Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Longest Night

Twenty–five years ago today was the last Super Bowl Sunday that I had to work — although, at the time, I probably thought I would never be able to sit and watch another Super Bowl like anyone else.

I was working on the sports staff of the now defunct Arkansas Gazette. Before the year was over, I moved to Texas to begin working on my master's degree, but, on this day in 1988, I was working on the copy desk of the Gazette.

When I first started working there, we had no TV in the newsroom, but on special occasions, like the Super Bowl, someone usually brought in a portable TV, and we could at least keep up with what was happening (remember, this was before the internet).

One of the things I learned in my years of working on a newspaper's sports staff on Super Sunday is that there are a few sporting events scheduled in the afternoon of that day — but after the game kicks off, there is nothing else happening in American sports. No games of any kind.

I don't know if it is still that way or not. Frankly, I haven't really paid close attention, but I can't recall any sports events that tried to compete directly with the Super Bowl.

And, with the NHL having recently resolved a somewhat messy strike and trying to work in a certain number of games in a comparatively short period of time, there might be some hockey games planned on Sunday. I don't tend to follow hockey so I don't really know.

I do know that, 25 years ago today, the football game started around 5:30 Central time, and, under normal circumstances, those of us on the sports staff figured a football game would be over in roughly 3½ hours. Our final deadline was around midnight, but we knew it would be an hour, maybe an hour and a half after the game ended before our writers could complete their postgame interviews, write their stories and transmit them over what I suppose was a state–of–the–art system (but would now be regarded as quaint, even primitive).

The sports editor had complete confidence in the system, though, and his faith turned out to be well founded. We had no transmission issues that night.

Other than that, there were really two things to be worried about.

One was that the game would go into overtime. As far as those of us on the copy desk were concerned, that would only prolong things. The Gazette had been purchased by the Gannett Company a year or so earlier, and the decision had been made to send our own staffers to the game in San Diego rather than rely on wire accounts, even though we had no link to anyone on either team as far as I can recall.

The Gazette was in a newspaper war with its crosstown rival, the Arkansas Democrat. It was a war the Gazette eventually would lose, but, on this night in 1988, the war was raging.

We had some excellent writers on the Gazette sports staff, and I knew they would give us great copy to work with — vivid stories that would be the embodiment of what legendary sportswriter Red Smith meant when he said that "people go to spectator sports to have fun and then they grab the paper to read about it and have fun again."

I had no doubt that our writers would enable our readers to have fun the day after watching the game. I just hoped the initial experience would be fun. And overtime would be fun for the viewers. Not so much fun for the folks who were working the sports copy desks that night.

Those of us back in Little Rock knew we would have to go through a stretch that evening when there would be very little for us to do. If the game went into overtime, we wouldn't get the copy until close to our deadline, and no one wanted to miss deadline.

The game didn't go into overtime. That wasn't the problem.

The other thing to worry about was a lopsided score. That was likely to mean that the team on the short end of the score would be throwing the ball a lot, which probably would mean a lot of incomplete passes. That, too, would prolong things.

It turned out that was a problem.

You never would have expected what happened in the second quarter after watching the first quarter.

Denver QB John Elway was competing in his second Super Bowl. He had played in his first Super Bowl the year before when the New York Giants won, thanks to a nearly perfect performance from Phil Simms. Now, in his second consecutive Super Bowl, the (supposedly) more mature Elway seemed ready to claim an NFL championship.

The oddsmakers made Denver a three–point favorite.

The Redskin offense was led by Doug Williams, a backup when the season began but elevated to starter midway through the season and was, on this day, the first black quarterback to start in the Super Bowl. He was facing plenty of pressure.

In the first quarter, the Broncos seemed to be living up to pregame expectations, taking a 10–0 lead.

But then The Quarter happened. Washington struck — and struck and struck and struck and struck. The Redskins scored five unanswered touchdowns, big play after big play, in the second quarter. Four of the five touchdowns were passes from Williams, who finished the day with 18 completions out of 29 attempts for 340 yards.

The Redskins went to the locker room with a 25–point lead. To this day, no other team has scored as many points in a single quarter as the Redskins did 25 years ago. A few teams have scored more points in a single Super Bowl than Washington did in 1988, but none has scored five touchdowns in a single quarter.

I don't remember how long that game went on, but I know it went on longer than expected. Denver coach Dan Reeves clearly didn't want to give up at halftime. Elway wound up throwing nearly 40 passes in an ill–fated attempt to erase the deficit; the Broncos got no touchdowns, but Elway was sacked five times.

The Redskins did their part to speed things along by running the ball on virtually every down when their offense was on the field. Rookie Timmy Smith, who hardly touched the ball during the regular season, ran for a Super Bowl record 204 yards and scored two touchdowns.

But the MVP went to Williams (whose NFL career was finished a few years later), and he certainly deserved it.

After the game was over, those of us in the sports department waited for what seemed like hours before the photos and copy began coming in, and the sports section finally began to take shape.

Everyone sprang into action with less than an hour to go before the scheduled deadline — and, once again, we accomplished what we had come to call the "nightly miracle." Somehow we got it all done on time that night. I honestly don't know how we did it. Until we actually did it, I wasn't sure that we would!

I can't speak for anyone else who worked that night, but when I got home that night, I collapsed in my bed exhausted. Most of the nights I worked at the Gazette, I needed a little deceleration time after work before I could go to sleep.

But not that night.

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