We were watching the Super Bowl, dripping with drama, at my house. The New England Patriots had overcome a 28-3 deficit and were about to beat the Atlanta Falcons. The crowd was going bonkers. The announcers were running out of superlatives to describe Tom Brady.
I couldn’t take my mind off the poor guys in the press box, on deadline, who had just been thrown one of journalism’s nastiest curve balls. The Super Bowl always is one of the most difficult deadlines in the business. I covered nearly 30 of them. I know.
It starts early, but it goes on and on and on and on. Then, you have to jockey with about 2,000 or so other reporters for interviews. And then you have to write. That’s why Super Bowl reporters often silently pray for a blowout. You can get started with your writing during the game.
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The writers in Houston had that much-preferred blowout — and then they didn’t. They had to switch gears entirely. And they did not have much time. Yes, I know: Nobody really cares except, well, the guys writing the stories and columns.
In sports writing, we call him the deadline monkey. When deadlines are the most brutal, the deadline monkey will jump on your back, grab you around the throat and won’t let go. It makes for some stories behind the stories, stories until today I have never written.
Here are three of my worst struggles with the deadline monkey:
Super Bowl XXXII
This was Super Bowl XXXII at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego when John Elway won his first of two in a row, out-dueling Brett Favre in a simply marvelous game. Favre doubled Elway in passing yardage and threw for three touchdowns but lost, 31-24. Obviously, with me being from Mississippi, Favre was a major part of my story. There were at least another 700 reporters who wanted to talk to him as well.
We waited and waited and then he appeared behind one of those microphones underneath the stadium. A TV cameraman in front of me decided he couldn’t wait and swung his camera around to leave. He caught me right between the eyes, breaking my glasses and cutting me just above the nose. I am fairly certain I was concussed. So when I got back to the press box, I couldn’t see, could barely think and had 20 minutes to write 750 words. Try it some time. I had to pause from time to time to wipe the blood off my computer. But that wasn’t the worst.
This was an LSU-Ole Miss football game at Baton Rouge back in 2004, one that LSU won in overtime 27-24. Night games that go overtime are never fun. This one may have been the worst.
We stopped and ate oysters on the way to Tiger Stadium. To make a long story short, I have eaten raw oysters maybe 10,000 times in my life. This was the one time I had a reaction.
Midway through the third quarter, I could feel my lips growing. Worse, I could feel my tongue growing. It was getting harder and harder to swallow. I tapped my cohort on the shoulder and when he turned and looked at me, I saw the horror in his eyes. I apparently looked as weird as I felt. He asked what was wrong. I tried to answer but no words would come out. I scribbled out a note... “Oysters? Call the office and tell them there might not be a column.”
I remember having this thought: “Well, if I die up here, at least they can’t fire me for missing deadline.”
But whatever it was, it went away as gradually as it came. We made deadline. The postgame beer tasted even better than usual. I swallowed it just fine.
This was basketball, back in the dark ages before computers.
We were at the Coast Coliseum in Biloxi covering Alcorn and Mississippi State. We worked on something called a “portabubble,” which was a cross between typewriters and computers. They were as dependable as a freshman point guard. Good ol’ Davey Whitney’s Alcorn Braves were coming from behind to beat State. I was furiously typing on my “bubble.” Every time the crowd would roar, which was everything few seconds, my machine went berserk, gushing nonsensical letters across my screen. It was maddening.
Finally, I had enough. I picked up my portabubble and held it over my head. I don’t know if I was going to slam it on the press table or heave it to mid-court. It was a heat-of-the-moment thing. I do know that the portabubble was not long for this world. And then, just like that, it was gone. I looked back, my friend and cohort, the late, great Orley Hood, had snatched it out of my hands just before I did something that surely would have cost me my job and/or landed me in jail.
“Some day,” O said, “you will thank me.”
Thank you, Orley.
Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.