Friday, January 30, 2009

The Super Bowl

From one former grocery stocker to another, good luck.

There doesn't seem to be a much of a sense of excitement about this year's Super Bowl as in some years past. This year's matchup, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals, doesn't have the allure of previous years - many are assuming the Steelers will win in a rout. And although this old dog finds the selection of Bruce Springsteen as halftime entertainment appropriate given what has transpired the past few months, I can't blame younger folks for seeing the pick as another dull choice of the post-wardrobe malfunction era, yet another boring classic rocker.

The Steelers, one of the NFL's glamour franchises, always stir a certain amount of fan interest. The Cardinals, on the other hand, are the league's perennial losers. Along with the Bears and Packers, the Cardinals are the only other of the NFL's charter franchises still surviving, but that long history has mostly been a miserable one. Those with long memories, though, will remember a time when the Steelers were every bit as pathetic as the Cardinals, before Chuck Noll arrived in 1969 and built a dynasty. In fact, during World War II, both teams were scrounging for money and fans, and decided to pool their resources to save on expenses. They were known as Card-Pitt; they staggered through the 1944 season with an 0-10 record, and were referred to throughout the league as the "Carpets".

I admit to having a soft spot for this year's Cardinals, though, something that goes back to the mid-70's and the franchise's St. Louis years. The "Cardiac Cardinals", as they were known then, featured a high-powered offense and mediocre defense, somewhat similar to the current Arizona squad. Those Cardinals won back-to-back division titles in 1974 and '75 but lacked the defensive grit to advance in the playoffs. The 2008 Cardinals seemingly won the weak NFC West by default, but during their playoff run, the defense suddenly stiffened, and became a key element in bringing the team to its first Super Bowl appearance ever.

The Cardinals had been assembling offensive talent for several years, but none of it gelled until veteran quarterback Kurt Warner came off the bench to take charge of the attack. Few NFL stars return to their previous level after a long gap in production, generally, in pro football, once you're through, you're through. There have been a few spectacular comebacks - George Blanda, Earl Morrall, and Ottis Anderson, off the top of my head - but those guys were decent pro players out of college. Kurt Warner came out of college, went to arena football, and stocked grocery shelves in the offseason to pay the bills. Warner landed a backup job with the St. Louis Rams, and in 1999, when starter Trent Green went out with an injury, he stepped in and had an MVP season. He led the Rams to victory in Super Bowl XXXIV, setting a Super Bowl record for most passing yards in one game. Two years later, he had another MVP season and Super Bowl appearance. Then came injuries, and a five-year production drought that saw him bounce from the Rams to the Giants, and finally to the Cardinals. With the Cardinals, he was in and out of the lineup at first, and most observers were ready to proclaim his career over. But when Matt Leinart went out with an injury in 2007, Warner became the Cardinals' starting QB. The Cards' young receiving corps thrived with Warner at the helm, paving the way for the team's unlikely Super Bowl appearance this year. Warner, a devout Christian, sometimes comes off as too sanctimonious for his own good, but one cannot deny his talent, his leadership, and especially his determination.

So, I'm rooting for the Cardinals to win their first title since 1947. I'm rooting for Kurt Warner, as another Super Bowl win would probably give the finishing touch to a most unlikely Hall Of Fame career, and the other team members, to reward their surprising playoff run. For those 60's and 70's St. Louis Cardinals, guys like Jim Hart, Mel Gray, Terry Metcalf, Jim Baaken and Roger Wehrli, who never got their proper due. For the lesser-known St. Louis players as well, such as Dave Meggyesy, who told some hard truths about the game of football and paid for it with his career. And also for Pat Tillman, the late Arizona player who taught us some hard truths while giving up his NFL career for military service, and learned a few of his own. My head knows better, but I'm picking this one with my heart. Cardinals 27, Steelers 23.