THE ONCE AND VIRTUAL CHAMPS

Meanwhile, I learned about the true potential of Denver Broncos football--football when the offense is hitting on all cylinders, when the defense is putting on all the right stunts, when John Elway is engineering almost every drive like his famous one in Cleveland, and when the coach is not Red Miller or Dan Reeves or Wade Phillips or Mike Shanahan but a nice, smart kid wearing an orange-and-blue Broncos cap and a Hootie & the Blowfish T-shirt. A kid with the instincts of a field general who will give you another chocolate chip cookie whenever you want one.

Final score: Denver Broncos 38, San Francisco 49ers 10. The only reason the Broncos didn't run it up, I suspect, is that their new coach started feeling sorry for the Niners coach somewhere in the middle of the fourth quarter. Denver kept running the ball to kill the clock while San Francisco's inept leader continued to fumble with buttons and his team fumbled the ball--twice. Talk about summer camp: This rookie got a "GameDay" crash course, complete with sound effects.

On the other hand, if Tab Habon, a lifelong Denver fan, learned anything Wednesday, it might have been that fiction is often kinder than truth. "I wish it was the real game," he said afterward. "And I wish Elway wasn't getting so old. What is he? Thirty-five? That's ancient."

"It sure is," I said, wishing I could remember being 35. "But maybe he's got a couple of seasons left. And maybe the team can win a real Super Bowl without him. But for now, you sure play this thing pretty well. You practice a lot?"

"Not really," the winning coach answered. "I only got it at Christmas. I been playing one of my other games a lot."

"Oh? Which one is that?"
"It's really cool," Tab answered. "It's a pursuit game called `Twisted Metal,' and you hit pedestrians with your car, and then you run away from the police and there's an insane clown who's this killer who tries to blow you away with these, like, flaming ice-cream cones. And sometimes you get gunned down in drive-by shootings."

"Sounds like that Giants-San Diego Chargers game at the Meadowlands," I said.
"Yeah, cool," Tab said.
As we shook hands at the front door, my adversary pulled himself up to his full five-feet-three-inches of height and displayed the sportsmanship of a real champion: "Nice game," he said. "Let's do it again sometime."

Okay, my friend. Let's. Next time, I'll bring the cookies. And maybe I'll be able to get my act together with the Speed Burst and the Pass Tip. For the moment, though, I know exactly how Buddy Ryan and Sam Wyche feel.

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