Thursday, January 27, 2011

Wide Right

In terms of food consumption in America, only Thanksgiving tops Super Bowl Sunday.

And that makes sense, when you consider how many Super Bowl parties are held every year all across the country. People get together and eat chips, dip, wings, burgers, pizza, brats, nachos, you name it. One year, I went to a co–worker's house to watch the game, and he served brisket to his guests. Man, was it good!

For some people, Super Bowl Sunday really is about crowning a pro football champion. But for many, I fear, it has become a de facto holiday for gluttony.

Only two cities are directly involved in a Super Bowl, of course, but the game has transcended the boundary of sports championship and become an event.

I know some people who don't care for football, but they watch the Super Bowl for the commercials. I even have one friend who records the game every year. He and his wife go out for dinner, maybe see a movie, while the game is being played. Then, after they return home and the game is over, he fast–forwards through the game and watches the commercials.

How many other things can you think of — for that matter, is there anything else — that some people watch strictly for the commercials?

I'll have more to say about the Super Bowl, I'm sure, when this year's edition, in the still–so–new–you–can–probably–still–smell–the–paint Cowboys Stadium in nearby Arlington, is about to kick off.

But today I just want to reflect on one — the Super Bowl that was played 20 years ago today in Tampa Stadium, known as "The Big Sombrero" for its shape, which was demolished more than a decade ago.

(I say that, incidentally, just to give you an idea of where the game was being played. The location doesn't really play any other kind of role in this story.)

I don't know when the Super Bowl became the occasion for massive social get–togethers that it has become. Until I was in high school, I watched most Super Bowls at home with my family, sometimes with a few neighborhood friends. Since my college years, I have been to a few Super Bowl parties.

There have been several reasons why I haven't been to very many Super Bowl parties in my life.

In some years, I didn't go to Super Bowl parties because I was working on the sports staff of a metropolitan newspaper, and most of us had to work on Super Sunday.

Ordinarily, there isn't much else going on on Super Bowl Sunday, and we usually tried to transform the office into a modified football party. Folks brought in dip and chips, other snack foods, soft drinks, and we would watch the game. No cold beer, of course, which might have made the experience more memorable — or perhaps not.

But I remember attending a Super Bowl party on this day 20 years ago — and what was noteworthy about that occasion, what makes it stand out in my memory, is not the fact that I went to a party but the fact that it was one of the most exciting Super Bowls I've ever seen.

Of course, the company with whom I shared that experience was special, too. But what happened on the field is what everyone remembers today.

I've seen most of the Super Bowls, even going back to the time when they didn't call it the Super Bowl. Much of the time, unfortunately, the Super Bowl hasn't lived up to its hype. Most of the time, it's been over by halftime. There was just that formality of playing the final 30 minutes.

But a few Super Bowls have been exciting, and the one that was played on Jan. 27, 1991, certainly was.

I was in graduate school, and Kyle, my classmate, friend and co–worker at the local newspaper, invited me to a Super Bowl party at his house. He, his wife and a friend of theirs had invited me to join them in their annual ritual of predicting weekly NFL games that season, and Kyle's wife and I were tied for the lead going into Super Bowl Sunday.

(By the way, I don't think Kyle and I have ever watched another Super Bowl together, either before or since. But even though we're separated by nearly 1,000 miles now, we'll share a bond or two in this year's Super Bowl. We lived, worked and went to school a short distance from where this year's Super Bowl will be played — and our favorite teams are facing each other. Kyle, you see, is a Steeler fan, and I have always been a Packer fan.)

That party was a fairly intimate gathering, as I recall. Only a handful of us, really. Lynn served a multi–layer Tex–Mex kind of dip — one of those dishes with lots of beans and olives and onions and peppers and cheese and sour cream and salsa and all that tasty stuff — and we all nibbled on it while we watched the game.

Anyway, since we were tied for the lead, Lynn and I decided to use the Super Bowl as our tiebreaker. One of us would take one team, the other would take the other team.

Lynn asked me which team I wanted.

I decided to be chivalrous, and I told her to choose.

She took the Buffalo Bills, who were the seven–point favorites. That left me with the New York Giants.

I figured she would be on the winning side. A lot of people did. I don't think anyone — maybe not even the Giants themselves — believed they could stop the Bills' no–huddle offense.

And the Giants' offense, with backup quarterback Jeff Hostetler filling in for the injured Phil Simms, was suspect as well. They were often criticized for failing to score a touchdown in the NFC Championship game — but it was seldom mentioned that the Giants had to beat the two–time defending Super Bowl champions on the road in that game.

Five field goals had been enough to win on that occasion, and that was what it was all about. Winning.

It was ironic, really, that field goals figured so prominently in the Giants' victory in the NFC championship game — because a field goal attempt is what people always remember about Super Bowl XXV.

Buffalo's Scott Norwood came on to attempt a 47–yard field goal in the final seconds that would have won the game for the Bills. But he famously missed the kick and the Giants prevailed.

Last year, just before the Super Bowl, I wrote about an article that I had been reading in TIME about the top 10 Super Bowl moments of all time.

It mentioned Norwood's kick — and I agreed then (and I still agree today) that it belongs on such a list. But the author called it "a kick to forget."

I took issue with that.

"Unless you were a fan of the Buffalo Bills," I wrote, "I don't think I would say that Norwood's kick was one to forget. It was a dramatic moment. The snap was good. It didn't sail over the kicker's head or anything like that. The kicker made a clean kick. No one blocked it. It was long enough. It just didn't go through the uprights."

I can still remember ABC broadcaster Al Michaels exclaiming, "Wide right!" as Norwood's kick sailed a few inches outside the goal post.

That's about the size of it. I've watched replays of that kick many times in the last 20 years. I have yet to see anything that was amiss on that play.

The snap still looks good to me. The kick still looks normal. I haven't even seen anyone on the defense commit a penalty that could have allowed the Bills to try it again.

He just missed it. S**t happens.

I'm sure Norwood doesn't like to be reminded of that kick. He had other achievements in his career. He helped the Bills get to the Super Bowl for the first time. He became their leading scorer, eclipsing O.J. Simpson.

But he is remembered for that one field goal attempt in Tampa 20 years ago today. It truly lives in infamy.

It has become a cultural flash point, of sorts. It served as the inspiration for an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond in which Raymond and Debra, while celebrating their wedding anniversary, decided to watch the video tape of their wedding — only to discover that Ray had accidentally taped over it.

He had taped Super Bowl XXV.

Debra sat there, stunned. "Did you hit something?" she demanded.

"No, it's still going," he replied.

"Then why am I seeing football?" she asked.

And a fight ensued that seemed to mark the beginning of the end for their marriage. But Ray wasn't giving in that easily.

To make it up to her, Ray went to elaborate lengths so they could renew their vows. Naturally, some people were curious about why they were renewing their vows, and Ray confessed that he had taped over their wedding video.

After the ceremony, Ray, the priest and most of the men sat down to watch the tape of the game. Some of them ranted about what a great game it had been.

As I recall, one of the characters — it might have been the priest — said he had never seen the ending. He had only heard about it, and he was excited to finally be seeing it.

The punch line was that somehow Ray's recording of the game stopped just before Norwood's kick — and the tape was showing the wedding footage again.

(That was funny but bewildering — for a couple of reasons, which I will explore briefly. For one, most football games take more than three hours to play, and Super Bowls usually go longer because of the lengthy halftime shows and the additional commercial time that is sold. When was the last wedding ceremony you attended that went for 3½ hours?

(Second, it was never really explained how the recording stopped. Perhaps the writers should have had Ray say something like, "Oh, yeah, now I remember. So–and–so accidentally hit the button on the VCR, and it stopped taping just before Norwood's kick!")

I'm sure Norwood wishes he could erase the memory of that kick as easily. But he's linked to it forever now. I predict that, whenever he dies, the first paragraph of his obituary will say, "Scott Norwood, whose missed field goal in Super Bowl XXV cost the Buffalo Bills a world championship, died ..."

It will be that way even if he wins the Nobel Prize. That might not be mentioned until the second paragraph.

S**t happens. Kickers miss field goals. Some husbands accidentally erase wedding videos.

Deal with it. Have some dip.


Kyle said...

I remember that well, David! Thanks for bringing back that memory. Those days of predictions were fun -- way before fantasy football. I never won a season, either.

I've been to quite a few Super Bowl parties, but that was one of the very few (if not the only one) I hosted. I like the parties except when my team, the Steelers, is in it. I find the parties are more socializing and way more than half aren't even football fans, but there for the party. So you miss out on a lot. When the Steelers are in, I want to see everything -- and root like a crazy man. Folks at parties don't want to see that.

I think this year's SB will be a classic. Two great teams peaking at the same time. And I like the Packers too -- but gotta go against them this weekend of course. Steelers 27, Packers 17.

David Goodloe said...

Hard to believe it's been 20 years.

Can't go along with you on the game, although I agree that I think it will be a classic.

I'll take the Packers by 30-21.