The last Super Bowl was played in January, 2016, on a muddy field in Hoboken, New Jersey.
It was attended by 832 aging fans, 12 sportswriters, a Boy Scout troop, and the commissioner of the National Football League. The commissioner brought the Boy Scouts. He was also a scoutmaster.
The Packers were the favorites, and that was as it should be. It was somehow right, and appropriate, and just that the Packers should be in the final game.
They were still the Green Bay Packers, after all, the same now, at the end, as in the dim beginnings so many years ago. The teams of the great cities had come and gone, but the Packers stayed on, eternal and unchanging.
They had a perfect record going into the championship, and a defense the likes of which football had never seen. Or at least so the sportswriters wrote. But claims like that had to be taken with several grains of salt. Sportswriters were a dying breed, and they exaggerated a lot to stave off extinction.
The underdogs in the last, lonely showdown were the Hoboken Jets. Formerly the Jersey City Jets. The sportswriters, in their fading wisdom, had decreed that the Jets would lose by two touchdowns.
Not that Hoboken had a bad team. They were pretty good, actually. They’d won thier conference going away. But then, it was a weak conference, and the Jet defense was a little sloppy. They didn’t have a great offense either.
What they did have was Keith Lancer. Lancer, so said the sportswriters, was the greatest quarterback to ever throw a football. Better than Namath, Unitas, Graham, Baugh, any of them. A golden arm; great range, fantastic accuracy. He was a scrambler too. And a brilliant field general.
But he was only a man, and he had never faced a team like the Packers. The Packer front four were creatures out of nightmare. Their rush had been known to drive brilliant quarterbacks into blithering, terrified idiocy.
The sportswriter claimed the Packer defense would grind Lancer into little bits and scatter him all over the field. But that was just what the sportswriter claimed. And nobody listened to sportswriters anymore.
It was a classic confrontation. Offense against defense. One brilliant man against a smoothly oiled machine. A lone hero against a hoard of monsters.
The last page of football history. But a great page, a great moment, a great game.
And it was played before 832 fans, 12 sportswriters, a Boy Scout troop, and the commissioner of the National Football League.
Arguments are the stuff of which sports are made. They go on and on, forever, and no one had ever stopped to figure out how many bars they keep in business. The arguments were all different, but all the same. Who’s the greatest heavyweight champion of all time? Who should play center field on the all-time All Star team? Name the best football team ever.
Ask a man those questions and listen to his answers. Then you’ll know when he was growing up, and where he once lived, and what kind of man he was.
Eternal questions, never-ending arguments, the raucous music of the locker room and tavern. Not questions that could be answered. Nor questions that should be answered. There are some things that man was not meant to know.
But one day someone tried to answer them. He used a computer. Computers were still in diapers back then. But still they were treated with deference. They didn’t make mistakes. When a computer said something, the man in the street generally listened. And believed.
So they decided to ask a computer to pick the greatest heavyweight champion of all time.
But they didn’t merely ask a question. They had more imagination than that. They arranged a tournament, a great tournament between all the heavyweight champions of history, each fighting in his prime. They fed each man’s style into the machine, and it told it about his strengths and weaknesses and habits and quirks.
And the machine digested all the glass chins and snappy left jabs and dazzling footwork, and set to producing simulated fights. One by one the heavyweight champions eliminated each other in computerized bouts that were jazzed up and dramatized and broadcast over the radio.
Rocky Marciano won the thing.
It began to rain shortly after the two teams had come onto the field. Not a heavy rain, at first. Just a thin, cold, soggy-wet drizzle that came down and down and wouldn’t stop.
Green Bay won the toss and elected to receive. Hoboken decided to defend the south goal.
The kickoff was shallow and wobbly, probably because of the rain and muddy condition of the field. Mike Strawn, the Packer’s speed merchant, fielded the kick and ran it back fifteen yards before being pulled down at the thirty.
The Packer offense took the field. They were a coldly determined bunch that afternoon. They had something to prove. They were tired of hearing, over and over again, about how defense made the Packers great. And Dave Sandretti, the Packers’ scrappy young quarterback, was especially tired of hearing about Keith Lancer.
Sandretti went to the air immediately, hitting on a short, flat pass to the sideline for a quick first down. On the next play he handed off, and Mule Mitchell smashed through the center of the Jet line for a four yard gain. Then Strawn went around end for another first down.
The Packers drove.
Their offense was nothing fancy. The Packer coach believed in basic football. But it was effective. Alternating skillfully between his short passes and his potent running game, Sandretti moved the Packers across the fifty and down into enemy territory before the drive finally bogged down near the thirty-five.
Their field goal attempt was wide. The Jets took over on their own twenty.
Inevitably, other tournaments followed in the wake of the first one. They settled the argument about the greatest middleweight champion of all time, and the best college football team, and the finest baseball squad ever assembled.
And each simulated fight and computerized game seemed to draw larger radio audiences than the one before it. People liked the idea. They didn’t always agree with the computer’s verdict, but that was okay. It gave then something new to argue about.
It wasn’t long before the sponsors of the computerized tournaments realized they had a gold mine on their hands. And, once they did realize it, it took them no time at all to abandon their original purposes. Settling the old arguments, after all, was dangerous. It might lead to loss of interest in forthcoming computerized bouts.
So they announced that the computer’s verdicts were far from final. Different tournament pairings might give different results, they claimed. And so it was when they ran the heavyweight eliminations over again.
The lords of the sport looked on tolerantly. Computerized sports were an interesting sideshow, they thought, but hardly anything to worry about. After all, a phony football game broadcast over the radio could never match the violent color and excitement of the real thing on television.
They even went so far as to feature computer simulations in their pregame shows, to add a little spice to the presentation. The computer predictions were almost always wrong, and the computer games were drab compared to the spectacle that invariably followed.
The lords of sport were absolutely certain that computer simulations would never be anything more than minor sideshows. Absolutely certain.
At first, Lancer set out to establish his running game. He abandoned that idea two plays later, after the Packer defense had twice snagged Jet runners short of line if scrimmage. On third and fifteen, Lancer took to the air for the first time. The pass was complete for a first down.
On first and ten, he went for a long bomb. It fell incomplete when his receiver slipped on the muddy field. But the Jets got a first down anyway. The Packer rush put a bit too much presser on Lancer, and got assessed fifteen yards for roughing the passer. Lancer had been hit solidly by two defensemen after getting the pass away.
He got up covered with mud, a little shaken, and very mad. When Lancer was mad, the Jets were mad. The team began to move.
If the Packer offense was the soul of simplicity, the Jet offense was a study in devious complexity. Lancer used a whole array of different formations, kept his backfield on constant motion with shift after shift, and had a mind-boggling number of plays to chose from.
The Packers knew all that, of course, they had studied game films. But watching films was not the quite the same thing as facing an angry Keith Lancer.
Lancer let the Packers have both barrels now. He started to razzle-dazzle with a vengeance. The Packer rush dumped him a few more times. But in between the Jets were registering long gains.
It took Lancer nine plays to put Hoboken into the end zone. The Jets went ahead, 7-0.
The sportswriters started muttering.
The problem with the early computer simulations was their lack of depth. Computer games were presented either as flat,colorless predictions, or as overdramatized radio shows. Which was all right. But not to be compared to actually watching a real game.
Then someone got a bright idea. They made a movie.
Rocky Marciano had been retired for years, but he was s till around. Muhammed Ali was still one of the premier heavyweights of the era. So they paired them in a computer fight, got Marciano back into reasonable shape, and had the two men act out the computer’s prediction of what would have happened if they had met when each was in his prime. Marciano won by a knockout.
The film got wide publicity, and it was shown in theatres from coast to coast. It outdrew the crowds that real bouts got in the same theatres when they appeared via closed circuit television.
The newspapers seemed confused over how to cover it. Some sent movie critics. But many sent sportswriters. And while most of the sportswriters treated it as a joke, a minor and inconsequential diversion, others wrote up the fight quite seriously.
The handwriting was on the wall. But the lords of sport didn’t read it. After all, the circumstances that allowed a film like this to be made were pretty unique, they reasoned. The computer people could hardly dig up John L. Sullivan or the Four Horsemen or Babe Ruth for future film. And the public would never accept actors.
So there was nothing to worry about. Nothing at all.
Through the mud and the steadily building rain, the Packers came driving back. They relied mostly on their running game, on Mule Mitchell’s tanklike rushes and Mike Strawn’s darting zigzags and quick end runs. But Sandretti’s passing played a role, too. He didn’t have Lancer’s arm, by any means. But he was good, and he was accurate, and when the chips were down he seldom missed.
Back upfield they moved, back into Jet territory. The first quarter ended with them on the Jet thirty.
The drive continued in the second period, but once again the Packers seemed to run out of gas when they got within the shadow of the goalposts. They had to settle for a field goal.
More movies followed the success of the first. But the lords of the sport had been correct. The idea had built-in limitations. A lavish production that used Jack Dempsey against Joe Louis underlines that point. It was a total bust. The fans wanted the real thing. Or close to it, anyway.
But some films could be made, and they were made, and they made money. It became a respectable movie subgenre. One studio, Versus Productions, specialized in film versions of computer sports, and made modest profits.
But real sports continued to do better than ever. The public had more and more leisure, and a voracious hunger for vicarious violence. The lords of sport feasted on huge television contracts, and grew fat and rich. And blind.
They hardly even noticed when some of the old computer films began to turn up on late shows here and there.
They should have.
Lance got the Jets driving again. But this time their momentum ebbed quickly. The Packer defense wasn’t about to get pushed around all day. They were quick to adapt, and now they were beginning to get used to Lancer’s bag of tricks.
The Hoboken drive sputtered to a halt on the Green Bay forty, when Lancer was dumped twice in a row by the Packer rush. The field goal attempt was a valiant but misguided effort to buck the wind and the rain. It fell absurdly short.
The Packers took over. At once they began to move. Sandretti clicked on a series of passes, and Mitchell punched through the Hoboken line again and again.
When the Packers crossed the fifty, the Jets decided to surprise Sandretti with a blitz. They did surprise him. Once.
The next time they tried it, Sandretti slipped a screen pass to Strawn in the flat. He shook off one tackler, sidestepped two more, and outran everybody else on the field.
That made it 10-7 Packers. The sportswriters began to breathe a little easier.
It was such a simple idea.
The name of the man who first thought of it is lost. But there is a legend. The legend says it was an electronics engineer employed by one of the networks, and that the idea came to him when he was watching a television rerun of a computer fight movie.
It wasn’t a very good movie, and his attention began to wander, says the legend. He began to think about why filmed computer simulations had never really made it big. The problem, he decided, was actors.
Computer simulations had more veracity and realism than fictional movies. But they lost it when they used actors. The public wouldn’t buy actors. But, without actors, the possible number of productions was severely limited.
What was needed was another way to make the simulations.
He looked at the television wall, the legend says. And the idea came.
He wasn’t watching a picture. Not really. He knew that. He was watching a pattern of multi-colored dots. A complex pattern that deluded the human eye into thinking it was a picture. But it wasn’t. There was nothing there but a bunch of electronic impulses.
If you get those impulses to join together and form an image of some actor playing Joe Louis, then there was no damn reason in the world that you couldn’t get them to join together to form an image of Joe Louis himself.
It was easier if there was a pattern to be broken down and reassembled, of course. But that didn’t mean it was impossible to build patterns out of whole cloth. And it wouldn’t matter if those patterns had ever really existed anywhere but on the television screen. The images could be made just as real.
Yes. It could work. If you had an instrument fast enough to assemble such complex patterns, and change them smoothly enough to simulate motion and action. If you had a computer, a big one, Yes.
The next day, the legend says, the nameless electronics engineer went to speak to the president of his network.
On the second play after the kickoff, the Packers blitzed. Their normal rush was fierce enough. Their blitz was devastating. The Hoboken line shattered under the impact, and the Packers stormed through, hungry for quarterback blood.
Lancer, back to pass, searched desperately for a receiver. He found none. He danced out of the way of the first Packer to reach him, tucked the ball under his arm, and tried to scramble. He got about five yards back towards the line of scrimmage before the Green Bay meatgrinder closed in around him.
Afterwards, he couldn’t get up. They carried him off the field limping.
There was a stunned silence, then a slowly building cheer as Lancer was carried to the sidelines.
Or as much of a cheer as could be produced by 832 fans, 12 sportswriters, a Boy Scout troop, and the commissioner of the National Football League.
Sports were very big business, and all three networks fought tooth-and-nail in the bloody bidding wars for the right to telecast the major events. And of all the wars, the football wars were the most gory.
One network won the NFL that year. Another won the NCAA. The third, according to tradition, was in for a bad time. It was going to get badly bludgeoned in the ratings until those contracts ran out.
But that year, the third network refused to lie down meekly and accept its fate. It broke with tradition. It scheduled something new. A show called Unplayed Football Classics.
The show featured televised computer simulations of great games between the top football teams, both pro and college, in the history of the game. It did not use actors. A gigantic network computer, specially designed and built for the purpose, produced the simulations from scratch.
The show was a bombshell. A glorious, shouting, screaming, disgustingly successful smash hit.
With Lancer out, the Jets went nowhere. They bogged down in the mud and were forced to punt.
Sandretti, sensing that the Hoboken team was badly shaken by the loss of its star quarterback, pressed his advantage ruthlessly. He went for the bomb on the first plat from scrimmage.
Strawn, sent out wide on the play, snagged the long throw neatly and took it all the way in for another Packer touchdown. The extra point made it 17-7.
All of a sudden, it seemed to be raining a little harder on the Hoboken side of the field. A few of the 832 fans, those of the least faith, began to drift from the stadium.
Unplayed Football Classics was followed by Matchup, a boxing show that telecast the imagery bouts most requested by the viewers. Other spinoffs followed in good time when Matchup too made it big.
After the third year of smash ratings, Unplayed Football Classics was sent into the front lines. Its time slot was moved so it conflicted, directly, with the NFL Game-of-the-Week.
The resulting holocaust was a ratings draw. But even that was enough to keep the lords of the sport from their slumber and set them to yelping. For the very first time, computer simulations had demonstrated that they could compete successfully with the real product.
The lords of sport fought back, at first, with an advertising campaign. They set out to convince the public that the computer games were cheap imitations that no real sports fan would accept for a moment as a substitute for the real thing.
They failed. The fans were too far removed from the stadium to grasp the point. They were a generation of sports fans that had never seen a football game, except over television. And, over television, the computer games were just as dramatic and unpredictable and exciting as anything the NFL could offer.
So, the games weren’t real. So what. They looked real. It wasn’t like they used actors, or anything.
The lords of sport reeled from their failure, grasped for another weapon. The lawsuits began.
You can’t call your simulated team the Green Bay Packers, the lawyers for the lords told the computer people. That name is our property. You can’t use it. Or the name of all those players. You’ll have to make up your own.
They went to court to prove their point.
After all, the judges ruled, they weren’t using real games. Besides, they asked the lords of sport, why didn’t you object to all those people who did the same thing on radio? No, it’s too late. You’ve set your precedents already.
Meanwhile, the third network was building a bigger computer. It was called Sportsmaster.
Hoboken held onto the ball for the rest of the second quarter, but only to run out the clock. There wasn’t enough time left to do anything before the half anyway.
The halftime show was a dreary affair. The NFL had long passed the point when it could stage big productions. But, given its budget, it still tried. There were a few high school bands on hand, and a holoshow that was an utter disaster thanks to the rain.
It didn’t matter. Nobody was watching anyway. The fans had all gone for hot dogs, and the sportswriters were down in the locker room trying to find out how Keith Lancer was.
The Boy Scouts, meanwhile, went to the Packer locker room to get autographs. On orders from the scoutmaster, who was also commissioner of the National Football League.
Sportsmaster was the largest civilian computer ever built, and there were some that said it was even bigger than the Pentagon computer that controlled the nation’s defenses. Its master memory banks contained all the data on sports and sports figures that anyone anywhere had ever bothered to put down on paper or film or tape. It was designed to prepare detailed, full-color, whole-cloth simulations, for both standard television wall screens and the new holovision sets.
Its method of operation was an innovation, too. Instead of isolated games, Sportsmaster featured league competition, complete with seasons and schedules. But in the Sportsmaster Baseball League, every team was a pennant winner. In the Sportsmaster Boxing Tournament, every fighter was a champion. In the Sportsmaster Football League, every competitor had at least a divisional crown to its credit.
Sportsmaster games would not be presented as mere television shows. They would be presented as events, as news, it was decreed. The network sponsoring Sportsmaster immediately begin to give the same build-up to future computer simulations as to real sports events. The newspapers, at first, refused to go along. Most insisted on covering Sportsmaster boradcasts in the entertainment section instead of the sports pages.
For a while they insisted, that is. Then, one by one, they began to come around. The fans, it seems, wanted sports coverage of Sportsmaster presentations.
And the lords of sport suddenly faced war.
Hoboken took the kickoff at the opening of the second half. But Keith Lancer still sat on the sidelines, and with out him the Jets seemed vaguely unsure of what they were supposed to do with the ball. They made one first down, then stalled and were forced to punt.
The Packer offense came back onto the field, and they radiated a cold confidence. With methodical precision, Sandretti led his team down the field. He was taking no chances now, so he kept the ball out of the air and relied on his running backs. Again and again Mitchell slammed into the line, and Strawn danced through it, to pick up a yard or two or four. Slowly but inexorably the Packer steamroller ground ahead.
The drive was set back by a few penalties, and slowed here and there when the Jet defense toughened momentarily. But it was never stopped. It was late in the third quarter before Mitchell finally plunged over tackle into the end zone for another Packer touchdown.
Then came the extra point, and it was 24-7 Packers, and a lot of the fans seemed to be leaving.
For a decade the war raged. fierce and bloody. At first, Sportsmaster was the underdog, fighting for acceptance, fighting to be taken seriously. The NFL and the NHL and the NBA won all the early battles.
And then the gap began to close. The viewers and the fans got used to Sportsmaster, and the distinction began to blur. After all, the games looked the same over television. Except that the Sportsmaster Leagues seemed to have better teams, and their games seemed to be a little more exciting.
That was deliberate. The Sportsmaster people had programmed in a drama factor. They were careful about it, however. They knew nothing can kill a sport faster than obvious staging of games for effect. The predictable, standard scripts of wrestling and roller derby were strictly avoided. Sportsmaster games remained always as unpredictable as the real thing.
Only, they were slightly more exciting, on the average. There were dull games in the Sportsmaster Leagues, of course. But never quite as many as in the real leagues.
The turning point in the war was the Battle of the Super Bowl in January, 1994.
In the NFL Super Bowl, the New York Giants were facing the Denver Broncos. The Broncos were one of the most exciting teams in decades; blinding speed, a colorful quarterback, and the highest-scoring offense in football history. The Giants were the mediocre champions of a weak division, who had gotten lucky in the playoffs.
In the September Super Bowl, the 1993 Denver Broncos were facing the Green Bay Packers of the Vince Lombardi era.
In the NFL Super Bowl, the Broncos beat the Giants 34-9 in an utterly undistinguished game. The outcome of the contest was never in doubt for a second.
In the Sportsmaster Super Bowl, the Broncos beat the Packers 21-17, on a long bomb thrown with seconds remaining on the clock.
The two Super Bowls got almost identical ratings. But those who watched the NFL game found that they had missed a classic to watch a dud. It was the last time that would happen, they vowed.
Sportsmaster began to pull ahead.
It was the moment of truth for Hoboken.
The Jets took the Packer kickoff, and started upfield with determination. Yard by yard they fought their way through the mud and the rain, back into the game. And the Packer defense made them pay for every inch with blood.
The Jets drove the fifty, then past it. They moved into Packer territory. When the quarter ended, they were on the Packer thirty-three yard line.
Two plays into the fourth quarter, the second-string quarterback fumbled on a handoff. The Packers recovered.
Sandretti took over, and the Packers moved the ball back towards midfield. They picked up one first down. But then, suddenly, the Jet defense got tense.
They stopped the Packers on the forty-five. Green Bay was forced to punt. The punt, against the wind, was a bad one. The Jets called for a fair catch and took the ball on their own thirty.
First and ten. The Jets tried an end sweep. No gain.
Second and ten. A reverse. A three-yard loss.
Third and thirteen. The Jets called time out.
And Keith Lancer came back in.
He wasn’t limping now. But he still looked unsteady, wobbly on his feet. This was it for the Jets, the fans told themselves. This was the do-or-die play. A pass, of course. It had to be a pass.
The Packers were thinking the same thing. When the ball was snapped and Lancer faded back, their front four came roaring in like demons out of hell.
Lancer lateralled to one of his halfbacks on the sideline. The rushers changed direction in mid-stride, and streaked past him.
Lancer, suddenly ignored, ran slowly upfield and caught the pass for a first down. He was tackled with a vengeance. But all that got the Packers was a fifteen-yard penalty.
Lancer stayed in, and started passing. In seven plays, he put Hoboken on the scoreboard again to cut the Packer margin to 24-14.
The long twilight of spectator sports had begun.
Sportsmaster II was unveiled in 1995, a computer bigger and more sophisticated than the original. Sportsmaster, Inc., was sliced from the network that had founded it by government decree, since the combined empire was growing too large.
By the late 1990’s, television and confrontations between Sportsmaster shows and real sports events were confrontation in name only. Sportsmaster ran away with the ratings with monotonous regularity.
In 1996, the network that had been broadcasting NFL games refused to pick up the contract unless the price was slashed almost in half. The league was forced to agree.
In 1998, the NBA television contract was worth only a fourth of what it had gone for five years earlier.
In 1999, no one bid for the right to telecast NHL hockey.
Still, the sports promoters hung on. They still has some television audiences. And the games themselves were packed.
But the Sportsmaster men were ruthless. They analyzed the reasons why real sports still attracted people. And come up with some innovations.
People who still went to games did so because they preferred to view sports outdoors, or as part of a crowd. And they erected giant Sportsmaster Stadium, where the simulations were staged outdoors as full-color, three dimensional holoshows.
In 2003, the Super Bowl was not a sellout. The World Series had already failed to sell out for several years running. The live crowds started to shrink.
And it didn’t stop.
Despite the Jet touchdown, the Packers were still comfortably out in front. The game was theirs, if they could only run out the clock.
Sandretti kept his team on the ground, handing off to Mitchell and Strawn, chalking up one first down after another the hard way by churning through the mud. The Jets began to use their time-outs. The minutes flew by.
The Packers finally were held just past the mid-field stripe. But Sandretti had wreaked his damage. There was time left for maybe one Jet drive, but hardly for two.
But Hoboken did not give up. Their time-outs were gone and the clock was against them. But Lancer was in the game again. And that made everything possible.
The Packers went into a prevent defense to guard against the bomb. They were willing to give up the short gain, the first down. That was alright. Lancer could drive for a touchdown if he wanted to, so long as it wasn’t a quick score.
The Jet quarterback tried one bomb, but it fizzled, incomplete, in the rain. Packer defenders were all over the Hoboken deep men. The Jets had no recourse but to drive for the score, eat up the clock, and pray for a break.
They drove. Lancer, no longer wobbly, hit on one short pass after another. Hoboken moved upfield. Hoboken scored. The extra point was dead on target. The score stood at 24-21.
But there was less than a minute left to play.
In 2005, they introduced Sportsmaster III, and the Home Matchmaker. It was a fatal blow.
Sportsmaster III was ten times the size of Sportsmaster II, and had more than a hundred times the capacity. it was built underground in Kansas, and was larger than most cities. Regional extensions were scattered over the nation.
The Home Matchmakers were expensive devices that linked up directly with the Sportsmater extensions, and, through them, with Sportsmaster III. They were programming devices. They allowed each sportsmaster subscriber to select his own games for home viewing.
Sportsmaster III could accommodate any request, could set up any match, could arrange any conditions. If a subscriber wanted to see the 1962 Los Angeles Rams play the 1980 Notre Dame junior varsity in the Astrodome, Sportsmaster III would digest that request, search its awesome memory banks, and bean up simulation to the subscriber’s holovision.
The variations were infinite. The subscriber could punch in weather, injuries, and location. The subscriber could select his own team of All Stars, and pit them against someone else’s team, or against a real team of any era. With Sportsmaster III and the Home Matchmaker, the sports fan could sit at home and watch any sort of contest he could dream up.
At first, the Home Matchmakers were very costly. Only the very rich could afford them. Others were forced to pool their resources, form Sportsmaster clubs, and vote on games they wanted to see.
But soon the price began to come down.
And when it got low enough, the spectator sports died.
Boxing went first. It had always been the week sister. The champions continued to defend their crowns, but there were fewer and fewer challengers, since the game was far from lucrative. The intervals between fights grew steadily longer. And after a while, there were no more fights.
The other sports followed. People continued to play tennis and golf, but they were no longer willing to pay to watch others play. Not when they could watch much better matches, of their own selection, on Sportsmaster hookups. Tournament after tournament was cancelled. Until there were no more left to cancel.
The NHL and the NBA both disbanded in 2010. They had been suffering billion-dollar losses for several years before they closed up shop.
Baseball, hoary with age, held on for years longer. It moved its teams to progressively smaller cities, where the novelty always brought out crowds for a while. It slashed costs desperately. It sold stadiums, cut salaries to the bone, skimped on field and equipment maintenance. It went before Congress, and argued that the national past-time should be preserved with a subsidy.
And, in 2014, it folded.
Football was the last to go. Since the 1970’s, it had been the biggest and richest, and the most arrogant sports of all. It had fought the most bitterly in the days of ads and lawsuits, and it had carried the brunt of the battle throughout the long television war.
And now it refused to die. It used every trick the baseball leagues had tried, and then some. It cut teams, added teams, moved teams, changed the rules, began sideshows. But nothing worked. No one came. No one was interested.
And so it was that the last Super Bowl was played in January, 2016, on a muddy field in Hoboken, New Jersey.
It was going to be an on-sides kick. The Jets knew that. The Packers knew that. Every fan in the stadium knew that. They were all waiting.
But, even as they lined up for the kickoff, the rains came.
They came in earnest, a torrent, a sudden downpour. The sky darkened, and the wind howled, and the water came rushing down and down and down. It was a blinding rain, lashing at the mud, sending remaining fans scrambling for shelter.
In that rain came the kickoff.
It was an on-sides kick, of course. Neither team could see the ball very well. Both converged on it. A Packer reached it first. He thre himself on top of it.
And the mud-covered ball squirted out from under him. Squirted towards Hoboken.
The Jets had the break they needed. It was first and ten near the fifty, and it was their ball. But the clock was ticking, and the rain was a shrieking wall of water that refused to let up.
Lancer and the Jet offense came running back onto the field, and lined up quickly. They didn’t bother with a huddle. They had their plays down already.
The Packer defensemen walked out slowly, dragging their heels through the mud, dawdling, eating up the clock. Finally they got lined up, and the ball was snapped.
It was impossible to pass in the rain. Impossible. You couldn’t throw through that much water. You couldn’t run through mud like that, and puddles that looked like oceans. You couldn’t even see the ball in that kind of rain.
It was impossible to pass in that rain. But the Jets had to pass. Their time was running out.
So Lancer passed. Somehow, somehow, he passed.
His first throw was a bullet to the sidelines, good for twenty yards. the receiver didn’t see the ball coming. But he caught it anyway, because Lancer laid it right into his hands. Then he stepped out of bounds, and stopped the clock.
There were eighteen seconds left to play.
Lancer passed again. Somehow, through that blinding rain, in that sea of mud, somehow he passed again. It was complete.
It was complete to the other sideline, to the five. The receiver clutched at the ball, and bobbled it for a second, the grasped it tightly, and took a step towards the goal line.
And the Packer defender roared into him like a mack truck and knocked him out of bounds. The clock stopped again. With about six seconds left.
It was the last touchdown drive. The very, very last. And now it was the climax.
They lined up at the three, with seconds left. Both teams looked at same by now; spattered, soaking, hulking figures in uniforms that had all turned an identical mud-brown.
It was the last confrontation. The Packer defense, in its ultimate test: a wall, and iron-hard, determined, teeth-clenched, mud-brown human wall. Lancer, the last great quarterback: wet and muddy and injured and angry and brilliant.
And the rain, the pounding rain around them both.
The ball snapped.
Lancer took it. The Jet line surged forward, smashing at the Packers, fighting to clear a hole, clearing one. Lancer moved to it, through it, towards the goal line, the goal line only feet away.
And something rose up front the ground and hit him. Hard and low.
It was the last touchdown drive, the last ever. And it was brilliant and it was poetic and they should have scored. They should have scored.
But they didn’t.
And the gun sounded, and the game was over, and the Packers had won. The players began to drift away to the locker room.
And Keith Lancer, who drove for the final touchdown, and didn’t make it, picked himself up from the mud, and sighed, and helped up the man who had tackled him.
They shook hands in the rain, and Lancer smiled to hide the tears. And so, strangely, did the Packer.
Neither one bothered to look up, at the stands.
The empty stands.