A Super Bowl Preview for People Who Don’t Know Football


Once a year, an awful lot of people are forced to pretend to care about football.

Some friend or partner of theirs drags them to a Super Bowl party, and while it can be worth the hassle just to experience the expensive commercials, the unhealthy food, the surfeit of alcohol, the hilariously dumb halftime show, the Puppy Bowl, or drunk people wearing unattractive props, many people would rather spend three hours passing a stone than watch the actual game.

It’s no wonder. Football lacks the artful, accessible flow of soccer or basketball; it’s an inscrutable sport of attrition, hampered by jagged game action that’s comically brief (according to the Wall Street Journal, there’s only about 11 minutes of actual football being played during a football game, while a full 67 minutes of air time is devoted to the players standing around). The constant work stoppages, arcane terminology, and baffling penalties (e.g., “unabated to the quarterback”) make this game a pain in the ass to watch for anyone who hasn’t already been doing so for years.

This year, pay attention to the game because of the players. These guys have stories.

Sure, there’s Pittsburgh defensive end Brett Keisel, whose giant beard has its own Facebook page and Twitter feed, and Green Bay defensive back Jarrett Bush, who’s proficient at drums, tuba, and trombone in addition to being a crack snowboarder. In this game, however, it’s the marquee players who will surprise you.

TROY POLAMALU is a safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers. You may know him from his Head & Shoulders commercials, starring his long curly black hair that he hasn’t cut in eight years. Yes, he’s been tackled by the hair before, and yes, it hurts. He plays on defense, however, so he’s usually the one doing the tackling, which is wonderful to watch, because Troy is to tackling what Iggy Pop is to stage antics. He is lightning and butter and crack pipes, on fire.

When not beating the shit out of people, Troy is an on-the-ground advocate for the homeless of Pittsburgh. A while back, the G20 summit was held there, and the city leaders wanted to beautify the place for the fancy-ass visitors. They had this clever idea to shake the homeless people out from sensitive locales like the 9th street bridge, by telling the charities and services in the area not to help them as usual. One assumes the city hoped the huddled masses would move out on their own, so their P.R. department could avoid an ugly Bonus March-style smoke-out.

Troy found out about this and began regularly driving down to the 9th street bridge, distributing food, clothes, and money. Few people joined him and there was very little attention paid to this, but he probably did more to simultaneously fly in the face of the G20 and actually help people than a hundred fly-by-night anarchists do in a lifetime.

Troy is also an advocate for his ancestral homeland of Samoa, has helped with that island’s hurricane relief efforts, and arranged for several hundred thousand dollars worth of football equipment, enough for an entire generation of kids, to be donated to the schools of that country.

During the game, watch Troy as he darts around, trying to trick Aaron Rodgers into thinking that he’s coming for him. Sometimes he will be. Your spine will hurt just watching it.

AARON RODGERS, the quarterback of the Green Bay Packers, has memorized every line of “The Princess Bride.” The fact that he can quote Miracle Max on cue makes him probably my fourth favorite football player ever, but this dude is equally surprising off the field.

Never mind the hype from a few weeks back, when Aaron was caught on camera, apparently snubbing an autograph-seeking cancer patient. The cancer patient herself didn’t mind – he’s autographed a ton of stuff for her already. In fact, Aaron’s main cause is the MACC (Midwest Athletes against Childhood Cancer) for which he has donated and raised a ton of money. He also took a hundred kids from the Boys & Girls club on a surprise outing this Christmas with fifteen other Green Bay Packer players, and gave each of the kids $100 to buy presents for their families.

Aaron is from Chico, California and played superb college ball close to home at UC Berkeley. In the days leading to the 2005 NFL draft—where NFL teams pick the players they want from the college teams—he was considered, along with a guy named Alex Smith, to be one of the top two quarterbacks in the country.

However, nobody wanted him. Team after team picked other guys and passed Aaron by. Imagine you were waiting to be picked for dodgeball in gym class and with each person who got picked before you, you lost millions of dollars. That’s what Aaron went through. Alex Smith was picked first overall and got a six-year deal for $49.5 million. Aaron fell all the way to 24th, and got one-seventh of that. And then when he gets to the NFL he has to wait behind a guy named Brett Favre for three years while Brett constantly retires and un-retires. Aaron didn’t complain about any of this. He waited for his turn.

Now he’s in the damn Super Bowl for the first time, facing Troy Polamalu and a Pittsburgh front line that features Brett Keisel’s amazing beard, a 300-lb. man named Ziggy, and a fellow named James Harrison, who, even after the NFL started issuing fines for tackles that could cause concussions, has said that he doesn’t care how much he’s fined—and he’s been fined a lot—he’s going to hurt people. James Harrison has knocked people out of games before, and because Aaron Rodgers is the single most important man on the Green Bay Packers, he will try to knock Aaron out of the Super Bowl as quickly as possible.

For three hours, Aaron is going to have to look across the line of scrimmage at James Harrison up to 60 times, gunning full-steam for his face, his head, his career. Have fun storming the castle.

HINES WARD is a wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers. You will notice him because he always seems to be smiling, even when he’s tackled. The joy this man gets from adrenaline and violence is so pure and awesome that if football didn’t exist, we’d have to invent it to prevent Hines Ward from breaking into zoos and biting polar bears in half.

Born in South Korea to a Korean mom and an African-American father, Ward is one of the few players of Asian descent in the NFL, and is also an active advocate and spokesman for bi-racial youth in South Korea. He donated $1 million to create the Hines Ward Helping Hands Foundation, to help mixed-race children overcome the discrimination they often experience in that country.

On the field, he’s less sensitive. NFL players have twice voted Hines Ward to be the dirtiest player in the league. He has been fined multiple times for excessive hits. In October 2008, he hit Cincinnati Bengals linebacker Keith Rivers so hard he broke Rivers’ jaw. Not surprisingly, Ward loves to block downfield for his fellow receivers as much as he loves to catch the ball, and he’s considered to be the best in the game at that brutal and unglamorous duty.

When any Pittsburgh Steeler other than Hines Ward catches the ball, watch for Hines’s number, 86, and pay attention. It is, at that moment, the most violent and televised live thing in the world.

Even though some may prefer otherwise, we cannot ignore BEN ROETHLISBERGER, quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers. While he’s one of the best signal-callers in the game, for many fans, he’s going to be the black hat to Aaron Rodgers’ white hat this year. Ben has been, off the field, pretty much everything that gives a bad name to professional athletes.

In 2006, he got into a motorcycle accident without a helmet on. He apparently was thrown over the handlebars of his Suzuki Hayabusa and shattered a car’s windshield with his head. He did not have a valid driver’s license at the time, and later on, lied about the kind of motorcycle he was driving and other circumstances of the accident.

The effects of severe cranial trauma cannot completely explain away the civil suit that was filed against Ben in July 2009 for sexually assaulting a hotel clerk in Lake Tahoe, or the alleged sexual assault of a 20-year old coed in March 2010. After the second offense, the NFL finally decided to slap Ben on the wrist and give him a six-game suspension, which was reduced to four after he met with the commissioner and agreed to enter counseling.

Despite missing the first four games of this season, he’s helped lead the Pittsburgh Steelers to their seventh Super Bowl. The TV won’t show the signs reading “Ben Rapelisberger,” but they’ll be in the crowd, as will be legions of Steeler fans, some of whom love him unconditionally and some of whom have long since switched to wearing Ward or Polamalu jerseys while waving their Terrible Towel. For a Steeler fan, voting a straight party line is no longer required.

Conversely, the story of DONALD DRIVER, wide receiver for the Green Bay Packers, is one of the most impressive in all of sports. Growing up in abject poverty in Houston, Texas, Donald, his mother, and brother lived, at various times, in a U-Haul, out of a car, and on the streets.

As a young teen, Donald used his intelligence, natural dexterity and quick hands to become an extremely effective car thief. He sold the cars to buy drugs, which he then turned around and sold for more money.

He believes he stole up to thirty cars, and was only caught once. He had outrun the police before, but this time, he smashed into the car of an old woman as she was backing out of her driveway. He burst from the car and sprinted away, but after a few blocks he stopped, and ran back to the old woman to make sure she was okay.

She was all right, but his concern for this old woman, who he’d never seen before, cost him his lead on the police. The old woman heard them coming and told Donald to sit on her porch.

Moments later, when the cops arrived, she said that the man who hit her car had run off, and when they asked about the kid on her porch, she told them it was her grandson. When the police left, she ordered Donald into her house and she gave him the talking-to of his life.

The message he got from the old woman—that a young man with his skills and heart could be doing so much more—got through to him. Within a year, Donald had begun playing football and moved to live with his grandmother in order to attend a high school with a strong program. He went on to play at Alcorn State in Mississippi and in 1999, was drafted in the final round of the draft by the Green Bay Packers. Because of his low draft status, he was signed for a pittance by NFL standards and had virtually no chance of making the team. The Green Bay Packers already had seven other people who could play receiver on their roster. Many teams have five, total.

Also, the Packers drafted Dee Miller, a hotshot receiver from Ohio State, a much bigger school, ahead of Donald in the draft that year. Donald would have to beat Dee Miller out and a couple of veterans besides, just to wear an NFL uniform for longer than one month of his life.

Eleven years later, Donald is the Green Bay Packers all-time leader in receptions. He has been one of the most charitably active athletes in any sport, doing most of his work with Goodwill and Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin.  His Donald Driver Foundation has directly put homeless families into furnished homes and paid hospital bills for children of poor parents.

Donald is 35 years old now, and this may be the last game of his life. The Steelers may win, and end his rags-to-riches journey with a loss, and that is how football works. Still, when you see him lift his hands, catch the ball, and run for the end zone, know that this man is here because of something he once ran back to.

J. Ryan Stradal is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel Kitchens of the Great Midwest and the forthcoming The Lager Queen of Minnesota. His shorter writing has appeared in Hobart, the Wall Street Journal, Granta, the Guardian, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other places. More from this author →