Wednesday, January 19, 2005

Another Standard column in which I've combined a modicum of reasonably fresh material with refried bloggery that regular readers will recognize. Apologies to them (and to my soccer-coaching pal Paul S). But aren't leftovers usually better the second time around?
God help me, I thought as I snapped out of my slack-jawed zombie-state in front of the television. I'm actually watching a fishing show on ESPN.
My sports-loving pals back in the US would be, ah, bemused to say the least and appalled at best. But my explanation was simple. I missed football. I don't mean "football'' in the sense as its known outside of North America wherein a bunch of foreigners dressed in skimpy shorts and corporate-sponsored jerseys prance endlessly about like a bunch of nancy boys, kicking a round ball back and forth until the score is 0-0 or 1-0 if viewers are lucky.
I mean ground-shaking, primal, steroid-fueled head-butting thuggery and occasional grace involving an oblong "pigskin" and teams with names like Broncos, Raiders and Vikings – not Canaries, Baggies or Rovers. And anomolies like Columbine, Iraq, drive-by shootings and the occasional NBA outburst aside, Americans generally prefer their violence ritualized on the field rather than as performed spontaneously by drunken rioting "fans."
So you might well ask how did fishing – a bucolic, peaceful pastime that can be easily as tedious as a soccer match to some – figure in the equation?
It was simple, actually. It wasn't the thrill of seeing a pathetic, 7-inch cutthroat trout struggling at the end of a nylon line, but just the sheer Americana of this particular telecast. It was a taking place in Jackson, Wyoming, an area I'm fond of and familiar with and the folks were discussing their catches in reassuring accents and cadences. It wasn't exactly iconic football commenator John Madden invoking wisdom like "He's the go-to guy" and "This game will be won in the trenches" or "The road to Easy Street goes through the sewer" but it was familiar and familiarity breeds comfort – something I'd lacked since being out of regular touch with football sportscasts.
The Internet and newspaper accounts weren't the same and couldn't fill the hole in a soul nurtured on Satuday afternoon college games and Sunday pro tilts. When my local cable provider had offered ESPN as a bonus to sign up, I thought I'd found the solution but little did I realize that ESPN in Asia stands for European Soccer Pansy Network. There have been a occasonal NFL broadcasts, including one recent heartbreaker in which my beloved Denver Broncos got pasted and cast from the playoffs, but most of the fare revolves around knuckle-whitening barnburners like Norwich 0-Aston Villa 0.
Still, I have hope. Last year China finally achieved First World status by broadcasting the Super Bowl live for the first time and I was was able to watch Super Bowl XXXVIII from my Shenzhen apartment. Doing so, though, took some some planning. While it was Super Sunday in the US, it was Miserable Monday in China and the game began at 7am.
I also was scheduled to work beginning at 9:30am but after I learned that New England Patriots vs Carolina Panthers would indeed be broadcast live on CCTV, I began scheming for an excuse to come in late Monday morning. It finally came to me on Friday afternoon.
I approached my Chinese editor and relying on the general ignorance of and indifference to American football told him that I needed Monday morning off for "religious reasons."
He may not have known NFL, but he was no fool and was a little curious. "Christmas is past," he replied. "What religion? Why Monday morning?"
I explained that I belonged to a minor religion – hard pressed to come up with a name quickly I mumbled something like "Turfitarians, an offshoot of Christianity, but more inclusive" – that followed the thoughts of great American prophets,
"There have been many - 37, or more - since the original teacher, Teacher Lombardi," I said, citing the surname of the hallowed Green Bay Packer coach in Super Bowl I. I followed with a string of legendary quarterbacks. "There were also the Prophets Namath, Unitas, Starr, Bradshaw, Montana, Favre, Elway..."
He was silent. I kept pushing. "Traditionally followers usually meet on the last Sunday in January or first Sunday in February for what we call 'Super Sunday.' This year is will be on February 1 in the US. We meditate on the thoughts and deeds of the two best prophets and one is appointed for the coming year.''
"This year there are Prophet Brady and a new one, Prophet Delhomme," I continued, naming the New England and Carolina quarterbacks. "I want to study and to consult with others on the telephone in the US during the same time. We will meditate and discuss Brady Thought and Delhomme Thought."
He thought for a moment and quietly told me it was OK. But I'm still not sure he bought it.
Though I donned a tattered, faded and shrunken Broncos '88 AFC championship T-shirt for it, watching the game with Chinese broadcasters and a Chinese feed wasn't exactly the same. Commentary and play-by-play action was unintelligible except for odd bursts like BlahblahblahChineseblah - BLITZ! - blahblah - IN THE POCKET! - bblahblahChinese - RED ZONE! (Yes, incredibly there is apparently no Chinese translation for "Red Zone"...)- blahblah - NO HUDDLE HURRY-HURRY OFFENSE! ..."
There were no commercials, the halftime show was mysteriously truncated and I only learned of Justin Timberlake tearing off Janet Jackson's top later from the Internet. But like viewing it in the US, I managed to miss some key plays and a couple touchdowns while I was in the bathroom or kitchen and was only alerted to significant action by one Chinese announcer who would scream "WOW-WOW!"
Lacking nachos, chips, pizza and Bud, I slurped down noodles and two glasses of Tsing Tao until the thrilling finale which amazingly mirrored the 2002 Super Bowl showdown wherein Patriots' place kicker Adam Vinatieri kicked the game winning field goal in the final seconds.
I made to the office by noon and my editor asked how my "study session" had gone.
"It was much like a previous Super Sunday," I said. "After close examination and much debate, Prophet Brady was selected with the help of a Disciple named Vinatieri."
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