Media Day at the Super Bowl is a cattle call. Our disheveled legions have already been frisked and patted and metal-detected, our belongings sniffed by German Shepherds. I understand the reasons, of course. But no one among the journalistic classes would dream to injure an occasion or vandalize a venue so dear and magnificent as another Super Bowl at Raymond James Stadium.
The courtesy breakfasts and courtesy buses have rendered us passive. We can do no harm. We go only where we are led, which at this moment is through a gate, our ranks disgorging slowly into the stands. I remember one year in Atlanta the cops mooing as we passed. Here, I am happy to report, they don’t seem so interested.
I make my way, along with dozens or hundreds of others, to the area by Larry Fitzgerald’s interview podium, where I take a stand — literally, and somewhat precariously — on a shaky aluminum bleacher. This will be a good place to shout my questions, I figure.
If the first five years of Fitzgerald’s pro career are any indication, we will one day be talking of him among the very best to play. In this, his third straight Pro Bowl season, the Cardinal receiver finished with 96 receptions for 1,431 yards. Then he really got busy. Going into this Super Bowl with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Fitzgerald is one of only four men with 100-plus receiving yards in three consecutive postseason games. He caught three touchdowns in the NFC Championship game against Philadelphia. His 419 receiving yards are already a single-season playoff record. Jerry Rice, the previous record holder, had 409.
Fitzgerald is an interesting guy, a world traveler, a sky diver and bungee-jumper. He’s a diligent worker, a perfectionist in practice, and also, to his great credit, a modest man playing a position known for producing divas. Some kids might consider Chad Ocho Cinco or Terrell Owens their role models. Fitzgerald had Cris Carter, whom he still calls his godfather. Fitzgerald, you see, spent a portion of his teenage years as the Minnesota Vikings’ ballboy.
“I was living a dream,” he said.
“Is this a dream come true then?” someone shouted.
“This would be a dream come true,” he said patiently. “To be an NFL player.”
Fitzgerald understood, as few of us do, exactly what he wanted to be at an early age. “I didn’t go out. I didn’t drink. I didn’t smoke,” he said. “I didn’t do a lot of the things other kids were doing in my neighborhood.”
As for the Super Bowl, he speaks as if he belongs, as if assuming his rightful place. “It’s the same game I’ve been playing since I was a seven-year-old at Martin Luther King park back in Minneapolis. The field’s the same size. It’s still 11 men on a side. The rules are still the same. It’s just the implications are different.”
To understand the absurdity of those implications, as Fitzgerald puts it, one needs only to study the crowd at Media Day. The National Football League’s definition of “media” is an inclusive one. Last year, there were lingerie models. This year, there’s a fat guy in drag. It’s as if someone in charge is telling us that old-fashioned sportswriting is unnecessary. Journalism, it seems, is a task best performed by the likes of Hooters girls and Deion Sanders, who brandished a microphone and interrupted the proceedings to inquire of Fitzgerald — get this! — “Larry, are you excited about being in the game?”
Nothing makes you a hater quite like Media Day. Nothing so effectively delineates the gap between Us and Them. Ballplayers like Larry Fitzgerald are young and heroic and close to perfect. He’s 6-3, 215 pounds, and willing, if not eager, to risk great physical harm catching a ball over the middle. The reporters, by contrast, only get fatter and grayer and more decrepit with each passing year. Now more than ever, they’re worried about their jobs, so many sportswriters trying to figure a way to outlive the newspaper business.
Media Day is inevitably described as “surreal,” which means dreamlike. It is not. Like all rituals, it soon becomes predictable and demystified. That’s not to say Tuesday at the Super Bowl lacked for a fantastic moment. For me, it came watching the sports editor of the weekly Minneapolis Spokesman-Recorder make his way down onto the field.
Larry Fitzgerald Sr., who has been attending Super Bowls since 1981, is a thick-armed man with glasses. He wore a blue polo shirt and carried a bag with his notebooks and his tape recorder.
“I’m trying to get my work done,” he said, dabbing at the perspiration that had gathered across his forehead.
By now a crowd had gathered around him. Larry Fitzgerald Sr., whose namesake son was up on that podium maybe thirty feet away, had crossed the divide between Us and Them in a way that’s never been done, certainly not at Media Day.
Someone asked if he had dreamed about this, covering his own son at the Super Bowl.
“I never dreamed about it,” he said. “… I never really thought about it.”
Next question: Your son said he’s living his dream. Is this your dream?
“My dream was to do exactly what Larry’s doing,” he said. “To play in the National Football League and be a star. Unfortunately, I lost my desire to play my senior year.”
His senior year at Indiana State. The coach had him play offensive tackle. The elder Fitzgerald thought of himself as a defensive tackle. “I was aggressive,” he said. “I liked to hit people.”
“Your son is sort of the anti-diva.”
“My wife and I never believed in celebrating and showboating,” he said.
His wife, Carol, died in 2003, seven years after she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Speaking of her still causes him to weep.
“She meant everything to me,” he said. “And to Larry.”
Last question: “If your son pulled any typical wide receiver shenanigans, would you rip him?”
“He wouldn’t do it,” said the father. “It’s just not in him.”
In a moment, he ambled over to his son’s interview podium. It’s a wonder he could walk, I thought. I’d be too swollen with pride.
Larry Fitzgerald Sr. stood on the aluminum bleacher. He took out his tape machine and held it to a speaker. It was best to record the moment as it was, lest anyone tell him it was a dream.