NEWARK — Fashion always suffers at Super Bowl Media Day, and so does dignity. Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning somehow managed to hang on to his while answering questions about his preferred shampoo. The actual contestants were barely visible, surrounded by throngs of deejays, stunt dressers (licensed and unlicensed), marginal celebrities, Miss New Jersey in her tiara, exquisitely pinstripe-clad former players holding microphones, Brian Billick and his cellphone, child reporters, real reporters, a guy in a full length fur coat and the Rutgers Pep Band.
And then there was the guy everyone mistook for George Washington because he had on a white wig and costume knickers.
“Why are you dressed like George Washington?” I asked.
“I am not George Washington.”
“Who are you?”
“I am Mozart.”
“Well then why are you dressed like Mozart?”
“Because I am from Austria and I thought I should bring someone to Media Day who is famous, even though he is dead.”
This much was firmly established at the annual carnival that is Super Bowl Media Day: Regis Philbin is a leprechaun. Seriously. Manning had to bend in half to speak to him. Also, Brett Keisel of the Pittsburgh Steelers will take any kind of work. That was clear as Keisel plowed through the crowd with a microphone labeled “Head and Shoulders” and asked deadpan questions of the various Denver Broncos and Seattle Seahawks about their coiffing habits.
“Everyone is talking about the weather, but hair is the key component in my opinion,” Manning said gamely. “Some have more of it to show, and some are losing it.”
Media Day has long been one part promotional vehicle for the NFL and one part comic ritual to relieve the boredom of a long week. But increasingly it also has become a form of light hazing for the competitors, a preliminary game within the game: Who can keep their nerve in the face of the most absurd questions? Who will be lured by the sheer ecstatic idiocy of the occasion into saying the wrong thing?
Question to Wes Welker: “Why does Bill Belichick hate you so much?” No comment.
If there was a winner of this unofficial contest, maybe it was Marshawn Lynch of the Seahawks, who staged a protest of sorts by sitting on the podium for exactly six minutes, long enough to avoid being fined by the league, and then declined to answer any more shouted questions, retreated behind his dark shades and pulled up his hood. “I like to keep it low key, man,” he said.
Unless the day was won by Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, who established himself as flatly the most vibrant and attractive personality in the room. And in doing so smartly erased every lingering unpleasant misperception left by his infamous postgame tirade with Erin Andrews after the NFC championship game, in which he came off as a glaring rageful braggart. For more than an hour Sherman managed to discuss race, villainy, imagery, media distortions and Muhammad Ali and reminded all of his Stanford education and record of philanthropy while being self-deprecating, thoughtful, regretful and observant.
“I think if I had more time after the game to think things over, it would have been better articulated, obviously,” he said. “A lot lower tone, lower volume. It would have been a clearer and more concise message, and I think the criticism would have been less.”
“I don’t have anything to hide,” he added. “The more people look, the more they see how I try to help in this world, and the more they look, the more they’ll see that instead of a 20-second rant.”
Sherman managed to draw almost as much attention as Manning, who also parried his share of difficult questions, most of them having to do with whether, at the age of 37, with a neck that has been surgically repaired four times, this will be the last game of his career. He adroitly deflected all of the speculation, even as he remarked that even his own teammates have asked him for autographed jerseys in anticipation that this could be his last appearance in uniform. “Oh wow, all these hints at retirement,” he said. “The answer is, I have no idea. I’ve just tried to be all-in on the current job.” As for the remarkable journey he has made over the past two seasons, winning comeback player of the year in 2012 and setting a spate of all-time records this season, he said, “I never wanted to be eligible for that award. I call it more of a second chance.”
It was as serious as things would get all day. The rest was farcical. Hank Azaria was there for the NFL Network and did a little shilling for Anheuser-Busch. He asked Manning, “Did you know Bud Light is the official beer of sorority girls and overweight dads?”
Manning, no slouch in the corporate pitchman department, shot back, “I wasn’t. But I was aware it was the preferred beer of the Manning household.”
A Chinese journalist asked Manning whether he realized it was the year of the horse and what he had to say about that.
Somebody called out, “Can you say, ‘Good morning America!’
“Good morning America,” he obliged.
Bloomberg radio asked Manning to name one thing no one knows about him. “I’m not sure what that would be, but whatever it is, I’d like to keep it that way,” he said firmly.
Sometimes the questions were inaudible, and sometimes they were shouted. Did Manning have a favorite character on “Real Housewives”? No. Did Sherman have a favorite crush?
“I don’t have a crush,” Sherman replied. “Girl crush or a man crush. I mean, Beyonce is everybody’s crush. That’s the world’s crush, right?”
What did Sherman think of New York women?
“I don’t know. Most of the women I’ve seen have been media.”
Why do athletes like strippers?
“I’ve never gone to a strip club and thrown money, so I couldn’t tell you,” Sherman answered with an exhibition of world-class composure.
“I can’t sing,” he replied.
What should this Super Bowl be called?
“How about the Fight in the Big Lights?”
From way back in the pack, somebody shouted, “Do you have anything to say about Justin Bieber!”
Sherman squinted into the lights and tried to compose an answer — and then finally fell apart laughing.
“I really don’t,” he said.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.