Flacco has the fame without the flash

The Baltimore Sun

Maybe some time down the road, he'll be dating a series of those interchangeably beautiful women you see on the arms of athletes and actors. He'll be driving some hot stud-machine car, turning up in South Beach clubs and surrounding himself with an entourage of assorted hangers-on.

In other words, maybe someday Joe Flacco will start acting like the NFL quarterback that he is.

But for now, let's enjoy our pre-if-ever-hip QB and his helmet-haired, nearly uni-browed and decidedly non-metrosexual grooming. Let's enjoy the utter nerditude of a guy who drives his grandmother's Volvo to training camp and rooms with his little bro. Let's enjoy his total lack of flash, the bone-dry, ice-water, dead-eye diffidence with which he reacts to thrilling victories and agonizing defeats alike.

Let's sing an ode to Joe, the anti-divo.

Has there ever been such an amazing athlete on the field who once off it turns so ordinary? Well, actually yes, that would be his fellow Baltimore sports star, Michael Phelps, dolphin-sleek in the water, tripping on his own feet on terra firma. But even he has gone glam in his own way since temporarily hanging up the Speedos after his dazzling Olympics in favor of the cards and the cocktail waitresses of Vegas.

Whatever it is Flacco does in his off-hours largely seems to have escaped the tabloids - but then, of course, no one was really watching for him until recently, when he's been a bit preoccupied with the playoffs. If the news stories are right, his nighttime activities largely involve falling asleep in front of the TV before the 11 o'clock news. Has anyone ever seen him, say, at Pazo, as Ray Lewis and Phelps were recently spotted, arriving separately but on the same night?

We know where he'll be tonight of course, hopefully leading the Ravens to the AFC championship, which will only heighten the mania around our improbable leading sports man. But what has been funny about watching Flacco's growing stardom is that as the mania grows more feverish, he gets even freakishly cooler.

Listening to his post-game interviews has been almost as much fun as the games themselves. I find myself rooting for him to say something even more deadpan and less quotable than the last time - and he's never let me down. Someday, someone will have to make one of those beer commercials where they splice Flacco's actual statements with entirely different questions.

Q: Joe, in an effort to highlight the perils of global warming, the AFC championship is going to be played on a rapidly melting iceberg, meaning you may occasionally find yourself sloshing through Arctic waters. How will that affect your game?

A: I've never played in weather that cold, but I'm not really planning on it being too much of a factor.

Q: Joe, after your game-winning performance in the Super Bowl, as you were driving from the stadium, you joined a police chase that was under way and, breaking the speed of sound, managed to capture the killer of JonBenet. What was that like?

A: Same as any other drive.

The other day, in an attempt to get to the bottom of the whole Flacconomenon, I tried to get into the heart of the heart of the beast - at least the T-shirts.

You've seen them on every other person in town - "Joe Cool" or "Wacko for Flacco" or "Triple Threat See Joe Pass See Joe Run See Joe Catch."

See Joe Save the Local T-Shirt Industry. Like the rest of the economy, it had been rather flat of late, said Craig Pfeifer, owner of Maryland Screen Printers, which has the exclusive licensing agreement to print Flacco shirts.

Pfeifer had been to an industry meeting, where everyone was complaining about how T-shirts - with the exception of those Life is Good ones - just aren't selling. Not so here, though, where Pfeifer estimates he's sold more than 20,000 Flacco shirts - there are five different designs - since he received the licensing agreement about four weeks ago.

They were still rolling off the presses when I stopped into the printing plant, located in an industrial park off Holabird Avenue in East Baltimore, where Pfeifer was trying to keep up with the demand for them. Workers pulled a stream of purple shirts, one after the other, off one machine, next to another one that was spitting out black ones bearing the visage of that fellow cool cat, Barack Obama.

Flacco has been an added boost to his usual client base - Marriott, Constellation and Special Olympics of Maryland, on whose board of directors he serves - and gotten him off to a good start in the new year.

"It's important for business. It's huge. It's not just me; it's the whole town," he said. "If the Ravens weren't in the postseason, the bars and restaurants wouldn't be full. Of course, the city might be a lot more productive on Mondays."

Pfeifer and some of his 35 employees will be watching tonight's game right here, since they also have the contract with Reebok to print the official AFC Champion T-shirts.

"We gotta start printing as soon as the game ends," Pfeifer said. "We'll be printing at 10 o'clock at night until 7 o'clock the next morning."

Pfeifer has met The Man himself, when Flacco came to the Special Olympics summer games last year. Pfeifer characterized him as, not surprisingly, "very quiet."

"He didn't even know if he'd be playing at that point," Pfeifer said. "I told him about the T-shirts I'd done before and said if he ever wanted to do some T-shirts. ... He just kind of shrugged and said, 'You think I could sell that many T-shirts with my name on it?, "

If anyone can explain Flacco's appeal, perhaps it's Pfeifer: "It's his name. He's got a cool football name. And he can throw the ball 75 yards."

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