American Football: Hard yards down in the Big Easy
Battered New Orleans welcomes back the Super Bowl and two teams who have their own stories to tell
The Super Bowl is back in New Orleans for the first time since Hurricane Katrina devastated the city in 2005, and tonight's game promises to be as rich a gumbo as any served on Bourbon Street. If the meeting of the Baltimore Ravens and San Francisco 49ers, neither of whom have tasted defeat in a Super Bowl, is as colourful as the stories of many of the protagonists, then this could be one of the great clashes.
Both teams have cast off reputations as defense-oriented outfits under head coaches who happen to be brothers, a Super Bowl first. Jim Harbaugh of the 49ers, the younger by a little over a year, is the more introverted, but he comes alive on the touchline. In two years he has transformed the fortunes of the team, and this season took the bold step of replacing his quarterback Alex Smith with a 25-year-old prospect named Colin Kaepernick, a cocky, tattooed second-year pro who can run with the ball as well as he can throw it, and makes only his 10th start tonight.
He is not exactly Joe Montana, who led the 49ers to four of their five previous Super Bowl victories, but Harbaugh has complete confidence in him. "This is Colin's time," he said. "I believed he was the best player in the 2011 college draft. He's worked extremely hard and he's done a tremendous job."
He will be up against one of the most uncompromising and experienced rearguards in the Ravens, coached by Harbaugh's elder brother John, whose relaxed style plays well with the cast of characters from Baltimore. They include Terrell Suggs, the trash-talking linebacker who called the defeated New England Patriots "arrogant pricks" after the AFC Championship game, a repeat of the 2011 game that ended in heartbreaking defeat for Baltimore.
In contrast there is the strong, silent Michael Oher, the homeless youth who was adopted and brought up by a middle-class family, the Tuohys, a story that became the book The Blind Side, then a movie of the same name for which Sandra Bullock, who played Leigh Anne Tuohy, won the best actress Oscar in 2010.
Just as worthy of the Hollywood treatment would have been the life of wide receiver Torrey Smith, who brought up his six younger siblings while his single mother went out to work. He is called the Microwave Kid for his cooking technique.
And the Ravens' ringmaster is Ray Lewis, one of the most controversial yet revered figures in the sport. After facing murder charges in 2000 and pleading guilty to obstruction of justice, he turned to religion and charity work while losing none of the competitive edge that made him one of the most feared defensive players. His No 52 is one of the best-known shirts in American sport.
Lewis even found time to visit the UK last summer to work with the London Ravens, a team who give gang members an alternative to life on the streets, before returning for his last season in the NFL. Now he stands to add another Super Bowl ring to the one he won in 2001, a year after the double stabbing that clouds his legacy.
But the 49ers have their own stories. Patrick Willis, who grew up picking cotton in Tennessee and improving his speed by running away from snakes, is a self-styled "cold killer". Randy Moss, who described himself this week as the best wide receiver in NFL history, has played for outstanding Minnesota Vikings and New England Patriots teams but never won a Super Bowl. Frank Gore has been one of the most consistent running backs in the league over many years and now has a supporting cast worthy of his talents.
Where will the game be won or lost? The secret weapon could be Joe Flacco, the Ravens quarterback who has flown under the radar while Kaepernick grabbed the headlines. Lewis rates him as among the best.
"I think Joe has a great advantage and a head start to really becoming that next true, true leader," he said. "He kind of has to come out of his quiet shell a little bit, but outside of that, Joe is definitely a great candidate for it" – as he showed against the usually fearsome Patriots in their New England stronghold.
New Orleans is celebrating the vote of confidence given by the NFL in awarding the city its 10th Super Bowl. In some areas the aftermath of the flooding that followed Katrina is still very visible, with many houses still to be repaired and some areas yet to see more than 60 per cent of their original population return.
But a $14.45 billion (£9.2bn) flood defence system, paid for by the government, should ensure that level of devastation is not repeated in the Big Easy. The Superdome itself, which was used as a refugee centre, has been refurbished at a cost of $350m (£223m). If the game lives up to its promise, the celebrations on Bourbon Street will be riotous.
"I'm delighted to see my beloved San Francisco 49ers back in the Super Bowl. I have been very impressed with the way they have handled the switch Jim Harbaugh made at quarterback. It was risky to bench Alex Smith in favour of Colin Kaepernick, but Kaepernick has been sensational. In terms of arm strength he is a different beast, and amazingly quick for a big man."
Former England rugby union captain and coach Martin Johnson
"My love of the San Francisco 49ers all started when my nan and granddad went to San Francisco and got me a 49ers cap – that was when they were really good in the Nineties. I've been out to watch them live and saw them play at the New York Jets this season. I have a feeling the 49ers will win. They are a well-rounded team and in Kaepernick they have a game-breaking quarterback to go with a solid defence."
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