For the past two weeks, leading up to tonight's Super Bowl in Tampa, Fla., Pittsburgh Steelers coach Mike Tomlin - the third black coach to get his team this far, all in the past three seasons - has been answering questions about the impact of an African-American man achieving a position of tremendous power, authority and influence, forever altering a nation's perception of his race, and the race's perception of itself.
Tomlin wasn't talking about himself, or football, however.
"What we are doing here today pales in comparison to what's going on in our nation's capital with President Obama's inauguration," Tomlin told reporters in Pittsburgh the Tuesday after the Steelers clinched their Super Bowl berth against the Arizona Cardinals - the same day Barack Obama was sworn in.
"The hope for the future for our children," Tomlin added, paused, then said, "I'm as excited about that as I am about anything going on right now."
He is far from alone. In any other year, at any other Super Bowl, the tale of Tomlin's rise to a place only two others have reached would be at least one of the main topics of conversation, if not the main topic. Out of habit and historical precedent, it would have been measured against Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson and all other sports-related societal milestones, right up to Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith in Miami two years ago.
Not this year.
That centuries-old model - of sports as the leveler of the playing field, the path to equality, the stage for judgment regardless of color, the repository of "role models" for youth - came crashing down on Election Day in November. The game has moved to a completely different field. Even athletes themselves acknowledged that being able to tell their kids that being president one day was actually within their grasp was a life-altering experience.
Dungy and Smith, at the 2007 Super Bowl, blazed a trail. Now, someone else has blazed a trail for them. Dungy recognized this, telling the Chicago Tribune after his return from the inauguration: "I can say from experience that winning the Super Bowl was great and I know how it impacted so many people, but there's not even a comparison with the inauguration and that feeling I had. ... What President Obama is doing is on such a different level than what I did."
Late last week in Tampa, Tomlin won a fan vote for NFL Coach of the Year. Afterward, he was asked how it felt to do what he has done in the same year Obama won the White House and so soon after the now-retired Dungy, one of Tomlin's mentors, was also in the Super Bowl.
"I'm just humbled by the things that I've been given. By no stretch do I put myself in the category with President Obama or Tony Dungy," he said. "I don't see myself in that way. Some of the things I get a chance to do, I benefit from some of the roads they've paved."
Look at the message embedded in that - society paved the way for progress in sports. Not the other way around, the way it has been portrayed forever.
More proof: Tomlin last week spoke of meeting Obama in Pittsburgh in late August, how he was honored to meet the then-candidate and how his sons would surely remember it the rest of their lives. Being the first coach to have his championship team visit the White House with a black president residing there, he said, "would be awesome."
Usually, the politician is the one fawning over the sports figure. It's one more example of how nothing is the way it used to be.
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