February 1st, 2017

Billy Reed: on backpacks and Super Bowls


Billy Reed

Executive Editor

Billy Reed: on backpacks and Super Bowls
San Francisco columnist Art Spander

LOUISVILLE – The big Roman Numeral game still is days away, but regardless of whatever happens between the New England Patriots and the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, I always will remember it as the “Art Spander Game.”

A long-time sports columnist from California’s Bay Area, Art used to cover just about all the major events. This will be his 40th Super Bowl. But he’s probably best known for his writing on golf.

He’s 78 now, and it makes me happy to know that somebody I’ve known for years still is out there at the big events. Usually Art is looking for stories, but this time the story found him in a very funny way.

I’m a latecomer to backpacks, which really shows my age. Today even lawyers and doctors carry their stuff in backpacks instead of briefcases. As most of you know, many of them are alike in color and size. I can see how easy it would be to pick up the wrong one at, say, your workout place.

But poor Art picked up the wrong one Monday night after a Super Bowl function and it made him an instant celebrity in the social-media world.

It turns out that Art’s backpack is very similar to one toted by Kyle Shanahan, the Falcons’ offensive coordinator and soon-to-be head coach of – are you ready for this? – the San Francisco 49ers, a team Spander has covered probably a zillion times in his career.

So after the media event, Spander picked up the wrong backpack. When he opened it, he got the surprise of his sportswriting life. It contained the Falcons’ game plan for the Super Bowl and game tickets worth heaven only knows how many dollars.

Now if Art had been, say, a broadcaster from Wake Forest, he might have called up the Patriots and tried to sell them the game plan. He might have been able to make a deal, considering all the different ways, over the years, that Patriots’ coach Bill Belichick has tried to get an edge.

Another option would have been to publish the game plan. This is what some weasels from the social-media world would have done. Anything to draw attention to themselves and get their 15 minutes of fame. By and large, there is no honor in Twitter world.

But being the sportswriting saint that he is, Spander did the right thing and returned to the site of the function to return the backpack and find his. There he found the next coach of the 49ers, who was pretty close to panic.

I’m not sure if Shanahan picked up Spander’s backpack and opened it. I’ll bet my last dollar he wouldn’t have found anything nearly as interesting as a Super Bowl game plan and tickets. Maybe a couple of media guides, a stale ham-and-cheese sandwich, a notebook full of indecipherable scribbles. Nothing, in other words, that would be of value to anybody except the owner.

In all my decades in the business, I’ve never had a game plan fall into my hands. But when Adolph Rupp was coaching the University of Kentucky basketball team, he did accuse me of costing the Wildcats a couple of victories.

The first came when I did an advance story for a UK game by saying, “UK will win. It should be a rout.” Which wasn’t exactly a bold prediction, considering that the opponent was Cornell. In Memorial Coliseum. But doggone if the Ivy Leaguers didn’t do the impossible, and Rupp said it was because of the bulletin-board material that my story provided them.

Another time came when Rupp let me into the locker room at halftime of a home game against Vanderbilt. I was trying only to get a behind-the-scenes look at UK basketball, and I promised him I wouldn’t quote any cursing or use any confidential information.

I lived up to my word, but it made no difference. After the UK loss, Rupp blamed me for somehow leaking something to the Vanderbilt locker room. He had to blame somebody, of course, because it always was somebody else’s fault whenever the Wildcats lost.

The thing I take away from the Spander story is this: What was Shanahan thinking? Why in the name of Joe Montana would you abandon a backpack with the game plan and tickets in it? Wouldn’t you want to have it chained and padlocked to your body? Especially when you know that Belichick probably has more spies at the Super Bowl than the CIA has in Russia.

This is not a good omen for the 49ers fans, although Spander is a kind man who probably will tell his many followers in the Bay Area that the new coach shouldn’t be judged by one lapse in judgment.

I could probably review the game plans of both teams and not get a feel for what’s going to happen Saturday, other than that the national anthem will be too long, the halftime show will be too gaudy, and the commercials will get just as much attention – more, in some cases – than the game.

I can’t decide whether Falcons’ quarterback Matt Ryan winning his first Super Bowl will be a better human-interest story than the Patriots’ Tom Brady winning his fifth. I can’t decide if the Falcons are really good or just riding a hot streak. I can’t decide if the Patriots will be able to cover the Falcons’ Julio Jones, who finally is being recognized for the superb receiver he has been for a long time.

As always, the Super Bowl will be heaven for gamblers. As of the moment, the Patriots are three-point favorites. But the most fun are all the proposition bets that Vegas will offer. Who will win the coin flip? Who will score the most points in the second quarter. And so forth.

I’ll bet you could even get some money down on whether more airplanes will land at the Atlanta airport than Boston’s Logan Field between 6 and 10 p.m. Sunday. Of course, considering it’s the busiest airport in the world, Atlanta will have to be at least a 15-landing favorite.

I have no idea who will be the game’s MVP, but Art Spander already has secured the MVT – Most Valuable Typist. His adventure with the game plan is making me lean toward the Falcons and the 49ers’ next head coach.

Atlanta 34, New England 31.

Stick that in your backpack. 


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