by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

NEW ORLEANS — Listen, boss. The kid was a professional hustler, I don’t care how high his voice was. He had a shoe- shine brush and a jar of polish and he was about nine years old, but he didn’t fool me; he was on the make just like everybody else in this city during Super Bowl Week, the biggest, liquor-crazed, money-soaked Pep Rally of the American calendar year. And the little newt had his eye on my shoes, which made me nervous.

“I betcha I can tell you where you got those shoes,” he said.

“How much?” I said.

“Five bucks,” he said.

I thought about it. And I figured, what the hell? Maybe the kid’ll be psychic and I’ll get the Super Bowl score two days before it happens. Then I can clean up on every bookie in New Orleans and take a nice long vacation.

“OK. Five bucks. Tell me where I got my shoes.”

He pointed to the street sign on the corner. “Right now, you got your shoes on St. Peter’s Street.

“Now gimme my money,” he said.

Get it? OK, OK. There are worse ways to go down. I paid him. Besides, compared to the general swill that was flying around here by then, the kid actually made sense.

Anyhow, boss, I just wanted to tell you that before we go any further, so you don’t balk when you see the entry on my expense account, under the heading
“social research.” It won’t be the only one. And they won’t all be five bucks, either. But OK. I’m jumping the gun a little.

This was the week that was, the Super Bowl XX countdown, and here, holed up in my peach-colored hotel room, with old newspapers and dirty socks and several half-filled glasses blocking the door, I am trying desperately to get it all down before deadline comes or I pass out, both of which must happen sooner or later.

You wanted me to document the past six days, do a diary sort of thing, right? And I thought it was a pretty good idea at the time. I’m not so sure anymore. Super Bowl week can get pretty weird, and how many lunatics can you squeeze into one piece without illustrations? Personally, I think this whole adventure started going downhill the minute Jim McMahon’s butt turned into the week’s hottest story. But all right, a deal’s a deal. Here goes nothing: Monday: This was the day the players arrived, and the day every strip joint on Bourbon Street nailed up a “Welcome Super Bowl XX!” sign to let the tourists know it was OK to get smashed there, right alongside the locals.

I came in around 10 a.m. My cab driver wore a cowboy hat. Called himself Dirty Harry. Right, I figured. He told me to bet on the Patriots with three points. He had a sticker on his window that said “This Cab Protected By Smith And Wesson.” So I said “Patriots, huh? Good advice. Thanks, friend.” It’s starting, I thought. The weirdness.

Since the players were due to arrive soon, there were already TV film crews scouring the hotel lobby. They knew the big stars such as McMahon, Walter Payton, and Refrigerator Perry by sight, but with everyone else it was,
“Psst. Is that guy a Bear or a Patriot?” And it would turn out to be a bellhop.

You don’t find a lot of intelligent behavior during Super Bowl week. Face it. It’s six days of waiting for a football game to start. Nothing is happening, and you have about a trillion reporters who have to file something by six o’clock. Which is why you get great stories such as how the mayor’s wife is betting a gallon of gumbo on the Bears, because blue is her favorite color.

I might as well talk here a little about Bourbon Street, since it will come up again. Bourbon Street is the jugular vein of this city, coursing through the French Quarter with every sort of sin known to man, many available now by credit card. “Girls! Men! Topless! Bottomless!” Name it, they got it, all set to the rhythm of a Dixieland beat, and washed down with a big red drink they call a Hurricane, which I suppose comes from the way you look after you finish one. As in, “Hey. What hit you? A hurricane?”

Bourbon Street has no memory. At dawn they come by and sweep up the bottles and the bodies and they juice the bugger back up and start over again that night. Which is why a lot of people want the Super Bowl to be here full time. What better place for a disposable celebration?

So at 3 p.m. Monday, Bourbon Street was sedate with the soft sound of a distant saxophone, like something out of the Old South. And by 10 p.m. there were a thousand bugheads staggering in the middle of it, wearing sunglasses and headbands, and screaming “GO BEARS! KICK A–!

I tell you boss, the place comes alive like instant soup. Just add liquor and, boom, it’s lit. Tuesday: Between 9 and 11 a.m., the Bears and Patriots players were scattered around the field of the Louisiana Superdome, a cavernous indoor stadium big enough to house five or six cruise ships. It was the first of several full-scale encounters with the world’s media. We’re talking thousands of reporters here. You have Japan and Australia rubbing elbows with Fargo, N.D. Print journalists fighting for space with radio and TV. All of them trying to circle the same half-dozen “name” players — Payton, McMahon, Perry, Tony Eason, Craig James, Andre Tippett. It’s not a good mix. Newspaper guys have little tolerance for TV types, especially when they stick a boom mike up their noses. It can get ugly.

What was said? Oh, let’s see. Irving Fryar refused comment on reports that his wife cut him with a knife. Julius Adams, 37, the oldest lineman in football, said the wait had been worth it. So did Steve Grogan, John Hannah, Billy Sullivan and about 50 other people. McMahon sat in the middle of a mob and chewed tobacco. He said he had a sore butt and he was flying an acupuncturist in to treat it. You’d have thought he just predicted the day the stock market would crash.

By the way, boss. I found out the Chicago Tribune has 27 people here covering this. We have two — Curt Sylvester and me. Don’t worry though. Nothing those extra 25 reporters are gonna get that we won’t.

Tuesday night we saw some players walking Bourbon Street for the first time. Steve Nelson, who’s been a Patriots linebacker for about a zillion years, bumped into Gary Fencik, the free safety and token Yuppie of the Chicago Bears in front of a female impersonators’ club. Now, since Fencik graduated from Yale and Nelson went to North Dakota State, I’m not sure what they had to talk about. But I got close enough to hear Fencik say, “I’m just thrilled to be here,” and then they split apart and this little geek with a cigar stepped up to Fencik and shoved a hand at him and said, “Gary, pleased to meet you. We just hired someone from Yale to join our firm.” Fencik sort of nodded, then turned and high-tailed it down the street like a jackrabbit. I think he suddenly realized this wasn’t a football field. And it sure as hell wasn’t Yale. Wednesday: By now McMahon’s rear end was front page news, which goes to show you how little really goes on here during this week. Over eggs and grits — cooked industrial style and served to two thousand hung-over sports writers
— Bears coach Mike Ditka insisted McMahon’s butt was for real. “He’s hurting” Ditka said. So were the sports writers. In several minutes they would be turned loose inside a giant ballroom with every player seated at his own table, identified by a magic-marker sign with his number and his name. And there would be only 10 seats per table. First shoved, first served. It takes more than eggs to prepare a man for a nightmare like that.

Meanwhile, the whole city of New Orleans was starting to look alike. Everywhere you went people were wearing headbands that said “Rozelle” — McMahon had worn one in the NFC championship in defiance of the commissioner
— which I’m sure teed off old Pete, since he wasn’t getting a cut. Face-painting was big. There is nothing quite like asking a middle-aged lady for the time and seeing P-A-T-S! across her forehead.

By Wednesday night, I saw a man belly-flop onto concrete along Bourbon Street, while his friends stood by and applauded. There was a old piano player who played “C.C. Rider” and made horn sounds and called himself “The Human Trumpet.” There was someone in a Bears suit and someone dressed like Paul Revere, and some bimbo hanging from a telephone pole screaming, “ALL CHICAGO IS GOOD FOR IS LANDING THE AIRPLANE” — he swooped one way — “AND TAKING BACK OFF!” — he swooped the other way. Several listeners thought he made perfect sense. Things were sinking. Thursday: A buddy of mine, whom we’ll call J.S., rolled into town and asked to crash on the spare bed in my hotel room, and I said OK. We woke up Thursday morning to hysterical voices. “My God, they’ve come for us!” J.S. screamed. But it was the clock radio. A report that McMahon had called the women of New Orleans “sluts” had prompted every half-brained morning deejay to incite a riot. Women were calling in with insults of their own to McMahon, screaming them across morning drive time.

It would turn out to be only a drop in the barrel of weirdness that day. There was a photo of McMahon mooning a helicopter. Payton was complaining about lack of recognition for his career. Eason was rumored to have the flu. Tony Franklin said his Super Bowl dream was “to win the game with a 60-yard kick, run into the locker room and jump into a hot tub with Heather Locklear and a bottle of Dom Perignon.” Hell, he could have done most of that on Bourbon Street that night.

By the end of the day, the McMahon thing turned out to be a complete lie, giving new meaning to the phrase “what journalistic standards?” Meanwhile, there wasn’t a TV screen in town that wasn’t running the Bears’ Super Bowl Shuffle — a mindless rap song video that only proves Steve Fuller can’t dance to save his life.

I saw a baby with a Rozelle headband. A baby? Two female impersonators singing a Bears fight song. Acupuncture needles selling at an all-time high. Odds were put out on who would score the first touchdown on Sunday, and Refrigerator Perry was listed at 12-1.

Speaking of odds, did you realize, boss, that in 1803 we picked up the whole state of Louisiana for $23 million from the French — and on Sunday we’ll bet about $30 million alone on the Bears’ ability to eat up a quarterback by halftime?

It was clearly time for a Hurricane. Friday: How can I describe Friday to you? Maybe this way. Friday is the long-awaited day that every slimeball, lounge lizard, air-brained, donut-eating, semi-plastered chewing-gum mutant head shows up at the hotel and immediately stakes out a spot in the elevator. That way no matter when you need to get to your room, it’s absolutely impossible unless you want to walk 23 flights of stairs marked FIRE EXIT: KEEP OUT.

The press conferences were dwindling down. With the game just two days away, players were off-limits. Only Ditka and Raymond Berry, the Patriots coach whom the media had nicknamed Mr. Snooze, were available. There was plenty going on without interviews. The S.W.A.T. team had already been in the Hilton once that morning sweeping the place on account of a bomb threat.

Bourbon Street was sheer insanity by this point. You needed a nut card just to get out there. J.S. and I made it over. Someone ran by in a rabbit costume, followed by a girl dressed like Alice. “Did you see the rabbit?” she asked. We just shrugged. It’s best not to encourage these people.

Friday night is traditionally the Commissioner’s party — the NFL’s All-Out Blow Out for 3,000 executives and media. About two zillion pounds of oysters and lobster and shrimp, washed down with two zillion mixed drinks, all sprinkled with the appropriate number of stars — Diana Ross, Doug Flutie, Ahmad Rashad, Michael J. Fox — mixing in like common folks. Someone spotted Sonny Jurgensen, the old Redskins quarterback, and asked what the difference was between football today and when he played.

“You mean besides fun?” he said. Saturday: Madness. You couldn’t make a phone call from the hotel because the switchboard was so jammed. People were sleeping in the lobby chairs, while rocks bands pounded away. Someone spotted Bill Murray. Bill M


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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