domingo, 2 de febrero de 2014

Fear and Loathing at the Super Bowl

". . . and whosoever was not found written into the book of life was cast into the lake of
fire. . ." -- Revelations 20:15

This was the theme of the sermon I delivered off the 20th floor balcony of the
Hyatt Regency in Houston on the morning of Super Bowl VIII. It was just before dawn, as I
recall, when the urge to speak came on me. Earlier that day I had found -- on the tile
floor of the Men's Room on the hotel mezzanine -- a religious comic book titled "A Demon's
Nightmare," and it was from the text of this sleazy tract that I chose the words of my
The Houston Hyatt Regency -- like others designed by architect John Portman in
Atlanta and San Francisco -- is a stack of 1000 rooms, built around a vast lobby at least
30 stories high, with a revolving "spindletop" bar on the roof. The whole center of the
building is a tower of acoustical space. You can walk out of any room and look over the
indoor balcony (20 floors down, in my case) at the palm-shrouded, wood and naugahyde maze
of the bar/lounge on the lobby floor.
Closing time in Houston is 2:00 AM. There are after-hours bars, but the Hyatt
Regency is not one of them. So -- when I was seized by the urge to deliver my sermon at
dawn -- there were only about 20 ant-sized people moving around in the lobby far below.
Earlier, before the bar closed, the whole ground floor had been jammed with
drunken sportswriters, hard-eyed hookers, wandering geeks and hustlers (of almost every
persuasion), and a legion of big and small gamblers from all over the country who roamed
through the drunken, randy crowd -- as casually as possible -- with an eye to picking up a
last-minute sucker bet from some poor bastard half-mad on booze and willing to put some
money, preferably four or five big ones, on "his boys."
The spread, in Houston, was Miami by six, but by midnight on Saturday almost every
one of the two-thousand or so drunks in the lobby of the Regency -- official headquarters
and media vortex for this eighth annual Super Bowl -- was absolutely sure about what was
going to happen when the deal went down on Sunday, about two miles east of the hotel on
the fog-soaked artificial turf of Rice University stadium.
Ah. . . but wait! Why are we talking about gamblers here? Or thousands of hookers
and drunken sportswriters jammed together in a seething mob in the lobby of a Houston
And what kind of sick and twisted impulse would cause a professional sportswriter
to deliver a sermon from the Book of Revelations off his hotel balcony on the dawn of
Super Sunday?
I had not planned a sermon for that morning. I had not even planned to be in
Houston, for that matter. . . But now, looking back on that outburst, I see a certain
inevitability about it. Probably it was a crazed and futile effort to somehow explain the
extremely twisted nature of my relationship with God, Nixon and the National Football
League: The three had long since become inseparable in my mind, a sort of unholy trinity
that had caused me more trouble and personal anguish in the past few months than Ron
Ziegler, Hubert Humphrey and Peter Sheridan all together had caused me in a year on the
campaign trail.
Or perhaps it had something to do with my admittedly deep-seated need to have
public revenge on Al Davis, general manager of the Oakland Raiders. . . Or maybe an
overweening desire to confess that I had been wrong, from the start, to have ever agreed
with Richard Nixon about anything, and especially pro football.
In any case, it was apparently something I'd been cranking myself up to deliver
for quite a while. . . and, for reasons I still can't be sure of, the eruption finally
occurred on the dawn of Super Sunday.
I howled at the top of my lungs for almost 30 minutes, raving and screeching about
all those who would soon be cast into the lake of fire, for a variety of low crimes,
misdemeanors and general ugliness that amounted to a sweeping indictment of almost
everybody in the hotel at that hour.
Most of them were asleep when I began speaking, but as a Doctor of Divinity and an
ordained minister in the Church of The New Truth, I knew in my heart that I was merely a
vessel -- a tool, as it were -- of some higher and more powerful voice.
For eight long and degrading days I had skulked around Houston with all the other
professionals, doing our jobs -- which was actually to do nothing at all except drink all
the free booze we could pour into our bodies, courtesy of the National Football League,
and listen to an endless barrage of some of the lamest and silliest swill ever uttered by
man or beast. . . and finally, on Sunday morning about six hours before the opening
kickoff, I was racked to the point of hysteria by a hellish interior conflict.
I was sitting by myself in the room, watching the wind & weather clocks on the TV
set, when I felt a sudden and extremely powerful movement at the base of my spine. Mother
of Sweating Jesus! I thought. What is it -- a leech? Are there leeches in this goddamn
hotel, along with everything else? I jumped off the bed and began clawing at the small of
my back with both hands. The thing felt huge, maybe eight or nine pounds, moving slowly up
my spine toward the base of my neck.
I'd been wondering, all week, why I was feeling so low and out of sorts. . . but
it never occurred to me that a giant leech had been sucking blood out of the base of my
spine all that time; and now the goddamn thing was moving up towards the base of my brain,
going straight for the medulla. . . and as a professional sportswriter I knew that if the
bugger ever reached my medulla I was done for.
It was at this point that serious conflict set in, because I realized -- given the
nature of what was coming up my spine and the drastic effect I knew it would have, very
soon, on my sense of journalistic responsibility -- that I would have to do two things
immediately: First, deliver the sermon that had been brewing in my brain all week long,
and then rush back into the room and write my lead for the Super Bowl story. . .
Or maybe write my lead first, and then deliver the sermon. In any case, there was
no time to lose. The thing was about a third of the way up my spine now, and still moving
at good speed. I jerked on a pair of L.L. Bean stalking shorts and ran out on the balcony
to a nearby ice machine.
Back in the room I filled a glass full of ice and Wild Turkey, then began flipping
through the pages of "A Demon's Nightmare" for some kind of spiritual springboard to get
the sermon moving. I had already decided -- about midway in the ice-run -- that I had
adequate time to address the sleeping crowd and also crank out a lead before that goddamn
bloodsucking slug reached the base of my brain -- or, even worse, if a sharp dose of Wild
Turkey happened to slow the thing down long enough to rob me of my final excuse for
missing the game entirely, like last year. . .
What? Did my tongue slip there? My fingers? Or did I just get a fine professional
hint from my old buddy, Mr. Natural?
Indeed. When the going gets tough, the tough get going. John Mitchell said that --
shortly before he quit his job and left Washington at 90 miles an hour in a
chauffeur-driven limousine.
I have never felt close to John Mitchell, but on that rotten morning in Houston I
came as close as I ever will; because he was, after all, a pro. . . and so, alas, was I.
Or at least I had a fistful of press badges that said I was.
And it was this bedrock sense of professionalism, I think, that quickly solved my
problem. . . which, until that moment when I recalled the foul spectre of Mitchell, had
seemed to require a frantic decision between either delivering my sermon or writing my
lead, in the space of an impossibly short time.
When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.
Who said that?
I suspect it was somebody from the Columbia Journalism Review, but I have no
proof. . . and it makes no difference anyway. There is a bond, among pros, that needs no
definition. Or at least it didn't on that Sunday morning in Houston, for reasons that
require no further discussion at this point in time. . . because it suddenly occurred to
me that I had already written the lead for this year's Super Bowl game; I wrote it last
year in Los Angeles, and a quick rip through my fat manila folder of clips labeled
"Football '73" turned it up as if by magic.
I jerked it out of the file, and retyped it on a fresh page slugged: "Super
Bowl/Houston '74." The only change necessary was the substitution of "Minnesota Vikings"
for "Washington Redskins." Except for that, the lead seemed just as adequate for the game
that would begin in about six hours as it was for the one that I missed in Los Angeles in
January of '73.
"The precision-jackhammer attack of the Miami Dolphins stomped the balls off the
Minnesota Vikings today by stomping and hammering with one precise jack-thrust after
another up the middle, mixed with pinpoint-precision passes into the flat and numerous
hammer-jack stops around both ends. . ."
The jangling of the telephone caused me to interrupt my work. I jerked it off the
hook, saying nothing to whoever was on the other end, and began flashing the hotel
operator. When she finally cut in I spoke very calmly. "Look," I said. "I'm a very
friendly person and a minister of the gospel, to boot -- but I thought I left instructions
down there to put no calls -- NO CALLS, GODDAMNIT! -- through to this room, and especially
not now in the middle of this orgy. . . I've been here eight days and nobody's called me
yet. Why in hell would they start now?. . . What? Well, I simply can't accept that kind of
flimsy reasoning, operator. Do you believe in Hell? Are you ready to speak with Saint
Peter?. . . Wait a minute now, calm down. . . I want to be sure you understand one thing
before I get back to my business; I have some people here who need help. . . But I want
you to know that God is Holy! He will not allow sin in his presence! The Bible says:
'There is none righteous. No, not one. . . For all have sinned and come short of the glory
of God.' That's from the book of Romans, young lady. . ."
The silence at the other end of the line was beginning to make me nervous. But I
could feel the sap rising, so I decided to continue my sermon from the balcony. . . and I
suddenly realized that somebody was beating on my door. Jesus god, I thought, it's the
manager; they've come for me at last.
But it was a TV reporter from Pittsburgh, raving drunk and demanding to take a
shower. I jerked him into the room. "Nevermind the goddamn shower," I said. "Do you
realize what I have on my spine?" He stared at me, unable to speak. "A giant leech," I
said. "It's been there for eight days, getting fatter and fatter with blood."
He nodded slowly as I led him over to the phone. "I hate leeches," he muttered.
"That's the least of our problems," I said. "Room service won't send any beer up
until noon, and all the bars are closed. . . I have this Wild Turkey, but I think it's too
heavy for the situation we're in."
"You're right," he said. "I got work to do. The goddamn game's about to start. I
need a shower."
"Me too," I said. "But I have some work to do first, so you'll have to make the
"Call?" He slumped into a chair in front of the window, staring out at the thick
grey mist that had hung on the town for eight days -- except now, as Super Sunday dawned,
it was thicker and wetter than ever.
I gave him the phone: "Call the manager," I said. "Tell him you're Howard Cosell
and you're visiting up here with a minister in 2003; we're having a private prayer
breakfast and we need two fifths of his best red wine, with a box of saltine crackers."
He nodded unhappily. "Hell, I came here for a shower. Who needs the wine?"
"It's important," I said. "You make the call while I go outside and get started."
He shrugged and dialed "0" while I hurried out to the balcony, clearing my throat
for an opening run at James 2:19:
"Beware!" I shouted, "for the Devils also believe, and tremble!"
I waited for a moment, but there was no reply from the lobby, 20 floors down -- so
I tried Ephesians 6:12, which seemed more appropriate:
"For we wrestle not," I screamed, "against flesh and blood -- but against
principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world -- and,
yes -- against spiritual wickedness in high places!"
Still there was no response except the booming echoes of my own voice. . . but the
thing on my spine was moving with new vigor now, and I sensed there was not much time. All
movement in the lobby had ceased. They were all standing still down there -- maybe 20 or
30 people. . . but were they listening? Could they hear?
I couldn't be sure. The acoustics of these massive lobbies are not predictable. I
knew, for instance, that a person sitting in a room on the 11th floor, with the door open,
could hear -- with unnerving clarity -- the sound of a cocktail glass shattering on the
floor of the lobby. It was also true that almost every word of Gregg Allman's
"Multi-Colored Lady" played at top volume on a dual-speaker Sony TC-126 in an open-door
room on the 20th floor could be heard in the NFL press room on the hotel mezzanine. . .
but it was hard to be sure of the timbre and carrying-power of my own voice in this
cavern; it sounded, to me, like the deep screaming of a bull elk in the rut. . . but there
was no way to know, for sure, if I was really getting through.
"Discipline!" I bellowed. "Remember Vince Lombardi!" I paused to let that one sink
in -- waiting for applause, but none came. "Remember George Metesky!" I shouted. "He had
Nobody down in the lobby seemed to catch that one, although I sensed the first
stirrings of action on the balconies just below me. It was almost time for the Free
Breakfast in the Imperial Ballroom downstairs, and some of the early-rising sportswriters
seemed to be up and about. Somewhere behind me a phone was ringing, but I paid no
attention. It was time, I felt, to bring it all together. . . my voice was giving out, but
despite the occasional dead spots and bursts of high-pitched wavering, I grasped the
railing of the balcony and got braced for some flat-out raving:
"Revelations, Twenty-fifteen!" I screamed. "Say Hallelujah! Yes! Say Hallelujah!"
People were definitely responding now. I could hear their voices, full of
excitement -- but the acoustics of the place made it impossible to get a good fix on the
cries that were bounding back and forth across the lobby. Were they saying "Hallelujah"?
"Four more years!" I shouted. "My friend General Haig has told us that the Forces
of Darkness are now in control of the Nation -- and they will rule for four more years!" I
paused to sip my drink, then I hit it again: "And Al Davis has told us that whosoever was
not found written in the book of life was cast into the lake of fire!"
I reached around behind me with my free hand, slapping at a spot between my
shoulder blades to slow the thing down.
"How many of you will be cast into the lake of fire in the next four years? How
many will survive? I have spoken with General Haig, and --"
At this point I was seized by both arms and jerked backwards, spilling my drink
and interrupting the climax of my sermon. "You crazy bastard!" a voice screamed. "Look
what you've done! The manager just called. Get back in the room and lock the fucking door!
He's going to bust us!"
It was the TV man from Pittsburgh, trying to drag me back from my pulpit. I
slipped out of his grasp and returned to the balcony. "This is Super Sunday!" I screamed.
"I want every one of you worthless bastards down in the lobby in ten minutes so we can
praise God and sing the national anthem!"
At this point I noticed the TV man sprinting down the hall toward the elevators,
and the sight of him running caused something to snap in my brain. "There he goes!" I
shouted. "He's headed for the lobby! Watch out! It's Al Davis. He has a knife!"
I could see people moving on all the balconies now, and also down in the lobby.
Then, just before I ducked back in my room, I saw one of the glass-walled elevators
starting down, with a single figure inside it. . . he was the most visible man in the
building; a trapped and crazy animal descending slowly -- in full view of everybody from
the busboys in the ground-floor coffee-shop to Jimmy the Greek on the balcony above me --
to certain captivity by that ugly crowd at the bottom.
I watched for a moment, then hung the DO NOT DISTURB sign on my doorknob and
double-locked the door. That elevator, I knew, would be empty when it got to the lobby.
There were at least five floors, on the way down, where he could jump out and bang on a
friendly door for safe refuge. . . and the crowd in the lobby had not seen him clearly
enough, through the tinted-glass wall of the elevator, to recognize him later on.
And there was not much time for vengeance, anyway, on the odd chance that anyone
It had been a dull week, even by sportswriters' standards, and now the day of the
Big Game was finally on us. Just one more free breakfast, one more ride, and by nightfall
the thing would be over.
The first media-bus was scheduled to leave the hotel for the stadium at 10:30,
four hours before kickoff, so I figured that gave me some time to relax and act human. I
filled the bathtub with hot water, plugged the tape recorder with both speakers into a
socket right next to the tub, and spent the next two hours in a steam-stupor, listening to
Rosalie Sorrels and Doug Sahm, chewing idly on a small slice of Mr. Natural, and reading
the Cocaine Papers of Sigmund Freud.
Around noon I went downstairs to the Imperial Ballroom to read the morning papers
over the limp dregs of NFL's free breakfast, then I stopped at the free bar for a few
bloody marys before wandering outside to catch the last bus for the stadium -- the CBS
special -- complete with more bloody marys, screwdrivers and a roving wagon-meister who
seemed to have everything under control.
On the bus to the stadium I made a few more bets on Miami. At that point I was
picking up everything I could get, regardless of the points. It had been a long and
jangled night, but the two things that needed to be done before game-time -- my sermon and
my lead -- were already done, and the rest of the day looked easy: Just try to keep out of
trouble and stay straight enough to collect on all my bets.
The consensus among the 1600 or so sportswriters in town favored Miami by almost
two to one. . . but there are only a handful of sportswriters in this country with enough
sense to pour piss out of their own boots, and by Saturday night there was an obvious
drift among the few "smart" ones to Minnesota, with a seven-point cushion. Paul Zimmerman
of the New York Post, author of A Thinking Man's Guide to Pro Football and the
sportswriting fraternity's scaled-down answer to the Washington Post's political guru
David Broder, had organized his traditional pressroom betting pool -- where any
sportswriter who felt up to it could put a dollar in the pot and predict the final score
(in writing, on the pressroom bulletin board, for all the world to see). . . and whoever
came closest would pick up a thousand or so dollars.
Or at least that was the theory. But in reality there were only about 400 writers
willing to risk a public prediction on the outcome of a game that -- even to an amateur
like me -- was so obvious that I took every bet I could get against the Vikings,
regardless of the spread. As late as 10:30 on Sunday morning I was calling bookies on both
coasts, doubling and tripling my bets with every point I could get from five to seven. . .
and by 2:35 on Sunday afternoon, five minutes after the kickoff, I knew I was home free.
Moments later, when the Dolphins drove the length of the field for another
touchdown, I began collecting money. The final outcome was painfully clear less than
halfway through the first quarter-- and shortly after that, Sport Magazine editor Dick
Schapp reached over my shoulder in the press section and dropped two bills -- a five and a
twenty -- in my lap.
I smiled back at him. "Jesus," I said. "Are you giving up already? This game is
far from over, my man. Your people are only 21 points down, and we still have a whole half
to go."
He shook his head sadly.
"You're not counting on a second-half rally?" I asked, pocketing his money.
He stared at me, saying nothing. . . then he rolled his eyes up toward the soupy
mist above the stadium where the Goodyear Blimp was hovering, almost invisible in the fog.
When I began this doom-struck story many months ago, the idea was to follow one
team all the way to the Super Bowl and, in the process, try to document the alleged -- or
at least Nixonian -- similarities between pro football and politics. The problem, at that
time, was to decide which team to follow. It had to be one with a good chance of going all
the way, and also a team I could get along with over an extended period of time.
That was in early November, and the list of possibilities included about half the
League, but, I narrowed it down to the four teams where I already knew some of the
players: Los Angeles, Miami, Washington and Oakland. . . and after many days of brooding I
chose Oakland.
There were two main factors involved: 1) I had already made a large bet, at 8-1
odds, on Oakland to go all the way -- as opposed to a 4-1 bet on the Redskins and 2-1
against Minnesota. . . and 2) When I checked with Dave Burgin, a former San Francisco
Examiner and Washington Star-News sports editor, he said there were only two teams in the
whole League flakey enough for me to identify with in any kind of personal or human way:
One was Pittsburgh and the other was Oakland.
Well. . . it is three months later now, and the question that still haunts me, is,
which jail, morgue or asylum would I be in today if I'd happened to pick one of the other
Even now -- almost 2000 miles and two months removed from the Raider headquarters
in Oakland -- I still want to reach for an icepick every time I see a football. . . and my
only consolation, looking back on that nightmare, is that I might have decided to "cover"
the Dallas Cowboys. Just before talking to Burgin, in fact, I read a savage novel called
North Dallas Forty, by ex-Cowboy flanker Pete Gent, and it had cranked up my interest in
both Dallas and the Cowboys enough so that I was right on the brink of dumping Oakland and
heading for Texas. . .
Fortunately, I was shrewd enough to choose Oakland -- a decision that resulted,
less than three weeks after I made it, in a series of personal and professional disasters
ranging from massive slander and a beating by stadium-cops outside the Raider dressing
room, to total banishment from the field, locker room, press box, and for all practical
purposes -- because of the dark assumptions that would inevitably be made about any player
seen with me in public -- from any bar, restaurant, zoo or shotgun store in the Bay Area
frequented by any Raider players.
The reasons for all this are still not entirely clear -- or maybe they are, and I
still can't grasp the real meaning of what happened. Perhaps it was merely a case of the
chickens coming home to roost, accompanied by three giant condors...

From Hunter S. Thompson, "Fear and Loathing at the Superbowl"
Rolling Stone, Feb 15, 1973