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Road Swing
Steve Rushin
October 19, 1998
For a year the author cruised the highways and byways of America in search of the soul of sports, and he found it in shrines hallowed and profane, packed stadiums, retro bars and gloriously greasy food
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October 19, 1998

Road Swing

For a year the author cruised the highways and byways of America in search of the soul of sports, and he found it in shrines hallowed and profane, packed stadiums, retro bars and gloriously greasy food

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The Texas Sports Hall of Fame in Waco houses an assortment of ludicrously named local legends: Honk Irwin, Boody Johnson, Putt Powell, Botchey Koch. In preparation for a Dallas Cowboys game, I venerated Tom Landry's hat and viewed a display on Texas Stadium, the Cowboys' home field, which opened in 1971 with a Billy Graham crusade. The stadium's religious beginning—almost literally a christening—was not accidental. Essentially a dome, Texas Stadium has a long, narrow hole cut in the top, like the coin slot on a piggy bank. According to the display at the Texas Sports Hall of Fame, "Texans believe the hole is there so that God can watch his favorite team."

The Cowboys and their fans have brilliantly co-opted the themes of God and country. I parked in remote lot 17-C at Texas Stadium, next to a guy in a F—YOU, I'M FROM TEXAS T-shirt. His formidable sound-check-at-Altamont car-stereo speakers boomed the country anthem God Bless Texas. The Cowboys are not merely God's Favorite Team but also, famously, America's Team. During the national anthem, the crowd sang, "whose broad stripes and bright stars? shouting this last word as homage to the Cowboys' logo.

The anthem was sung by a mononymous Latino superstar named Emilio, and the crowd was informed that "Emilio will be appearing after the game in the American Express Corral Tent." Shortly afterward another announcement was made: "Free bottles of Pepsi will be handed out as you leave the stadium at the conclusion of the game." This was the handiwork of Jerry Jones, the Cowboys' owner, who signed exclusive deals with Pepsi, American Express and Nike in defiance of the NFL's licensing agreement with their competitors. He told the league, though not in so many words, "F—-you, I'm from Texas."

A three-sided sandwich board bearing Nike logos was suspended by wires above the 50-yard-line, and in the first quarter Jones himself materialized in the press box, trailed by a young lady who handed out complimentary Nike coffee mugs to us, the assembled scribes. "If Nike wants to give us something," bitched the grizzled USA Today writer next to me, "they should give us shoes." He was eating a free hot dog and drinking a free soda as he said this.

Cowboys fans seated in front of the press box took notice of Jones and turned around to regard him as if he were a tropical fish in an aquarium. "Jerry! Jerry!" called a guy in a T-shirt that read WENT ON VACATION LEFT ON PROBATION. In response Jones pantomimed a pistol shot with his index finger. He looked like Sinatra playing the Sands. A woman shrieked at Jones while pointing at her chest. She was wearing a T-shirt with a Cowboys logo on one breast and Pepsi and Nike logos sharing the other. "Oh, that's great!" said Jones, giving a thumbs-up. "That's beautiful."

The afternoon passed in a silver-and-blue blur: I remember Emmitt Smith running all over the Arizona Cardinals, and Jones winking and shooting fingers at fans, and a biplane overhead pulling a banner that read RAMSES: ROLL ONE ON, and my Nike mug instructing me to JUST DO IT, and the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders' high-kicking and the woman with corporate logos on her breasts and my heart going like mad and yes I said yes I will yes....

Paxton, Nebraska

America's original sports bar is a place of legendary and longstanding political incorrectness that goes by a variety of names. OLE'S BIG GAME LOUNGE, 200 MOUNTS, reads a rotting highway billboard in central Nebraska. OLE'S BIG GAME LOUNGE & GRILL, touts a slightly newer sign up the road. When I arrived in Paxton and parked between Swede's Lounge and the American Legion Hall, I saw yet another, grander name on the bar: OLE'S BIG GAME STEAKHOUSE & LOUNGE.

I swallowed hard and entered. A sign above the door said SMOKING IS PERMITTED IN THIS ENTIRE ESTABLISHMENT. Permitted? It is evidently compulsory. Just inside the door I glimpsed, through cumulus clouds of Camel smoke, an 11-foot, 1,500-pound polar bear menacing me from its hind legs. TAKEN BY OLE HERSTEDT MARCH 12, 1969 ON THE CHUKCHI SEA read a tasteful inscription inside the glass case that housed the angry bear so that it looked to be attempting an escape from a carnival dunk tank.

A nearby black-and-white photo showed a barrel-chested man with a rifle standing over the fallen bear in Alaska; another showed the same man, wearing an apron, atop a stepladder in this very bar, pouring champagne into the stuffed bear's open mouth. The jovial man in the photographs was Rosser O. (Ole) Herstedt. On Dec. 5, 1933, Ole opened his Big Game Lounge, waiting until 12:01 a.m. to do so—a full minute after Prohibition had ended. It was his last concession to caution. The first beer kegs were carried by Union Pacific railroad to nearby North Platte and from there conveyed to Ole's in a school bus. Within five years Ole had begun to fill his lounge with trophies from his worldwide killing sprees, a crass menagerie. So here was a bare-chested Ole, framed in another photo, pretending to stab a leopard he had already shot, while the dead animal was made to look as if it were mauling the hunter.

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