The thrill, the agony, the refuge of sports


FOOTBALL gives way now to luge and biathlon, figure skating and skiing, then to spring training, Opening Day and the Masters.

We instantly refocus our passions. We're hooked on the pace. We love the story lines, asking to hear them over and over like kids at bedtime.

We know the names of the stars, their stats, their salaries, their successes and failures. We can talk salary cap.

We know this, too. Sport still surprises. As much as they try, producers can't choreograph a bouncing ball.

Last weekend, the underdog New England team handled St. Louis, and the winning quarterback, Tom Brady, turned out to be the kid next door.

We admire Rams' quarterback Kurt Warner, but we made a morality play out of Mr. Brady's success: swagger-free, thrilled to be holding the big trophy, not yet obscenely wealthy.

The winning team turned out to be called the Patriots in this post-Sept. 11 season. If it weren't so unlikely football-wise, it might have seemed sappy. Couldn't have been planned, though.

At halftime in the big game, we saw Terry Bradshaw, the great Steelers quarterback reborn in the broadcast booth, pulling the Beatles' Paul McCartney into a duet on A Hard Day's Night. Spontaneous, silly and so much fun to see the Englishman, awed and humble himself, slowly appreciating the good ol' boy's charm. Weren't we all singing with them?

The Patriots' win showed us once again that handicapping games can never substitute for getting on the field and playing. So what if the Rams were 14-point favorites? They lost.

So did the Ravens' 76-year-old owner Art Modell, a candidate this year for the NFL's Hall of Fame. Mr. Modell couldn't get past the lingering hurt of his decampment to Baltimore: A Cleveland sportswriter put two solid hits on the Ravens' owner, persuading the 38-member panel of judges to reject him.

Sources say the Cleveland writer opened by announcing he had nothing positive to say and then speaking passionately in opposition. Probably has a personal grudge, some said later. Whatever the reason, you know they were cheering in the Dawg Pound.

In Baltimore, we like Mr. Modell, but we understand how they feel along Lake Erie. Didn't we lose a team once?

Sports delivers wonderful symmetries and righteous reversals.

You can get a full-spectrum, thrill-to-agony rush in one person: former Indiana basketball coach Bobby Knight, for example.

He gets busted repeatedly for appearing to abuse players and furniture, and finally gets fired. Now he's coaching at Texas Tech, taking a 9-19 team to a record of 16-5 in a single year. The man can coach, even if he sometimes looks like a six-car pileup waiting to happen.

We love "in your face" and payback - too much sometimes.

There's a hockey dad in Massachusetts just starting on a 10-year sentence for killing another hockey dad in a game-generated rage.

So now we've seen the Olympics' grand opening ceremony. We were even more thrilled by the flag-waving spectacle this year. It's political, of course, but then again, isn't everything?

We'll be logging a lot of TV hours in the next few weeks, keeping tabs on the medal count and trying not to fret about the failed drug tests.

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