The day arrives. Jan. 19, 2014. The sunrise has made its two-hour journey from Boston and now the alarm buzzes in a hotel room somewhere in the Denver area. Or maybe there is a call from the front desk. Or maybe there is only intuition, some extra sense that opens the eyes at the proper time before noises are needed. Hello? Where am I? Oh, yes, here.
The Denver Broncos will be waiting in a few hours, backed by 76,125 antagonistic fans at Sports Authority Field at Mile High. An entire country will be ready to watch on television. The AFC Championship game. Sixty minutes of football will send one team to the Super Bowl, the other team back to the trash heap with the other failures from this long National Football League season. This is it.
“What do you do when you step out of that bed in that room?” a half-dozen Patriots were asked this past week about this moment. “Do you want to get yourself up, ready for the day of your life, game of your life, the moment of moments? Or do you want to calm yourself down.”
“Down,” every player replied.
The hope is to be normal, to do normal things on an extraordinary day. Watching the bonfires of attention burn will accomplish nothing. Brady versus Manning! Legacy! Bill Belichick versus Vince Lombardi, Knute Rockne, and Pop Warner! The hyperbole from the talking heads will arrive in wave after wave, right up to kickoff at 3 o’clock Eastern time, “experts” and just plain callers from Billerica expounding on what will happen next, how it will happen, what it all will mean. The trick is not to listen, not to believe any of that. The trick is to be normal.
“You just try to do the stuff you’ve done all year,” defensive tackle Joe Vellano said. “You can’t go out there and try to do things you haven’t done, try to do more. If you do that, you get in trouble. Be the same. This is what we’ve been preparing to do for all of these weeks.”
“It’s just going out there to play the game, to play it the way you know,” cornerback Kyle Arrington said. “As far as preparation goes, we’ve done all that. You just play now.”
The message is on T-shirts that have been worn in the Patriots’ locker room the entire season. DO YOUR JOB. This is not high school or even college, where some heavyset coach with a vein popping out of his forehead implores you to win for your mother, your father, your sister, your brother, your church, your school, the local Kiwanis, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Elks, the Moose, the Future Farmers of America. DO YOUR JOB. That is the only inspirational thought that is necessary at this top end of the game.
The beauty of football is that there are so many working parts that have to be coordinated. Every job is different, different steps to follow, different obstacles to be met, different consequences with failure or success. The confrontations all over the field determine the movement or lack of movement of that one 11-inch-long, 14- or 15-ounce football. If 11 people can do their jobs at one time, at least stay even with the 11 people trying to do their jobs on the other side, good things will happen.
“There’s no studying at the end, not like going to a test in college,” defensive end Rob Ninkovich said about his job. “That’s all been done during the week. I’m ready now. I’ve learned what I wanted to learn from the films, four, five things to concentrate on, places where I can find an advantage. When I see those things come up in the game, that’s when I have an advantage.”
And they always come up?
“They always do,” he said. “Three or four times a game, you’ll see each one of those things you’re looking for. Especially this late in the year. If somebody’s been doing one thing the same way all year, he can’t change now.”
The game is the game is the game is the game. The attention that the rest of us pay to it — painting our faces, drinking our beers, dressing the family dog in a funny shirt, setting our hair on fire as the kickoff approaches — is our emotional investment.
We can become as excited as we want. The players cannot. Their emotional investment has to be a controlled investment. The business in front of them is the only business that counts.
That is the goal in the big game in any sport.
“It doesn’t matter how many games at this stage you play, your nerves are going, your heart rate is going,” Red Sox pitcher Jon Lester said in the middle of all of that October drama this past year. It’s just a matter of once you kind of settle in, realizing it’s baseball.”
A commercial that is played often these days with Kevin Garnett (you remember Kevin Garnett) probably describes the situation best. Garnett is on the team bus, presumably the Brooklyn Nets bus, as it pulls into an arena in another city. Fans are waiting. They scream. They hiss. They say nasty words. Splat. They throw an egg or two that hit the window next to Garnett’s head.
He calmly pulls a big pair of Beats studio headphones from his bag. The noise is shut out by the music of songwriter Aloe Blacc. Garnett walks off the bus, walks through the crowd, eyes straight ahead. He can hear nothing the people say as they point at him, yell at him, froth at the mouth. Only the music.
“You can tell everybody,” Blacc sings. “I’m the man, I’m the man, I’m the man . . . ”
This is the goal for the Patriots on Sunday. This is professional football. The emphasis is on the professional part as much as the football part. They’re in their biggest game of the season. They want to listen only to their own music.