TEMPE, Ariz. – This is how a local columnist began an interview with Arizona Cardinals linebacker Chike Okeafor the other day:
“Chika . . . ”
Okeafor rolled his eyes. “It’s Che-Kay,” he corrected.
So what’s new with these Birds, still largely anonymous even as they head to the Super Bowl, the biggest fishbowl in sports?
Disrespect continues to stalk them.
This is the team that kicked off the postseason with television football analyst Cris Collinsworth branding the Cardinals the worst team in playoff history.
Yet, here they are, guaranteed of finishing the season as nothing less than the second-best team in all of football.
This is the team that heads to Tampa and a date with the Pittsburgh Steelers as underdogs — this time by seven points — for the fourth consecutive playoff game.
Yet, here they are, conquerors of the top two teams in the NFL’s strongest division — three-point favorite Atlanta and 10-point favorite Carolina — and a three-point favorite Philadelphia team that waxed them on Thanksgiving.
“Obviously,” coach Ken Whisenhunt said, “we’re not getting a lot of people singing our praise, so that will hopefully keep us focused.”
In 39 years of covering sports, I have run across only one other team that has gotten more mileage out of playing the “no respect” card than the Cardinals.
That was the 1980 U.S. hockey team, which shocked the world with its one-for-the-ages Olympic upset of the mighty Soviet Union in Lake Placid.
That team of underdog college kids did it with an us-against-the-world mindset planted by coach Herb Brooks.
Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett led the chorus of we’ll-show-the-world at the outset of this surreal playoff run — and everybody bought in.
Well, almost everybody.
Quarterback Kurt Warner, asked about the no-respect theme — hey, it’s posted all over the locker room with signs that shout ”Prove It — Anything Is Possible” — said he was the wrong person to address that.
“What people say really doesn’t matter. It’s all about what you do.”
He is, however, clearly the exception. Even the mushrooming base of Cardinals fans has embraced the theme.
“We Are Who Nobody Thought We Were,” read a sign in the red-clad University of Phoenix Stadium Sunday.
That was a twist on the infamous rant of former coach Dennis Green, who, like his team, melted down after a Monday Night Football game loss to the Chicago Bears.
Pounding the table in the postgame interview room, he said, “They are who we thought they were. Go ahead, crown ’em.”
How ironic. The Cardinals are now a win away from a crown.
These cleated Cinderellas were 50-1 longshots in Vegas to win the Super Bowl when the season started and now are the first nine-win team to reach the big game since 1979.
They’ve won four in a row, shut down the Falcons’ potent running game, dominated a Panthers team that was 8-0 at home and roared from behind against a playoff-tested Eagles team.
But Chike Okeafor still has his name mispronounced.
He shrugs. What do you expect? “Disrespect is disrespect,” he said. “Wait until after the game.”
That’s been their battle cry. “Just go out and do ’em,” said Okeafor. “Respect will come. Let your pads speak for yourself.”
They have rallied around themselves. “Negative vibes from the outside,” said defensive tackle Bryan Robinson, “make us feel good on the inside.”
Of course, this is a franchise that, until now, deserved no respect. They earned it.
“It’s something you have to accept out here,” said offensive guard Reggie Wells. “It’s been negativity one way or the other for a while. Guys are not strangers to that kind of media reception.”
Through this run, however, the Cardinals have turned the negativity into a positive. They believe in themselves. Who needs anybody else?
The turnaround came at the end of last season, when the Cardinals won their last two games to finish 8-8 — only their third non-losing season since arriving in the desert in 1988. It continued in off-season workouts into training camp.
“It’s just putting it all together,” said Okeafor. “That hasn’t been done here. We don’t have a history of winning, so there’s not that swagger out here. That’s built. We built that through the season.”
That swagger reared its head against the Eagles in the NFC Championship game. The Cardinals watched a 24-6 halftime lead disappear under a 19-point barrage in the first 19 minutes of the second half.
But they answered, first on offense with a 14-play, 72-yard go-ahead touchdown drive that consumed 7:52 and included two third-down and one fourth-down conversion.
The defense, ripped apart for 165 yards in the third quarter alone, followed by forcing four consecutive incompletions by Donovan McNabb at the Cardinals 47 to give the ball back to the offense with 1:51 left.
“We have that fighter’s mentality,” said cornerback Rod Hood. “You just keep fighting. People put you down, but you have to believe in each other. That’s all that counts.”
The old Cardinals would have folded. But it’s different now. “Nobody panicked,” said Robinson. “But there was a sense of urgency, and there’s a difference.”
There’s a sense of destiny now. These guys, much like those focused kids in Lake Placid, are laughing all the way to the bank.
“The facts are on TV,” said cornerback Ralph Brown. “People can keep coming up with excuses why we win. That’s all right. But if we win this game, there is nothing anyone can say. They can’t take a ring from you.”