American Football: The Super Bowl dedicated to real heroes

'Suddenly,' Andruzzi says, 'I realised what real courage was. It wasn't me playing football. It was my brother Jim going up a set of stairs'
Click to follow
The Independent Online

In the really old days, before the fall of the Iron Curtain, the joke was that if the Soviets chose to attack they should do it on the last Sunday in January, the day assigned, immutably it seemed, to Super Bowl.

They would find America sprawled on a couch and rendered near insensible by cold beer and the warmest of national hubris. Now, five months after the event in New York which is universally referred to simply as 9-11, you do not joke about invasions.

Super Bowl XXXVl this Sunday is the first to be played in February because in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, the most sports-obsessed of nations suspended its appetite for the fantasy-drama of the gridiron. The season was pushed back, along with so many other certainties, for a week. It is no doubt too soon to know quite how deep was the scourging of the American psyche in that week of mingled shock and disbelief, but here even in such rollicking watering holes as the Old Absinthe House on Bourbon Street you have a sense that Sunday's big game between the St Louis Rams and the New England Patriots will carry an unfamiliarity that goes way beyond a mere change in the sporting calendar.

Massive security – "We're at war and we've already seen an attack on this country," says local Secret Service chief Michael James – will inevitably cut down on the traditionally raucous bombast, but we are not really talking about a sobriety imposed by fighter planes in the sky and a perimeter around the Superdome of eight-foot fences, concrete barricades and thousands of armed police and security men.

We are discussing the mood of an event which ever since it was born in the middle of America's Vietnam agony in 1967 has prided itself on its ability to provoke extremes of national pride – and a raw celebration of the military power with which the game has associated itself so eagerly down the years. Last year in Tampa a Stealth bomber flew eerily over the stadium before the kick off and the guest of honour was "Stormin' Norman" Schwarzkopf, the hero of the Gulf War.

Last year the most publicised player was Ray Lewis, a ferocious linebacker of Baltimore Ravens who wore diamond ear-rings. This year it is Joe Andruzzi of the Patriots, an offensive lineman who stands 6ft 3in, weighs 22st 5lb, and has the inherent glamour of a meat porter.

There is another, more pertinent difference. Lewis came to last year's Super Bowl under the cloud of a controversy created when he was incriminated in a brutal murder outside a night-club in the build-up to the previous year's Super Bowl in Atlanta.

Andruzzi comes to New Orleans as the brother of three New York fireman, one of whom was ordered out of the lobby of the first tower seconds before it collapsed. The other two worked at Ground Zero for days with only snatches of sleep. Lewis refused to discuss anything but football. Andruzzi talks about life beyond the touchline – to the point of tears.

For many years the Dallas Cowboys were known as America's team. On Sunday Joe Andruzzi will be America's player.

If the sentiment is heavy, it is not forced by Andruzzi. But in response to questions he talks willingly about those few dreadful hours in New York which changed, irrevocably he believes, his hero status as the huge-earning football star of a family fathered by a New York policeman. "Suddenly," he says, "I realised what real courage was. It wasn't me playing football. It was my brother Jim going up a set of stairs when everyone else was coming down, and it was Billy and Marc working to reclaim bodies from Ground Zero even as they heard the tremors all around them, and, as they said, coming away each day smelling of death. That has got to make you think about all our values.

"It made made me think about the rewards in life. I saw my brothers, and my father, in a new light. I saw what they did for other people, how much excitement they got from their jobs even though they drove beat-down cars and always had to look for extra work so they could send their kids to school and how they did it without ever complaining."

Andruzzi's first day back on his job was against the New York Jets at Foxboro stadium in Boston. His father and brothers came on to the field with him for a ceremony mourning the victims of 11 September. They wore Patriot shirts, bearing Joe's number, 63, over the uniforms of the New York police and fire departments. Joe says he will always remember the applause given to his family. "I'd never heard anything like it," he reports. "It wasn't loud. It had a soft, but very deep quality. I'll never forget that."

In another Super Bowl, and without the family connections, Joe Andruzzi might have earned a fleeting mention for his stalwart work in the Patriot offensive line. He might have been praised for his over-achievement, the fact that despite three bouts of surgery on knee injuries he fought his way back from the boundaries of the professional game while playing for the Scottish Claymores in the European League and is now an impressive cog in a team which against heavy odds last week upset the formidable Pittsburgh Steelers. But, in normal circumstances, guards do not get headlines. If they are lucky, the quarterback they protect all season takes them out for an end-of-season dinner and perhaps slips a gift under their napkins. Walter Payton, a legendary running back, explained why he presented his offensive linemen with Rolex watches at the end of one memorable season. "I just wanted to thank them for giving up bits of their body on my behalf."

That was the kind of football imagery which sailed beyond inspection before 9-11. As did the behaviour of Super Bowl stars like the late John Matusak, of the Oakland Raiders, and Frenchy Fuqua, of the Steelers. In 1981 Matusak – who earlier in his career had told a highway patrolman "I like to be prepared" when questioned about the magnum revolver and machete in his glove compartment – came late to an early morning press conference. He explained that the barman in Bourbon Street had been slow to call a taxi. In 1976, Fuqua paraded through the French quarter wearing a skintight lavender jumpsuit, full length pink cape, white musketeer hat with plumes and patent leather shoes with goldfish in the built-up fibreglass heels. Eventually, Fuqua abandoned the shoes because of protests that the goldfish kept dying.

Given time, such irreverence may re-emerge but plainly levity is low down on the agenda of Super Bowl XXXVl . It could hardly be otherwise in a game which believes so ferociously that it represents the heartbeat of the nation. Certainly the resurrection of the old voodoo queen Marie Laveau, a staple of the hype preceding the eight previous Super Bowls staged in New Orleans, is conspicuously absent this time. The local theory, allegedly, is that the spirit of Madame Laveau, aggrieved that her tomb was disturbed by the building of the Superdome – it is said to have occupied what today is the middle of the 50-yard line – rises up and causes all kinds of trouble, not least the regular imposition of a "blow-out"; a one-sided game. Another voodoo coup, it is claimed, came when a Super Bowl extra in the half-time show, blew off several of his fingers while helping to re-enact the British defeat in the Battle of New Orleans.

Reproducing war is, understandably enough, not a high priority on Sunday's menu – at least until a defensive lineman sniffs the blood of the opposing quarterback.

As the security man said, America believes it is in a state of war – and for the first time since the Civil War – on its own soil. Still, sport must go on after its unprecedented weekend off last September. That it has reasserted its role in the building of national morale was perhaps confirmed the other day when a spokesman for the American special forces in Afghanistan revealed that one servicemen had been given the task of reporting to units around Kandahar the day's sports scores. The appointment was explained cogently enough. "How the hell," asked the military man, "can a guy defend democracy when he doesn't know if the New York Knicks beat the points spread?"

So often the allusions of sport overlap into real American life. When a desperate President attempts risky legislation he is throwing a Hail Mary pass. When he mis-speaks in a State of the Union address he fumbles the ball. When he wins glowing headlines he hits a home run. Not so regularly does a Joe Andruzzi show up for the game with his shoulder pads in one hand and a different kind of reality in the other.

What he knows though – and what he is telling America – is that somewhere along the eternal season of sport a proper scale of values may have been lost. He suggests the MVP – most valuable player – in the Superdome on Sunday will not be an All-American quarterback like Kurt Warner of the Rams, but his own battered brother Jim.

When Jim saw his football star brother Joe for the first time after his escape from the tower he measured the margin of his survival between his thumb and forefinger – and then fell into his arms. Three hundred and fifty fireman died on 9-11, and Jim Andruzzi says about a hundred of them were his friends and he probably knew them all by face. Maybe in these circumstances it is understandable that Joe is not saying that winning a Super Bowl would be the greatest moment in his life. As it happens, if he did, America, for at least once, would not be listening.