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The man in the blue hat sights Mark Bavaro in his binoculars, intent as an ornithologist viewing a rare bird. There! He bellows as Bavaro envelops a pass from Phil Simms; squeals as Bavaro drags three defenders a couple of yards past the point of the catch. Go-go-go! Now the man's a jockey, fists locked in front of him on the neck of an imaginary mount. Now a boxer, he gives the air a right cross. A pass to Zeke Mowatt for the first Giant touchdown. The man in the blue hat claps himself into a heat; cups his hand to his mouth: Yes! Yes! He turns to exhort the fans behind him, arms upraised like an evangelist. Then turns again, deep in himself, where neither the Slice blimp nor the Beach Boys' piped-in voices nor the California ushers, their faces fresh as poached eggs, can reach him. Nothing but the players, the ball and the field.
Why does he love it so, this three-hour distraction from a life of real consequences? He must have better ways to spend his time and money than to fidget in a stadium and bray like a mule, pop up, flop down, sigh, scream, wail. I wonder what he does for a living. A doctor? No. An actuary? No. The guy who sharpens the "Severe Tire Damage" spikes in the nation's parking lots? That's the peculiar camouflage of sports fans. Almost nothing in their contortions or decorum indicates a thing about their lives outside the park. They are what they devour. My man is nothing but this game.
And this after a real-world week in which 18 Filipinos were mowed down in a demonstration in Manila, a snowstorm blinded the East Coast of the United States, the stock market soared and sank. Still, come Sunday, on went the blue hat.
My man is hardly alone. One hundred thousand people just like him wave and roll in the smoky afternoon. One hundred and thirty million of his countrymen hunch down in Wichita and Braintree, Mass., and pass the Lite beer and tortilla chips. The game is also being beamed to 40 other countries: Saudi Arabia, Thailand, Iceland, Lebanon. The Wall Street Journal said that 300 million Chinese watched Super Bowl XX (understanding not one play perhaps but adoring the spectacle all the same). Today's game, too, will be telecast in China, but not till May; the Chinese media have sworn not to reveal the outcome. It gives one an idea of what totalitarianism really means. Wouldn't you like to be the Chinese who hears the score, with four months left to take bets?
Half a billion people, then, for whom nothing means more than whether Or-son Mobley goes wide right or Stacy Robinson goes over the middle. Why is that? Where does this fanaticism come from? The man in the blue hat might explain the phenomenon, but at the moment he is too busy rolling up his program and batting the shoulder of the man to his left. Did you see that, Charlie? Did you see that?
There are plenty of theories to explain his frenzy, not only about the Super Bowl but about football in general. How the game mirrors the American relationship with the wilderness; a football field representing the old frontier contained and tamed; nature in a vessel—in the case at hand, a Rose Bowl. Some see the game as an attempt to enjoy the territory we ruined when we settled the land. Football becomes the enactment of a myth: the continual gaining and losing of open space.
Or there's the ritual and religion theory that Americans love football because the game has taken over Sundays and thus has seized the dominion of the churches. The Puritans forbade game-playing on the Sabbath. Modern Americans revel in the fun, especially on Super Sunday, the national day of worship, the feast of the secular Republic. Coaches are never called Mister, but Coach This and Coach That, the way priests are called Father. Pete Rozelle may not have the power of the Pope, but he has a retinue. Holy reverence for the canonized Vince Lombardi. Icons and pageantry in a lunatic mix. And the Roman numerals, of course. Super Bowl XXI, like B.C. or A.D., a way to separate the dark ages from the light.
Or the controlled-violence theory that football games are manageable little wars. You've heard that one, Mr. Blue Hat, surely. The helmets, the strategies, the gaining of ground, the wounded. A little much, eh, pal? A little much for a guy like yourself, who now is burying his face in his hands like a mourner at a funeral for no reason other than that the score is 10-9.
My own pet theory is that football has to do with freedom: backs finding daylight, receivers breaking tackles, and suddenly, for a few seconds, a game that was all restrictions and knots is flung open like a window. But none of these theories grabs you, does it? The game alone draws you to the game.