Saturday 17 March 2018

Brilliance and violence combine in irresistible theatre

Julian Edelman #11 of the New England Patriots celebrates after defeating the Indianapolis Colts in the 2015 AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium
Julian Edelman #11 of the New England Patriots celebrates after defeating the Indianapolis Colts in the 2015 AFC Championship Game at Gillette Stadium

Tommy Conlon

It's late in the third quarter, Julian Edelman has caught the ball near his own end zone and is flying down the touchline.

It's the AFC championship game two weeks ago: Indianapolis Colts versus New England Patriots with the winner heading to the Super Bowl.

New England at this stage are cruising. They have comprehensively dominated the Colts in offence and defence. They have repeatedly run through them and over them. Running back LeGarrette Blount is rampant, eventually carrying for 148 yards and scoring three touchdowns.

At half-time on Sky Sports they show replays of Blount blasting holes in the Colts' defence. Guest pundit Je'Rod Cherry, winner of three Super Bowl titles with New England, explains the withering effect this dominance has on opposing teams.

"If you can get that physical impact on a team and just let 'em know that physically you can impose your will on them, it hurts your feelings and it hurts your heart . . . Because it's one thing to give up a pass, but when someone's running over you, that takes away your manhood."

By the time Edelman catches the Colts' punt, New England are leading by 31 points. They are piling on the humiliation now, and they are not finished.

The Colts' players follow the punt upfield, looking to stop Edelman. But just as one of their linebackers, Andy Studebaker, closes in on him, he is poleaxed. He did not see Brandon Bolden coming. It is a blindside hit; Studebaker has his eyes on Edelman; Bolden has his eyes on Studebaker. In other field sports it would be considered a cheap shot. American football has a lot of rules and regulations but this is deemed a legitimate tackle. It is car-crash violent. Bolden launches himself into Studebaker with maximum velocity. He absolutely whales him. Studebaker is 6' 3" and weighs over 18 stone; Bolden 5' 11" and under 16 stone. Studebaker is lifted off the ground on impact; both of them in fact are momentarily airborne.

Play stops while Studebaker is treated. He stands in a crouched, crumpled heap. Eventually he walks off the field. A few minutes later, the sideline reporter tells us that the linebacker has been taken to the locker room under medical supervision. "It is a chest injury," she adds, "it looked as though he was coughing up some blood, it doesn't look good right now."

Brandon Bolden was fine and will be on the Patriots' roster for tonight's Super Bowl. Their opponents are the defending champions, the Seattle Seahawks. Russell Wilson, the Seahawks quarterback, will be a crucial figure in their performance tonight.

Which is probably why Green Bay's Clay Matthews mowed him down in the NFC championship game two weeks ago. It was a full-frontal job, Matthews leading with shoulder and head into the chest and head of Wilson. Matthews was subsequently fined over $20,000. But the Green Bay Packers would've happily paid 10 times that amount if the tackle had taken Wilson out of the game. Eventually Wilson led the Seahawks to one of the most sensational comebacks in NFL history.

Great swathes of America will come to a standstill tonight for this the 49th Super Bowl, in Phoenix, Arizona. This annual showpiece is not so much a game as mainstream entertainment, the sporting contest at its heart almost obliterated beneath the multi-media tidal wave that engulfs it.

American television technology with its computerised imagery is blurring the boundaries between the real game on the field and the artifice of video game drama. The multiplicity of camera angles, the super slow-motion replays and hyper-fast cutting from one image to the next, all combine to enhance this impression of a sport blending at its borders with the parallel universe of virtual reality.

The stylised costumes of the players with their head-to-toe synthetic padding, high-tech helmets and space-age visors also contribute to this impression: sportsmen as cyborgs, carrying out extra-human feats in their fictionalised alter egos.

We don't see their faces; their bodies are almost completely covered. The entire effect is to somewhat dehumanise them, render them as avatars in a video arcade created for mass consumption by a consortium of all-powerful corporations.

But of course the flesh-and-bone reality is to be found in someone like Studebaker, coughing up blood after a pulverising hit to the body. The physical and psychological damage is real and frequently permanent, enduring long after they've shed their superhero uniforms.

These players aren't faking it and that's why the big gridiron games make for irresistible theatre. At the core of this gigantic entertainment machine is a cohort of elite athletes capable of stunning athletic moments.

The ability of running backs, for example, to find a tiny corridor of space among the wrestling behemoths, and shoot through it at bullet-speed, is mesmerising. Likewise the quarterback, scanning the field and calmly processing his options as the linebackers converge on him with savage intent; or the wide receivers, pulling down a spiralling ball out of the air with impeccable timing and technique.

It will all be there on a platter this evening: the brilliance and the violence. "What makes a good hit," says the NFL assassin, Ryan Clark, "is not getting fined." They'll take any amount of punishment in Phoenix tonight, physical and financial, to get the job done.

It will be a Hollywood production, as ever, with possibly a few stars destined afterwards for the hospital ward.

Sunday Indo Sport

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