GOTTA GO BACK TO WORK

a return to reality after the decadence and delirium of Atlanta

ATLANTA -- GEORGIA FRONTIERE WAS FEELING FLUSH. Her team had just won the Super Bowl. She walked up to one of the postgame-interview podiums in the bowels of the Georgia Dome -- named for the state, not her -- and hugged her coach, Dick Vermeil. As Vermeil returned to the locker room, Frontiere stepped down from the podium but dallied before leaving, answering questions from a few reporters huddled near her holding out tape recorders.

Asked to name the one thing that most made this moment possible, Georgia said she couldn't name any one thing. Pressed on the issue, she replied:

"The most important thing is that man upstairs."

D.J. Wilson
Charlton Heston
D.J. Wilson
Charlton Heston
Kurt Warner
D.J. Wilson
Kurt Warner
Georgia Frontiere obviously wanted to bury the hatchet, right in Tagliabue's head, over the league's opposing her move and sticking her with a $29 million relocation fee they didn't put on NFL public enemy No. 1, Raiders owner Al Davis.
D.J. Wilson
Georgia Frontiere obviously wanted to bury the hatchet, right in Tagliabue's head, over the league's opposing her move and sticking her with a $29 million relocation fee they didn't put on NFL public enemy No. 1, Raiders owner Al Davis.
Marshall Faulk
D.J. Wilson
Marshall Faulk
Bud Adams (foreground, with scarf), who founded the old AFL with Lamar Hunt, threatened to take his Houston Oilers to Jacksonville before moving them to Tennessee and renaming them the Titans.
D.J. Wilson
Bud Adams (foreground, with scarf), who founded the old AFL with Lamar Hunt, threatened to take his Houston Oilers to Jacksonville before moving them to Tennessee and renaming them the Titans.
Occasionally profane Rams Coach Dick Vermeil blurted out a "bullshit" during his Friday press conference, but he saved his crying for Tuesday, when he announced his retirement.
D.J. Wilson
Occasionally profane Rams Coach Dick Vermeil blurted out a "bullshit" during his Friday press conference, but he saved his crying for Tuesday, when he announced his retirement.
The white house partially hidden by the stretch limo was being used during Super Bowl week to showcase one of the NFL's charitable endeavors, Christmas in April, in which homes in troubled areas are renovated.
D.J. Wilson
The white house partially hidden by the stretch limo was being used during Super Bowl week to showcase one of the NFL's charitable endeavors, Christmas in April, in which homes in troubled areas are renovated.

No, she didn't mean her late husband Carroll Rosenbloom, who left her the team. This was more of a Kurt Warner answer.

"Call him "God'... whatever."

Whoever is responsible, somewhere along the line Frontiere figures she did the right thing. After all, she won. Big-time. Earlier, at the presentation of the Lombardi Trophy, Frontiere wanted to make that clear to NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue, telling him the win proved she did the right thing by moving the team to St. Louis. She obviously wanted to bury the hatchet, right in Tagliabue's head, over the league's opposing her move and sticking her with a $29 million relocation fee they didn't put on NFL public enemy No. 1, Raiders owner Al Davis.

Frontiere reiterated to the six or so reporters around her that the Rams could not have won it all this year if they hadn't moved to St. Louis. But she denied, then retracted the denial, that it had to do with money.

"It has nothing to do with the revenue," Frontiere said, then quickly righted herself. "Well, of course it does, because you can afford to pay players more. But it's the ability of fans to come to the stadium on a Sunday or a Monday or whenever the game is. It's the ability for them to leave home, leave their television when they could easily stay and watch it. They come personally and root for us. That's the 12th man on the team. Years ago, when we had the Colts, it was the same thing -- the Colts fans were the best thing in the world, in Baltimore, I mean; they were incredible," Georgia enthused, harking back to the days when Rosenbloom owned the Colts before he swapped them for the LA Rams. "Never had that in Los Angeles."

What Frontiere also didn't have in Los Angeles was a goodly share of parking revenues, advertising-signage revenues, a top-of-the-line training facility and a bargain-basement fee for the use of a new domed stadium. The sale of permanent seat licenses (PSLs) to fans brought in $74 million, which was divvied up with $26 million to pay the Rams' debt to the city of Anaheim, $13 million to pay for relocation costs, $10 million to pay part of the relocation fee to the NFL and the rest going to settle ancillary costs and cover legal fees. That $74 million was given up by pigskin-crazed fans and doesn't include the $720 million taxpayers will pay over the next 30 years to pay off the Dome's mortgage. Bringing up all these nagging details, though, seems a bit much in the midst of the Rams-induced euphoria. But beneath the surface of the frenzied stupor that is the Super Bowl, some harsh realities brew.

Al Davis, role model

After the game Sunday night, back at the media bunker at the downtown headquarters hotel, the Hyatt Regency, Frank Cooney of the Pro Sports Xchange was sticking up for Georgia -- the woman, not the state. Owners should be allowed to do what they want, he said, including moving their teams when they want to.

Cooney, whose business provides information to sports Web sites, was about to go to an invitation-only postgame party when he defended Frontiere's happy feet when it came to finding a home. Cooney pointed to someone else, other than "that man upstairs," as someone who helped pave the way for both Frontiere and Tennessee Titans owner Bud Adams, two owners who moved their teams to new markets and then ended up in the Super Bowl. For these two, Cooney's role model is Al "Just Win, Baby" Davis, owner of the Oakland-then-Los Angeles-then-Oakland-again Raiders.

"Al Davis actually created free agency for owners so they can take advantage of this ability to move, which is a constitutional right, which can't be dictated by the NFL and shouldn't be," said Cooney, whose business is based in San Francisco. "The irony is that all these people who were negative against Davis and continue to be, including other owners, have benefited financially and competitively. These two teams are an example of that."

Although NFL commissioner Tagliabue spent much of Super Bowl week downplaying the importance of the peripatetic histories of Bud and Georgia and claiming the league had taken corrective measures to ensure that other teams won't move or blackmail cities for new stadiums, Cooney wasn't buying it: "More teams will either move or get new stadiums based on this, going all the way back to Al Davis winning his case."

So Georgia and Bud got to the Big Show and Georgia walked off with the trophy named for the legendary Vince Lombardi. And the hearts of fans, taxpayers and public officials in other NFL cities may be beating a little faster -- and it has nothing to do with Mike Jones' last-second tackle of Kevin Dyson on the 1-yard line. They know they might be next.

One big trade conference

All sorts of variables have to be survived for a team to make it down to the championship game, so it's a mistake to read too much into the Carpetbagger Bowl. Let's face it -- Big Red owner Bill Bidwill is still doomed to life outside the winner's circle. Incompetence does have its limits. Yet it's more than mere coincidence that the two owners who most recently moved their teams ended up the last two teams playing; it speaks to the advantages Adams and Frontiere gained by escaping to greener pastures.

Once the Rams and Titans made it to the Super-de-dooper Bowl, the little people who put them there by watching them on television, or buying PSLs so they could then have the privilege of buying tickets, were largely left behind. Randy Karraker of KMOX (1120 AM), the hardest-working man in the local sports-radio business, was in Atlanta covering his eighth Super Bowl.

"This really isn't a fan event," said Karraker on Sunday afternoon after winding up his last call-in session of the week. "This is a corporate event. Tickets are 325 bucks. You have $500-a-plate dinners and parties and stuff. It's not for the $250 PSL-holders. People have to spend a hell of a lot of money to come down here to the Super Bowl."

Any random sampling of Rams fans wandering the streets in downtown Atlanta revealed as much. Some had finagled free tickets through corporate connections, but most had paid much more than face value -- in one case $800, in another $1,000 -- just to get into the Georgia Dome to see their "home" team. That type of spending was small potatoes compared with the $24 million a year the state, St. Louis County and St. Louis city pay on the Trans World Dome's mortgage.

Yes, it was the "St. Louis" Rams in the game against the "Tennessee" Titans, but anyone who's not an amnesiac knows these two teams are bands of mercenary vagabonds who happen to be playing where they are playing simply because the owners were not being paid enough to stay where they previously played. Sports is yet another example of the nomadic nature of commerce, another reminder of impermanence and transient reality that's fueled by business mergers, moves and buyouts. Even Super Bowl week was tarnished for Atlanta's civic boosters when Coca-Cola announced on Wednesday that about half of the city's 6,000 Coke workers eventually would be fired. The real thing was turning out not to be pretty.

This year, the most overcovered event in sports, the championship game of the National Football League, was Exhibit A of this continued harsh venality. Sports has always been a business, but in the past it had maintained an image that it was also, or more so, a game, an illusion, theater. Sure, tickets were sold and players were paid, but for decades that seemed to be in the background. No more. Now, not only were teams for sale to the highest-bidding city, but this Super Bowl might be proof that teams that went to the highest bidders also ended up doing well, both at the bank and on the playing field. It was a troubling message that NFL commissioner Tagliabue tried to downplay all week.

The game and this event have grown exponentially from the first matchup, in 1967, when historic, grizzled Green Bay, led by high-school chemistry teacher-turned-coach Vince Lombardi, dominated the Kansas City Chiefs from the rival American Football League. On Friday of this Super Bowl week, as Dick Schaap walked through the lobby of the downtown Hyatt Regency, the veteran sportswriter and analyst waxed nostalgic about the past and spoke with a little distance about the present:

"What is interesting to me is that you have two teams in the Super Bowl who have no real fans. They have no fans who have been passed down, generation to generation. There is nobody who is a Titans fan, or a Rams fan in St. Louis, who said, "My father cheered for them, and 20 years from now my child will cheer for them.' You can't say that, because 20 years from now you don't know what city they're going to be in. So what you've got is people who have been fans of these teams for 12 months, at the most."

Yeah, sure -- the Rams have been in town for all of five years, but no one can say with a straight face that the community paid any real attention to them until they went from 4-12 last year to 15-3 this year. Winning breeds hangers-on; losing is lonely. The gray-haired Schaap, wearing a button-down denim shirt and drinking a free bottle of Miller Genuine Draft he got downstairs in the media lounge, wasn't whining about how sports had been ruined; he was just making the observation that the stakes of the poker game had gone up and, as they had, the dynamics had changed. That much was obvious as he stood amid the swirling crowd in the media headquarters hotel for the 3,500 journalists in town to cover the obvious. Whether it was Disney-owned ESPN or the Georgia Frontiere-owned Rams or the Bud Adams-owned Titans, as Randy Newman sang years ago, it's money that matters.

"That's true of all sports; it's not just these two teams. It's not just this sport. It's everything," said Schaap, author of 32 books, including Instant Replay, the top-selling sports book of all time. "My rule is "the higher the stakes, the less the fun.' And a lot of the fun has gone out of it.

"All of sports is less fun than it used to be. This Super Bowl is not as much fun as Super Bowl I, when Max McGee could sneak out after curfew and spend the night out, come back and catch seven passes and win the game. Or Super Bowl III, where reporters could go interview Joe Namath, sitting next to a swimming pool, and he'd sit there with a drink in his hand and entertain the press. It doesn't happen anymore. They're all too concerned about the stakes; the stakes are so high, nobody wants to laugh."

The big game as bad sexAtlanta's downtown Hyatt Regency, when it opened in 1967, used to be described as having a "Jesus Christ lobby" in that people would walk in, look up into the 22-story atrium and take the Lord's name in vain. Now these lobbies are as common as downtown light-rail systems, so the buzz is less. But the hotel was picked to be the media mission control, with the lower level of the lobby filled with row after row of tables for the working press, complete with computer jacks, phone lines, printouts of press releases and statistics, and transcripts of press conferences. Of course, free coffee and snacks were available full-time, along with, in the evening, complimentary beverages from a Super Bowl sponsor, Philip Morris-owned Miller Lite beer.

Free newspapers from St. Louis, Nashville, Atlanta and elsewhere were stacked on counters. The attention span of the sports scribes was obvious: Most grabbed just the sports sections from the papers and left all that messy stuff about the State of the Union address and trouble in Sri Lanka in the rack. A few sports magazines were offered gratis, including ESPN The Magazine, which took the cake that week for a truly awful cover photo featuring two women in hotpants and knee-high boots with platform soles. They were attired (scantily) like the Rams and the Titans. The Super Bowl is a marketing orgy, so it's not surprising a little titillation is used to pimp the product. And when it comes to marketing, 'nuff said that ESPN is owned by Disney, which also owns ABC, which is broadcasting the game. This is even too obvious for Oliver Stone. With things laid out this bare, no conspiracy is necessary. Maybe next time Noam Chomsky can write "Manufacturing Hype" as a sequel ("How 'Bout Them Rams, Noam?," RFT, Jan. 19).

In the ESPN cover photo, the Rams redhead, with exaggerated cleavage, snarls, holding a football. Beneath the shot of the two women, who appear to embody some type of bad sexist flashback to the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders in the '70s, is this headline: "The Biggest, Hottest, Longest Party of the Century -- SUPA!" There's the rub, for Super Bowl week or weekend.

In downtown 'Lanta, the Super Bowl soiree came off as a bad New Year's Eve party where everyone's trying really, really hard to have a good time against an undercurrent whispering that it's all a bit too desperate, that it's not working. And what it's built around, the game itself, has for years turned out like long-awaited sex: anticipated for far too long, over much too quickly and generally leaving only one side satisfied. At least the competitive nature of this year's game turned out to be somewhat satisfying for both participants.

But if New Year's Eve is for amateurs, then Super Bowl week is for pros: pros who labor, or hustle, for the sports/entertainment industrial complex, people who somehow turn a nickel into a dime around spectator-spectacle sports. It's all for the sponsors, the players, the staffs, the companies who snap up the tickets while the vast majority of fans stay home.

Around the game are the invitation-only "hot" parties, hosted by large corporations ranging from Nike to Anheuser-Busch. This year, Miller Lite, owned by tobacco giant Philip Morris, was the official Super Bowl beer. On Friday night, A-B sponsored an exclusive party in the Buckhead section of Atlanta, but the company's plans for an outdoor street party were ruined by freezing rain and plunging temperatures. Beyond the business socializing were the luxury suites in the Georgia Dome, where corporations link up with customers or prospects, and, of course, there was the media herd that at once promotes and reports on the bacchanal.

Pampered menialsBy Friday, to get into the lobby of the Hyatt Regency downtown, you had to show your room-key card or your "working" press ID. The lobby had gotten way too packed and celebrities were being hassled by commoners and tickets were being scalped and who knows what-all, but something had to be done. What is startling about the Super Bowl mix is that people such as former Oilers coach and current HBO blowhard Jerry Glanville walk around the Hyatt and elsewhere with entourages. One-trick pony Chris "back-back-back" Berman, an ESPN burnout, walked around with a cluster of people following him. Surely the end was near. But not everybody there was a suck-up or a bozo; there were true celebrity encounters. On Friday night, the Washington Post's Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon were about to go off to do a TV show when they bumped into Alvin Reid, editor of the St. Louis American. Kornheiser, a Post columnist and author of Pumping Irony, knew Reid from back in the day, when Reid worked at Emerge magazine. As Kornheiser departed, his last question to Reid was "You got any white people working for you?"

There was a sense of entitlement among the fourth estate, as well as a certain pecking order. During one elevator ride, two former co-workers met and exchanged greetings. After one told the other he was still working in Quincy, Ill., he got off at his floor and the elevator doors closed. "Quincy," said the media type left on the elevator. "I'm glad I escaped that hell." This from someone working for a Des Moines station -- clearly one man's heaven could be just another city in Iowa to somebody else.

Sportswriters who make the cut to attend a humongous event like this are spoonfed quotes and data like so many carp awaiting crackers. Within an hour of any press conference, full or edited transcripts of quotes are printed and left at the press-release table. Because there are truly not that many questions worth asking of athletes -- the basic query, how the are athletes feeling, is guessed easily according to whether they won or lost -- there's little reason to pursue quotes beyond the ones being publicly distributed. Most professional athletes either have little new to say or purposely avoid being spontaneous for fear of stepping on somebody's toes. As Miami Dolphins tackle Manny Fernandez said in Hunter Thompson's "Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl," in 1973, player interviews during Super Bowl week were like "going to the dentist every day to have the same tooth filled."

The media center was on the lower levels of the Hyatt, and large portions of it were filled with sports-radio talk-show hosts, gabbing over the airwaves and taking calls from their hometown markets. As a result of technological advances, these sports jocks can go anywhere there's a phone line and broadcast with studio-quality sound. The portable gizmo that allows this to happen is a digital phone-line hook-up about the size of a gooey-butter cake.

Sports-talk radio in other parts of the country tends to be more edgy than it is in St. Louis. Listening to a call-in show at its best is like sitting on a barstool next to somebody with a funny take on or weird insight into sports. Far too often, though, it's more like listening to someone who at the very least ought to lighten up and pursue other interests, if not seek professional counseling.

For Greg Marecek, who runs KFNS (590 AM), there was little choice about sending his troops to Atlanta. The Super Bowl, he said, is to KFNS what the presidential election might be to KMOX.

"This is our business. I've said to spare no expense. If we can't cover, wall-to-wall, the biggest thing that happens in our niche, sports, then we shouldn't be in the business," Marecek said. "This is where we should be. We have been completely sold out. It's been a tremendous January. We're doing 16-18 minutes (of ads) an hour. People are buying station IDs, top-of-the-hours, Rams updates, Super Bowl updates. There's plenty of expenses, but it doesn't come close to the gains we make in audience."

Marecek wasn't sure what the final cost of bringing about 10 people to Atlanta would be, but he said he knows that his audience back in St. Louis is "four or five times larger" and that his ad rates will "reflect that." On Friday, as he stood next to the table where KSDK-TV's Frank Cusumano and the Post-Dispatch's Jeff Gordon were holding forth, Marecek seemed most excited that his station was going to broadcast live from superagent Leigh Steinberg's party on Saturday.

"I don't know if anybody else (from media) in the country is in the party, but we are because (KFNS host) Mike Claiborne and Leigh Steinberg are friends and fellow agents," Marecek gushed. "This is the glitzy deal. This is the movie-star list. This has become the Academy Awards dinner, the party of this event. Ted Kennedy is on the list. You name the Hollywood starlet, and she's there."

Hollywood starlet? Let's hope Ted didn't offer any of them a ride home.

"The other neat thing is we're going to be in the Rams' hotel on Sunday," says Marecek. "They've allowed us to come in for the victory celebration. We're there. Wherever the party room is, we'll be right outside the door."

KMOX's Karraker filled Charles Jaco's 2 p.m. slot for several days, meaning he was on the air at least four or five hours a day in addition to doing sports reports during drivetime. Because of the demands of doing the KMOX shows and conducting player interviews, Karraker admitted that he hadn't "gotten the flavor" of this year's Super Bowl atmosphere. He did notice that it was less crowded because of the icy weather and a bit tamer as a result of the personalities involved:

"You don't have anyone popping off. Usually you have one player at the Super Bowl who becomes the media star and the media gravitates to him every day. Well, we don't have that on either team. The other thing is, because of the weather here in Atlanta, people who might have been here earlier in the week aren't here. There's just not as big of a crowd. Normally it's packed by Thursday."

Out in the lobby, Jay Mariotti was blabbing on the One-on-One sports-radio network, which on its display board, behind the mikes, advertised its claim of 425 affiliates and 13 million listeners. The caller's comments could not be heard, only Mariotti's reactions. He was not big on this Super Bowl: "Of my 16 years covering Super Bowls, this year's has the least buzz of any of them. The Chicago Tribune sent seven people here. I wonder what the hell they're writing about. When you get here, it's all been written about already." Of course, Jay didn't add that it's all been talked about already, too. To someone who must have been a caller from Houston, he responded, "So you're still following the team ... but Bud Adams ... these owners try to blackmail cities.... You should have seen Bud today -- he looked like a Claymation figure."

A change of venueTennessee Titans/Houston Oilers owner Adams looks like a bad caricature of an NFL owner. When he speaks, he confirms that perception. Adams played meet-the-press with the assembled horde of media types on Thursday, keeping his overcoat and scarf on during the 45-minute session, apparently in case he wanted to make a hasty exit. Adams' press availability was unlike that of Rams owner Frontiere, who kept a low profile, allowing much more limited access. In the Friday edition of USA Today, a "cover story" penned by Jill Lieber revealed that the only meat that Frontiere eats is fish (and that therefore she's a piscatarian), that both of Frontiere's children by former Rams owner Rosenbloom were born before he divorced his first wife and that Frontiere says the marriage between her and Dominic Frontiere was "never consummated." Imagine the possible follow-up questions on those topics if she had held a press conference. Maybe it makes sense Frontiere allowed limited access.

Bud -- aging, chubby Houston oilman that he is -- did not fail to amuse or enlighten, however inadvertently. He had bad memories of Houston Astros owner Drayton McLane but only referred to him as "the baseball guy." He slammed the attorney who handled the suit filed to keep the Oilers from moving, recalling that his big legal success came from a suit against the makers of silicone breast implants. "The city of Houston tried to keep me down there," said Adams. "They hired a lawyer, John O'Quinn. You know what his fame was -- he was the boob-job expert. He got about $100 million out of that. So I did something I didn't want to do. I sued the mayor; I sued the city of Houston; I sued the county, who really owned the Astrodome. I sued the Astrodome USA, who was the landlord. That made me a real hero in Houston."

Adams, using a term normally reserved for criminal matters, said, "It was a change of venue to get in a new stadium.... We got a new practice facility, state-of-the-art. The press room at the stadium holds 550 people. Tagliabue said a lot of people came down and saw our stadium and said it was the best one that's been built. I said, "It better be, Tag -- it's the last one to be built.' I'm sure there'll be better ones built. Philadelphia's is going to get a new stadium, and they're building one in Pittsburgh."

Adams, who still lives in Houston, was asked whether the Houston public treated him like a pariah.

"The press treats me like that. But the fans, I don't have problem. I'm not afraid to walk around anywhere in town. They say, "Hi, Bud.' Some of the young people there don't know that much about me or the Oiler days," said Adams. "When you've been in this thing as long as I have, you recognize the power of the press. You're not going to defeat them. I busted one in the jaw, back in '62. I'd had all the crap out him that I wanted. But it's no good that way. I'm too old now to be doing that. Hey, it's the First Amendment -- everybody can say what they want to say."

A mention of the good old days, when he and Lamar Hunt out of Dallas formed the American Football League, triggered fond, if politically incorrect, memories: "We set new guidelines on how you signed players. Whatever they wanted, I'd listen to it -- whether it was cattle, or girls, or money, or cars. That was the way you could do things back then. You can't do that now. You have to get everything in the contract; back then you didn't have to have it in the contract."

Adams, who once almost moved the Oilers to Jacksonville, Fla., said he believes the NFL has learned its lesson and that the league will help the major markets build new stadiums or renovate old ones. He doesn't think any moves are in the offing. He did say his move happened because he played in a small stadium and that he wasn't getting enough of the revenue streams from signage, concessions and parking. And, he said, after he left, "the baseball guy" got what he wanted and the new NFL-franchise owner in Houston will get his wish fulfilled:

"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.

Steichen stood out because, from a short distance, he looked as if he was wearing a jersey that was half Marshall Faulk's 28 and half Eddie George's 27. Up close, it was clear he had folded in half a Rams jersey and a Titans jersey and safety-pinned them together. Why? Because he didn't care who won, he said. And besides, he was a Buffalo Bills fan.

Uh, he lives in Chicago, so why is he a Buffalo fan?

"Oh, it's a long story," he sighed, as if he didn't want to go into details. "They had this Snickers commercial a long time ago. I sent Snickers to Buffalo because they lost their first game. I sent Snickers bars to them and they won seven games straight, so they kind of adopted me. I said they lost because they ran out of Snickers bars. That was when I was 10 years old."

Oh.

So who did Matt want to win?

"It doesn't matter to me. It should be a good game, but I just don't really care."

Of course, folks back in St. Louis, a goodly number at least, did care. And even considering the dark financial side, right now is as good as it's going to get with the Rams. The rush is here, close your eyes and feel it. The Rams are a young team, with an average age of 25.9, but the much-heralded "parity" goal for the NFL that helped put the Rams where they are by giving them high college-draft picks and a weak schedule because they had the worst record in the '90s -- all that will fade. Next year, the schedule will be harder; there will be high-profile Monday-night games, and players will want more money, even more than Frontiere has or more than is allowed by the salary cap. Keeping a championship team together is harder than becoming one. And with Dick Vermeil's retirement announcement Tuesday, the Rams could turn out to be this year's Atlanta Falcons, who made it to the Super Bowl last year but failed to make the playoffs this year. Even Denver, last year's winner, didn't make the playoffs.

Regardless of what the Rams do next year, the expenses to local and state government will continue. In 2005 there's that "nonperformance" clause that could allow the Rams to go elsewhere if the Dome is not judged to be in the top tier of stadiums.

That's still five years off, though, before the fine print in the Rams' lease could put a damper on all this. Until then, there's something to be said for a sports season that put so many people in a giddy mood.

During the Monday's parade downtown, Wendy Stout of St. Louis walked around with a replica of the Lombardi Trophy on her head. Tony McMillan, from across the river in Millstadt, dressed up like Pope John Paul II, complete with flowing robes, papal hat and holy water, though it might have been vodka.

"It's been one year to the week of my visit to St. Louis, so I had to be on hand to welcome the Rams home," said McMillan, speaking in papal mode. "We've just had a great week. I was at a Super Bowl party last night, and I boozed a little bit.... I'm still recuperating from a bad incident at Hooters. I passed out in a bathroom stall."

So the not-so-cheap thrill of the Rams' move to St. Louis paid off, at least entertainment-wise, after five years.

The migrant team delivered. It remains to be seen how long St. Louis will be paying for this one-night stand.

Adam Pitluk contributed to this story.

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