- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2005

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Tomorrow evening, as the sun sets over North Florida and the final 24 hours to Super Bowl XXXIX begin ticking away, life will switch from a hearty gallop to a maddening crawl for the participants.

The teams will slip into a lock-down state. The cacophony of the week’s festivities will quiet down. Players will get together at times for team meals or meetings, and they’ll bide time watching television, listening to music or chatting with family members over the telephone. But mostly they will wait …

And wait …

And wait as the clock crawls toward 6:38 p.m. Sunday, time for the biggest game of their lives finally, mercifully, to kick off.

“The day is very slooow,” New England Patriots special teams ace Larry Izzo said, drawing out the last word for emphasis. “The night before and the day of is very slow. It can’t come soon enough.”

The Patriots know these final 24 hours well, having experienced them three years ago at Super Bowl XXXVI and last year at Super Bowl XXXVIII. Only 12 players on New England’s 53-man roster have no Super Bowl experience, and 17 current Patriots were on board for both recent trips to the big game.

Perhaps some part of Sunday’s seven-point spread is a nod to that experience, to the possibility the Patriots calmly navigate the final countdown while the Philadelphia Eagles, a band of Super Bowl newbies, gnash their teeth and claw the walls.

“I’ve seen people burn themselves out just from [the pregame],” said safety Je’Rod Cherry, who has played in both recent New England Super Bowl appearances.

To hear Patriots players describe the final 24 hours, the wait sounds like suspended animation or hibernation. The go-go-go sense of Monday through Saturday afternoon gives way to a Zen that would make Phil Jackson proud. Cherry, in fact, meditates to pass the time.

“There’s a certain amount of calmness,” linebacker Ted Johnson said. “Everybody seems to slow waaaay down. The frenetic energy that seems to consume you all week is at a minimum. There’s just a hyper-focus towards the game.”

NFL players, of course, play the waiting game before every big contest. But Super Bowl Sunday is different. Not only are the stakes and impending worldwide audience gigantic, but the day’s activities are more spread out to accommodate the hoopla.

Kickoff is late in the day. Teams get to the stadium as much as six hours before kickoff, rather than the more typical three hours. And the normal rhythm is stagnated because of all the entertainment. While players wait, guitars are strummed, rumps are shaken and wardrobes, from time to time, malfunction.

“We’ve realized that as long as you think Saturday is, Sunday’s going to be even longer,” linebacker Tedy Bruschi said with a grin.

For some, the final 24 hours are a time to savor. Johnson most enjoys the Saturday evening team meal, the first after all the families have been ushered out. With media commitments, game-planning and play installation complete, players are left alone to muse about their long journey.

“We gather as a linebacking unit and reflect on the season and what we can expect the next day,” Johnson said. “There’s just a calmness. All the work’s been done. There’s really nothing else you can do.”

Like good soldiers, the Patriots then try to get a good night’s sleep. But history is littered with players not as dutiful — or as lucky.

Among the infamous incidents on the eve of the Super Bowl: Cincinnati Bengals fullback Stanley Wilson was found high on cocaine in his hotel room in 1989, Atlanta Falcons safety Eugene Robinson was arrested for solicitation of prostitution in 1999, and Oakland Raiders center Barret Robbins, beset by bipolar disorder, deserted his team and ended up in a bar in Tijuana, Mexico, in 2003.

New England, coached by meticulous Bill Belichick, is the last team expected to be struck by an 11th-hour crisis, or for that matter unnerved by the way Sunday unfolds.

“Bill did a great job of explaining to us what was going to go on, exactly what was going to happen each and every minute of the day,” said center Dan Koppen, a rookie last season. “We were very well prepared.”

Koppen is among the Patriots who argue there isn’t any advantage in having experienced the 24 hours prior to kickoff. After all, he said, how players react in 60 minutes of football is far more significant than how they respond to the hours beforehand.

Furthering his case is a thought offered by several teammates: that no matter how many times a player experiences the languid expiration of the hours before the big game, he never quite learns to cope with it.

“You do a little bit, but it’s still hard to get yourself under control, because there’s so much time between kickoff and warmups and halftime,” wide receiver/defensive back Troy Brown said. “You’ve got to keep your composure.”

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