For a player, the worst thing about the Super Bowl is the wait. Not the July-through-December wait of getting there but the torturous two-week wait between the last of the playoffs and the 60 minutes of truth.
Emotions are juggled by a butter-fingerer acrobat in his psyche. One minute he anticipates the best of all possible worlds - winning. The next minute, fear delivers a belly blow and his memory produces cold chills to match some past failure.
Everything in his life is altered the week before the Super Bowl: His personal life, public image, private ambitions and secret doubts. The wait becomes almost sensual; it combines a titillating trio: Please, pain and risk.
He gives way to a total absorption with self. He spends hours reading his horoscope. He studies biorhythm charts and plots old superstitions that he thinks worked.
He prays for divine signs, any indication of heavenly favor. Even if he's an agnostic, he kneels; if an atheist, he bows his head. He expects God to choose between two members of the Fellowship of Christian athletes, Roger Staubach and Craig Morton. He has a vote to offer.
He is split about his social life. Part of him craves public notice, the smiling faces of approving fans, and he has to deal with this curious fog in his consciousnes. He cannot carry a simple conversation without part of his mind clicking shut. An insistent screen drops down in his subconscious, and he is always aware of the eerie flicker of films he should be studying.
Family life is kaput. He lets the team management stew over the distracting argument of whether or not to include wives on the Super Bowl trip. At home, children are hushed with, "Daddy's busy." Wives watch late-night television shows. Girl friends wait by silent telephones. It is me-myself-and-I time in the NFL.
He daydreams itchy, wishful spending of the new free money. He looks at his ring finger and imagines a gaudy chunk of Super Bowl gold winking back. He brushes away the cold sweat at 2 in the morning and prays for sleep. He knows this is the final roll of the dice in a crap game that is for keeps. He is desperate for that windfall.
He spends his time worrying about minor things. Should he eat a traditional steak on game day or the newly popular high carbohydrate pancakes and peaches? Tennis shoes or cleats? Thigh pads or none? Long woolies or pantyhose? Gloves or resin-coated fingers?
There is something reassuring about chasing details. Collect enough of them and it might add up to seven points. Like George Allen, who hired a weather watcher when his Redskins played Miami in the Super Bowl. He hired a man who spotted the sun in the Los Angeles Coliseum and measured shadow lengths. The Redskins lost, but it wasn't because they didn't know everything there was to know about Southern California's cloud cover.
There is both eagerness and dread. The game is a week away.
Old injuries, barely healed but still nagging, are ignored. Better to lie to yourself and hope for a jolt of adrenalin to act as nature's Novocain. But something new - a hangnail or a fever blister - momentarily stops the heart and brings the team trainer on a house call. A player treats his body tenderly the week before the Super Bowl.
Life becomes a blurred collection of inconsequential details. Time is spent analyzing shoelace lengths. Every personal action is rerun, slow motion, through the mind. Concentration is so acute that it takes considerable thought just to swallowy.
Pubicly, a surfeit of team love is strewn about like so many rose petals, and is equally fragile. Privately, teammates turn silent eyes on each other. One-dimensional friendships are X-rayed for potential weaknesses. Vince Lombardi's profound query of which comes first, the love or the winning, is ultimately answered. Alas, it is obvious, Winning provides the sparkle; love [WORD ILLEGIBLE] fleeting and temporary [WORD ILLEGIBLE] locker room.
Emotions. What do you do with them? Is is better to be a glacial Tom Landry, or a weeping Morton? The playful mental acrobat juggles the questions, but there is no one to whisper the answer.
The stakes are high. Winning the Super Bowl means more than money and more than fame. Winning means the smug satisfaction of total freedom from all the what-ifs that plague a football player through the purgatory of his retirement.
"What if I'd been drafted by so-and-so? What if I'd held onto the ball? What if it hadn't been raining? What if, what if, what if?"
With no what-ifs, a Super Bowl winner is a contented man who can tell anyone who doubts him, "I was there. And I won. Therefore, I am."