THE GAME’S THE THING THAT PULLS THEM BACK

PHOENIX – There’ll be lots of football players in tonight’s Super Bowl, but not as many as are walking around as I write this. I am in the cavernous media center, the throbbing aorta of the Super Bowl hype machine. There goes Richard Dent, the onetime Chicago Bears star. There goes Marshall Faulk, the onetime St. Louis Ram. There goes John Elway, a Hall of Famer, sitting down on a TV set. There goes Tony Dorsett, another Hall of Famer, talking into a microphone.

They come back, once a year, to this biggest of big sporting events; they don’t have to, but they do, and I think I know why. Here, people call their names again. Here, people run up with notepads. Here, they get to wear impressive clothes and jewelry and catch the envious eye of onlookers.

Here they get to feel alive again – not breathing alive or heartbeat alive, but the alive that comes from being part of the biggest sport in America. These are men who grew accustomed to the cheers of 60,000 every Sunday, to their photos in newspapers, their images on television.

And then, suddenly, it stopped.

Suddenly, they were back in with the general population, part of the herd, no special sections, no one carrying their luggage. They may have had money. They may have had cars and homes.

But they were on the outside looking in. You can take the player out of the sport …

So one big weekend a year, they travel to a city and splash in the famous waters. Here, in the buildup to Super Bowl Sunday, every ex-player is part of the road. Every ex-player is an analyst with a prediction.

But beneath those smooth exteriors, a hunger still growls.

“You never let it go,” Faulk said Thursday. “I’m not going to lie. I’ve been playing football since I was 5. When am I going to let it go?”

Faulk was once the best at his position. A three-time NFL offensive player of the year, he ran with bursts of speed and elusiveness, and he caught passes just as deftly. He is the only NFL player to have more than 100 rushing touchdowns and 30 receiving touchdowns.

But a knee injury slowed him down and eventually drove him from the game last year. He was 34. That’s the age most men are getting traction in their careers.

His was over.

“I find other ways to be around football now,” he said. “I’m working at the NFL Network. We have a team. We meet every week. I still get to watch film. …

“But it’s not the same. That moment when a game ends, that feeling of accomplishment, something you did with a team of guys … that’s gone.” The parade of former stars

I look up as I continue to write. There goes Michael Irvin, the former Cowboy. There goes Jerry Rice, the ex-49er. There goes Moose Johnston, a onetime fullback, and Nate Newton, a huge lineman who used to block for him.

They are envied in many corners of America, but I have never understood that. I have never envied professional athletes, because even the best of them reach their peak so young. And often, it is the highlight of their lives.

Can you imagine your 40s, 50s or 60s, always looking back? Can you imagine the second half of a life that will never be as thrilling, as satisfying or simply as much fun as the first?

What’s to envy in that?

There goes Kellen Winslow, a former tight end. There goes Neil O’Donnell and Archie Manning, taking interview after interview. There is Faulk, in a suit, up on stage talking about other players: younger players, active players.

“I still dream about the game,” Faulk admitted. “I don’t get to play it, but I’m around it.”

And at the Super Bowl, being around is, for many, what it’s all about.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or malbom@freepress.com. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show,” 5-7 p.m. weekdays, on WJR-AM (760).

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