NEW ORLEANS — He pinches a wad of tobacco into his mouth, looks at the crowd from behind blue sunglasses, then spits carefully over the edge of a paper cup, the brown drool falling as slowly and deliberately as his act, which has always been angry. Jim McMahon coughs and reaches around to scratch the back of his gray T-shirt, and he looks as if he might belch when someone asks him for the umpteenth time to compare this Super Bowl with his other one.

“They’re about the same,” he drones in a sort of Southernish accent, ”
‘cept this time I’m not starting.”

That may be how he sees it. The truth is, they are nowhere near the same. The last time Jim McMahon was in a Super Bowl, the whole city of New Orleans knew about it. The whole country knew about it. On a Bears team that defined cockiness, he was the cockiest. Every move he made was watched with paparazzo intensity. The way he chewed, the way he walked, the headbands he wore, the haircuts he sported, the sunglasses he rarely took off. As quarterback, he was the Bad Boy Bull’s-eye of a Chicago sports team that captured the world’s imagination. The Dennis Rodman of his year.

But that was 11 years ago.

Today McMahon is a weathered, 37-year-old backup, with a chart full of knee surgeries and a shoulder reconstruction behind him. He is hanging onto pro football by guts and reputation. This is his seventh NFL team, and you probably can’t name more than three. Some of you probably thought he retired.

But here he is, Super Bowl week, sitting though a media session, spitting tobacco in a cup. Someone asks how he’s spending his week and he says,
“Trying to stay away from you guys, man.”

Still surly after all these years.

He loves the spotlight

“Have you seen Bourbon Street this time?” someone asks.

“Looks the same,” he says.

“Are you more relaxed this time?”

“I was relaxed last time,” he says.

He coughs, chews, looks at his watch. He makes funny comments but he does not laugh. He acts as if this is the greatest burden that can be placed on a man, to have to sit at a table with two dozen reporters all but falling over to ask him questions.

“I never liked this stuff,’ he says.

Yeah. And I never spelled a word wrong.

Personally, I think McMahon loves it. I think he eats it up. And the only thing that would make the attention better is if Brett Favre suddenly came down with a 72-hour bubonic plague and McMahon actually got to play some football on Sunday. Don’t forget that after the 1986 Super Bowl, football has

been mostly downhill for McMahon. His Bears team was loaded with talent — consider Walter Payton, Mike Single tary, Richard Dent, William Perry — and should have won at least one or two more Super Bowls.

Instead, the Bears had one great season — and made a video.

The following year, McMahon — who was no more than a decent quarterback with good field sense — ruined his shoulder, played anyhow, and finally had a major operation to piece it back together. He bounced from Chicago to San Diego, to Philadelphia, to Minnesota, to Arizona, to Cleveland. He sat behind other quarterbacks. He held the clipboard.

And instead of becoming a legend — as Joe Namath did with his one cocky Super Bowl — Jim McMahon became the football equivalent of Burt Reynolds in
“Smokey and the Bandit,” incredibly hot for a short time, then embarrassingly past tense.

“I was never all the things you all said I was,” he says. “You called me the punk rock quarterback. I don’t even like that music. You made a big deal of my headbands. I still don’t get it.”

“How do you think you’ll be remembered?” he is asked.

He spits. “For one dumb comment I never even said.”

Shades of 1986

Ah, yes. This is the pebble that won’t come out of his shoe. During the 1986 Super Bowl week, when the press reported everything he said and did — including how he mooned a news helicopter — someone spread a story that he had called the women of New Orleans “sluts” in a radio interview.

It turned out to be bogus, like much of what you hear at big events. But it made a huge stink. McMahon says he was bombarded with death threats from angry

New Orleans citizens. Once the Super Bowl ended, he couldn’t wait to leave town “before someone shot me.”

He says 11 years later that that comment is all anyone asks him about. Personally, I forgot about it until he said it.

“You guys won’t let it die,” he says.

Us guys?

Jim McMahon should be filmed here at Super Bowl week and shown to every prancing, dancing, cocksure athlete who thinks the fun will never stop and the lights will always turn green. Take a look, kids. You could end up riding the bench, trying your old act on a half-interested audience, bitter that your five minutes of fame were so short.

“Hey, Jim,” a reporter says, “are you gonna moon a helicopter this time?”

“No,” he snarled, “nothing’s bugging my ass this time.”

You could have fooled me.

Super Bowl XXXI

WHEN: 6:18 p.m. Sunday

WHERE: New Orleans

TV: Fox (Channel 2 in Detroit)

LINE: Packers by 14

Today’s entry from the Super Bowl hype file:

Oh, I wish I was an Oscar Mayer shill . . .

Andrew DeShawn Thompson beat out more than 65,000 applicants to become the official spokesman for the weiner company.

A commercial featuring Andrew, who turns 4 on Saturday, will debut during Sunday’s Super Bowl telecast. He’ll be singing the Oscar Mayer jingle in his own style, described as jazzy and Ethel Merman-like.

Until then, Andrew will spend his time making public appearances and attending news conferences in New Orleans.

Isn’t it all a bit demanding for a lad his age?

No, his mom, LaSonya says: “He wakes up every morning and says, ‘Mama, are we ready to go to the Super Bowl yet?’ ”

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