Monday, March 23, 2009

Football Hero

Who could forget SuperPro?

Oops, sorry! I mean . . . Who could remember SuperPro?

Not since Peter Puck (seen at right) has there been a lamer marketing ploy by a major sports league. At least the National Hockey League valiantly attempted to build interest in Peter Puck. No such luck for SuperPro.

SuperPro was a forgettable hero created by Marvel for the National Football League. He made his debut in the comics in January 1991, but his greater coming out party was at the big game of 1990: Super Bowl XXV. I’m sure no one needs to be reminded of SuperPro’s origin—he said facetiously—but for those in the audience who’ve been living on a deserted island most of their lives, here’s the skinny:

Phil Grayfield was a college all-American linebacker whose injuries sidelined his professional career. As a television investigative sports journalist, he fights evil on and off the field using a suped-up football uniform, originally designed to better protect pro football players, but which proved too costly to manufacture. The suit was primarily red, white, and blue with spot-yellow, and enhanced Phil’s natural athletic abilities. Apparently, the suit reversed the effects of those injuries that ended his career. I mean, really . . . football? Too dangerous. Fighting crime? No problem.

I was pegged for Spidey duty, along with fellow superhero actors Marc and Stewart, who would represent the Hulk and Captain America respectively. As far as any of us heroes knew, the gig was a PR event to promote Marvel. None of us knew of SuperPro. All that changed at a meeting at NFL offices in New York, where we convened one afternoon prior to our leaving. There we got the scoop: The NFL was using the Super Bowl—and the festivities leading up to it—to introduce a new hero, SuperPro. Spider-Man, Captain America and The Incredible Hulk—being internationally recognized heroic icons—would be on hand to introduce NFL’s new hero to the entire world and—more importantly—the media. Essentially we would be the whistles and bells for SuperPro’s coming out party. To spend a paid, week-long trip in Florida, playing Spider-Man at the events leading up to the Super-Bowl, perhaps including a ticket to the game? Yeah, I think I could genuflect before another hero without it bruising my ego.

The NFL didn’t need nor want the help of Marvel’s personal appearance program to find their new hero. Apparently, they felt that no experience was preferable over more than a decade’s worth when it came to hiring a character actor. Actor, Shmactor . . . they found themselves a genuine NFL football player, more precisely a recently retired L.A. Ram.

The former Ram was measured and fitted with a custom-built costume. I never saw the receipt, but the formerhead of the Personal Appearance Department once told me that the Spider-Man suits cost three thousand dollars apiece, and that was just for replacements made off the already-set design. The SuperPro suit had to have cost that much before a single yard of fabric was purchased. I’m guessing ten to twenty thousand, and that isn’t even reflecting an amount for insurance purposes, as the appraisers say on the Antiques Roadshow. It was a bill the NFL almost ate. Less than two weeks before our scheduled departure, the man who would be SuperPro backed out.

Fortunately the NFL found themselves a replacement, but he wasn’t a former professional football player. The new “Phil Grayfield” was a professional bodybuilder. As far as bodybuilders go, Phil had a neck and could scratch his back without having to rub against a tree. He looked like a cross between Willie Aames of Eight Is Enough and Ian Zeiring from Beverly Hills 90210 only with the body of Lou Ferrigno. He had a good toothy smile and looked like a typical all-American, hot-dogs-and-apple-pie–type of guy. In the SuperPro uniform, Phil looked great, surprising given that he replaced the man for whom the suited was custom fitted. The NFL marketing nabobs obviously thought so as well going by the excited grins on their faces as they paraded him through the NFL offices like a blue-ribbon heifer. (Above l. to r.: Our Phil Grayfield, Marvel Personal Appearance Department head Alison, Marc and Stewart strategize during an NFL dinner before the big game)

Like good second fiddles, we heroes dutifully followed. It was immediately made clear that we were going to have our work cut out for us when it came to spotlighting SuperPro. Phil was certainly nice enough, but he had the charisma of a mannequin. Put up against professional character actors, he all but disappeared. Patrick Swayze had it easy teaching Baby how to dance next to the Herculean task set before us. And of course, being the most iconic of the characters, the onus fell more squarely on my shoulders. (Below: the "Just-Us League" under the stands at Tampa Stadium.)

Alison, Marc, Stewart and I flew down on the Saturday the week prior to Super Bowl weekend. The NFL had flown Phil down a day or two prior. This special treatment of Phil was something the three of us “lesser” heroes would have to get used to. Although the game was to be played in Tampa, we flew into Orlando—a quick hour’s drive west—because the recently-opened Walt Disney World Dolphin Hotel was the NFL’s Super Bowl headquarters. We would be rooming there as well, only not the first night. The superheroes were scheduled to appear at a football clinic in Tampa early the next morning.

The flight was uneventful, but as we deplaned the flight crew informed us that the flight was the last Eastern Airlines flight . . . ever. While in the air the company went out of business and the crew was informed that they were out of work. The forced smiles and cheery “B’Bye”s were even more disturbing than usual. I’ve never been more relieved that firearms are not allowed on flights. While Alison began the process of rescheduling our flight home—an unenviable task given she had to find four seats on a flight out of Orlando the day after the most famous annual sporting event in the country, arguably the world, when tens of thousands of people would be flying out—we went to claim our luggage and the trunks holding our costumes. Not the Spider-Man costume, of course. That I carried with me. If the other costumes got lost in transit, at least Marvel’s most famous character would still be available. In fact, I had brought two costumes, just in case. The gig was far too important to risk damage or loss to the suit. Plus, with nearly ten days of continuous use, without access to cleaning facilities, a single costume would smell mighty ripe by the final days.

We were also responsible for shlepping the SuperPro suit around, which traveled in a trunk only slightly smaller that that used to transport the Hulk. And when I say “we,” I mean Alison, Stew, Marc and I; Phil was provided with his own humungous SUV. Wouldn’t want him to break a fingernail and thus jeopardize his SuperPro portrayal all because he was responsible for transporting his own costume.

The trunks in question—holding the Hulk and SuperPro costumes—were the same proportion as a steamer trunk, only much bigger. One could easily store an artificial Christmas tree in a trunk, complete with lights, garland several boxes of ornaments, stand, as well as Santa and several reindeer. The Captain America costume fit in a large over-the-shoulder duffel bag. But the shield . . . Oy! Imagine a pizza box designed to hold a garbage can lid or one of those circular metal sleds. A Cadillac from the early seventies wouldn’t be able to transport one of these costume storage facilities in its trunk, never mind two of them, Cap’s shield and costume, four adults and enough luggage for a ten-day trip. So we rented a van and headed for Tampa. (Above: Stewart, yours truly and Marc, stand before our trusty van in our SuperPro jackets)

Super BowI XXV was to be played in Tampa Stadium, home of the Buccaneers, but we would be lodging in Orlando—a short hour’s drive from Tampa—for all but the first night of the trip. The reason: The NFL had booked its rooms at the new Dolphin Hotel, located in the Disney World resort area. A companion to the Swan Hotel, which opened January and sat directly next to it, The Dolphin opened in June, a mere seven month prior. It was Disney World’s most luxurious hotel; no surprise then that the NFL was staying there for its most important event of the year. As a part of the Super Bowl festivities, we were staying there as well. But early the following morning of our arrival, SuperPro and the Marvel heroes were scheduled as guests at a football clinic for kids in Tampa. The highlight of the clinic was the participation of some of the NFL’s greatest stars, including Dan Marino, Bernie Kosar, Warren Moon and Ozzie Newsome, who would be overseeing the various activities. (Above: Marc and Stewart enjoy a rare off-day at The Dolphin.)

I couldn’t have been less enthused about meeting Dan Marino, the Hall-of-Fame quarterback for the Miami Dolphins, who were my beloved New England Patriots biggest rival. The only positive from meeting Marino would be the ability to tell friends later that I had met football legend Dan Marino. . . . or so I thought.

After our arrival and change into costume, Alison had the characters split up each to participate in a different activity overseen by an NFL star. Lucky me. I was directed to an area of the field where Dan Marino was throwing passes to a group of kids. Lined beside Marino, the children would one-by-one take off down the field ten to twenty yards, then cut across where Marino would lightly toss the ball to them.

It was a beautiful day: sunny, relatively dry and not too hot. Unfortunately, sunshine reeks havoc with the vision of anyone wearing the Spider-Man costume. The white mesh stretched over the eyes creates what can best be described as snow blindness when one faces the rays of the sun. The expansive field on which the activities were being conducted provided no shadows that might relieve the problem, either. I was able to cheat my way across the field to Marino and the kids, looking askance the sun under the mask while not twisting my head, so I wouldn’t appear drunk and start walking into anyone.

On my way, a young boy approached me. He had broken off from another group that were going off with one of the other NFL players and characters to partake in a different activity. “Hey, are you the guy that wrote that article for Marvel Age?” he asked.

It took a moment to realize to what he was referring. An article I had written for Marvel’s in-house magazine, Marvel Age, had appeared in the issue that was available in December. It was my first writing assignment ever, and I had hopes that it would lead to my writing more articles and eventually the comic books as well.

Marvel Age was similarly packaged as a traditional comic book—same dimension, paper stock and color process—and featured behind-the-scenes articles on everything Marvel, whether that be future storylines; upcoming toy releases and other licensed product, like T-shirts and hats; or new titles that would soon be released. I wrote a half-page piece, entitled “My Life as Spider-Man.” It encapsulated some of my adventures as the company’s most famous character and accompanied a shot of me perched on a table top beside a seated Todd McFarlane, the penciler for the Amazing Spider-Man comic at the time.

It was kind of cool that this kid had enjoyed my article and made a point of finding out if I was the same guy he had read about. At the same time I felt strangely exposed. I was more concerned with landing my first writing gig for Marvel than with “outing” Spider-Man. Fortunately, no one at Marvel seemed to notice.

As I got closer to Marino, the kids toward the back of the line and those who had already had their turn began to swarm around me, eliciting high-fives, shaking my hand and asking the usual array of questions. I immediately struck a pose in a crouched position. I would normally do this anyway when meeting younger to heighten the effect of the costume while also putting me closer to their level, in hopes of setting at ease any of those kids that are freaked out by the experience. But I also wanted to use the children to shade my eyes. Though they averaged twelve years of age, they were tall enough to do the job. Otherwise, I couldn’t see the high-fives coming at me or the hands being extended to shake, let alone the risk of trampling the smaller ones.

"Hey, Spider-Man, why are you in Tampa?” was an immediate query.

“I came to visit my friends in Tampa. Took a bit longer than I anticipated, though. Once I swung out of Manhattan, I ran out of buildings and had to hop a ride on a southbound bus,” I replied. “Fortunately, the Fantastic Four are keeping an eye on things while I’m away.”

“Let’s see you shoot a web,” another asked.

“No can do. I never shoot my webbing irresponsibly, and with great power comes great responsibility. I just hope the Green Goblin doesn’t show up. I didn’t even put my web-shooters on. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to shake hands with you guys.”

At which point I would go into a short explanation of how I shot webbing, using my middle two finger pressed against the inside of my palm while keeping my wrist bent down so as not to impede its firing. Then I had the kids show me how to shoot webbing if they, too, had a set of web-shooters.

“C’mon, who's next?!”

Dan Marino’s pointed question did little to stem the kids’ enthusiasm for Spider-Man, but it was only then that I noticed—even with my limited eye sight—that he stood alone, and not a single child paid him heed.

For the life of me, I cannot explain what happened next. Maybe my actions were an attempt to return the children’s focus onto Marino or maybe it was pure ego that drove me. There was no think; there was just do. Seeing the line empty, I shot out from the throng of youngsters and passed Marino calling, “Throw me a pass, Dan!” I sped straight out from his right about thirty yards; then cut across in front of him. Only in the instant that I looked toward him did I realize I was in big trouble; all I could make out was a faint, fuzzy blob in the distance.

What a f***ing idiot I am! I can barely make out shapes directly in front of me, never mind twenty yards away. And touch? My hands are covered in slick spandex. If I am even lucky enough to get my hands around the ball, I will only feel it once the ball’s slipped through my grasp. What was I thinking? How bad will it look if Spider-Man misses this catch? Spider-Man CANNOT drop this ball. Stephen Vrattos? PShaw! He can drop the ball, especially one thrown by Dan Marino. But if Spider-Man misses the ball—before the expectant eyes of a dozen or so adoring fans—that could end my short-lived career as the world-renown web-swinger; at the very least, I would never again be chosen for any high-profile events.

Call it divine intervention or Spider-Sense, but my cut cross-field had only taken me about five yards, when I noticed a flash of shadow as the rocket that Dan threw at me eclipsed the sun for a fraction of a second. I could only react. I leapt, shot my arms out and something akin to a head-butt slammed my sternum. Hitting my chest did little to slow the projectile as it caromed upwards, delivering an uppercut to my chin. Good thing to; had the football bounced off me in any other direction I wouldn’t have had the chance to get my arms around it and pull it in. Showing none of the terrifying affects of the experience, I lightly alit, and without losing stride, jogged smoothly back to the fuzzy blob that was Dan Marino, nonchalantly tossing him the ball and delivering a cool, “Thanks, Dan,” before rejoining the children, who were oohing and aahing over what they had just witnessed.

Meanwhile a sharp pain accompanied every breath I took and I could hardly speak; my jaw was numb. It didn’t take a science nerd like Peter Parker to understand that the pass that Marino threw Spider-Man was not the easy lob he administered to the children. And while Spider-Man—or rather the average joe beneath the costume—was certainly no youngster, he wasn’t a professional football player either. And that pass was a rifle, or rather, in football parlance, a shotgun. Marino wanted me to drop that ball. maybe he even hoped it might knock me/Spider-Man down—physically and psychologically; show the kids what a nobody Spider-Man is.

There is every possibility that Marino—having been throwing a seemingly endless stream of unsatisfying easy passes—just reacted like a well-oiled, Hall-of-Fame quarterback to the sight of an adult going out for a pass, the bronco enduring the heft of a cowboy until the gate is finally flung open and he can buck to his heart’s content to throw off the annoying rider. I might buy that explanation if it wasn’t for they way he acted the rest of the day: like a petulant child.

As they day wrapped up, the kids were gathered together with the superheroes and the NFL stars for a group photo. I was directed to stand next to Dan Marino. As the photographer prepared to shoot, I placed my hand—fingers splayed in a traditional Spidey manner—on Marino’s shoulder. He violently shrugged my hand off and spat, “Watch the hair, man!” I was dumbfounded. I wasn’t anywhere near his precious hair, and a simple “Please, don’t touch me”—while still being undeservedly rude—would have sufficed. I didn’t say anything, but remember thinking, “That’s Mr. Man to you, Mr. Dan ‘No-Super-Bowl-Ring’ Marino!”


John III said...

Good for you! I was always a Dolphin fan (though not as much as a Cowboys fan) and I always wondered if Marino was a douche like I heard. Now I know. Glad Brett Farve beat his records too...

Vroom! said...

lol. For me, as a Pats fan, his demeanor justified my hating him for so many years. Had he been a genuinely nice person, it would have been devastating :-)


John III said...

Now if I could just meet Emmitt Smith.....