American Football: Craving fulfilled by Faulk

Super Bowl XXXVI: Rams' running back combines sublime talent with a decency that promises to make him the player of the age
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The Independent Online

In the opening pages of Don DeLillo's remarkable novel Underworld a nimble black kid runs exultantly beyond the stewards and cops and leaps, Beamon-like, over the turnstiles and into a World Series seat just behind Frank Sinatra and J Edgar Hoover.

It is the decisive game. You can smell the clammy, sulphurous air and the beer suds and the hot dogs.

Times change. If he had tried it at the Superdome here tomorrow the FBI would probably have got him in his third stride. Or maybe a sniper from Delta Force. Super Bowl XXXVI between the St Louis Rams and the New England Patriots is supposed to set the mood for next week's Mardi Gras here in "Big Easy", but in the streets around a stadium surrounded by downtown skyscrapers the feeling is more of a dress rehearsal for World War III.

Combat fatigues are the prevailing fashion statement as the Secret Service chief Michael James, who is co-ordinating a security operation which involves every branch of US military and law enforcement and perhaps one day will be played by Bruce Willis, does little to downplay the potential threat to an event which used to be about as buttoned-down as a mescal-fuelled weekend in Tijuana.

Among the threats he lists are, inevitably, hijacked planes – plus pipe bombs, anthrax, and cyber-terrorism. If you haven't got the point, he adds with a relish straight out of Doctor Strangelove: "We're looking at 360 degrees; we're protecting against all potential threats, whether it's Genghis Khan and his hordes, Islamic terrorists or Billy Jim Bob."

The warning may have come a little late for Billy Jim Bob, if he was the large man in a floral shirt, draped in beads and wearing an expression of torpid bliss, being helped into the back of a paddy wagon in the French Quarter by members of the New Orleans police department.

However, if every local naturally athletic black kid is strongly advised not to follow the example of DeLillo's character, there is still the old capacity to celebrate the vibrant evidence, even in the emotional aftermath of that shocking day in New York last September, that the young and the poor can make it beyond the barriers and the turnstiles to the big show.

Indeed, Marshall Faulk, the consummately gifted running back of the St Louis Rams, is the dramatic proof that you can do better than a seat near the celebrities. You can sail beyond seats and into the action.

Faulk, the biggest reason why the Rams are so heavily favoured tomorrow, grew up in a New Orleans ghetto. He struggled to educate himself. He sold popcorn at the Superdome, though not with notable success. "I couldn't keep my eyes off the ball," he said this week to a horde of sportswriters and broadcasters.

Faulk is a marvellous player, balanced and powerful and acute in his eye for a chink of light in the defensive cover, and at a time when the nation seems to be in need of the presence of such low-key heroes he rivals Joe Andruzzi, the Patriots guard who has three brothers in the New York fire department, in catching perfectly what seems like a craving for something solid, something decent.

Something that goes a little deeper than the usual soundbite. Faulk, who is 29 and some critics' idea of the best running back in the history of the game, does not like delving too deeply into the toughness of his past. There is no Tysonesque talk of the discouraging weight of a street environment. "I had it tough, maybe," he says, "but not too tough. I don't like talking about the rags-to-riches stuff because I think this could give a lot of poor kids the wrong idea. They could see something like football or basketball or baseball as the big solution, the thing that will carry them to a new and happy life.

"Well, I know a lot of kids who have piled everything into that dream and it finished up a nightmare. If you're good at sports, great, but the odds are so heavy against making it through. So work at the other things too, that way you are sure to come out with a decent job and a decent life."

Repeatedly he is asked about the significance of his upbringing. Did that toughen him, make him the supreme athlete and competitor he is? "I grew up in an all-black housing project and went to an all-black high school – and then I went into the melting pot of the world. It was a little different, but I was open-minded. I don't think it matters where you grew up in order to have toughness... It's what you have inside. You can grow up in The Little House on the Prairie and if you have the mindset, you're just not going to quit – that's that."

Every Super Bowl has a theme. Last year it was the strident self-belief of the Baltimore Ravens, of the dominating linebacker Ray Lewis displaying his jewellery and not talking about the night he refused to co-operate with police after a brutal murder in which he was implicated – and of the big defensive lineman Tony Siragusa recalling triumphantly the crushing and injuring of an opposing quarterback. "He was down and I heard him yelling a bit," said Siragusa.

This time Faulk and his brilliant quarterback team-mate Kurt Warner are shaping the mood. It could not have been better tailored for the needs of America.

The 30-year-old Warner, who on the face of it is Faulk's only rival for tomorrow's Most Valuable Player award, has been speaking of how he has made a fortress of his opulent home beside the Mississippi. "Because of celebrity and all that it involves, it is difficult going out – so I encourage my kids to have their friends around, and we try to make our life within our own walls. It's not rejecting the world, it's trying to make sense of the kind of life you face when you're in the public eye." A devout born-again Christian, he has a message for America's times – look inward, make your own life right.

In the meantime, win your second Super Bowl in three years and nudge yourself and big Marshall towards the category of all-time gridiron performers. "I wasn't around when people like Gale Sayers and Red Grange were doing their stuff," says Warner, "but looking at Marshall Faulk, seeing his moves, his vision and his strength, I just can't imagine there ever being a better player."

The Rams coach, Mike Mart, is no less enthusiastic, saying: "Watching him on tape or television just doesn't do him justice. You have to see him in person to believe it. He has such a great stop-and-go change of direction. He can come to a dead stop and can jump into full gear within two or three steps. He is utterly remarkable in seeing holes and going through them. As at any position, when you are talking about great players, the game kind of slows down for them. It certainly does for Marshall. He is unselfish, he runs blocks and is a remarkable receiver. He has the best hands on the team. He's the whole football package. I just don't know if there has ever been anyone like him."

You may wonder why the Patriots are bothering to penetrate the Superdome militarised zone. Well, naturally they have their hopes. They have a sassy 24-year-old quarterback Tom Brady, who has recovered from injury and is too young to really know fear. They have a wide receiver Troy Brown who, after being turned down more times than Billy Jim Bob, has finally made into the big league with a spirit which was summed up the other day by his former high-school coach. He said: "Everybody kept telling Troy to forget it, but we tired because he just didn't know how to quit. Playing National Football League was never discussed. We said he should think about education." Such elements fused in a stunning defeat of the Pittsburgh Steelers last weekend, but the rational view is that the Patriots have now stepped out of their class and into the shadow of Marshall Faulk.

As the helicopters hover above, as the fighter planes draw the boundaries of the ordered no-fly zone and the security snipers take their positions, it is, heaven knows, an influence as benign as it is impressive.

Faulk, plainly, is a player of his peculiar time – and the ages. At one point this week he was questioned about his reading of the Patriots defense, and how he thought they would counter him. There was talk of decoy plays, of one tactical subterfuge or another, and soon enough there was weariness on the face of the great man.

"As I see it," he said, "it is pretty basic. They know I'm going to get the ball. I know I'm going to get it. So it comes down to one thing: may the best man win." In the disturbing climate of Super Bowl XXXVI an uneasy America can only say Amen.