GOTTA GO BACK TO WORK

a return to reality after the decadence and delirium of Atlanta

"The baseball guy said we didn't need another domed stadium and he fought us tooth and toenail to keep us from getting the hotel-and-motel tax, the rental-car tax. That was all our deal. As soon as we're out of there, he said, "The Astrodome is kind of obsolete; I think I need a new stadium.' They're getting a $350 million stadium built. There's going to be a new domed stadium for football. And there's going to be a new domed arena, too. If I woulda stayed, I think I'd still be working to get a new stadium."

St. PaulContrary to what some St. Louis fans may think after our city's failure to get an expansion franchise, Tagliabue is not an evil man. He's just a New York lawyer. One of his more benign pursuits is a charitable endeavor called Christmas in April. Along with other sponsors -- Home Depot being the largest -- the NFL participates in the renovation of homes in economically depressed areas.

Georgia Gov. Roy Barnes was part of a "news conference and rally," staged on Friday, at which Tagliabue, Atlanta Mayor Bill Campbell and a dozen or so NFL football players showed up in an unheated YMCA gymnasium to pump up the volume with regard to the league's community involvement. A 56-seat media bus was provided for any reporter who was interested, but only about five of the more than 3,000 who had come to town to cover the game showed up. The event, which was largely peopled with representatives of sponsors, took place in Atlanta's Washington Park neighborhood. This year, the goal is to renovate the YMCA and two houses in the neighborhood. This past year, Barnes said, 34 houses in Atlanta would be renovated. At that rate, in about 50 years, the city should be spruced up.

Nationwide, the numbers sound better. Last year, the program provided some form of assistance to 7,000 low-income families and nonprofit facilities. And even for Atlanta, fixing up 34 homes is better than doing 33 homes. Home Depot also kicked in $75,000 at this event typified by the usual oversized check for the photo op. But what was apparent to anyone paying attention -- and at this point, few were -- was that during a Super Bowl week of wretched excess, it was just a bit strange that Tagliabue & Co. would show up at the badly-in-need-of-repair YMCA in a luxurious tour bus and the players would ride in a stretch limo that, surrealistically, was parked in front of the in-need-of-repair house the program is renovating. The juxtaposition was a bit too telling.

But the players who showed up didn't have to bother and did appear to be genuinely interested in the program. One, Tampa Bay Buccaneer wide receiver Bert Emmanuel, has homes in Atlanta and Tampa Bay and is active in both cities. Emmanuel was the receiver in the NFC championship game who came up on the short end when the referee ruled that his attempted catch in the waning moments of the Rams game was incomplete.

"Yes, I did make the catch," Emmanuel says. "I had it in my hands, I caught it clean -- both knees came down, an elbow came down, and as I was going down I had the ball cradled near my chest. There was no question in my mind. No question. There was not even a question that it was close enough to be reviewed."

So, asked on Friday, who did he think would win the game? "Tennessee," Emmanuel said with a laugh. "I got a biased opinion."

Does it matter?At the root of it, in addition to Joe and Susie Twelvepack sitting at home in front of the TV with the best seat possible, is the fan. The fanatic. They come in various ages and sizes. Were it not for their obsession, the sale of sports memorabilia, ticket sales, even TV ratings would be in jeopardy. Superagent Leigh Steinberg, quoted in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said the sports business "rests on the irrationality of middle-age men ... fortunately, some of the wealthiest men in this country love football more than anything else." Often that irrationality begins at an earlier age.

Friday night, at the NFL Players Party, 16-year-old Matt Steichen stood along what had been dubbed the "Wall of Fame," a 3-foot-high partition separating most of the NFL players from the fans, who had each paid 15 bucks to get in to the Atlanta Apparel Mart downtown get up close, if not personal, with a sampling of NFL players. The NFL Players Party was one of dozens of events put on for the media and public. It was a testimony to the rising financial power of the players themselves that NFL Players Association staged events in addition to the NFL. During the party, which had some fundraising aspect and featured interactive and arcade games, players periodically moseyed up to the Wall of Fame partition to exchange small talk and sign autographs over the barrier. Only those attendees with VIP credentials could get inside the partitioned area. Steichen, who had come from Chicago with his parents, waited outside the Wall of Fame for some player to head his way.

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