It's Super Bowl time, so let's all get ready for that other all-American sport known as compartmentalizing.
In one compartment, you place all the stuff you don't want to think about while you're knocking back a cold one and watching the football game. Concussions, early-onset dementia, chronic traumatic encephalopathy, spousal abuse, child abuse and the discredited NFL commissioner's obscene $44 million salary. You put all that bad stuff away and slam the door shut.
And, in a separate compartment, you place the stuff you do want to be thinking about during the coin-toss. That is, the game itself—the Hail Mary touchdowns, the pick-sixes, the thrilling last-second finishes—along with all the ancillary things: the hot wings, the beer, the gala halftime musical extravaganza and the admittedly slim, but nonetheless enticing possibility that you'll get to witness another nipple-unveiling. All the good stuff.
And, then, like me, you settle in with a dozen or so of your closest friends, a passel of pulled pork and a month's supply of your favorite libations, and enjoy the festivities.
It didn't used to be like this. Forty-nine years ago, these were just games—old-fashioned championship games. Not Roman spectacles. Less important than the Cold War, the hot war in Vietnam or the price of oil. How cool could those early Super Bowls have been if Richard Nixon was watching them, too?
I took in the first Super Bowl—Green Bay v. Kansas City, 1967—in my girlfriend's living room. She and her mother baked cookies in the kitchen while her old man and I viewed the game without saying a word to each other (he didn't much care for me as a potential son-in-law). The game itself was a curiosity, and the old man ultimately hit the son-in-law jackpot with an endocrinologist.
I saw the second and third Super Bowls in college dorm rooms. I'm a New York Giants fan but I rooted for Joe Namath and the New York Jets over Johnny Unitas' crewcut in SB III. I figured Nixon was rooting for Baltimore. Also, I was very stoned, and Namath was one of those personalities who grew on you the more stoned you got.
Then, came a bunch of Super Bowls I barely remember. I know I watched them, but apart from the Miami Dolphins kicker, Garo Yepremian, trying to throw a pass that turned into a slapstick comedy routine for the ages, I can't recall any memorable moments.
The mid-'70s belonged to the Pittsburgh Steelers, who won four Super Bowls in a six-year stretch. Two of those wins came at the expense of the Dallas Cowboys, the team I love to hate, and they were doozies. The game I remember best, however, was the Steelers over the Los Angeles Rams in January, 1980. My ex-wife and I watched that game in a bar in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the only bar we could find in the city that had a functioning television set.
Super Bowl XIV was not an especially close game, but it served its purpose. Our travel agent had mystifyingly booked us into a beachfront hotel run by two French lesbians that catered exclusively to gay men. We shared a balcony with a guy who owned a dive bar called the Cock Ring. After 10 days of immersion in a Republican fever dream, I must confess it was a nice diversion to watch some hunky men do something other than make out on the beach.
The early 1980s, too, featured a bunch of boring Super Bowl games. In January, 1984, I was in San Francisco on a magazine assignment, watching Washington vs. Oakland, in my hotel room. I got bored and switched to a movie, "The Karate Kid." The movie had nearly concluded when a group of journalist colleagues arrived to take me out to dinner.
"Who won?" I asked them when I got into the car.
"Oakland, it was a slaughter," I was told.
"Not the game," I said. "Ralph Macchio. Did he win the karate tournament?"
In the winter of '87, my football world turned inside out, when the New York Giants went to their first Super Bowl in Pasadena. I was there in the end zone with bells on, watching something I thought would never happen in my lifetime. The Giants became Super Bowl champions that day and the shock and awe haven't quite worn off yet. I remember nearly everything about that game, beginning with walking into the Rose Bowl and hearing the Beach Boys playing "Wouldn't It Be Nice." Four years later, I watched the Giants win a second Super Bowl in Tampa.
The Giants went into semi-hibernation in the '90s, and most of the Super Bowls of that era were similarly forgettable. The detestable Cowboys dominated the first half of the decade, Denver came on at the end. I watched those games from an airport lounge in Honolulu, the dining room of an assisted living residence in West Palm Beach, and my own living room.
I was back at the Super Bowl in Tampa in 2001. The Giants got roasted by the Baltimore Ravens, but the weather was nice and I got to watch Spike Lee strut around the stadium and hear Sting play live. More important, that weekend my father and I played a round of golf together for the last time.
Skip ahead to 2008, and the greatest Super Bowl of them all. New York Giants vs. the undefeated New England Patriots in Glendale, Arizona. And, yes, I was there again to witness the single most amazing sporting event ever presented on Planet Earth. A man caught a football with his head, two New England fans sitting in front of us paid $2,000 a ticket to get alcohol poisoning in the third quarter, and the Giants put the kibosh on the Patriots' dream season and created a magnificent dream of their own. And the great Tom Petty entertained at halftime.
Since then, there have been a few notable games. The New Orleans Saints won an inspirational Super Bowl four years after Katrina, and the Giants won another one over New England, which I watched at a friend's house with a plateful of pulled pork. And, then, there was a great game last February, with the Patriots winning at the end in extremely unlikely fashion.
This year, I'll be watching once again at a small Super Bowl party. The Giants won't be there, so the outcome of the game won't particularly matter to me. If it gets boring, I'll hope for a nipple, or call Ralph Macchio.