Rooting For Snow At The Super Bowl


As published in the Providence Journal, January 29, 2014.

Now that the Patriots have been eliminated from the Super Bowl chase, which team am I rooting for? The Broncos? The Seahawks? Neither. I’m pulling for the Farmers’ Almanac.

Long before the days of Doppler radar and storm modeling, almanacs served up weather prognostications based on byzantine mathematical and astronomical formulas. The Farmers’ Almanac is still at it today and, as early as last August, predicted a stormy, snowy Feb. 2 for East Rutherford, N.J., where this year’s Super Bowl will be played.

Go, Farmers’ Almanac! I hope we see Jim Cantore of The Weather Channel on the MetLife Stadium sidelines, hyperventilating about snow accumulations.

Holding the Super Bowl outdoors at a cold climate site is the latest stroke of marketing brilliance for an event that has become a virtual national holiday. It wasn’t always that way.

In its humble debut, the Super Bowl was simply known as the AFL-NFL World Championship Game. The Green Bay Packers defeated the Kansas City Chiefs, 35-10. The halftime show was two college marching bands. There were only 61,946 spectators in the stands, hardly a sell-out at the Los Angeles Coliseum.

Forty-seven years later, the Super Bowl is the most watched annual television program in the United States. The game attracts more than 100 million TV viewers worldwide. This year, 30-second ads cost up to $4.5 million.

NFL marketers built the Super Bowl franchise with great teams — the Steelers and the 49ers, the Cowboys and the Patriots. They built it with halftime shows that had star power and broad appeal. Super Bowl I’s marching bands have been eclipsed by U2, Prince, Bruce Springsteen, and an infamous wardrobe malfunction. And now the NFL has pulled another rabbit out of its helmet: the weather.

By playing the game in the Northeast on the first weekend in February, the NFL has generated incremental buzz. For weeks, in addition to the usual pre-game chatter and blather, blogs and sportswriters and ESPN commentators have asked: “What if it snows?”

The 10-year-old in many of us knows the answer: “Game on!” Because when you’re a kid, there’s nothing like playing football in the snow.

I grew up in the Elmhurst section of Providence, where the houses sit on small lots — not much room for running to daylight. There was an empty lot at the corner of Rankin and Moorland, but when we tried to play there, the owners shooed us away faster than you could say “Pete Rozelle.” So we ended up playing touch football in the street, telephone pole to telephone pole.

Unless it snowed or rained.

When that happened, playing tackle football was irresistible. We would hike up to the fields at La Salle Academy or Mount Pleasant High School, mark the end zones with our coats, and “muckle” (a kid verb denoting violent tackling) each other until our cheeks and fingers were numb . . . and then muckle each other some more.

Tackle football in the elements had such appeal that my best friend and I once flooded his backyard on a sunny autumn day just so we could play in the mud. His parents were not amused.

This coming Sunday, I hope the game is close, the ads are entertaining, and the halftime show grooves.

And should snow fall from the heavens? There will be a lot of kids and former kids, including this one, who think the conditions are ideal.


In A Word: The Story Behind “Scrimmage”

Football has given us lots of weird, cool words. Take “scrimmage,” for example. During Saturday night’s Patriots-Broncos game, you’ll hear a lot about the “line of scrimmage,” the point at which each play starts. But there are actually two lines of scrimmage: the offensive line of scrimmage and the defensive line of scrimmage. These are the imaginary vertical planes at either tip of the football before it is put in play and parallel to each team’s end zone.

The space in between the two lines of scrimmage is called the “neutral zone,” a gridiron Switzerland. (“Neutral” comes from the Latin “neuter” which is a combination of ne- “not, no” + uter “either.”) No player can line up in the neutral zone at the beginning of a play except the center, who snaps the ball to the quarterback. When he does, the teams engage in a “scrimmage,” which is an alteration of the word “skirmish.” “Skirmish” derives from the Germanic “skirmen,” which means “to protect or defend.” It has come to have the broader meaning of “a minor or preliminary conflict or dispute.”

At, we learn that the meaning of “scrimmage” in rugby and U.S. football today dates from 1857, when it described “a confused struggle between players.” Clearly, the people in charge of definitions back then had never seen a Belichick team play.

Go Pats!

What’s In A Name? My “Tebow” Epiphany

Once upon a time, people genuflected – in church, while proposing, when receiving a medal from the Queen of England. Genuflecting is an expression of respect and humility, and one of those words whose meaning is embedded in its Latin DNAgenu “knee” + flectere “to bend.”

Today, people are tebowing – dropping to one knee on sidewalks, in school hallways, and in end zones after successful scrambles. We owe this phenomenon, of course, to Tim Tebow, the earnest quarterback of the Denver Broncos, who genuflects in gratitude after a score. Tebow is a lightning rod – you either love him or hate him. But either way, you have to admit that he has accomplished something remarkable and it goes far beyond the football field. Tebow’s name has become part of the national vocabulary, as in “Hey, look at that guy tebowing over by the water cooler.” If linguistics were a sport, this would be the equivalent of winning the Super Bowl.

Just ask marketing professionals. They drool at the prospect of having a brand name become part of everyday parlance. Google is glad we google, Rollerblade is delighted we rollerblade. With every mention, their brand is inscribed deeper into our consciousness. Once upon a time, Xerox spent a lot of time and money trying to squash the use of “xerox” as a verb, insisting that we use the term “photocopy” instead. We listened, and then went to the copy machine to xerox something. In the game of marketing today, what was once seen as damaging to a brand name is now coveted as a way to become part of the public vernacular.

That tebowing has entered our national lexicon is no small feat. It reflects how organic our language is, evolving every day to describe the ever-surprising world around us. But even more striking is the fact that the word “tebow” suggests an exquisite etymology: te is Latin for “you” and bow comes from the Old English bugan, “to bend, to bow down.” Tim Tebow’s last name literally means “you bow down.”

Just a coincidence? No doubt. But I like to think of it as a gift from the word gods.

%d bloggers like this: