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by Brett Foster

Pro Football's Literary Lessons

The long shelf-life of last year's real playoff heroes—and this season's questions.

Most fans, four weeks into the 2007 NFL season, have nearly recovered by now from months of football withdrawal, or gridiron deficiency. It certainly wasn't easy, and if a friend's or husband's excitement is only now beginning to show itself, well, have some compassion. Finally September has nourished us with a weekly slate of games and early season surprises. But we were famished. Following the Super Bowl, that gaudy night in February, there was nothing. Nothing. We squeezed some molecular excitement and pseudo-drama from the NFL draft in late April, but that didn't last long. Quarterback Michael Vick's indictment on dog-fighting charges turned our early summer attention back to the NFL, but for all the wrong reasons. Then the interminable build-up of August. The lawn turned umber in the dog-day sun. Target bags of school supplies littered the family room. Training-camp gurus posted their final blogs, while otherwise sensible, middle-aged men bonded as virtual GMs at "fantasy drafts." At least one guy I know skipped a genuine, real-time baseball game—at Wrigley Field!—to prove his questionable commitment to the skill of "iHustling." Like the turning of a calendar page, lines of Xbox addicts turned the corners outside their local Gamestops. They awaited the release of Madden 'O8 with New Year's merriment.

 By Labor Day the dark interim was dissolving in the clear air. The NFL preseason—beginning where the Pro Bowl left off, on an underwhelming note—gave way to the Real Thing. The Indianapolis Colts kicked things off by kicking around the New Orleans Saints. However dopey he appears in his television commercials, on the field Colts quarterback Peyton Manning is more than ever an outright assassin, a rock slinger with laser guidance. The Colts are now 4-0 after hanging 38 points on the Denver Broncos on Sunday. Speaking of Manning, we're now a month into the new season, and I still have not shaken off thoughts of last year's postseason heroics— and low blows. For me, that continuity has charged the first few weeks of this new season, so maybe it's the right time to reflect briefly on last postseason (remember?)— not the x's and o's of the playoffs, but rather the human dramas that make the games memorable, those stories developing again, even now, with infinite variety.

The co-MVPs of the last postseason should have been Manning and Tony. I know what you're thinking: "Wow, way to go out on a limb there, genius." Who wouldn't choose Peyton Manning, who maneuvered around the Chicago Bears' Super-Bowl defense like surgeon at a sushi bar? Or Tony Dungy, the Colts' humble coach who made champions of the league's worst defense? But I don't mean those toasts of Super Bowl XLI. I mean Peyton's father, Archie Manning, years removed from his own on-field heroics. The other candidate is rookie quarterback Tony Romo, who so far this season is one of the league's most buzzed-about players. But the playoffs were not kind to Romo. His mishandling of a field-goal snap knocked the Dallas Cowboys out of the playoffs. A wheel of fortune on two legs, Romo showed us that media good feeling and initial pro success eventually demanded a reckoning. In dreams begin responsibilities.

Manning led his team back from an eighteen-point deficit in the AFC Championship game against the gritty New England Patriots, who are also 4-0 this year, looking as formidable as ever. The game was an instant classic, but the day's most dramatic moment occurred afterward. Manning's father emerged from the stadium tunnel (he could barely watch) and met the QB at the field's corner. Archie displayed a gladness, pride, and relief that only fathers know. He gently patted his son's shoulder pads, congratulating him on the Super-Bowl trip he had just earned, something the father had never achieved. The encounter was the stuff of ancient literature, great faith. Sure, the Odyssey is about the Greek Odysseus' struggle to return home, but it's also about the hero's son, Telemachus, growing up to help restore their house. And recall what happens when John the Baptist submerges Jesus in the Jordan River. "Let it be so now," says Jesus, in Tyndale's plainspoken rendering. He is baptized and comes "straight out of the water. And lo heaven was open unto him." God's spirit descends like a dove—but that's not the most moving part. Then a voice is heard: "This is my dear son, in whom is my delight." Never had pro football felt so intergenerational, so dynastic (and not in the "team threepeating" sense), so satisfyingly personal.

On the other hand, Tony Romo's wildcard game against Seattle seemed far less memorable. But consider this: only that game caused me to awake and sit upright in bed. My abdomen felt miserably tight. I was unsettled, yet felt relieved—that I wasn't Tony Romo. Do you remember that game? If you saw it live, you probably leaned back and realized you had just seen something Special, the not-good type of Special. Romo's game-losing botched snap had the emotional highs and lows of opera. Dejected on the turf, Romo became childlike, resembling a Pop-Warner youngster after his very first loss. He also looked tragic. Head down, he stuck his butterfingers deep into his facemask, like Oedipus blinding himself. "Romo can't get the spot down! Unbelievable!" Thus sayeth Al Michaels, televised sports' chronicler for posterity. Do you believe in miracles ending this badly? Yes! He just sat there, the Pro-Bowl-bound rookie sensation, the guy lately cavorting with pop idols Jessica Simpson and Carrie Underwood. (More like Tony Romeo, we mortals had muttered under our breaths.) In my mind I heard the whole city of Dallas groan when that play occurred with 1:19 left.

So much expectation lay on Tony Romo's shoulders! But forget his shoulders: Fate had kicked him right in the groin. No question, it was the postseason's most valuable play. Why? It reminded us that every play—even a "gimme" kick—is demanding, requires precision, and has consequences.  Romo regularly practiced field-goal snaps with wet balls. Later, he couldn't remember bungling a single snap in three years. Pro sports require clutch performance, what Ernest Hemingway called grace under pressure. Let's face it, most of us average guys would fold like a college freshman at the World Series of Poker. After Romo's fall, I envied less pro athletes' talent, wealth, and the celebrity it all brings them. Waking up that night, I felt instead like the Roman poet Horace, who recognized the pressures faced by famous men. Why "launch my little boat on such an ocean?" Horace asks. He preferred the quiet life, "good friends together having a good time," a "simple meal," "good wine to drink." These prized things find their modern equivalents in cheese dip and a few Goose Islands in a buddy's den on Sunday afternoon. Football will always be a capricious monster, but fortunately it attacks other, more gifted guys. That explains the drama. That's why we like to watch.

Of course there's a better lesson Romo can teach us. Resilience. Recovery. So far this season, he is doing just that. In his first interview after last year's loss, Romo sounded like a Stoic, if a somewhat shell-shocked Stoic: "The ball came, and boom it just didn't happen … . it just—it didn't work out right there." He also revealed that his teammate, the much maligned Terrell Owens, had sent consoling text messages. All season we endured T.O.'s chuck wagon of scandals and outrageous remarks. We didn't hear much about these more encouraging words. Maybe we should have. Good will, unexpectedly. Sympathetic tidings, if not glad ones. Owens' surprising gesture pleases me, in some deep way I can't easily explain. Maybe he is growing up, too—at least for this month. So far this season he's been strangely quiet, preferring to spend his time doing what top receivers do, which is score touchdowns.

Tony Romo, as it turns out, was already getting back to form long before the season began. A few months ago he served as a judge at the Miss Universe pageant, and—wouldn't you know it?—Miss USA slipped and fell on her pigskin during the evening-gown competition. Romo understood, and soon praised the contestant for quickly regaining her composure. During the off-season he promised that his mistake would "allow me to work harder." My, he sounded like a seasoned veteran: humiliation as opportunity! Apparently he did work harder, and these days his wheel has again turned upward—his Dallas Cowboys are still undefeated. In a 35-7 victory over the Rams on Sunday, Romo threw for three touchdowns. One third-down play, just before halftime with the game tied, was the most memorable, and it must have felt like "déjà-vu all over again" for the Cowboys' quarterback. The poorly snapped ball flew over Romo's head. Scrambling, he tried to pick it up but knocked it farther backfield, 33 yards back, to be precise. Oh dear, more bungling. But then things went differently: Romo scooped up the football, eluded tacklers, followed his blockers, and improbably made the first down. No "yard short" this time. A few plays later, he ran fifteen yards for a rushing touchdown. Right now, that disgraced rookie quarterback of last season has the highest passer rating in the NFC. A victory with the tang of redemption always satisfies more than easy success. Just ask Peyton Manning, who intends to repeat as Super Bowl champion this year. His Colts team, like Romo's, continues to score thirty-plus points per game. A championship showdown may already be in the works, but then again, the season's still young, wonderfully young.

Many other NFL narratives are already developing. Did the Atlanta Falcons, getting their first win on Sunday, prove to everyone that the franchise will survive without Michael Vick? And will the team outlive the unbearable Bad Newz puns relating to Vick's guilty plea— "doggone it" and "once bitten" and so on? Will the media be spayed and neutered? How many bad quarterbacks will the Chicago Bears (1-3) endure this season? Will the listless San Diego Chargers (1-3) seek help for its regressing, morose stars? And will the reloaded, upgraded New England Patriots need to reduce their self-esteem? Let's not forget to celebrate Brett Favre's personal Renaissance; on Sunday he broke Dan Marino's venerable record for career touchdown passes (a mere 421), and Favre's young Packers team is the surprise of the league at 4-0. On the other end of the quarterback spectrum, what about Peyton's struggling brother Eli? What will Archie Manning be saying to him this season? We'll soon find out. We'll continue to tune in to NBC's "Football Night in America," and not give a second thought to the vague grandeur of its title. (Think "Great American Novel," or the "Will of the American People.") In the meantime, you have my two votes. If Archie Manning and Tony Romo don't deserve MVP, then let's just call them pro football's recent MVHs— Most Vivid Humans.

Brett Foster teaches English at Wheaton College.

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