By Billy Watkins
I was asked by a friend a few days ago if I miss covering the Super Bowl.
My answer: Heck, yes. All except the travel.
Now, that’s not the cool response to give. Most sportswriters complain about the media mob, the cliche-filled interviews and the overall hype surrounding it.
Not me. I loved it. And part of me will miss being there Sunday while watching the San Francisco 49ers face the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl 58 in Las Vegas.
The way I always looked at it was that no matter the score, I was going to be experiencing and writing about history. I would watch NFL Films’ majestic highlights of the game every year about this time for the rest of my life. That’s one reason I always tried to take a couple of minutes right after the national anthem to soak in the sights and give thanks for the opportunity.
The last one I covered was my favorite — Super Bowl 42 in Glendale, Arizona. Final score: New York Giants 17, previously unbeaten New England Patriots 14. The Giants were 12-point underdogs.
It was my favorite because I had watched the winning quarterback and game’s Most Valuable Player, Ole Miss’ Eli Manning, grow up. The shy kid, who had been properly roughed up by two older brothers growing up, showed no fear while pulling off perhaps the biggest upset in Super Bowl history. And he did so with a last-minute drive, crowned by a 13-yard TD pass to Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds left.
Burress ran a corner route against one-on-one coverage. He was wide open. And I can still see Eli releasing the pass and the ball seemingly taking forever to get there. I remember writing that as soon as I saw Eli let go of the ball, I knew that “Archie and Olivia Manning’s youngest son’s life had changed forever.”
He won that Super Bowl ring in February 2008 and slipped on a wedding ring two months later. Eli and Abby have four children: Ava, 12; Lucy, 10; Caroline, 9; and Charlie, 6.
Oh, yeah. He won another Super Bowl in 2012, once again defeating the Patriots and Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. He was also the game’s MVP again.
It seems impossible that Eli recently turned 43.
* From Tuesday through Thursday, the schedule each year is the same. Around 7 a.m., media members board buses that will take them to both teams’ hotels. Interviews are done in ballrooms. The star players are given their own podium. Others are seated at tables across the room.
One morning the week of Super Bowl 42, I found Giants defensive backs Randall Gay and Corey Webster at the same table. Both were defensive backs from LSU. No one was talking to them so I sat down and asked about their memories of the 2003 Ole Miss-LSU game in Oxford that decided the SEC West championship. LSU won, 17-14.
The victory propelled the Tigers to an SEC title and the BCS national championship.
Both said the thing they remember most was the talent on the field that day.
“I counted it up one time,” Gay said, “and I think it was 19 starters from the two teams who went on to play in the NFL. That’s incredible.”
* Another memory from that Super Bowl. I had done my interviews with the Giants for the day and took a seat at an empty table. I looked around the room and thought, “All of these players have to feel like rock stars right now. But the truth is, in 10 years only a few people will remember 95 percent of them.”
I scanned the room. I thought, “Take David Tyree, for instance. He’s a decent receiver, but … ”
Tyree, of course, caught a third-down pass on the winning drive for 32 yards, pinning the ball against his helmet as Pats safety Rodney Harrison tried to wrestle it away.
It’s one of the most memorable catches in Super Bowl history and Tyree will be talked about for decades.
Shows what I knew.
* Another “shows what I knew” moment happened at Super Bowl 22 in San Diego (Washington Redskins vs. Denver Broncos, January 31, 1988).
On Friday night before the game, Knoxville News-Sentinel sports columnist John Adams asked me my pick for star of the game. I can’t remember my choice, but I dang sure remember his: Redskins rookie running back Timmy Smith.
“John, he hasn’t started a game all season,” I responded.
“Yeah, but I’ve just got a hunch,” he said.
Smith started the game and rushed for 203 yards and two touchdowns — a Super Bowl record — in his team’s lopsided victory. Redskins coach Joe Gibbs didn’t tell Smith he was starting until after pregame warmups. Smith said he got so nervous, he had a hard time remembering the plays.
That was Smith’s only taste of stardom.
He would last just one more season in the NFL, and his career stat line reads: 22 games, nine starts, 155 carries, 470 yards and three touchdowns.
For years, I asked Nostra-Adams why he picked Timmy Smith. All I ever got was “I just had a hunch.”
That will forever drive me nuts.
(Note: Smith did not win the MVP award. That went to former Grambling star Doug Williams, who had started just two games in the regular season. He came off the bench to throw for 340 yards and four touchdowns.)
A few more:
* After interviewing the players from both teams for three days, writers could sometimes get a feel for which team would win.
Never was that more evident than at Super Bowl 20 between the Chicago Bears and the New England Patriots in New Orleans.
The Pats talked about team unity and enjoying the role of 10-point underdogs.
The Bears, whose 1985 defense is still considered one of the best in NFL history, talked about stomping a mud hole in New England.
Final score: Bears 46, Pats 10.
* One of the cool things about the week is learning to appreciate players that you’ve never known much about. At Super Bowl 23 in Miami (Bengals vs. 49ers), Cincinnati defensive end Jim Skow was one of those players.
He grew up in Omaha, played for his home state Nebraska Cornhuskers and became one of the Bengals’ unsung heroes as a 250-pound defensive end. He had 9.5 sacks leading up to the Super Bowl.
His position coach, Bill Urbanik, said Skow was “the best kept secret in the NFL” Urbanik said Skow made up for his lack of size with strength, toughness and leverage.
I talked with Skow all three interview days and got to know a little about him. For instance, he told me he hadn’t watched a Super Bowl since he was a kid.
“I just don’t like the hype and stuff,” he said.
So how did he spend his Super Bowl Sundays?
“Probably taking a nap or watching a Western,” he said.
Skow and the Bengals nearly pulled off the upset. Joe Montana threw a 10-yard TD pass to John Taylor with 34 seconds left for a 20-16 win.
When I approached Skow in the locker room postgame, he shook his head.
“I’m sick, man. Just sick,” he said. “I really felt good when we went out there for that final drive.”
Skow never played in another Super Bowl. He became a practicing attorney in Florida after his playing days.
* Covering the game for the Clarion Ledger and its parent company, Gannett, I received a phone call in the press box from the sports office in Virginia during the third quarter of the Montana-to-Taylor Super Bowl.
“Where’s your game story? We need it,” one of the editors said.
“Do y’all have the TV on?” I asked.
“No,” he said.
“Well, usually I write my game stories after the game,” I said. “Try turning on the TV.”
* My mama loved football, and she particularly loved Eli Manning. So she had watched two weeks earlier when the Giants won at Green Bay, where the temperature was minus-1 with a wind chill of minus-23.
The longer the game went, the redder Giants coach Tom Coughlin’s face got. He had to be on the verge of frostbite.
Whenever I called my mama that week from Super Bowl 42, she always asked how Eli was doing. But her main concern was whether Coughlin’s face was still intact.
“He’s still glowing red, but he seems OK,” I assured her.
That’s mamas for you.