Maybe you're not a fan. Perhaps you're not among the millions who tune in on TV or lay their money down. Maybe you'd rather spend your time praying or fishing or watching The Bachelor pass out roses. � Fine, but know this: If you're standing in a stadium or, better yet, on the sideline when the anthem ends and the air gets thin and the pom-poms shake and the earth seems ready to quake; and then the foot meets the ball and it rises into the sky and hangs there—at that moment, for just a second, nothing seems impossible.
The idea was to capture the essence of football, its place in the American social fabric, as a terror-stricken nation deals with the first anniversary of 9/11. We mapped out an overdose of a trip, a five-day odyssey that only a famished fan or maybe a crazy frequent flyer could love: From last Thursday to Monday, photographer Robert Beck and I traversed the country, bouncing from pro to high school to college games and back. At first, on the surface at least, the players were simply locked into the task at hand, while a lot of the fans seemed concerned with winning, drinking, breasts (admiring and/or showcasing them, as the case may be) and America—in that order.
Then on Sunday evening it happened. Instead of unearthing football's magical healing powers, a gimpy notion at best, I ran smack-dab into Sept. 11's enduring force field, in the bowels of Denver's Invesco Field, when Broncos wideout Ed McCaffrey emerged from a joyous locker room after a 23-16 upset of the St. Louis Rams. Denver coach Mike Shanahan had won his Clash of Geniuses with his Rams counterpart, Mike Martz, deftly calling a weakside pitch that rookie halfback Clinton Portis turned into a 15-yard gain. It came on fourth-and-one from the Denver 38, no less, with 8:34 remaining. That set up the game's signature moment: McCaffrey's sliding, 23-yard touchdown catch with 5:55 left. It was a wondrous development given that the highly respected veteran had spent the past year fighting his way back from a career-threatening broken leg.
When I asked McCaffrey what he was thinking after his triumphant touchdown catch, he unexpectedly led me back to that horrific morning from which we all have a story.
"I broke my leg on Monday night, last September 10," said the normally laconic McCaffrey, his eyes glassy and alert. "They did the surgery in the middle of the night, and I guess the doctor spoke to me afterward, but I wasn't sure any of that had actually happened. When I came to in the morning, I was on a liquid morphine drip, still in shock. Then I turned on the TV, and I saw the first tower burning. I told myself, This has to be a movie; it's not real. But why would Bryant Gumbel be in a movie? I was sick to my stomach, and I could barely sit up, because it made me dizzy, but I had to watch. And then the second plane hit the tower! This couldn't be happening, but it was, and no one knew if or when it was going to end. I just wanted to be with my family, and here I was in a hospital bed, and I couldn't even move. I was so helpless."
He paused, so I started to ask another question. But he wasn't finished. "I mean, I was helpless, utterly helpless," he added softly. "Just like everybody else."
Tony Soprano, Or Simon and Garfunkel? That's the musical dilemma I face as I emerge from the Lincoln Tunnel in New Jersey and stare out the rear window of a Town Car, across the Hudson River, at the eerie emptiness of the lower Manhattan skyline. Woke up this morning, got myself a gun? Uh, no thanks. I turn around and peer out at Giants Stadium. Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike, they've all come to look for....
For the first time in its 83-year history, the NFL, in yet another stroke of p.r. genius, scheduled a stand-alone, Thursday-night opener. The honor goes to the New York Giants and the San Francisco 49ers. John Madden digs the concept, too. "Baseball makes Opening Day a big deal," he says. "In football we'd always just go out and start playing. Now people will get excited about this game, and that will build interest for Sunday, and on Monday night it'll peak."
The stars are all out on opening night: Madden and Bradshaw and Boomer and Boomer, Lesley and Suzy and Tuna and Toomer. There's Bill Walsh pointing to the spot where Jerry Rice made his game-winning catch and dash against the Giants 14 years earlier (the Niners' third Super Bowl season). "When Phil Simms had already made that touchdown gesture he always did with his arm, and Joe [ Montana] did it right back at him," Walsh says. There's the Grateful Dead's U.S. Blues blaring from the speakers (Wave that flag, wave it wide and high/Summertime done come and gone, my oh my), and New York City police officer Daniel Rodriguez belting out a stirring rendition of God Bless America. There's Lawrence Taylor, eyes bugging out of his head, nearly racing onto the field in the first quarter after the Giants nail 49ers quarterback Jeff Garcia—the great LT looking, as he did in Any Given Sunday, like a used-up legend longing to make one more sack.
The only problem is the game. Both teams are tentative, mistake-prone and utterly unspectacular. At halftime I'm introduced to Marilyn Heard, the mother of Niners receiver Terrell Owens, who's sitting in the east end zone stands. "I just think the game plan is too conservative," she says. In the final two minutes Owens makes the play that decides the game, a 33-yard reception that sets up the winning field goal in a 16-13 San Francisco victory. As the winners file into the locker room, they look as if they've just learned that training camp will be extended three weeks next summer. "We've got to give the fans a little better show next time," says running back Kevan Barlow, whose 29-yard catch helped set up his team's only touchdown.