Seattle wins the coin toss and chooses to receive. An opening 38-yard drive leads to a 32-yard field goal by Josh Brown. Smiles from Seattle’s bench. Pittsburgh responds with a 49-yard kick return by Antwaan Randle El, but Ben Roethlisberger is shut down. Jeff Reed sets up for the tying field goal.
Reed’s kick takes a wild bounce and knocks over Seattle’s 12th Man flagpole, which is later discovered to have had numerous fractures. The flagpole cartwheels through the stadium and finally impales Seattle’s defensive coordinator, Ray Rhodes, through the back. Time stands still as Rhodes lies pinned to the field. The blue flag, soaked in blood, covers all but his right hand, which is twitching.
After a few moments of stunned silence, everyone on the field rushes to the sideline. Paramedics carrying saws fight their way through the crowd. They begin to cut the flagpole away from Rhodes, and finally his lifeless body is loaded into an ambulance and taken away. No one is sure what to do, so the referee instinctively blows his whistle to continue play. The Seattle offense runs on the field just as instinctively, though the players’ formation is utterly confused.
The subsequent pass is wide left to Joe Jurevicius. As the ball crosses the sideline, it collides with a low-flying owl and bounces back into play, where a shaken Pittsburgh defense does not even try to pick it up. Both teams’ players are wandering aimlessly or curled into fetal positions as the grounds crew continues carrying bloody pieces of flagpole off the field. For 37 minutes, the referees argue over how to rule the owl-touched pass. Both teams debate the pass; it is understood that everyone is masking grief by Talmudically studying the rulebook and instant replays.
John Madden ponders, “Do you think that owl was carrying Ray’s soul to heaven?”
Al Michaels changes the subject.
The rest of the first half proceeds without fanfare, or any player effort. Madden recites the 23rd Psalm; Michaels cuts him off with some background on Ford Field. Most plays are called dead because of weeping linemen. Reed is catatonic for the remainder of the half. Bill Cowher makes a half-hearted attempt to rouse the players. Shaun Alexander throws his helmet at Cowher. An emotional brouhaha erupts, but only leads to more weeping. Fans are trickling out of the stadium. The clock finally runs down to end the half. The score is 3-0, Seattle.
The halftime show is a barbershop quintet made up of all the living U.S. presidents dressed as famous dead presidents who have the same first names. Both Bushes are dressed as George Washington. Bill Clinton, as William McKinley, refuses to explode fake-blood squibs in his shirt; the audience doesn’t know who he is supposed to be. Jimmy Carter is James Buchanan, but forgets to take off his wedding ring; the audience boos in deference to historical accuracy. Gerald Ford is live via satellite from Rancho Mirage, but for some reason is playing Teddy Roosevelt. The first song in their medley is “She’s a Grand Old Flag.” The mood is tense; the presidents avoid one another’s gaze. Children are swaying and waving glow-sticks on the field. Every mention of flags brings a fresh moan from the audience.
The singing breaks off awkwardly. Bill Clinton steps forward and asks for silence. He delivers the following words:
Al Michaels delivers game stats as if nothing is wrong, but is forced to shout them over Madden’s chortles.“People…people, please…I must speak. I know what you all must be feeling right now. We thought we’d try to carry on with our entertainment, and, well, frankly, it was wrong. A beloved man is dead. He was killed in the most…most baffling way imaginable, and at the start of what could have been the greatest night of his life. You know, I’ve watched a lot of teams coached by Ray over the years, and what struck me, what moved me, was his commitment to his team. [voice breaking] He was unshakable. And, though I never met him personally, I believe we can draw on Ray’s indomitable strength to get through this. I believe he would have wanted us to carry on with the Super Bowl, our nation’s greatest sporting unifier. I would ask Coach Cowher and Coach Holmgren if they can find this strength within themselves and their men. And I want to talk to Jeff Reed. Can Jeff come up here?”
A shaken Reed is escorted to the stage. Clinton whispers into his ear. Reed asks for a microphone, casting his eyes heavenward.
“Ray…Ray, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to… [pauses, silence from crowd] You deserved better than to be taken out by a kicker. [faces crowd] Folks…Mom, Dad…Rhodes family…America…can you ever forgive me?”
Scattered applause. Then, some cheers. Soon, a wave of roaring and singing. Clinton embraces Reed. Clinton says, “Now, are you ready for some more football?”
The crowd is ready.
A quarter and a half of spectacular play ensues. Willie Parker makes a 29-yard scramble, then laterals to Heath Miller, who dives for a touchdown. Joey Porter puts a spin-move on Walter Jones and sacks Matt Hasselbeck for a seven-yard loss. The very next snap, on fourth-and-long, Hasselbeck lobs a floating pass that bounces off three Steelers before landing in the arms of Mack Strong, who breaks two tackles and claws his way to the end zone. Fans of both teams are cheering and hugging each other. Each great play brings tears to the eyes of Steelers and Seahawks alike, yet now they are tears of childlike happiness. With little more than two minutes remaining, the game tied at 27, Jeff Reed strides onto the field and taps Roethlisberger on the shoulder. Big Ben nods and scampers off. A hush falls over Ford Field. The ball is snapped, Tommy Maddox holds it, and Reed sends a 58-yard field goal through the posts. Reed points up to the sky. The crowd does the same.
Up in the booth, the director decides to call one more commercial break at the two-minute warning. The video switcher cuts to a crowd reaction shot at the precise moment when Camera Two is pointed at a fan masturbating. The camera cannot pan away fast enough, and the man’s moment of climax is beamed to the Jumbotron and into homes around the globe. John Madden goes into a gut-wrenching fit of laughter. The director is too stunned to call for a fade-out. Camera Two is now pointed at the owner’s box, where the entire Rooney family, including great-grandchildren, are gape-jawed with horror. The director finally yells for a fade to commercial.
Upon returning, Madden is still laughing and will remain useless for the remainder of the broadcast. Al Michaels delivers game stats as if nothing is wrong, but is forced to shout them over Madden’s chortles. The video switcher accidentally cuts to Camera Two, which has been commandeered by the crowd, which is filming the cameraman, bound and gagged. Michaels turns off his microphone and yells a string of obscenities at the broadcast crew, but Madden’s mike picks it up. The Fox phone lines are clogged.
Pittsburgh goes on to win 30-27. There’s no audio or computer graphics in the final 30 seconds. No post-game show. The Lombardi trophy is presented the next day on the bus-depot tarmac as the Steelers are leaving town.
Overnight, the masturbation clip finds its way to an estimated 70.1 million computers via blogs and file sharing. Fox faces millions of dollars in FCC fines and innumerable civil suits from outraged parents and church groups. News Corp. stock plummets. The next day, President Bush holds a press conference to declare a national day of shame, followed by a federal inquiry into the future of the NFL and network television.
He is still wearing his George Washington wig.