The Vikings were hosting the Green Bay Packers on Christmas Eve in 2004, a Friday with a 2 p.m. kickoff at the Metrodome. A half-hour before the start, I was pushing toward the football press box, and had never been in the midst of so many obviously drunk people at a sporting event as in that narrow, jammed corridor.
The Packers won 34-31, and the media headed down to the steps to gather postgame insights. Outside the main door to the Vikings locker room, there was a drunken man pinned to the floor by police, with two young sons standing there, crying and pleading with the cops to let go of their “Daddy.”
I wrote this as a lead in the next day’s column, and received angry messages from several people that reading the description of that scene had ruined their Christmas morning.
The motive in doing this was to offer a dramatization of the unholy alliance between alcohol and football, in both the NFL and college game. In a sizable percentage of cases, “tailgating” is a polite term for getting plowed out of your mind and stumbling into a stadium.
By many accounts, Vikings fans visiting Philadelphia for the NFC title game two weeks ago encountered extreme examples of what happens when football fans are fueled by alcohol.
The Super Bowl is here Sunday, and the security corridor combined with price and availability of tickets figures to greatly reduce the number of drunken louts occupying the stadium.
Yet, there is an alternative event taking place on Sunday in downtown Minneapolis: the second “Sober Bowl,’’ with doors opening at noon at the MUSE Event Center in the North Loop.
Houston’s Tracy Abbott started this when the Super Bowl was there last February and hopes to make it an annual event.
“We aim to mainstream the otherwise radical concept of alcohol-free events,” she said.
I’ve been sober for a long while. I’m not a campaigner. I can get a laugh over drunken chuckleheads at Buffalo Bills games launching themselves from high above onto a table and landing in a fire pit as easily as the next person.
The NFL, though … it’s not tolerance, it’s closer to promotion of the idea that getting drunk and rowdy is part of the entire experience of being a hard-core fan. And when you have a workforce that leaves the game with more health issues and more exposure to addictive meds than any sport, the NFL’s cronyism with weekly alcohol and chemical abuse is just another vile mark on its resume.
Earl Campbell, the Hall of Fame running back for the Houston Oilers starting in 1978, was involved with the first Sober Bowl. He has been in the Twin Cities this week, to talk about that, to promote a business in which he’s involved, and to congratulate former teammate Robert Brazile on his pending inclusion in the Hall of Fame.
“I’ve been sober for nine years,” Campbell said. “And I want the world to know, that it is the greatest thing that’s ever happened for me — greater than winning a Heisman, greater than going into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“I played all those years at the University of Texas and in the NFL, and had all those carries, without ever going to a doctor. Then, I had three back surgeries and pills were everywhere … hydrocodone, Tylenol 4.
“And I was washing them down with tequila.
“A doctor finally told my family, ‘If your father doesn’t get sober, you won’t have him much longer.’ They put together a formal intervention. This was around the time Michael Jackson died. And I decided that I wanted to live.”
Campbell paused and said: “I’ve had a walker for 15, 20 years. It’s for my balance. I can’t seem to get my balance back.”
He was the Heisman Trophy winner in 1977, with 267 carries in 11 games at Texas. He then averaged 345 carries (not counting playoffs) in his first five full seasons with the Oilers.
Campbell will turn 63 next month. The walker tells of the physical price paid by Earl. How is the memory after all those hits?
“I took a few; there’s a famous collision between me and Jack Tatum, and after that one, I was down by the end zone and thinking, ‘How did I get here? Where is this?’
“I was watching basketball on TV with my sons this week in Minnesota. We watched a pro game and then a college game, and in the middle of the second game, I said, ‘Who won that first game?’ And they said, ‘Dad, you watched the whole thing.’
“So, there’s definitely some of those short-term problems.”
The great Earl Campbell does have that greatest gift: sobriety.
“I’m thankful for it one day at a time,’’ he said. “I want to live.”