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The Literary Side of This Year’s Super Bowl

11:30 AM, Feb 3, 2013 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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The Super Bowl is, as everyone knows, the biggest thing in sports.  And television.  Which are, increasingly, indistinguishable.  The game is routinely the highest rated program of the year.  Any year.  In fact, three of the four most highly rated shows of all time are Super Bowls.  And those would be the last three games.  The trend, then, is for this year’s game to become the highest rated ever.  For a year, anyway.

edgar allen poe

People who do not watch another game all year and cannot tell you, when a team is flagged for having too many men on the field, exactly how many are allowed … they will watch the game, eat the guacamole, drink the beer, and get into the betting pools.  The Super Bowl is, in fact, as big for the gambling industry as it is for avocado growers.  In Vegas this week, you can put your money on as many as 300 different “proposition” bets.

These are exotic wagers that go into a realm beyond that of the conventional, “I’ll take the 49ers and lay the points,” kind of action.  Included among the proposition bets are such exotics as, “Will either team attempt a two-point conversion.”  And if that’s still too football-themed for you, then you could wager that Alicia Keys will, or will not, take more than two minutes and fifteen seconds to sing the Star Spangled Banner. And, if you are utterly lacking in imagination and money management skills, you could bet on which way the coin toss before the game will go. It’ll cost you a dollar to win ninety-eight cents. Heads, for some reason, gets more action.

That enough people make the bet to incentivize Vegas into taking the action is just further proof that people – Americans especially – go a bit mad over this game.  It has become something that transcends both its origins (the first one, back 45 years ago was not even a sellout) and its essence.  It is a feast, in the ancient sense of the word.  Esquire magazine is conducting an appeal for signatures on a White House petition to make the Monday following Super Bowl Sunday a national holiday. 

This is an old idea that has been around a while.  (Also here.)  And why not? The day after Super Bowl surely must be one of the least productive in the United States, even among Mondays, and who would want to buy a car that rolled off the assembly line on that day.   We do, admittedly, seem to be piling up the holidays but perhaps we could find a Saturday, later in the year, when we would all go to work to make up for the lost time and wages.  Sort of a late homage to Super Sunday.

Just a thought.

Meanwhile, the game will go on, following a buildup that has lasted a couple of weeks, during which sports writers and others have mined the thing for all that it is worth, asking questions of the players that will, one hopes, have left them wondering if people really do that kind of thing for a living.  This year, someone asked Terrell Suggs about his Valentines Day plans.

“I’m going to the moon,” he answered,  “I’m going to go on a space shuttle. Then I’m going to Houston.”

Still, the media does have a tough job, given the gap between the last of the playoff games and Super Bowl.  It is a big two-week hole that must be filled with what they like, these days, to call “story lines.”  Whatever happened, one wonders, to “stories?” But never mind.

This, actually, has been a pretty good year for stories.  There is the interesting datum that the rival head coaches are brothers – Jim and John Harbaugh.  This has provided a lot of fodder for scribes and broadcasters and some pretty awful attempts at clever manipulations of the language.  “Brother Bowl?”  Really?

Then, Ray Lewis has promised that this will be the last game of his seventeen-year career during which he established himself as the Dick Butkus of the modern era and, arguably, the greatest linebacker in the history of the game.  The Lewis legacy has its dark side and is complicated by the fact of his arrest on suspicion that he was involved in a double murder that took place outside an Atlanta nightclub on January 31, 2000. Lewis pled down from two counts of homicide to obstruction of justice and testified against two of his companions who later beat the charges.  Lewis his since lived a blameless life and speaks often of his faith.  Still …

And, there are the quarterbacks, neither of whom is named Manning or Brady.  Joe Flacco is in his fifth year and first Super Bowl.  Colin Kaepernick is even greener.  This is only his second year as a professional and his tenth game as a starting quarterback.  He represents the new, young breed of professional quarterbacks who will run on you if you take away the pass and visa versa and, with the possible exception of the Redskins’ Robert Griffin III, is the most electrifying of them.  One wonders what to expect the first time he escapes the pocket, starts to run, and looks up to see Ray Lewis bearing down on him, flames coming from his nostrils.

So, there has been plenty of material for the media and it has obliged by wringing just about all the juice from it.

Still, one theme that does not seem to have been sufficiently exploited is the literary nature of this particular game.  Consider: 

The Baltimore team calls itself the “Ravens.”  The unusual name is taken from the poem of that title because, while Edgar Allen Poe may have written it in either New York or Philadelphia, his bones reside in Baltimore.  The name was chosen from among those submitted by fans in a contest that followed the team’s moving to Baltimore from Cleveland.

The Raven is one of the few poems that many people have read.  It is about as universally known as a poem can be.  French literary figures like Baudelaire and Verlaine swooned over it when it was published.  Poe was paid $9 for the rights, a number that provokes a mild sense of vertigo when you put it up against the kind of money the licensing of the Baltimore team’s name and logo brings in, especially during a Super Bowl year.  Still, you have to like it that a professional football team took its name from a poem.

The Ravens’ rivals from San Francisco also have a name with a literary pedigree.  They are the 49ers after the prospectors who stampeded west after the discovery of gold in 1849, coincidentally the year of Poe’s death.

The gold rush became literary fodder for, among others, Brett Hart and, most conspicuously, Mark Twain who, while he didn’t make it to the gold country until more than ten years after the first strikes, first became famous for a story about life among the prospectors – The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.  

The California gold stampede could be said to exist in the popular imagination more through literary creations than factual history.  Just as most of us know the Klondike gold rush through the works of Jack London and Robert Service; not historians.

And, finally, there is the city where the game will be played.  New Orleans is both the most hedonistic and the most literary of American cities.  William Faulkner lived here, in Pirates Alley, when he wrote his first novel, Soldier’s Pay.  Tennessee Williams, of course, lived and worked in New Orleans and immortalized it in A Street Car Named Desire whose heroine, Blanche Dubois, evokes the city’s charms when she says, “Don't you just love those long rainy afternoons in New Orleans when an hour isn't just an hour – but a little piece of eternity dropped into your hands – and who knows what to do with it?”

Williams liked to dine at Galatoire’s, which is still there, and still among the finest of many fine places to eat in New Orleans.  Truman Capote is said to have enjoyed a cocktail or two at the bar of the Monteleone Hotel where he claimed to have been born.  Actually, the event occurred in a hospital but his mother was at the hotel when she went into labor.  The Monteleone figures in short stories by Hemingway and Eudora Welty and a novel by Richard Ford.

New Orleans is a presence – and a significant one – in the works of Walker Percy, John Kennedy Tool, Ann Rice, James Lee Burke, and others.  Fans who arrive early for the game and are looking for points of interest can join a literary tour of the city and imagine how, for instance, Faulkner would have written about the spectacle if he had been sent to cover the game.  He was commissioned in the early years of Sports Illustrated’s existence, to write about the Kentucky Derby and produced this opening:

This saw Boone: the bluegrass, the virgin land rolling westward wave by dense wave from the Allegheny gaps, unmarked then, teeming with deer and buffalo about the salt licks and the limestone springs whose water in time would make the fine bourbon whiskey; and the wild men too—the red men and the white ones too who had to be a little wild also to endure and survive and so mark the wilderness with the proofs of their tough survival—Boonesborough, Owenstown, Harrod's and Harbuck's Stations; Kentucky: the dark and bloody ground.

One suspects that no matter what, Faulkner would not have asked Terrell Suggs at this year’s media day, what he planned to do on Valentines Day.

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