My wife Julie is very smart and funny, and a great mom too. It goes without saying she is an incredibly patient woman. But as the NFL kicked off the 2007 season in downtown Indianapolis after the Colts won the previous Super Bowl, she was more than that. She briefly became a star among stars.
Most of the NFL’s celebration is part of a made-for-TV extravaganza with mini-concerts and choreographed fan engagement, but there is also a party where NFL executives and hall of famers might have a cocktail or two and connect before heading over to the stadium for the game.
That party in Indianapolis was held in the lobby of the Hilbert Circle Theater, and somehow I stumbled into two credentials along with Eric Wunnenberg and his wife Andrea. I was the program director at the radio station that served as the Colts flagship, and Eric is still the sales manager for the station. Our bosses must have decided not to attend, so there we were.
Hall of famers were everywhere but the friendliest of them was former Los Angeles Ram Deacon Jones, one of the most disruptive defensive linemen in NFL history. Julie did what she does so well, which is assess the needs of those around her and try to help. Deacon’s glass was empty, and Julie asked whether she could get him some water. The glass has obviously (for a variety of reasons) been filled with vodka and cranberry juice, and Deacon was offended Julie offered water.
“What, and ruin my cool vodka buzz?” Deacon admonished. Former Oakland Raiders wide receiver Fred Biletnikoff nodded toward Julie indicating her suggestion was appropriate. I sat with former Raiders and Patriots quarterback Jim Plunkett as he told me about his daughter’s volleyball exploits, but my attention kept drifting to how easily Julie got along with these football icons.
A little later, Eric and I stood in the middle of the room awe-struck by the sheer wattage of the football star power that surrounded us. There was one guy toward the corner of the room, standing alone. Clearly, he was an athlete, or former athlete, but we could not place him. I told Eric I had a solution that didn’t involve us embarrassing ourselves by asking him who he was. I grabbed Julie, “Hey, can you find out who that guy is?”
Julie walked over. Within seconds, she and the lanky guy were thumb wrestling and laughing. This went on for several minutes, and was interrupted when he yelled at all-time NFL tough guy Jack Youngblood, “Jack, you gotta thumb wrestle Julie.”
Youngblood lost, as does everyone Julie thumb wrestles, and she returned to us. “His name is Jack Ham.” Ham, of course, was a member of the vaunted Steel Curtain defense that led the Pittsburgh Steelers to four Super Bowl championships. “He’s a really nice guy!”
Still salty over Julie’s superiority, Youngblood stopped by for another loss, then told former Cincinnati Bengal Anthony Munoz, perhaps the best offensive lineman to ever play, that he needed to get his butt kicked by Julie. Munoz held up his hand. His fingers pointed in most unusual directions. A lifetime of football mangled any opportunity to even clasp Julie’s hand, much less thumb wrestle.
NFL great after NFL great, cajoled by Ham and Youngblood, accepted the challenge of thumb wrestling my wife. Former Steelers and Bears quarterback Kordell Stewart was the only guest who refused their invitation – other than Munoz. Julie dispatched all opponents – many of them more than once.
The NFL is hosting another of its annual soirees in Tampa tomorrow night as Tom Brady and the Bucs are heralded as the NFL’s latest champions. A group of NFL greats will enjoy a few cocktails and reconnect before the Bucs take on the Dallas Cowboys to open another season of NFL football.
The only thing missing will be the star thumb wrestler from that party 14 years ago.