Miami Herald and San Jose Mercury News – Jan 29, 2007 – Barry Jackson – Super anxiety: Players cope as best they can before the big game – MIAMI – When the Chicago Bears and Indianapolis Colts step on the Dolphin Stadium field next Sunday, they can expect to be swept up in a whirlwind of emotions, a combustible cocktail of anxiety and anticipation unlike anything most athletes ever experience.
And they will exit Super Bowl XLI with memories that will endure forever, ones that, years later, will instantly elicit either a smile or a grimace, ones that will be broached by strangers in supermarket aisles and restaurants long after the players have hung up their jerseys.
So what’s it like preparing for a Super Bowl or college football championship game, playing in it and dealing with the consequences? Those who have lived it say nothing in life compares.
“You can’t even explain it,” said former University of Miami running back Melvin Bratton, who played in two college games with a national title at stake (winning one) and started in a Super Bowl loss as a member of the Denver Broncos. “Your whole body is numb. You hear no crowd noise. You can hear yourself breathe. That’s how intense the feeling is. It’s a natural high.”
Former All-Pro quarterback Joe Theismann, who played in two Super Bowls, took “100 trips to the bathroom” in the 10 minutes before taking the field. “Guys get sick,” he said.
“I saw teammates hyperventilating, throwing up, linebackers banging their heads against the locker-room wall.”
Theismann calmed himself before his Super Bowl appearances by following his normal ritual of eating a banana split the night before the game and reading People magazine shortly before kickoff.
The night before his first Super Bowl, a January 1983 win against the Dolphins, he soothed his psyche by spending 90 minutes on the phone talking to his buddy, actor Burt Reynolds, about football and life.
Still, he managed only three hours’ sleep. The key, Theismann said, “is don’t do anything stupid in the beginning of the game.”
Eventually, though, the anxiety dissipates. “After three or four times of getting up off your butt, you forget about the nervousness,” said former Dolphins All-Pro guard Bob Kuechenberg, who was on five Super Bowl teams and played in four. “Then you go back to doing what you’re trained to do.”
Some teams employ sports psychologists to help numb players’ nerves before big games. “It can devastate a team if the proper approach is not taken,” said Palm Beach-based John F. Murray, whom Tennis Magazine called the Roger Federer of sports psychologists. “The media attention and the hoopla needs extreme management.”
Bratton said he cracked jokes before championship games and spewed wisecracks in the huddle to ease the tension: “That’s how I survived it.”
Murray, who has counseled tennis’ Vince Spadea and others before big matches, said he suggests players competing in championship games go “through daily imagery sessions where they get so comfortable with this game that by the time it begins it’s been dealt with many times before, and the players could focus on what they do best.”
Players point to other potential speed bumps in preparing for a Super Bowl. Former Dolphin Nat Moore said he panicked two days before the Dolphins-Redskins Super Bowl in January 1983 because he felt he wasn’t mentally prepared.
“You have more requests, more demands on your time than ever before because your friends and family are traveling with you,” he said. “You’ve gotten caught up in the fanfare. On Friday night, you try to hone in on the game plan and realize you’re well behind.
“I pride myself on being well-prepared and there is a panic that sets in. That happened to me the first year, and the second time in 1986, I didn’t get caught up in the fanfare and media blitz.”
Theismann noted that in the lobby before a Super Bowl, “guys will say, `I’ll give you $1,000 if I can have three minutes of your time.’ The biggest thing as a player is, don’t look at it as an opportunity to capitalize on everything because then you lose focus on the game. Then it becomes an absolute nightmare.”
CBS analyst Steve Tasker, who was 0-4 in Super Bowls as a Buffalo Bill, said distractions can take a toll. Before the 1991 game in Tampa, the Bills stayed in a hotel where their fans partied all night before the game.
“It kept some guys awake,” Tasker said. “Coach Marv Levy was concerned, and GM Bill Polian was really upset.”
CBS analyst and former Cincinnati quarterback Boomer Esiason spoke last week of the problems created by the Overtown riots before the 1989 game at Dolphin Stadium.
“We left the Omni,” he said. “Overtown was on fire at that time. They took us to a `secret’ hotel that 5,000 fans were waiting for us at. So there goes the secret out the window.”
Then there’s the challenge of juggling ticket requests. “Besides having to play in the game, you’ve got everyone you ever knew who wants a ticket,” said former Dallas Cowboys star Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson, who played in three Super Bowls. “In a sense, it’s a bit of a curse being part of this game.”
Henderson said people not only ask for tickets, but also, “Oh by the way, can you get me a plane ticket, too, a car, spending money?”
Said Henderson: “This thing becomes crazy as hell. It would be nice to have some psychologist or psychiatrist to take that off their head, like Dr. Phil.”
Tasker said after the first Super Bowl loss, the Bills hired a travel agency and became more involved in ticket distribution to create more time for players “to study film.” Not that it particularly helped – Buffalo never broke through with a win .
Another adjustment is the two-week wait before the game. “That makes it worse,” Henderson said. “Once they go into lock down, someone should come in and do a lecture and a prayer.”
Said Tasker: “You’re climbing the wall for the game to start.”
It’s worse for college players, for whom the wait before the championship game can be as long as six weeks. “It’s very difficult to stay focused,” Bratton said. “You get so antsy and tired of practices against each other. You’ve got to do different things with the team, like trips to the movies.”
Two quandaries for coaches are how many new elements to introduce into the game plan and whether to spend more time preparing their teams than they usually do.
“Some tweaks are good, but not major changes,” Theismann said. “You can’t put in 30 new plays. You don’t have enough practice time.”
“You can overprepare,” Bratton said. Before Denver’s 1990 Super Bowl loss to San Francisco, Broncos coach Dan Reeves was “so nervous, he brought in all the plays from training camp that we hadn’t run in a while,” Bratton remembered. “That was a bad move. We lost. We were confused.”
Reeves, who was 0-4 in Super Bowls as a head coach (three with Denver, one with Atlanta), said he tried different approaches but never found a winning formula. Sometimes he gave the players the game plan two weeks in advance. Then he tried doing it the week of the game so it mirrored the regular season.
Sometimes he allowed players to stay with their families the week before the game. Another time, he moved the players to a different hotel to keep them more isolated.
“I tried it both ways and it didn’t work,” Reeves said. “You have to do what you think is right.”
But in general, he still believes, “You have to try to stay as much with what the players are used to.”
Former Dolphins coach Don Shula agrees. Shula, who coached in five Super Bowls and won two, said, “Your basic philosophy is you want to do what got you there. If there are things you can add and do differently, you do it. You certainly learn from all your experiences.”
For some, the pain of losing a championship game exceeds the joy of winning one. “I would rather have not played in the game than played in them and lost,” former Dolphins linebacker Kim Bokamper said of his 1993 Super Bowl appearance. “Losing is so much harder to take.”
Theismann agreed: “Losing sticks with you longer. I can go over plays in the 1984 Oakland game more than I can tell you plays in the one I won the year before vs. Miami. The one you lose, you go over and say, `I could have done this different, or if only I had looked the safety off. …””
When particular plays in championship games become etched in the minds of fans, the players involved often hear about it whenever they’re in public. Bokamper is frequently reminded about the 1983 Super Bowl play in which Theismann knocked a potential interception from his hands.
“Had I just dropped the ball and nobody made a move on me, it would bother me a lot more than it has over the years,” Bokamper said. “People ask all the time. It doesn’t grate on me.”
Meanwhile, former University of Miami receiver Lamar Thomas estimates “thousands” of fans have reminded him over the years about the 1990 Sugar Bowl play in which Alabama cornerback George Teague raced downfield and stripped the ball from him to preserve a 27-13 Crimson Tide lead. If that hadn’t happened, Miami would have scored a touchdown on the play and declined a holding penalty against Alabama.
A stranger recently asked Thomas about the play in a Winn-Dixie in Miami. “Man, I lost a lot of money” on that game, the man told Thomas.
“You probably lost $100,” Thomas responded. “It doesn’t compare to what I lost that night.”
Thomas said he has seen the play five times over the years, but he now turns away when it’s replayed. “It’s a sore subject for me,” he said. “I gave people an opportunity to take all my perfection away and focus on that one play. If you take that play away, Lamar Thomas goes down as the greatest.
“When people try to bring it up in bars or embarrass me, I tell them, `That was my third national championship game. You can’t win them all. That was one of the greatest plays in college football history. At least I’ll be remembered for something. When I walk out this door, I won’t remember you.””
When Thomas and Teague were reunited as Dolphins teammates in 1997, “I told Teague in practice he would never catch me again,” Thomas said. “He said, `Anytime you want to drive my car, you can, because without you I wouldn’t have it.’ We became good friends.”
Though Thomas still has wistful feelings about that day – largely because the Hurricanes lost – former Dolphins kicker Garo Yepremian can laugh about his notorious Super Bowl gaffe because it came in a win to cap Miami’s perfect season.
In the 14-7 Super Bowl victory against Washington in January 1973, Yepremian’s field-goal attempt was blocked, and he fumbled attempting to pass.
The Redskins’ Mike Bass picked it up and ran 49 yards for a touchdown.
“Even though that pass was the worst thing at the time, it was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Yepremian said several years ago. “I can laugh about it. Fans can laugh about it. But a lot of people don’t realize I was the kicker of the decade.”
Dr. John F. Murray is a sports psychologist and clinical psychologist providing sports psychology and counseling services based in Palm Beach, Florida.