Just minutes before the kickoff of Super Bowl XXXVIII, John decides to fill up his plate with Swedish meatballs and cold cuts at a game-day party in an Aurora home. "Sorry," he murmurs as he cuts in front of the TV screen, intruding on everyone's field of vision. John is long and lanky, with round glasses, an Amish beard and shoulders like a clothes hanger. I can't help but think that his penis seems slightly larger than average.
A bit later, I observe that Dave, a middle-aged guy with a soul patch and an earring, has a green shamrock tattoo on his left butt cheek. His girlfriend, Laura, has a similar one on her left breast, situated a bit lower than might be visible if she were wearing any clothes.
"One thing I've noticed," muses Gina, a grandmother who has just removed her T-shirt and gray sweat pants in preparation for kickoff, "is that a lot of people who are nudists have tattoos. When I first became interested, I said, 'If that's a requirement, I'm out.'" Her husband, Frank, sits next to her, wearing slippers and a plush white terrycloth bathrobe, which hangs wide open.
"I don't know if tattoos are more common to nudists," says Oliver pensively from the far corner of the living room. "You just see them more." Oliver, it is abundantly clear, has none.
The Panthers' first drive is quickly stuffed by New England. Carolina punts. The doorbell rings. "You got it?" Gina asks, turning to Frank.
"That's why I have the bathrobe," he replies. Frank heaves himself to his feet, pulls the robe closed and pads up the stairs to the front door.
"I don't know half the people in Rocky Mountain Naturists," Gina laughs, "so I'm just letting in whoever rings the doorbell." Luckily, it's Gene, an RMN member who looks kind of like John Ratzenberger, who played Cliff Clavin on the TV sitcom Cheers. Until, that is, he removes his Rockies windbreaker out of sight of the group and emerges in the buff, ready for the big game.
"I care nothing for football," notes John.
"Me, either," adds Gina. "I really prefer college football. These guys get paid way too much."
In that sense, a Rocky Mountain Naturists Super Bowl party is like any other gathering of friends that just happens to take place in the presence of an important football game. Still, the confluence of football and nudism raises its own set of specific questions, so I had checked the etiquette section on the organization's website before I left my house. The site contained a helpful mix of everyday good-manners and crowd-specific advice: Bring a covered dish to a potluck. And don't forget a towel to sit on.
As Super Sunday approached, my friends had inquiries beyond the scope of the website. "Do men really get excited when their team scores?" Kyle wanted to know. We laughed. Secretly, however, the Lingerie Bowl made me nervous. If anything might provoke such a response, the cable-only halftime show in which underwear-clad models played football certainly would be it. I hoped we were going to watch the game on CBS.
It occurred to me that a nudist Super Bowl party represents a 180-degree twist in terms of historic athlete/spectator comportment. A couple of thousand years ago, Greek athletes, in celebration of the sporting physique, ran, threw, jumped and wrestled naked, as toga-wrapped citizens of their city-states watched. We know this is true because, like all historically factual events, it's illustrated on old vases.
Here was a complete reversal. Modern football players are so fully clothed as to be practically unrecognizable without names on their jerseys. The spectators I was watching the game with, meanwhile -- none of whom appeared particularly athletic -- were entirely au naturel.
The party is in a 1960s-style suburban house in a neighborhood of similar homes, except at this one, the shades are drawn. The television set and festivities are in a genuine sunken living room, a few steps down and off the kitchen. The room is covered with dark paneling and thick carpeting.
The naked-football idea started with last year's Super Bowl party. Several of the guys thought it would be a nice occasion for the club's men to do something together. The concept continued at nude Monday Night Football gatherings, although the get-togethers petered out when the primary organizer suddenly quit RMN. Eight people are here for this revival.
Gina, the hostess, says she became interested in nudism about three years ago, after watching a cable movie about a couple of guys who stumbled into a nudist colony and ended up having a swell time. When she finally worked up enough nerve to broach the subject of her secret longing with Frank, she received a shock: "It turns out that he'd been doing it for years, and I'd never known about it!" she says. "He would do it while I was out of town."
Now they enjoy being naked together as a couple. Their grown children, if not entirely accepting of the lifestyle, are at least prepared for it. "My son has learned that you just don't bring home friends unannounced," Gina shrugs. Their grandson, meanwhile, seems well on his way toward accepting his grandparents' hobby. "At one event, he took off his shirt," Gina says. "But then he said, 'Grandma, I think I'm going to wear my PJs to bed.'"
In contrast to Gina, Dave says he had always suspected that life without clothes was somehow better than life with them. When he lived in Leadville, he used to wander around the woods naked. "I just wasn't ashamed of being naked," he says. It was a satisfying outlet, although at just over 10,000 feet, Leadville's running-through-the-woods-nude season was discouragingly short.
It was also solitary. When Dave approached his wife with the idea of experimenting with the clothes-free option, however, she balked.
I asked him how she eventually got used to it.
"She didn't," Dave says. "But Laura here did." The two smile at each other fondly.
"I'd always wandered around my own house naked," Laura explains. But when it came to actually stripping down in front of other people, "I was a little freaked out. I've always been a big girl. I never liked changing my clothes in gym class, much less wandering around naked. But I just said, 'What the hell!'" During her first few visits to a nudist camp, Laura kept her shorts on, a nod to modesty that she's since abandoned.
Sitting on the floor (on his towel) next to them, Michael is a newcomer to the lifestyle, and he boasts the same reckless exuberance as someone who has just come out to his parents after suffocating in the closet. "You can use my last name," he says defiantly. "I don't care! It's m-c-g-r-a-t-h."
He, too, had to overcome personal obstacles to gain the self-confidence to remove his outerwear. "I'm a Christian nudist," Michael explains. (There are several websites specific to Christians who don't wear clothes.) He continues: "As a Bible scholar, I started digging into the ancient Hebrew and Greek texts, and I discovered that human bodies were created in God's image -- that our bodies are nothing to be ashamed of. That was really big for me."
About four months ago, he and his wife attended their first nude gathering, a swim. This is his third event. His wife, Stephanie, is at home with the flu. Michael wears white socks.
Gina, who is RMN's secretary, scares up a handful of brochures. One is for the American Association for Nude Recreation, which, I am surprised to notice, sells a line of clothing. This seems odd -- like an Amish car salesman. The organization also sells videos, such as Educating Julie ("The world's first nudist video feature film") and Naked Africa, "the ultimate nude adventure -- beautiful naked people walking with lions, giraffe, rhino and buck in the wild African Bush.... The most dangerous nudist movie ever produced."
Rocky Mountain Nudists arrange events every week or so, from swimming -- the group rents the pool at a nearby health club for an evening -- to trips to nearby hot springs that tolerate nudity. Members have also heard of another local nudist organization that hosts bowling outings, although apparently this has proven difficult because most bowling alleys have liquor licenses. According to local laws targeting strip joints, establishments that sell liquor are prohibited from having completely naked people on the premises.
Still, everyone agrees that it sounds neat. "To me, watching naked people bowl would be really fun," says Laura.
But today is about football. "I like the Bears and the Jets," Laura says. "I feel pity for Vinny Testaverde. That's why I like the Jets. I also like the violence."
As if on cue, one of New England's return men is hammered by a Carolina special-teams tackler. "There's your violence," says a disapproving John, who is also a Christian nudist.
"Oh, yeah!" Laura cheers.
The beginning of the game plods; both teams seem tentative. The nudists are restless. "I can't believe it's only been five minutes," Oliver grumbles.
"The only reason I watched college football is because I was in the band," admits John, who earns a living as a musician. "High school, too."
Carolina's quarterback, Jake Delhomme, who is having trouble finding receivers, is sacked. Laura is unimpressed. "He wasn't even airborne or anything," she grouses.
The commercials, of course, are a bigger hit, although sponsors probably couldn't have predicted how their creativity would push this audience's buttons. One ad for Pepsi features two bears. "Well, they're bare," points out Oliver.
"No," says John. "That's us."
Then an ad for the television series Survivor follows. "Are they going to have the naked guy again?" Laura wonders.
The first quarter passes without a score. The group's attention wanders to more interesting places. "Has anyone here skied before?" Michael asks. "I mean naked."
"No way," says Gina, shaking her head. "I'm a fair-weather nudist."
Dave and Laura discuss their hobby of taking nude photos of each other, wherever they might be. Michael is intrigued: He's thinking of getting into nude photography. Would they consider posing for him sometime? Sure, Dave and Laura shrug. What's to hide?
A plug for the David Letterman show comes on. Dave is a big fan. "I loved it when Drew Barrymore flashed her tits at him on his birthday," he remembers. "That was awesome."
It is well into the second quarter when the game finally sees its first score, a five-yard toss from Tom Brady to Deion Branch. The cameras cut to New England's owner, Robert Kraft, celebrating. Michael shakes his head. "Who wears a tie to a football game?" This is perhaps an unfair complaint from a guy who wears only white athletic socks to a football game.
Surrounded by naked people, I find it amazing how much of what's on television suddenly seems on-topic. Are there an uncommonly large number of ads touting drugs to treat erectile dysfunction this year, I wonder, or does it just seem that way if you happen to be in a sea of skin?
A commercial for Visa comes on -- women beach-volleyball players competing against each other in the snow. They are apparently so eager for the Summer Olympics that they can't wait for better weather to start. That, however, is not the point for our crowd. "Don't they realize it's a lot colder with a suit than without?" Oliver observes disdainfully. "It's getting out of the water with a cold, wet suit that really makes you cold."
A cell phone rings. No one reaches down to dig through his pants to find the phone. Instead, David leaps to his feet and rushes to an adjoining room to find his phone.
At halftime, Gina pulls her sweats and shirt back on. "I'm cold," she explains. Getting in and out of clothing seems the most intimate act here, and it is always done out of sight of the group. A bit later, Michael gets up and returns with his T-shirt -- which he drapes over his lower legs. "Always the same problem with a Scotsman," he says. "Cold knees."
At halftime, when rapper Nelly appears on the screen, Laura begins to sing: "It's getting hot in here, so take off all your clothes." The group looks at her like she's lost her mind.
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"Well, that's what he's going to sing," she predicts. A moment later, when he does, she adds, "Thanks, but we already did."
Justin Timberlake's scandalous removal of half of Janet Jackson's bustier, meanwhile, inspires a collective yawn.
"Big deal," says Laura.
"Am I supposed to be titillated?" Dave asks.