NEW ORLEANS -- Eerie music echoed through the Superdome an hour before the start of Media Day. It may have been classical, it may have been jazz, but it was barely audible above the milling of reporters and sound checks of technicians. The music sounded like a calliope in a cavern, a hauntingly merry Danny Elfman soundtrack to a spaced-out Tim Burton movie, the Joker's entrance music, Pagliacci on the penny whistle.
It was music to go mad to.
Super Bowl Media Day has become so notorious for its excess that it is on its way from becoming one of the biggest things wrong with the Super Bowl to one of the biggest things wrong with modern culture. It's also the place where someone who markets himself as a "funny football guy" is forced to ply his trade. Each time I mock Media Day, I worry that I have become part of the problem. Each time I wallow into the absurdist muck of the event, I become certain that I am part of the problem, which at least eases the worries.
Media Day is a fantastic voyage into the heart of hype itself. This year, I was determined to escape with both psyche and dignity intact, and to emerge wiser for it.
The Gang's All Here. Vic "the Brick" Jacobs, a Los Angeles radio personality, is stalking around in bronze plate mail with a fuzzy "warrior of the Steppes" hat. He is calling himself "Super Bowl Samurai" and "Poet Warrior" this year, and he would not be The Brick if the costume (much more classic Mongol than feudal Japan) matched the shtick. For two hours, he approaches interview booths, creates a ruckus with his Zen Hippie Swordsman routine, gives away a tee shirt, then grants interviews as the Poet Warrior to reporters in search of a crazy guy for hire.
The Brick and I have a history, and we usually clash swords during a Media Day lull. What a strange thing to become routine: he dresses like a live-action role player every year, and I accost him for 30 seconds of half-baked Firesign Theater. When an attention-grabbing stunt becomes predictable, it no longer grabs attention, a paradox not lost on a Zen master like The Brick.
Many of the once-noteworthy sideshows of Media Day are becoming a little long in the tooth. Azteca Television sent the traditional bombshell reporter in a revealing, lacy blouse. Telemundo countered with a dead ringer for Sofia Vagara. The female journalists had a predictable effect on a 90% male crowd, and both women were as likely to be interviewed as to interview. Katherine Webb, girlfriend of Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron, former Miss Alabama, and short-circuiter of the Musburger brain, covered Media Day for Inside Edition. The crowds she drew as a celebrity, as opposed to an interviewer of celebrities, rivaled the throngs around Jim Harbaugh and Ray Lewis. Webb may have been trading on her beauty and sudden fame a bit, but at least she was not trying to get a one-on-one with a guy dressed like Genghis Khan's pot supplier.
The NickToons superhero was also there, asking questions that might appeal to the single-digit set, though I have two sons in the target age and neither could identify the guy. A fellow in lederhosen and Chuck Taylor sneakers worked the floor, and I approached him ready to ask the kind of questions attention-seekers crave: who's hotter, the Swiss Miss, or the St. Pauli Girl?
As it happens, the Bavarian Harvest Reenactor was Philip Hajszan, an Austrian journalist on the Super Bowl beat. The costume was just a way to stand out a bit. The sneakers? "That's an adaptation for today," he said. "It's getting bigger and bigger in Austria," Hajszan says of American football in Austria. "People try to adapt to the American style of watching football. They gather around, have a small tailgate party." In the true American tradition, they may also tune in to Media Day and wonder why it happens, or why they tuned in.
Hajszan clarified for me that Austria is "next to Germany," an indicator of the intellectual level of questioning his costume was attracting. He was at risk of becoming part of the sideshow, and so was I, the notorious inanity of the event swallowing the just and unjust alike.
Thinking about not thinking. Forty-niners tackle Joe Staley only had a small crowd at his booth. It appeared to be an opportunity to talk some nuts-and-bolts football, to steer away from the ditch of goofiness I inevitably land in each Media Day. I arrived with a few questions about trap blocks and counter plays, but someone asked Staley what it felt like getting off the plane in New Orleans.
"Um, it was awesome, I thought. The plane was really great. It had bed seats so I felt refreshed and ready to go, and I got a nap in. And I was thinking … I don't know what I was thinking. I was trying not to trip."
A few questions later comes this exchange with a non-football reporter hoping to generate some hilarity:
REPORTER: "Who's angrier: Ray Lewis or the rapper Eminem?"
STALEY: "I don't know."
REPORTER: "Who's wife is more annoying: Tom Brady's or Wes Welker's?"
STALEY: "I don't know."
REPORTER: "What's a girlier show: The Voice or American Idol?"
STALEY: "Probably The Voice. I watch American Idol."
The material actually got worse from there, if you can imagine. The pop-culture gadfly left, and but for the grace of heaven so did I, as just moments later Vic the Brick appeared, ranting about samurais.
Assistant coaches occupy a quiet corner of Media Day, far from the halter tops and questions about air travel. That became my retreat as I meditated upon my fate and tried to collect insights and quotes for some upcoming, football-oriented features. Greg Roman of the 49ers spoke of installing his complex Pistol offense and the changes he sees in NFL strategy in years to come. It was meaningful, detailed, informative, and therapeutic. Then, Brian Billick, Ravens coach-turned-television commentator, arrived to rib his former coworker. "Can you quantify the unbelievable negative effect that working with me had on your career?" Billick asked Roman.
"Words can't quantify that," Roman replied. "You know what? I'm gonna take a sabbatical from football and think about that, and I'll have a treatise coming out."
Billick is aces when it comes to inside football, and he quickly brought his questions around to Colin Kaepernick and the Pistol offense. Perhaps the balance is possible: tomfoolery with analysis, laughing at the excesses of Media Day while still having real conversations and getting valuable, interesting information, plus jokes with words like sabbatical and treatise.
Or perhaps Billick is just as crazy as the rest of us. "You learned well, man," he said after questioning Roman. "You have to put a little more bullshit in there, though."
Student Becomes Sensei. With only moments left in Media Day, Vic the Brick wraps up one of his routines at a player's booth. He still has a duffel bag full of Poet Warrior tee-shirts. My time had arrived.
"Samurai! I demand a Poet Warrior tee-shirt, and am willing to earn one in honorable battle," I call.
The Brick sizes me up, resting his hands on my shoulders. "Get empty with me," he advised. "This is what I always had to do with Lamar Odom." I exhale and contemplate the willow in the morning breeze.
Vic the Brick orders me to find my inner energy source, then tests the mettle of my wisdom. "A painting of a rice cake …" he begins.
"…is more edible than a rice cake," I answer.
His eyebrow arch (probably; he wears sunglasses, so it is hard to be sure). "And the satisfaction?"
"He who searches for satisfaction is a fool," I answer.
He reaches into his duffel bag. "Well done," he says. "Extra large?"
My transformation was complete: no longer humorist or analyst, reporter or ironic reinterpretation of a reporter, I transcended all labels and levels of the Media Day hierarchy to become someone who babbles about rice cakes with a radio personality in a fuzzy hat. The enormity of Media Day clicked into place at that moment, the relevancy it possesses by virtue of its staggering irrelevance becoming the sound of one hand clapping against the picture of a rice cake.
A moment later, the Azteca reporter sauntered by, accompanied by a rodeo clown. Media Day was over. We did not have to go home, but we could not stay there.