DETROIT -- I have a Mike Tyson and Terrell Owens story for you from this morning, but it comes later.
There wasn't a lot of memorable on-the-field stuff in one of the worst Super Bowls I've ever covered, but off the field there was a treasure trove. Ben Roethlisberger having to be consoled at his locker for his D performance. The smell of cigars everywhere in the Steelers' locker room; I'm guessing it'll take two washings to get the scent out of my shirt. The quiet satisfaction and warm smile of AlanFaneca, the left guard who pulled and buried outside linebacker LeRoy Hill, making the longest run in Super Bowl history possible. What a textbook block, by the way. The exultation of Jerome Bettis and how he pranced by HinesWard's locker when most everyone else had gone and said in a high falsetto: "We goin' to Disney World, baby!'' The effervescence of Antwaan Randle El, who kept asking about the beautiful touchdown pass he threw and where the ball was. Funny, but an equipment guy told him that Ward, who caught it, tossed it to a kid in the stands. Randle El was in an "Oh no!'' mood, but he later said, "I've got other balls. I'll always have the memory of it.''
And then Ward. Sorry, folks. He's one of those guys I cross the line for. There's so much about him I admire. Great guy, great call-returner, great love and loyalty for his mother, who worked endlessly to give him a good life growing up outside of Atlanta. And, most all, great player. Selfless blocker, emotional player, great locker-room guy. I didn't like his preseason holdout this year. A contract's a contract to me. That's about the extent of what I can find wrong with the man.
So here's the picture of a Super Bowl MVP in this rabid Football America era, the real picture, not the glossy one where everything is pretty and touched up. An hour or so after the game, Ward was at his locker, still in his game pants, ankles taped and with an ace bandage, the kind you'd buy at Walgreens to wrap your ankle to play pickup basketball, holding an icebag to his left shoulder. He sprained the AC joint in the shoulder during practice on Friday, and had to get it shot up to play. He sat, elbows on knees, head looking at the ground.
"I'm in pain,'' he said. "My shoulder's on fire right now.'' A smile. "At this point, it's good pain.''
Now the space around his locker was being invaded. He looked up. One radio producer, Lonnie Martin from ESPN Radio, had a cell phone in his right hand, holding it out and saying Ward was going to do his show. Another radio producer, Doug Mortman from Sirius NFL Radio, had a cell in his outstretched hand and was saying, No, no, no, we're next. And Ward looked at me, incredulously, and started laughing. "Peter! Can you believe it! They're arguing over me! Me! They want a piece of me!''
A compromise was reached: Ward gave a minute to Sirius, then a minute to ESPN. Then he needed to relax a while. He just didn't have the energy to move on. Then I was alone with him.
"I threw up today,'' Ward said. "I never get sick before a game. Never. I can honestly say I've never gotten sick before a game, but my stomach was so nauseous and I was a little nervous. I went back in the bathroom, so my teammates wouldn't see me. I didn't want them to see me like that. When I went out on the field, I saw all the former MVPs, and I went to talk to RayLewis. I said, 'Ray, is it all right to be nervous before this game?' He said, 'Man, we all get nervous before the Super Bowl.' And I'm thinking, Well, if Ray was nervous before a game like this, I guess it's OK that I'm nervous. I think that's why I dropped a couple of balls.''
I asked him what it was like to be an MVP of the biggest game on the planet. Starr, Staubach, Bradshaw, Rice, Montana, Elway, Brady.
"You picture what something like that will be like,'' he said, smiling, "but you just can't imagine. Really, you can't imagine. I can't believe it. I can't believe for one day I was one of them.''
"Ward, Swann, Stallworth. Has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?''
For Steeler Nation, it'll have a nice ring. Forever.
And a postscript: I shadowed Bettis after the game. He stopped first at a party thrown in his honor by Magic Johnson. Big, big party. Loud party. Rap music. Not a place many suburbanites from Montclair, N.J., find themselves in. And at one point, Mike Tyson, with that weird facial tattoo and a pulled-low ski cap, was escorted past me. Five feet behind me was Terrell Owens, bopping to the music. T.O. and I, we go way back, but we did not speak. The Bettis Ball made for a strange behind-the-ropes group, folks.