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Time Marches on: the Superbowl and History

This story is also posted in the Harvard Independent.  A lot of this you may already know, but if you're like me you never get tired of hearing it.

We are all taught in school, when we’re very young that history repeats itself, unless we do something about it.  In sports the history tends to go on repeating itself unchecked, since there are no real catastrophes to avert.  Sure there are travesties, like a Cubs fan providing the perfect metaphor for snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, but the very fact that we can find irony in the situation prevents us from taking it seriously enough to try and avert it the next time around.

Beyond the inevitable, inexorable historical principle, sport tends to repeat itself in a much shorter cycle, since, unlike in our world, the rules and situations never change enough to have a serious effect on history’s cycles.  Witness, therefore, one of the inevitable déjà vu moments that comes from watching sports religiously.

Two years and about a month ago, Pete Carroll’s USC Trojans were driving for what they were referring to as a three-peat (or three-pete to be cute).  Many of those who didn’t live at the mercy of that particular team’s success or failure, would continually doubt the championshipness (championshipity?) of their first claimed championship, since they hadn’t actually played in the National Championship Game (always a bit of a barrier) and were chosen as champions by the AP in an act of almost pure contrarianism (even if they had deserved a shot at LSU or Oklahoma in said championship game, LSU’s convincing win over Oklahoma gave them the more impressive championship resume).

It was the year where Matt Leinart came into the season as the defending Heisman winner, and a budding sports agent would buy the Heisman for his teammate Reggie Bush (conveniently voted on before what would be a convincing display of how wrongly the voters had chosen in the National Championship Game).  What cannot be disputed is that they were riding an impressive 34 game win-streak coming into that game.  ESPN would spend hours of TV time on its legion of networks playing out imaginary match-ups between the Trojans of that year and great teams of the past (is the story starting to seem familiar?  Stop me any time).

As for the game itself, the 2006 Rose Bowl, USC vs. Texas, the game stayed close in the first half before USC started to pull away, as everyone seemed to expect.  The Trojans pulled their lead to 12 with 6:42 left in the game, and everyone who lived outside the biggest state in the lower 48 (for you geography buffs, that’s Texas), believed that the game was over, the dubious three-pete was imminent, but those people obviously hadn’t seen enough of a young fellow with a heavy accent, a student-athlete from inner-city Houston, Vincent Paul Young.  Indeed if they had seen more of him he may not have ended up second in the Heisman voting to the player, who earned the highest percentage of Heisman votes ever.  Had they known Young as any more than an elusive and strong runner playing quarterback, they would have seen a strongly repeating pattern (some historical cycles come by coincidence, this one was driven by the pure will of one of the best athletes ever to play the college game), the pattern that his biggest victories were invariably snatched from the jaws of defeat.

So it was on that mild January night in Southern California.  Vince drove the Longhorns down the field twice with a controlled passing game, which pundits (and evidently the Trojan coaches) doubted he had the patience to maintain, and, of course, his electrifying runs.  In between the two drives, came a magical defensive stand, where the Trojans, consistently successful earlier in the game at pounding the bowling ball, Lendale White, up the middle, tried to run out the clock with headfirst runs up the middle.  It came down to fourth down with a yard and a half to go.  Pete Carroll, knowing that putting the ball back in Young’s hands, no matter what yard-line he was on, was a dangerous situation, having watched Young cut through his defense like the proverbial hot-knife through butter, and possessing what many would call a propensity to gamble, decided to stake the game on that fourth down.

In one of the most beautiful scenes one can see in a football game, the Longhorn defense played immovable object to Lendale White’s unstoppable force, stopping him cold behind the line to gain.  Even before chains were brought out and an official ruling was made, a sense of jubilation permeated the Texas sideline, victory was considered almost inevitable, despite the five point deficit that still remained.  Young’s last touchdown run on a fourth-and-five seemed almost an afterthought, and the resulting Longhorn victory left the USC sideline, and thousands of Californians, who had caught on to the Trojan craze, in a sense of shock.  Trojan players, who lived the lives of Hollywood stars, had felt they were entitled to this victory.

Matt Leinart, who had stayed in school for his senior year, which many draft experts believe cost him ten spots in the draft, since he would have been a favorite for the #1 pick in the previous spring’s draft had he come out, though as it turned out he seems to have benefited by being drafted to Arizona with such great offensive weapons as Larry Fitzgerald and Anquan Boldin rather than to San Francisco, where Alex Smith, who was taken #1 in that draft still struggles, went so far as to claim that the better team had not won the game, as though there were any other way to determine which team was better.

Let us now draw some parallels with this previous Sunday’s Super Bowl, where the ballyhooed New England Patriots (that’s right I wrote ballyhooed) tarnished an otherwise perfect record by losing to a team they had beaten only a month earlier, quarterbacked by a man, who despite his string of success in the playoffs, is but a poor reflection of his older brother (not all aspects can be parallel).  Like the Trojans, the Patriots were compared on numerous ESPN broadcasts to their great predecessors.  Bradshaw’s Steelers, Ditka’s Bears, Walsh’s and Montana’s 49ers, Jimmy Johnson’s and Barry Switzer’s Cowboys all took their turn to face of with the Pats in a purely hypothetical exercise that served as filler when there was nothing more interesting to report during SportsCenter.

Though Boston is about as geographically removed as you can get from Hollywood without crossing international borders, Patriots players, like their USC counterparts took on all-star personae.  Tom Brady, though not as shameless in his list of endorsements as his rival Peyton Manning, took on a public face by dating supermodels and being followed by tabloid photographers daily.  Randy Moss, delighted at finally playing for a winner, quieted the loquacious comments that had plagued him with some of his other teams, but even he had the chance to revel in his celebrity in a post-game press conference, saying "I mean hell, I’m Randy Moss, what do you expect."

While commentators at sports networks were arguing over what Patriot would win the MVP of the Super Bowl, the Giants were preparing revenge for their Week 17 loss.  They shocked the world and the Patriots’ bench with their two fourth-quarter touchdowns, and their constant pressure on pressure on Tom Brady.  The much debated MVP went to Eli Manning, though it probably should have gone to a defender, since they held a Patriots offense that had scored under 30 points only three times previously this season and had never scored less than 21, any of which numbers would have been enough to beat the Giants’ meager 17, to only 14 points.  Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora, or Michael Strahan all deserved recognition for turning Tom Brady’s pocket into a shooting gallery.  Also deserving would be rookie Cornerbacks Aaron Ross and Kevin Dockery, who held Randy Moss to only 62 yards and 1 touchdown.  If the defense as a whole could receive the MVP, I have no doubt they would have, for holding the Patriot’s to only 7 points for three quarters while they waited for Eli Manning to get his act together and actually score.

But apart from the specific details, the lesson remains, sports history repeats itself more than regular history.  Pride always comes before the fall, and ESPN can predict the fall of dynasties by comparing them to previous great teams.  Let this be a warning to all you aspiring sports dynasts and future ESPN executives, who happen to be reading.  Beware.