MIAMI -- On your mark ... get set ... HYPE! Or make that hyper-hype. Or whatever you call it when the NFL's raging self-promotion flame is stoked with the media's hot air, a combustible combination if ever there was one.
For nine days, the specter of Super Bowl XXXIII has flickered throughout Georgia, like a candle in a distant window. On the 10th day, interest met access in a kerosene-torch marriage and sports' biggest event was once more aglow in a fireball of attention. And now it burns.
After more than a week of kindling interest, Super Bowl Fervor was officially ignited Tuesday with the game's annual Media Day, a garish self-absorbed phenomenon of today's sports culture that makes the Academy Awards appear understated by comparison.
This league-sanctioned event is kind of like the quadrennial lighting of the Olympic torch, except without any of the class, ceremony or character. But with as many translations.
It's what tacky would look like if Liberace hadn't already given it a face, how we would define frivolous if it weren't for pillow mints. It's 3,000 members of the media making lame attempts at being clever and two teams full of players falling equally short. All puffery and pretension.
And you know what? It's still fun.
Because this over-the-top frenzy is so what the Super Bowl has become, why the youngest of sports championships is far and away the biggest. This is why one game at the end of the season has turned into a whole sprawling industry, to the extent that a day must be set aside just to talk about it. And talk. And talk. And talk.
Where else would a questioner from Comedy Central's Daily Show follow one from the New York Times and both compete with some howling radio yahoo informing his live audience what Terance Mathis had for breakfast?
When else would a professional football player actively contemplate what kind of tree or car he would be? And when else would people actually stand 20 deep at podiums to hear the answer?
In what other setting are you going to hear Jamal Anderson offer advice on the best facial in South Beach, Mike Shanahan explain the scope of the Super Bowl for Austrian television and Shannon Sharpe list his dream dinner foursome as Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Michael Jordan and Halle Berry.
"I'd talk to Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and Michael Jordan first," Sharpe said Tuesday, "and then me and Halle would get a table in the back that would be candlelit."
That kind of stuff comes out of Super Bowl Media Day, the Super Bowl of preview silliness.
This is the day when Anderson's smile and wit earns him twice in endorsements than he is paid to play football. It's when the world discovers that the Falcons' quarterback was named Christopher because he was born on Columbus Day. When everyone learns how to pronounce Archambeau (R-sham-bo.)
And it's when, for a minute, it all seems to mean something.
That's what the NFL does better than any league. It makes the public buy its nonsense and makes the press play along. It makes its Media Day work, right down to the 60-minute running stadium clock and the two-minute warning in the form of rapid-fire questions.
None of Tuesday's soundbite silliness will really have any bearing on Sunday's result. We all know that. Not Sharpe's saying the Falcons can't cover him one-on-one, not Chuck Smith saying Atlanta can stop Terrell Davis, not Ray Buchanan standing behind his guarantee.
But for the next few days, we'll suspend our understanding. Suddenly, trivial Super Bowl knowledge will be currency. And anything that can be written or read about XXXIII will be.
Having experienced escalating media insanity in his nine Super Bowls, Dan Reeves deftly shielded his team from this white-hot attention. His newspaper war with Mike Shanahan and John Elway last week had to at least be partly about delaying the inevitable, about keeping the Super Bowl hornet's nest away from his players.
Seeing how they embraced the spotlight Tuesday, and how well they handled it, he shouldn't have bothered. He should have basted them with honey and told them to follow the buzz.
"I'm a sponge. I am enjoying it. I'm really savoring the moment," said Dave Widell, a backup lineman who leaves work most days without the burden of questions, but like every other player drew a crowd Tuesday. "I think the crush of the media is a positive for us. A lot of these guys haven't gotten a lot of attention being on a very mediocre team in the past.
"When I walk around and see the looks on my teammates faces, I see they're enjoying this moment. You hear a lot of guys talk about Media Day and they don't want to go because they're going to get 1,000 questions and it's not going to be a good thing. But I think, for the Atlanta Falcons, today is a great thing."
It's pretty good for the NFL, too.
Morning News sports columnist Tim Guidera can be reached at 652-0352.