Revisited: Sportswriters look for feel-good stories

MIAMI (Jan. 25) — With the matchup now set for pro football’s Super Bowl, members of the media have begun their desperate annual search for the “up close and personal” angle that will portray aggressive hulking millionaires as the kind of human beings we can all relate to, even though we’re pitifully inferior to them.

Unfortunately for sportswriters, family and friends of NFL players are generally in good health, thanks to of modern medical techniques that keep most people from hovering near death. Colts wide receiver Pierre Garcon’s parents are originally from Haiti, a promising lead in light of the tragedy that struck that nation. But it’s expected that by the February game, the devastating Caribbean earthquake will be so Jan. 12, and therefore out of the news cycle. Saints quarterback Drew Brees knew a guy who knew a guy who thought he had AIDS there for a minute, but it turned out he just had smudged some toner on his face.

Preliminary reports by writers already investigating players’ backgrounds hint at some of what we could be seeing in the run-up to the Big Game.

The spotlight could be falling on the ill-fated brother of Colts QB Peyton Manning, a young man named Eli who has endured numerous severe beatings in the last five months while in New York. The younger Manning had hoped to carve out a career for himself in the NFL, but instead ended up being repeatedly ambushed by street-wise toughs despite a contingent of burly but inept bodyguards.

“It’s a really sad story,” said ESPN writer John Rich. “He had such a promising future a few years back, but it all came crashing down.”

Saints cornerback Malcolm Jennings might do a good job arousing sympathy. Several in his immediate family have seen recent hardship, including a brother who lost his cell phone, a nephew who got short-changed by a vending machine, and a health scare recently experienced by his father.

“He had a thing on his neck that was kind of crusty and misshapen, like a scab but yellow around the edges,” said a friend of the family. “We thought for a while it might be malignant. It wasn’t.”

Colts tight end Justin Snow has a sister who was thought to be battling cancer. Snow said she received a note from her doctor following an annual physical that she needed to get treatment for a “canker,” but the physician’s handwriting was so bad she thought it said “cancer.”

“I was really worried there for a day or so, and I thought about dedicating the NFC championship game to her,” Snow said. “Fortunately, the confusion was cleared up pretty quickly. Good thing too, because I didn’t get into the game since I’m not that good.”

Saints linebacker Marvin Mitchell actually did lose his mother to heart disease about ten years ago, though he was in junior high school at the time and no one could foresee he’d later be in such a premier game.

“I’ll always remember her final words. She said ‘ouch, cardiomyopathy sure does hurt.’ I’ll remember that forever,” Mitchell said. “I only wish she could’ve been here with me now so I could use her to get the sympathy of millions of Americans who will watch the pregame show.”

Like Garcon, Colts offensive tackle Charlie Johnson has a heart-rending Haiti connection. While on a honeymoon cruise in 2006, an on-shore excursion to an exclusive island off the coast of Cap Haitien had to be cancelled when not enough people signed up for it. Later that same day, the ship had some problems with its stabilizer, causing the deck to roll excessively in a mild storm.

“It almost felt like an earthquake. Sort of,” Johnson said. “I know the self-leveling pool table in the Windjammer Lounge was completely out of commission.”

Saints defensive end Bobby McCray is a native of New Orleans and still lives year-round in the city that was flooded by Hurricane Katrina. He has voiced strong support for the rebuilding of neighborhoods in the city’s hard-hit Ninth Ward, especially since he drives through there on the way to practice yet can no longer take a favorite short-cut.

“Those folks have been through a lot,” McCray said. “If they could only get that Bypass Bridge fully repaired, the whole community could be opened up to people like me passing through.”

There’s still a chance a more sympathetic story can be found before press coverage hits its peak by the end of this week. There was an unconfirmed report that one player had a cousin who was born without a head, and that another player feared his playing days could be cut short because he has severe osteoporosis and brittle bone disease, preventing him from ever blocking or tackling. The Colts defensive line coach thinks he hit something with his car in the dark the other night, and hopes it was only a dog or a deer.

“Every year we go through this search process, and every year we eventually find someone who’s vaguely sympathetic,” said writer Rich. “We can always use a player’s pet if we have to.”

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