Let's not duck the issue here. I am eligible for disaster relief, and I'm seeking it in this column.
Grasping for consolation for my personal scorched-earth campaign of playoff predictions, I can only offer three sports entities who have had a worse week than me:
Mike White, who resigned as football coach during another investigation of cheating at Illinois.
Jimmy the Greek.
The good news is that, as far as we know so far, Byner and I get to keep our jobs.
It must be admitted that, as hype week begins, I can muster little sympathy for the media crisis of Joe Gibbs. Anointed by Sport magazine as the greatest coach of all time, he now must fend off waves of reporters with his reverse Muhammad Ali act: "I am not the greatest." With a 1-7 playoff record and a difficult Super Bowl decision ahead, I hope to get someone to remember the glorious regular season and estimate that I am not the worst.
Ever since I was baptized in the church of the goddess of wagering, I have prayed to her as a benevolent deity who tempers justice with mercy. I have envisioned her with the scales of justice in her hands, measuring out the "pure luck" games so that handicappers come close to breaking even on them. I trusted that when one game was destined to knock me down with a pass dropped by Darrin Nelson, the second one of the day would not kick my prone body with a fumble by Byner.
Now that all my darkest nightmares have become playoff reality, I find it hard to peer ahead this early into Super Bowl week. I fear that my keen mind will become befogged (even more, some might say) in a cloud of not-ready-for-prime-time Dexter Manley quotes. I cringe at the prospect of a blurred double vision that will conjure Six Amigos. So before launching my study of this game, I tried to step back and embrace some Super Bowl highlights of the past.
It didn't work as well as one might hope. Sure, there were good moments. In 1981, after Lester Hayes blanketed Harold Carmichael with elbows and stickum and the Raiders crushed the Eagles, I stood on the floor of the New Orleans Superdome hurling large-denomination bills into the air. Alongside me was a wonderful young woman, who happened to roll through the week on silver and black roller skates. It will always be recalled in the phrase of my wagering cohort of the time, Louis the Lock: "You won the game and found yourself the world's first skatomasochist."
Then there was the rare beauty of Super Bowl XIII, the Game Nobody Lost. The Steelers opened as 3 1/2-point favorites and all of us smart guys bet on them. The price blew out to 4 1/2 and many wise guys hedged their bets by taking Dallas. The Steelers won, 35-31. The postmortem to that one was a poignant letter to Newsweek from one of the many bookies who had been burned: "What do you mean, nobody lost? Don't you recognize that bookmakers are people, too?"
But like all the spectral creatures in the kingdom of the goddess, the ghosts of Super Bowls balance out. Before Super Bowl XII, I was convinced that the underdog Broncos would overwhelm Dallas with their sheer intensity. I was even among those who suspected that their wild approach came from the medicine cabinet, but Tom Jackson, who had the wildest eyes of all, assures me that the thought was an illusion. In any case, Dallas romped, 27-10.
The Broncos would have been better off that morning in the French Quarter, joining my party of 12 for Breakfast at Brennan's. That's the caviar and artichoke array that the menu calls "the traditional New Orleans breakfast." CBS raconteur Bob Drum supplied a much better definition of the typical New Orleans breakfast, at least during Super Bowl week: "A hundred and forty-six Ramos Gin Fizzes and a piece of bacon." What the hell, Broncos, it might have worked.
More painful still was Super Bowl X. The Steelers, favored by 6 1/2, effectively squashed the Cowboys. They were ahead, 21-10, when they drew back into the dreaded prevent defense. Predictably, Roger Staubach took full advantage. Less predictably, he threw the spread-covering 34-yard pass to a guy named Percy Howard, who never caught another NFL pass before or after. The final was 21-17.
In the postgame locker room, I had to endure the sight of numerous Steelers swilling champagne. Is there anything more depressing for the handicapper than watching grown men savor their money and rings and champagne -- with nary a thought for their followers who failed to cover?
Those memories will be hovering above San Diego this week as I try to regroup and pick the winner. So will the goddess, who is well aware of the ridiculous sums wagered each year on the Super Bowl. In homage to her and consideration of the reader, I can only express the same caution I offered several weeks ago: Just because a playoff game or media spectacle confronts one, there is no city ordinance requiring one to up the stakes. This is all for fun, remember? Dimly, I remember how much fun it was before the playoffs began.
Last week: The Vikings, getting 3 1/2 from the Redskins, proved once again that they could be champions of Arena Football. They just can't handle those last few yards of a regulation field. They placed my fate in the hands of Nelson, and he dropped it: Redskins, 17-10. The Browns, who happen to be a better team than Denver and were getting 3, watched Byner fumble it away and lost, 38-33. Byner took it like a man of character. I'm trying to do the same.
Record for week: 0-2.
Record for season: 37-31-1. Character is easier to maintain when you still cling to a cushion left over from the regular season.