26 Jan 2012
by Mike Tanier
Mobile is New Orleans’ demure baby sister.
She doesn’t party like her big sister. She isn’t as developed as her big sister. But the resemblance is obvious, and she is charming in her own way. Mobile is more modest in every way, and modesty has its own charms.
Like New Orleans, Mobile has the classic antebellum architecture, columns, wrought iron fences and second-floor balconies. She has a bar district called Dauphin Street that neither swings nor vomits quite like Rue Bourbon. There’s even a Mardi Gras, the oldest in North America according to locals and Wikipedia, and the event reportedly achieves a respectable level of debauchery. There are historic churches and genteel squares. There are Cajun and creole dishes on most menus, and the bars mix jazz and blues with country rock and plain-old pop. There are palm trees and willow trees and other mossy trees overhanging the residential streets. The city is faded and rickety, and poverty laps at the edges of the historic district, but Mobile definitely has a lovable side.
Mobile is home to the Senior Bowl, of course, and if you are following on Twitter or at the Shutdown Corner for Yahoo!, you are getting my regular updates on the goings on. Telling you that Kellen Moore runs like some spindly garden insect and throws like the football is really a sack of rolled-up socks barely gives you the impression of what it is like to be here. Saying that the South defensive line is so good and the North’s offense is so low on talent that I expect the final score on Saturday to be 17-to-negative-3 cannot possibly impart to you the awesome strangeness of this event in this milieu.
This is not Walkthrough. It is Midnight in the Garden of Draftniks and Hangers-on.
Getting to Mobile was its own chore. As you know, Alabama got hit with some lethal tornados on Monday. The devastation occurred well north of Mobile (nearly everything is well north of Mobile), so everyone here is fine, please stop asking, mom. But the tornadoes were part of a major storm front that formed a perfect line between Philadelphia and Alabama on Monday. My flight from Philly was delayed an hour, which would have eaten my 51-minute layover cushion if the plane from Atlanta to Mobile was not delayed 90 minutes. Then, there was a second delay, because the first officer was missing. Commander Riker, where are you? On the holodeck, where the security overrides have again failed, getting chased by gangsters and that Minuet chick you fantasized about? No, he was on a plane from Jacksonville, which is also delayed.
Then, everyone going to Mobile crammed onto a little puddle-jumper of a plane. Everybody going to Mobile was a scout, coach, or football writer. Scouts and coaches are often ex-players, and are therefore huge. Football writers sit around watching football and typing, and are therefore fat. Somehow, the sardine can took flight as we all marinated into one pungent broth.
The end result of all the delays is that I missed Monday’s practice. Despite the long, breathless missives I read about who looked good and who didn’t on Monday, I don’t think I missed much. A bunch of college players who did not know each other took the field together under coaches they had barely met in soupy, sloppy conditions. Shockingly, there were dropped passes and mental mistakes. Whatever. I got into town for the important thing: the Kickoff Reception.
There was a "media night" on the Battleship USS Alabama, but I get ever-so-motion sick on even the largest craft. And anyway, the girl at the media desk steered me to the reception at the Renaissance Battlehouse Hotel. It’s her fault that I ended up sipping Canadian whiskey with the town fathers in an opulent ballroom with a vaulting central dome that made you dizzy if you stared straight into it after four or five drinks. (The bartenders knew how to mix Canadian Club and 7-Up. I think they were hiding the fact that they only had one can of 7-Up in the whole building and were trying to stretch it). It is her fault that I ate carved ham sandwiches while listening to former Eagles coach Eddie Khayat (going way back here) tell stories about legendary Cardinals running back Ollie Matson (going further back). It is her fault that I watched Jerry Jones yuk it up with local captains of industry instead of listening to Kirk Cousins or someone give a carefully scripted series of statements about how happy he is to be at the Senior Bowl and how committed he is to proving that he can be a great NFL quarterback.
I do not know if Cousins spoke on the battleship or not. He did have a Tuesday press conference. He took the podium, and there was an awkward 20 seconds or so where it was clear that no one was really interested in speaking to him. I encountered the same thing after the draft, when Prince Amukamara attended a union (or whatever) scheduled event and the assembled media was too whiplashed from labor news to ask him anything. Eventually, someone broke the ice, and Cousins eventually launched into a full explanation of how he battled Nick Foles and Keith Nichol at different times for the quarterback position at Michigan State. It is really an interesting story, though not the way Cousins told it. He delivered it with the rat-a-tat-tat diction of someone who did not know what the words he was saying meant. He sounded like a supporting character in his own story. Cousins is more personable face-to-face, but he does not carry the Best Quarterback at the Senior Bowl mantle well, perhaps because it was never totally clear that he was the best quarterback at Michigan State.
But back to the reception. There were scouts at the reception. There are scouts everywhere. They sit at restaurant tables, haunt hotel lobbies, and jog through downtown in the cool of the morning. They circle the players after practice and ward off reporters with deadly glances. They speak to each other in mumbles.
Mumble-speak is the official language of the Senior Bowl. Very important people are everywhere, trying to have private conversations about important matters, knowing that reporters and camera crews are just a few feet away in every direction. You may see an offensive coordinator confiding in a coach from another team. You may hear him start to talk about his controversial quarterback, stating some obvious points about how the 2011 season went down. "Here’s the thing, though," he says, about to deliver a vital piece of inside gossip. "Mumble mumble mumble mumble mumble." Then, in response, "Wow."
There are a lot of coaches in Mobile. There are also some ex-coaches. Jack Del Rio is about, for example. Some ex-players are around, likely searching for coaching jobs. Hank Fraley was hanging around with Juan Castillo on Tuesday. Castillo sat next to me on the bleachers for a few minutes, talking with Fraley about the South’s defensive lineman. "Mumble mumble mumble," he said, though I think that is how he always talks. Sitting next to Castillo caused the kind of conflicting emotions that ultimately lead a person to do absolutely nothing. It’s like sitting next to the guy who wrecked your car but swore he didn’t mean to do it.
What is amazing about mumble-speak is how quickly people slip out of it when they are about to impart the most obvious possible information. One scout with ties to both the Ravens and Eagles provided a mumble-speak soliloquy when I was in near earshot, then suddenly started speaking very clearly when making two points: 1) John Harbaugh is not happy about the way his offense looked against the Patriots, and 2) Marty Mornhinweg wants to make sure that any head coaching gig he gets is nothing like his tenure in Detroit. Page One scoops, folks!
At least no one is mumbling about the Giants and Patriots, though you hear "are they sending you to Indianapolis?" often enough. We are far from the Super Bowl hive mind here. Janoris Jenkins gets mentioned more often than Eli Manning. Jenkins is a 5-foot-10 cornerback from North Alabama. He made a great play along the sideline in Tuesday’s practice. It has been hard for defensive backs to shine for the South, because the front seven has blown up every pass, but Jenkins stood out a bit. The local press loves him. I love the fact that he is someone new to talk and write about. Jenkins may best be known for getting kicked off the Florida program, an impressive accomplishment in itself. "That kid has been arrested more times than Pretty Boy Floyd," one beat writer joked to me.
There’s something about the impending Super Bowl that makes everyone involved in football lapse into self parody. Tom Brady said he "sucked pretty bad" after the Ravens game. Brady has been sliding down the slippery slope of self-flagellation for years, and it is hard to find the right adjective for a genuinely weak performance when you follow 380-yard passing days with "I am not at all satisfied with how I played. I feel so worthless. These shoulder pads make me look fat." But "sucked pretty bad?" Players need to leave the idiots who insult them some verbal wiggle room; they can’t adopt all the pithiest phrases.
Tom Coughlin, meanwhile, spent the NFC championship game shaking his head. There must be a director at FOX who cues the Coughlin Cam every time he shakes his head in exasperation. Or maybe it’s the same footage from 2006, spliced and reused. Coughlin’s head shake is photogenic in its own way. His disgust has a weary, lived-in quality. He’s more like the dad who found muddy footprints in the hallway and dirty little shoes under the kitchen table for the 200th time than Mike Ditka, but he gives the impression (or the television production gives the impression) of a man whose head is forever oscillating. And then, during the Halas Trophy ceremony, when John Mara is about to give his brief television interview, you can see Coughlin approaching the podium, waiting for his moment. Coughlin sees players doing something goofy off camera, and guess what? He shakes his head with annoyance. Disapproval never rests.
Jim Irsay? The man Tweeted the lyrics to "Do it Again" by Steely Dan just an hour or so before Tweeting "hey, check out the Colts website for a special surprise," namely the firing of Jim Caldwell. I paraphrased the firing Tweet, but many of you saw it: the tone sounded like there was a downloadable car wash coupon at the site, not news of a major coaching change. Where does all this leave me? Recycling humor, that’s where. Brady’s self-criticism has turned silly. Coughlin is a grouch. Irsay grooves to his turntable of 70’s hits on Mushroom Mountain. Now I’m repetitive. When they start doing new things, I will make fun of them for new things.
Jerry Jones aside, most of the biggest cats aren’t here in Mobile, or they are carefully sequestered. Smaller cats are everywhere. The UFL is here in force. So is the Canadian Football League. There are scouting services and websites that I have never heard of. A young dude from a small agency chewed my ear with the depressing story of what young dudes from small agencies must do to make a living (they give presentations to top prospects who politely turn them down because they are signing with the industry giants, then scour the bottoms of draft boards in search of future fifth-round picks to schmooze.) Something called the A-1 Pro Football League distributed flyers, saying that they were interviewing interested coaches. I was tempted to put Aaron Schatz’s name on a card. I was not tempted to put my own.
Men outnumber women about 45-to-1, except when a youth group bus deposits 50 or so kids in the stands so they can watch Mike Shanahan install boot passes for 105 minutes. There is a lot of credential reading, the sports equivalent of penile length comparison. Walk into a bar like The Royal Scam, and you are likely to find a dozen football experts studiously not talking about football, lest they give away some vital piece of information.
And what information is really that vital? That Melvin Ingram looks great? Duh. That the Jaguars are kicking tires on every wide receiver they can find? That anyone down here in search of a franchise quarterback is going to go home and tell his general manager to call Matt Flynn’s agent at the first possible opportunity?
Sometimes, you get lucky, and walk into a bar to find a local radio personality talking to the parents of a long snapper while a couple of prospects have sandwiches and sodas under the watchful eyes of everyone else. The prospects, young black guys with gray hoodies over their head, look out of place in the hotel bar, and you can tell they feel out of place too, eyes darting about, their body language huddles. The local radio personality, a woman, tells the long snapper’s mother that her son has beautiful eyes, then they discover that that maid of honor at the radio lady’s wedding was the daughter of the long snapper’s grandfather’s best friend. These people live about 600 miles away from each other. How does this happen? How does a five-minute conversation at a bar end up there? Meanwhile, the television shows ... reruns of Senior Bowl practice, and one of the prospects points when he sees the other on the screen.
It is all very surreal. Leave Ladd-Peebles Stadium (which is nestled in a dumpy, crumbly neighborhood that looks suspiciously like Mount Ephraim) and you pass autograph seekers from the local high schools, grungy lads who want to fist-bump Marquise Maze before sneaking off to the local clearing with a bottle of whatever it is kids drink these days. (Cotton candy vodka, mixed with energy drink, mixed with plutonium). Pass the sweaty kids in Under Armour, and you bump into Drew Rosenhaus. Pass him (on his phone, of course) and you bump into a representative from Under Armour.
Some local group sponsored a tent luncheon for Senior Bowl guests on Tuesday: pulled pork, fried chicken, cole slaw, beans, banana pudding. The smell wafted along one sideline for the entire morning practice. Grown men wanted to leap face-first into that barbecue drum. The lunch came with a catch, though: some neighborhood preteens stood guard outside the entrance selling fundraiser items. One girl sold two-dollar candy bars: expensive, but it is a candy bar. Two boys sold air fresheners. Air fresheners! "Do they sell dryer sheets, too?" one writer joked. I bought a candy bar, but told the kid that I had no use for an air freshener because I was staying in a hotel and driving a rental. "It can keep your hotel room from smellin'," he told me. It is starting to get a little rank in here. The other writers told me that those same kids have been coming to the Senior Bowl for years. In a few years, they could play center for the North, but unfortunately the North needs centers now.
|Mardi Grasmas in Mobile||Virgin Mary in Cathedral Square|
So morning comes to Mobile, and you walk past the Christmas tree decorated in Mardi Gras colors in the hotel lobby. Seeing a purple and green Christmas tree on a 60-degree day in late January makes you feel sad and happy at the same time, and a little insane. You walk to Cathedral Square with your coffee, the BVM greeting you with her arms outstretched from her damp little grotto behind the iron gate. A young man who will be a millionaire in three months jogs past an old woman walking her Papillon. Downtown is quiet in the morning, as downtowns often are in places where shopping, business, and industry have migrated to the interstate corridor. Around would-be rush hour the night before, a car drove down Government Street with a flat tire, thumpa-thumpa-thumpa-thumpa, making no effort to pull over despite ample parking. The city wakes slowly. You pick up the local "events" paper and read the following headline: "Cooking a wild hog made easy." It is written by Andy MacDonald, Cuisine Editor.
Please let me quote at length:
"Whether you know it or not, Baldwin County is overrun with wild pigs. Apparently they are as fertile as the Mississippi Valley and have morals that are as loose as the Jersey Shore. Avid hunters send these critters to their early graves and often times leave them where they fall ...
"The problem with these pigs is that when they are killed under duress the meat becomes tougher than leather … I have found the way to end the senseless waste of wild pig meat that is not at all difficult, but it does take some time."
MacDonald recommends trapping the pigs, then letting them calm down for a day or two before butchering them. Find someone who can dress the pig and half it, pack it in ice for two days, then submerge him in an ice water, vinegar, and lemon juice bath for another day. Then, slow cook the hog for at least eight hours, though you can also spice things up with dry rubs and so on. Easy!
"Mardi Gras is a Mobile thing," the lady walking the Papillon tells me. I do not catch her name. The dog’s name is Papi. "Mardi Gras is for the people of Mobile. In New Orleans, Mardi Gras is for tourists. For two weeks, we all throw a big party. And we all party. It doesn’t matter who you are." Papi’s momma paints an appealing picture of a town with pride in its past and a strong sense of community, even if it is sleepy and riding the recession like it’s a wheelbarrow along a steep cliff.
For the Senior Bowl, Mobile throws a party for outsiders from around the nation. And we all party. It doesn’t matter who we are. If you will excuse me, there’s a Mike Shanahan press conference, followed by a Seafood Jubilee, and I don’t have to tell you which one will be more fun.
33 comments, Last at 29 Jan 2012, 8:41pm by Moridin