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THE ONCE AND VIRTUAL CHAMPS

Ever had the living daylights beaten out of you by an eleven-year-old?
It's not that bad if the eleven-year-old doing the beating is a kid as nice as Tab Habon and the damned fool grownup learns something in the process. Watch out, though: You may still have to eat 139 chocolate chip cookies and drink enough lemonade to float a pocket battleship.

Did I mention that the Denver Broncos also win the Super Bowl in the bargain? Hey, cool.

Game players will start to get my drift. Last Wednesday afternoon this 113-pound guru introduced me to the intricacies of something called "NFL GameDay." In the trade--which is to say, in Tab Habon's rumpus room--GameDay is what they call a "next-gen sim," or next-generation simulation. What it really amounts to is NFL football, bloody in fang and claw, played on the screen of a 27-inch television set, complete with chants of DEE-fense! DEE-fense!, cries of agony as quarterbacks are smashed between pairs of blitzing linebackers and startling bolts of lightning whenever a defensive back plasters a wide receiver with a big hit. The manufacturers have built a lot of sonic bone-crunching into the thing, along with a pre-game coin flip that actually sounds like a silver dollar bouncing on the turf. The running backs can spin out of tackles, the refs call penalties, and if your cornerback gets caught napping, the wideout will burn him deep.

In fact, the only slices of real NFL life this state-of-the-art video game doesn't give you are the colorful expletives so often heard on the sidelines, certain late-night encounters at the Ramada in Green Bay and a frank talk with Deion Sanders's agent, a three-inch-tall man dressed in a $3,500 suit. Otherwise, you're pretty much enveloped by the game--for better or for worse.

"Okay, so you guys are gonna receive," Tab said with unmistakable confidence. In this case, "you guys" were the San Francisco 49ers, winners of five Super Bowls and kings of the pro-football world, who were looking, if anything, a little larger than they do on regular TV. Jerry Rice. Steve Young. Ken Norton Jr. My club was clearly loaded for bear. Because, as I understand it, the actual, real-life skills of every player on all thirty NFL teams are programmed into the game's silicon chip. With these guys on my side and a fast track inside the Louisiana Superdome, how could I not win Super Bowl LVI or LIX or whatever it was, then stroll right on over to Arnaud's for a nice plate of crawfish etouffee and a bottle of white Burgundy?

Tab pushed his glasses up his nose, handed me a little box with buttons on it and smiled mysteriously. "The Broncos should be about eight-point underdogs in this one," he announced. "But that's okay. I'll take two and a half." My opponent may be in the sixth grade, but it sure sounded like he knew something I didn't about football. And maybe three-card monte.

"Have a chocolate chip cookie," he said. I complied.
Now, the last time Denver played San Francisco in the Super Bowl, Tab Habon was in kindergarten, the Three Amigos were the heart of the Broncos' receiving corps, and I could still get out of bed without the help of a nurse. Six years ago, too, John Elway was younger, stronger and faster than he is now. Even so, the 49ers won the game 55-10.

Too bad Elway never had Tab Habon to call plays from the sideline.
In the first 23 minutes of our Super Bowl--the one featuring lemonade and cookies down in the rumpus room--Elway, Shannon Sharpe and Coach Habon's secret weapon, Vance Johnson, turned my vaunted San Francisco defense into a high school eleven from San Leandro. My Niners' first possession went three-plays-and-out when Tab put in his dime defense on our third-and-eleven. Poor John Taylor. When Young tried to connect with him on a deep crossing pattern, Steve Atwater hit him so hard just as the ball was arriving that Taylor must have been hearing the Chinese music. In any case, he hobbled off to the bench.

When Elway and company got the ball, Tab proved himself every bit the equal of Mike Shanahan, Vince Lombardi and Amos Alonzo Stagg rolled into one. A seven-yard out to Pritchard. A deep post to Sharpe. A couple of nice running plays, a down-and-in to Sharpe and, the coup de grace, a curl pattern by the aging Vance, which he parlayed into a TD. Denver 7-0.

"What's a coup de grace?" Tab asked. "Here, have some lemonade."
As my adversary's skill became more evident, I got more desperate. Pushing buttons and switching defensive alignments like a pro, Tab baffled my 49ers, shut down Jerry Rice and, every time he had the ball, moved at will. At one point, the Broncos' Terrell Davis simply blasted into the open field ahead of three San Francisco would-be tacklers.

"Hey, wha...?" I said.
"Speed Burst," Coach Habon explained. "You gotta know when to hit Speed Burst."

You also gotta know when to hit Pass Tip, when to play your 3-4 "D" and how to avoid getting your receivers knocked out of the play in the game's authentically crafted five-yard Bump Zone. Jerry Rice, playing for my club, learned more than he wanted to about the dreaded Bump Zone in Wednesday afternoon's game.

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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