I led the Miami Dolphins into battle against the St. Louis Rams last Sunday by being the first in line to sprint across the windy Sun Life Stadium field, arms stretched and locked, as I carried the American flag.
Forget that I was outrun by the Dolphins' mascot, T.D., who caught up to me midfield and zoomed past in front of a crowd of 50,000 cheering fans.
The Dolphins won 17-14 and improved their record to 3-3. I felt like I helped, along with the other members of the Fins Force, a band of testosterone-pumped fans paid to cheer on the Dolphins from the field and work the hometown crowds into a frenzy.
True Miami Dolphins fans know all about the Fins Force. They're the guys responsible for running two 16-foot Dolphins team flags — one flag per guy, sprinting in the opposite direction of the other guy from one end of the end zone to the other end — after each Dolphins score.
I did that, too. It looks like fun, but the heavy wind can make it feel like your legs are made of Jell-O and you're toting bags of coal.
I donned the Fins Force uniform, official Nike aqua-and-coral team color T-shirts and shorts, and performed the squad's manly version of sideline cheering: fist pumping, miming first-down referee signals and fanning both hands above my head to make the crowd get loud during key defensive plays.
I stood on the field next to the real-life Dolphins cheerleaders. Ah, the life of a Fins Force member.
Joining the 10-man team for a day was one of the greatest moments of my life, even with a 7-foot stuffed Dolphin in giant clown cleats outrunning me.
From the time I showed up about 9:30 a.m., more than three hours before game time, I was put to work. I handed out Dolphins freebies, Mardi Gras-style beads and team handkerchiefs to tailgating fans. Some returned the favor with high fives or hugs.
I judged an impromptu dance contest, fan against fan and gave away game tickets. I danced too, on stage, to pump up the early-bird crowd and introduce the Rolling Stones tribute band of silver-haired rockers who performed pre-game.
It was hard to remember I was working.
"I watch the game up close. Meet the fans, players and celebrities. Get paid every game," said Fins Force Captain Thomas Holt, who has befriended Denzel Washington and Tiger Woods and once received a warm hug from Fergie in front of her husband, actor Josh Duhamel. "I would pay them for this job."
Each Fins Force member signs a contract with the team's head office to perform at all 10 home games. They get paid $65 per game. Each earned his spot on the Fins Force by trying out.
They have to follow a host of rules, enforced by the team and NFL, from what they wear to where they stand, from when they are allowed to cheer to what they can yell out.
Then there are those huge flags.
"Take it," Holt screamed at me as the crowd roared after the Dolphins scored their first touchdown. I wanted with all my soul to lift that 16-foot Dolphins flag and run it back and forth across the end zone before the referees restarted the game clock and the network TV cameras began re-rolling. But it was too much pressure.
The Fins Force came to my rescue, urging me on like brothers. They didn't know I had a sprained elbow, and I didn't want to make an excuse.
After the next touchdown, Holt handed me the flag, and this time I ran across the end zone. It wasn't so bad, until I turned to come back. Then South Florida winds said hello. I returned to Jell-O.
"Sprint!" Holt shouted. "Go!" shouted someone from the stands. I ran fast but my legs hardly moved. But I made it.
As the crowd quieted and the game resumed, I felt of a glimpse of what it was like to be on the Fins Force. Those guys (Thomas, Carlos, James, Waldo, Doug, Jeffery, Brian, Javid and Fahim) have one of the best jobs in all of South Florida. And they work hard to keep it.
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