Hunter Thompson, the good doctor of Gonzo journalism, "researched" America. He did his field work with the Hell's Angels on the back of a Harley-Davidson, with his "lawyer" at a convention of narcotics agents in Las Vegas and with Richard Nixon on the 1972 presidential campaign trail.

Inevitably, in 1974, Thompson researched the Super Bowl. In the solitude of his hotel room, "watching the wind and weather clocks on the TV set," Thompson issued his report of "fear and loathing":

"For eight long and degrading days I had skulked around Houston with all the other professionals, doing our jobs--which was actually to do nothing at all except drink all the free booze we could pour into our bodies, courtesy of the National Football League, and listen to an endless barrage of some of the lamest and silliest swill ever uttered by man or beast . . . and finally, on Sunday morning about six hours before the opening kickoff, I was racked to the point of hysteria by a hellish interior conflict."

What Thompson found at the Super Bowl was himself. Again.

And being himself, Thompson decided the only way to kick his boredom, the only way to pry loose the "eight- or nine-pound" leech he felt at the base of his spine, was to deliver a screaming, drunken sermon from a 20th-floor balcony into the vault-like lobby of his glass and steel hotel just before dawn.

"How many of you will be cast into the lake of fire in the next four years?" Thompson bellowed. "How many will survive?"

The Miami-Minnesota game was merely Thompson's coda, a final scene in which he collected on his bets.

Nearly a decade later and the Super Bowl is in Los Angeles. Thompson, at last report, is in south Florida researching a book on the cocaine trade and was unavailable for comment.

But for Thompson's presence, the Super Bowl has changed little. One coming here to see what it all means, would find the same props and straight lines. The only difference this year is that there is just a week's worth of weirdness between the conference championship games and Super Bowl instead of the usual two.

Approximately 2,000 media people have descended upon Los Angeles for the rites of January.

"I never thought I'd miss having breakfast with you guys," Don Shula told the assembled press after nine years out of the Super Bowl.

On Tuesday, the week's first "press day," a half-dozen buses filled with journalists, nearly all of them middle-aged men, headed south from the airport hotels to the fields where the Dolphins and Redskins, nearly all of them men in their 20s, practiced all week.

The buses arrived first at Cal State-Fullerton and the reporters were told to wait for Shula and the Dolphins out on a sodden practice field. For 15 minutes they waited.

One radio reporter intoned into his Sony: "This is an exclusive. Miami quarterback David Woodley did not show up at practice with his clothes off." Of course, he was only testing his mike.

As Thompson discovered in Houston, the press conferences here in Los Angeles filled the game with enough hot air to float it down to Mexico.

Joe Theismann used his accustomed understatement to describe the affair. "The international focus is on us," he told a massive huddle of writers. And a billion Chinese did not read his words in the People's Daily half a world away. Lots of other readers did, however.

Bob Holly, a rookie and one of Theismann's backup quarterbacks, sat alone on a bench. Last year at Princeton, Holly wrote a senior thesis on the media and the Tet offensive. This year at the Super Bowl he gestured to the scores of reporters, more reporters, perhaps, for a single football game than ever set foot in Vietnam during the endless war.

"I guess it is international," said Holly.

A reporter asked Dexter Manley if he thought the Redskins were a "blue-collar team." Manley, who stands to push his salary into the stratosphere because of the season he has had, turned to the reporter and gave this week's one and only single-syllable answer.

"No," said Manley.

Joe Gibbs appeared slightly uncomfortable and often provided long rambling answers. On Friday, someone asked him about a shipment of barbequed ribs that was supposed to have been flown in from Virginia for the Redskins.

Gibbs' reply touched on everything from the ribs to ice cream and cake to the weekly habits of his team. Finally, on the subject of barbeque shipment techniques, he interrupted himself.

"You guys don't really care, do you?" he said. No one said yes or no and Gibbs went on for another fortnight.

Only John Riggins has handled the whole affair with a touch of genius. After 18 months of silence, he faces the press with irony and calculated enigma.

When reporters asked Bob Dylan in the '60s if he had a message for the youth of America he said, "Carry a lightbulb." If Dylan had said something about peace and brotherhood and be nice to small, furry animals, he would have been as obvious as Peter, Paul and Mary.

Riggins does the same thing when he credits formaldehyde for his durability and waxes elusive about his future with the Redskins. He gives little away, and so everyone keeps listening and asking for more.