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Monday, January 29, 2007

Super Bowl Flashback: Hunter S. Thompson, An Appreciation



Super Bowl week is upon us. So what have we learned, thus far, about Sunday's SB XLI? The media has focused on three pre-game story lines: match-ups like Brian Urlacher Vs. Peyton Manning, Manning's mysteriously sore thumb, and Lovie Smith's upbringing in a small Texas town. All of these articles are all fine, good, and, I suppose, necessary, and yet--besides some of the Smith pieces--are ultimately forgettable, making me wonder: what has been the most memorable Super Bowl journalism? For me it is an article by Hunter S. Thompson, the deceased gonzo journalist.

For those of you who only know Thompson's book Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, he was an outstanding sportswriter. Thompson's "The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved" stands out as one of the most original articles in sports journalism. It is a celebrated piece and deservedly so, but Thompson's interest in athletics didn't end with the Derby. In the early days of the Web, ESPN hired Thompson to write an entertaining column, “Hey Rube,” on ESPN.com. (Thompson is the father--grandfather?--of irreverent sites like Deadspin). But his younger-days-long-form journalism really stands out in my mind. I am thinking specifically of "Fear And Loathing at the Super Bowl"--a lesser-known and not widely available article that I re-read last night. If a February 28, 1974 issue of Rolling Stone isn’t handy (look in the garage under the macramé and bong pipe), Thompson covers Super Bowl VIII in Houston and, at the beginning of the lengthy article, struggles with his story lead so he decides to stick in his opening line from the previous year's Super Bowl and simply replace the teams:

"The precision-jack hammer attack of the Miami Dolphins stomped the balls off the Minnesota Vikings today by stomping and hammering with one precise jack-thrust after another up the middle, mixed with pinpoint-precision passes into the flat and numerous hammer-jackstops around both ends..."

Obviously, and unfortunately, not a story lead you read every day.

About Viking coach Bud Grant, Thompson wrote:

"[Grant] spent most of Super Week acting like a Marine Corps drill sergeant with a terminal case of the piles."

For his football story assignment, Thompson tried to follow one team all the way to the Super Bowl and "try to document the alleged--or at least Nixonian—similarities between pro football and politics." (I can guarantee you no one will bring up George W. in any serious way this week, and yet sports is certainly intertwined with our cultural life; whatever your political affiliation the New Orleans Saints becoming America's team was as much sympathy with the Katrina victims as underlying anger at governmental incompetence.) Thompson chose the Oakland Raiders to wonderful results. Describing Al Davis, Thompson penned: "...I'd realized that this strange-looking bugger named 'Al,’ who looked like a pimp or a track-tout, was in fact the infamous Al Davis…”

While some may argue that Thompson's writing was pure shtick, isn’t that description as accurate as any ever written about the legendary owner? While access was not as controlled as now, Thompson spent time with the players, hanging out with them at taverns, getting to know their foibles, their motivations. And the writing wasn't simple, self-indulgent stuff: X & Os-wise he sat through a film session and had the players do a strategy breakdown. The players encouraged him to get out of the press box: “You’ve gotta be down on the field and have Jack Tatum really crack somebody right in front of you. You’ll feel it, man. It’ll scare the piss out of you, just watching it.”

Now I am excited to see Brian Urlacher take on Peyton Manning.

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