by Brett Foster

Pro Football's Literary Lessons

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

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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.

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