He marks -- not that you won or lost -- but how you played the game.
-- Grantland Rice, Alumnus Football
Well, that's one way to look at it.
In fact, for much of a previous century, many humans believed this was the way to keep sporting outcomes in their proper perspective. Competition was all about effort and sportsmanship. Winning was incidental.
Then came Vince Lombardi with an opposing viewpoint:
"Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."
This Sunday, St. Louis and Nashville are going to the party that Vince helped build, and never has it been more fitting that they are vying for the Lombardi Trophy, not the Rice Trophy.
Look what winning has done for the new homes of the old Houston Oilers and Los Angeles Rams. A Super Bowl.
We've gone nuts, in the best sense of the word, and it has nothing to do with how we played the game. Tampa Bay and Jacksonville and 27 lesser teams may indeed fare just as well someday with the One Great Scorer, but we don't care.
We're going to the One Great Game. We won.
Why does this matter so?
Go find a sociologist. I'm too busy basking in distorted priorities, hoarsely planning a trip to Atlanta. Indeed, for the first time in five years, I've stopped whining about having hoodwinked myself into buying too many PSLs.
I'm only certain of one thing: The Rams' incredible journey to the Super Bowl has energized and bonded this community with a suddenness and an intensity never before seen. Reports out of Nashville says it's the same for the Tennessee Titans.
There and here, the excitement isn't over the history of the teams, which have barely settled into their new homes. It's over one season of football and, more specifically, two or three weeks of playoff games.
But the impact in St. Louis is far out of proportion to that.
For a fleeting moment, maybe even a week, there seem to be no city-county boundaries, not even state lines. There are no racial tensions, no bitter divisions along political party lines and no feelings of ill will or words of hatred to be found.
It's just a town full of Rams fans. Win a few football games, and a city feared to be spiraling into bankruptcy is posting blue-and-gold "Welcome to Utopia" signs.
For St. Louis, the obvious comparison would be the Cardinals' many instances of World Series glory, but what's unique to the Rams' story is how it happened overnight. And how overwhelmingly so.
The baseball team has been woven into the civic fabric for more than a century; the football team came in moving vans five years ago. The baseball team is one of the more storied and successful in the nation, flying rows of championship banners; the football team was the worst of the decade, playing in a city that had never hosted a playoff game.
The St. Louis Rams' greatest distinction had been to have raised the bar -- or perhaps broken the sound barrier -- for how many hundreds of millions a community must cough up to sports monopolists for the privilege of calling itself a major-league city. And then they had the audacity to post a record of 7-9, followed by 6-10, followed by 5-11, followed by 4-12.
Fans (and even a sports journalist or two) called for Coach Dick Vermeil's head. The Rams played to at least 20,000 empty seats during their final home game of 1998. TV ratings dropped a staggering 31 percent from 1995 (the team's first year here) to 1998.
And then came winning. OK, it was more than winning; it was one of the most magical turnarounds of all time -- punctuated by the story of Kurt Warner, which, as an ESPN.com scribe notes this week, is arguably the most compelling overnight-sensation tale in all of sports history -- but no matter how great it feels now, it wouldn't have been quite the same had last week's score read Tampa Bay 13, Rams 11.
All the exciting subplots -- running back Marshall Faulk's underplayed record-smashing performances, Vermeil's implausible perseverance, dramatic heroics from dozens of heretofore-unheralded athletes -- would have been reduced to nice stories in the sports section were it not for the still-numbing realization that St. Louis -- that's right, St. Louis -- is a guest of honor at the world's gaudiest, glitziest, most overanalyzed and overhyped celebration of all that is ostentatious.
It's a good thing we won the NFC championship.
Now, of course, the eyes of the world turn to Atlanta, where winning again is the only thing. There are no parades for Super Bowl runners-up.
In the meantime, however, there's much self-congratulation back home about how wonderful and supportive we fans have been, and about how fortunate we are to have taken an economic bath for the ages to make this all possible. It prompted me to sift through the last couple years of stories about the Rams.
Not surprisingly, I came across many instances of sarcasm and cynicism and Rams jokes. There weren't so many feel-good stories before the fall of 1999. But the research turned up one twist.
It was indeed a feel-good item, from the bad old days of November 1997. It came in the form of a letter to the Post-Dispatch from the American Diabetes Association about a 9-year-old lad named Nathan who had been diagnosed with cancer. His parents had taken him to a Rams game to cheer him up, but not long after, his cancer had spread and an operation was needed at Cardinal Glennon Hospital.
"A half hour before the surgery, Rams kicker Jeff Wilkins appeared and showed Nathan how to kick a football through the uprights. Nathan had been really scared before surgery until Jeff came in. Nathan was then so excited that he forgot to be afraid," the letter said.
It went on to thank the Rams, then on their way to a 5-11 season.
It's cited here because Wilkins -- nursing a knee injury and coming off a so-so season -- is widely thought to be the team's weakest link. If there's a chance any Ram could be the "goat" next Sunday, it's Wilkins, who could easily lose the game by missing a field goal or extra point.
Can you imagine what the loyal fans would say about him and his future here were that to happen? They won't be quoting Grantland Rice, and they won't be consulting the American Diabetes Association.
Winning is the only thing. It has made a lot of difference here.
But I wonder if it's all good.
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