Boomer?" (Well, they don't actually. That would be Boomer Esiason, the Cincinnati quarterback.)
It's where someone asked Tennessee Titans defensive tackle Joe Salave'a, "What's your relationship with the football?" To which Salave'a said, "I'd say it's strictly platonic."
Asked how he got psyched to play in big games, Buffalo's great running back Thurman Thomas sniffed, "I read the newspapers and look at all the stupid questions you all ask."
Not sure if that was the Super Bowl where Thomas lost two fumbles in a 30-13 loss or the one where he couldn't find his helmet and missed the first few plays in a 37-24 loss.
Media Day is where Downtown Julie Brown, formerly of MTV, asked Dallas running back Emmitt Smith, "What are you going to wear in the game Sunday?"
Where Rams' quarterback Kurt Warner was asked, "Do you believe in voodoo and can I have a lock of your hair?"
Where Denver running back Detron Smith was asked, "What size panties do you think you'd wear?"
Where a St. Louis player found himself pondering the grammatical conundrum contained within the question, "Is Ram a noun or a verb?"
An urban legend grew that Washington quarterback Doug Williams, the first black quarterback to play in the Super Bowl, was asked, "How long have you been a black quarterback?"
(Not true. ESPN.com cleared that up in a recent story. The reporter knew Williams. He also knew Williams was tired of hearing about race. So the question was more along the lines of, "Doug, obviously you've been a black quarterback all along. When did it suddenly become important?")
Even so, right about now my guess is you see Thurman Thomas' point.
But here's the beauty of what the National Football League is all about. Many of the questions that make annual Dumbest Super Bowl Questions lists are staged by non-sports writers. They are ridiculous, purposely over-the-top and all part of a circus the league encourages to fill as many rings as possible on the day that signals the revving of the Super Bowl publicity machine.
So you get Dallas quarterback Troy Aikman in Super Bowl XXXII being asked, "Are you going to listen to Stevie Wonder perform at halftime?"
(Sure thing. What else would he be doing at halftime except shushing the coaches so he could hear "Don't You Worry About a Thing"?)
The NFL gets it as no other sports league gets it. For instance, it subjects its players to three days of madness at the Super Bowl and fines them if they don't show up.
One year, a 10-year-old ''reporter" identifying himself as Sparky Mortimer walked around asking questions of players and coaches on behalf of David Letterman. Who's going to turn down a 10-year-old? Not even Thurman Thomas.
A Day in the Life of a Serious Sports Writer
The free-for-all of Media Day is the worst day in a serious sports writer's year, but if you're there for the spectacle there's nothing quite like it.
Why is it the worst day annually for sports writers covering the NFL? Because it has so little to do with football and it offers such insurmountable roadblocks to coherent conversation.
To give this proper context, I should say that any circle of reporters at the Super Bowl is comprised of any number of agendas. One might be working on the quarterback's life story. Another might be looking for a quote on how the quarterback's team will deal with the opposing pass rush. Another might be asking something that gets him on TV.
So it usually goes like this:
Reporter No. 1: "You say you were poor growing up?"
QB: "Yes, all I got for Christmas one year was an orange."
Reporter No. 2: "Should we expect to see you throw downfield early?"
QB: "I'm not going to give away the game plan."
Reporter No. 1: "What kind of orange? Did you eat it or decorate it?"
Reporter No. 2: "What do you see when you look at their secondary?"
An ESPN.com story from this time last year recounted one tedious conversation that occurred 10 years ago between a reporter and the Rams' Isaac Bruce, who had just told the story of a harrowing experience a month earlier when his car flipped and he thought he might die.
"I called on the name of Jesus," Bruce said. "That's the name that I know saves me. And when I did that, I knew everything would be fine."
Said a reporter (for some reason), "Did you say 'Jesus, Jesus, Jesus?' Or just 'Jesus?'"
Bruce: "It was one Jesus," he said. "That's all it takes."
Good to get that cleared up.
I wasn't there for that tortured exchange. But I was in the group of reporters at Super Bowl XV when Oakland quarterback Jim Plunkett was asked a question that makes every Super Bowl list. And this one wasn't staged by a TV or radio personality. As sports writers we have to own this one.
Plunkett had just answered a question about his parents. He spoke in low, respectful tones about growing up in a special needs household, that his mother was blind and that his father, also blind, had passed away.
Five more topics came and went after Plunkett mentioned his parents. A reporter from the Philadelphia press corps, a guy I once worked with at another paper, jumped in. He was a columnist. He wasn't there to write about the blitz. Plunkett's family situation was far more intriguing to him.
He tried two or three times to ask a follow-up. But he kept losing the floor to reporters who timed their questions better or who were close enough to make eye contact with Plunkett, or who simply spoke up louder.
Finally, he forced his way back into the interview.
"Jimmy, Jimmy, I want to make sure I have this right. Was it dead mother, blind father or blind mother, dead father?"
You can find that kind of sensitivity in Don Rickles' stand-up, but not many other places.
The Original Sports Hostage Situation
Long ago, the NFL saw the crossover marketing potential in welcoming not just newspapers with NFL teams in their cities. But E!, Letterman, Leno, Comedy Central, MTV, every big national radio show.
In the media center, Radio Row goes on for a quarter mile. It's a city unto itself, a media "Babble-on." It wasn't always so. The Super Bowl became a media event after "Broadway" Joe Namath led the Jets to a milestone upset of the Colts in Super Bowl III. It became a cultural linchpin because the NFL has been pure genius in the staging of the week leading up to the game. [Image courtesy of Flickr user snblogs.]
It sets aside Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday for player interviews. After that, the players are off limits.
Try coming into town Friday for a Sunday game as a member of the media, and you've not only missed the players but maybe even a room at the NFL headquarters hotel (they demand a four-night minimum).
Come in time for the player interviews and you spend almost a week previewing one game. A friend once called it "the original sports hostage situation." The NFL would have it no other way.
Sometimes the players and the game even prove worthy of all the attention.
When Dallas linebacker Hollywood Henderson famously said Pittsburgh quarterback Terry Bradshaw couldn't spell "cat" if you spotted him the "c" and the "a," Bradshaw responded by throwing four touchdown passes in a win over the Cowboys.
If the drumroll gets louder with players working off nervous energy by talking trash, all the better for the league. But it's not necessary.
The marvel of what the NFL has fashioned over the past XLIV years is that the game is almost beside the point.
Norman Vincent Peale once said, "If Jesus were alive today, he'd be at the Super Bowl."
In what capacity, Peale didn't say.
But it's an intriguing thought, if only because it could explain the question asked of New England quarterback Tom Brady at a Super Bowl not long ago.
"Tom," came a voice in the crowd, "what is your purpose in life?"
Bud Shaw is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com, and read all his mental_floss articles here.