Up the Middle with Skitch Hanson: Saints and Sinners (But Mostly Saints)

We welcome back Skitch Hanson to the Scratchbomb pages. You may know him from his nationally syndicated sports column, “Up the Middle”. You may have also seen him on the ESPN roundtable discussion show, Mouth-Talkers! Or you may have read one of his 79 books, such as The Greatest Game You Never Saw and Possibly Didn’t Happen at All. Without further ado, here’s Skitch to talk about The Big Game.

Are there any more exciting words in the Sports Universe than “Super Bowl”? Not to this reporter! Except maybe “free buffet” or “case dismissed”. There is no word too big to describe this event. Any newspaper man worth his salt, regardless of beat, must be there to take in the whole spectacle.

Sadly, my editor does not agree with that point of view. He thought my talents were better served trying to write a Super Bowl-related human interest story. “The farther away from Miami, the better,” he said. I guess he’s still peeved at me for what I did the last time I was in Miami for The Big Game.

As you may recall, that was a historic game that pitted two African-American coaches against one another for the first time in Super Bowl history. During the first Media Day press conference, I asked Lovie Smith if he beat Tony Dungy and the Colts, would that be considered Black-on-Black Crime? Some people took offense, but I think Lovie thought it was great. He even ran after me with his arms extended, his fingers grasping toward my throat, as if trying to give me a hug!

I protested my editor’s decision, but there was no budging him. Sometimes, talking to him is like trying to get a word edgewise with my wife! Except my editor doesn’t chuck whiskey bottles at me!

aints.jpgSo I thought to myself, who would make a good human interest story for this Super Bowl? I can’t go to Miami, so that eliminates any of the players actually participating in it. So how about players from the past? And who better to interview than ex-Saints players? Men who had to endure The Aints Years, decades of futility and embarrassment and golden tights.

Unfortunately, other folks had beaten me to the punch. I know it’s hard to believe such an ingenious idea had already been taken by several dozen reporters, but it’s true! By the time I started my research, nearly every person who’d ever put on a New Orleans uniform had already been profiled in one paper or another.

The more obvious targets were not an option anyway. Archie Manning won’t speak to me after that time I accidentally shocked him with a pocket tape recorder and burned off all his hair (look, it grew back, didn’t it, Archie?). And that kicker with the club foot refused to speak to me because I couldn’t remember his name. But even the most obscure former Saints had already been taken by other writers.

The whole process was slow going, because I still do my research the old fashioned way: with a whole lot of elbow grease and shoe leather! And asking the secretary at the office where I can find some out-of-town phone books. The internet may be faster, but it can’t make up for a determined, old school reporter. Plus, the last time I tried to look up something on the internet, I destroyed my computer. If a hard drive can break so easily, it doesn’t sound so “hard” to me! Unless you’re talking about the price to fix it, because that was definitely hard on my wallet, since the newspaper deducted the cost from my paycheck.

Finally, I found a forgotten tight end named Tommy Smith. He was drafted in the third round by New Orleans back in 1987, but never played a single down in the NFL, and retired from the league a few years later.

What a story! Can you imagine the frustration of not being to able to play for one of football’s worst teams? What torture must this man have endured? How did it feel to get so close to his dream and yet still be so far away? Did he lay awake at night thinking of what might have been? And also, how is the postgame spread at The Superdome? Because I’ve heard mixed things.

So I visited Tommy Smith at his home in Abilene, Texas, a ramshackle little cottage on the edge of town. He had an old Chevy up on blocks, and a few sickly dogs running around his weed-filled backyard. It was certainly a hardscrabble existence for Mr. Tommy Smith since leaving the glory of the NFL, if this was his home.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t his home. Turns out it was the home of a Tommy Smith, but not the Tommy Smith I was looking for. In retrospect, I had little evidence I was visiting the right address, or even the right town. But to be fair, I had no evidence that I wasn’t.

The Tommy Smith I found was a shirtless, bearded man who told me to go away because he was too busy “tweakin'”, then used a few words that I can’t reprint in a family newspaper. I asked him who he was rooting for in the Super Bowl, and I think he said “Colts”, but it might have been a burp. Then he slammed his screen door on my fingers and threatened to grab his shotugun.

Still, I think there’s a valuable lesson in here for all of us. My journey to Abilene was a lot like the journey the Saints took to get to the Super Bowl. Years of missteps and blunders and testing the patience of their fans, who wondered if they’d ever pull themselves together. But lo and behold, the Saints have made it to the Super Bowl, and are one big step away from Valhalla.

I did not exactly succeed in my quest to find Tommy Smith, but I did succeed in not getting shot by a meth-crazed indigent. And in a way, I’ve made it to my own Valhalla. A small town named Valhalla, Texas, that is, and its Fresh-Aire Motel on beautiful route 27. They have wi-fi at only $17 a night, and an Applebee’s right across the street. Jackpot!

If there’s another lesson here from the story of me and Saints, it’s this: don’t be too hasty. Stay slow and steady, and success will come. You don’t have to go chasing after the first name that resembles that of the man you’re looking for, especially if that first name is found in a police report.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I hear a Super Bowl calling me–a super bowl of Russian dressing to accompany my bloomin’ onion, that is!