To celebrate this country's bicentennial, Mike Esteve painted an American flag on his face. Didn't everyone?

For today's Super Bowl, Esteve painted his shaven skull orange. He left enough hair on top to form the letter "D."

That he painted blue.

"See this?" he said, turning around. The blue hair on the back of his noggin said, "Hi." "I wanted to make it 'Mile Hi,' but I didn't have enough hair," he said.

The Mile High City, Denver, had its beloved Broncos in today's Super Bowl football game against the Dallas Cowboys. In his rational hours, Esteve is an Air Force sergeant stationed in Albuquerque, N.M. He drives 450 miles to Denver for games.

Ah, mad, blind devotion. Esteve has a semiexcuse.His hometown is a New Orleans suburb and the Mardi Gras has worked its influence on him (hence the flag face). For about 60,000 visitors here, however, they could explain their aberrant behavior only in stumbling phrases, seen mostly on hand-painted signs. "Broncos Buck Off Cowboys." "Cowboys Crush Oranges." That sort of thing.

Perhaps the Super Bowl is truly the Beginning of the End. Historians can't sleep well at night for worrying about such a lavish, opulent spectacle. More than 74,000 people paid $30 a seat to gain entrance to a $163 million domed building in a city in which one of every five households earn less than $4,000 a year.

Is it, this Excess Bowl, a direct descendant of the corruption made visible in Rome's Colosseum?

Or maybe the Super Bowl is simple testimony to the American free-enterprise system. The National Football League sells a product and sells it well. The city of New Orleans estimates the game means $25 million to its economy. Advertisers pay $325,000 per minute for television time. The winning players, 43 of them, earned $18,000 apiece today. The losers only pocketed $9,000.

Whatever the game is, and a lot of people, presumably including the 150 million who are said to see it on the tube at home, think it is plain old fun; a wonderful, painless way to escape, for two or three hours, the routine. The Super Bowl gives a guy a chance to paint his skull orange without fear of being institutionalized.

Because this is Denver's first appearance in the Super Bowl in 18 years of trying, the Bronco fans --broncomaniacs, they like to be called were giddy today. Tens of thousands of them wore orange and blue, the team's colors, including the mayor of Macomb, Ill., Robert Anstine.

"Red Miller grew up in Macomb, went to high school in Macomb, to college in Macomb and today, with all this, he's still the same man he was at home," the mayor said. Miller is the Denver coach, a big winner in his first year on the job.

About 40 cousins and friends of Miller's came from Mcomb. Ann Collins said everyone knew Red was headed for football game. "His music teacher said, 'Red is a beautiful singer, but he's always carrying that football under his arm," she said.

Collins had bought five toy horses orange horses -- for $10 from one of the world's great salesmen outside the massive Superdome. He'd whinny like a raging bronco and you'd think it was the toy doing it.

"How do you get the horse to do that?" Collins asked the vendor.

"You hire somebody," the vendor said, taking her $10 bill.

"I'll do it myself," she said. And she did, this perfect whinny piercing the air.

Football fans often are full of vitriol, but for today's most important game, the Broncomaniacs and the Cowboy zealots seemed friendly rivals.

A man in a blue cowboy hat said, "Dallas by three, ma'am," and the lady with orange hair laughed out loud, saying, "You're fantasizing sir."

Nearby, inside the Hyatt Regency Hotel, which has a ramp leading from its lobby to the Superdome, thousands moved from one portable bar to another as they listened to a jazz band.

Bloody Marys were selling so fast, at $2.50, that extra bartenders had to be called in to meet the demand.

A cold beer and a hot dog cost $3.25 after a 10-minute wait in line.

Dan Rosenblit, 22, of Tallahassee, Fla., is a college student who, in the great American business tradition, is making a buck off this thing. He's a ticket scalper.

"People who go to the Super Bowl have money and $100 to them is like a dollar bill to us," he said. "I'll buy tickets at the regular price, $30 and sell them for $100."

New Orleans police throw ticket scalpers in jail.

"I'm careful. But, look. I'll do things that are illegal as long as they aren't unethical. I believe in a higher law. Why, tell me, is it legal for the NFL to charge $30 a ticket and I can't charge what I want?"

What's Rosenblit's major in college?

"Criminology," he said. "I swear to God; it's criminology."

Orange skulls and criminology students scalping tickets and guys selling whinnying horses that don't whinny. Did it happen that way in Rome?