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Content in the shadows on media day

NEW ORLEANS (Jan. 29, 2002) -- An NFL coach could do everything possible to establish a system of equality in the locker room. He could use lessons of adversity, success and even camping trips to bring his team together to where no man thought his needs and his status stood above those of any his teammates.

Yet if he got his team to Super Bowl week, he'd find out that his efforts would be shattered by the NFL's annual exercise in status separation, Super Bowl Media Day, a place more socially stratified than a suburban high school.

For players, there are four strata to the media-day pyramid.

At the top are the men at the "ampitheatres" -- of which there are three -- on the floor of the Superdome. Such a setup entails a podium and three sets of portable, metal bleachers. For the Patriots, those spots went to Drew Bledsoe, Tom Brady and Bill Belichick, for the Rams, they were filled by Kurt Warner, Mike Martz and Torry Holt.

Just below them are the podiums without bleachers, taking up seven positions along the sideline. This year, the guest list there ranged from the league's offensive MVP, Marshall Faulk, to workmanlike players such as the Patriots' Otis Smith and Joe Andruzzi.

A step below -- though ironically a few steps above in the Superdome stands -- are the four areas set aside for four players to speak into microphones, but without a podium or table.

That leaves over 40 players on each team to fend for themselves. Most milled about on the arena floor amid the mob of media. But for a dozen-plus Rams, the place to be was in their own little corner of the stands, away from the tumult.

From there, they could watch the ebb and flow of the media sea on the sidelines of the field, going from one podium to another, an ocean of humanity with boom mikes sticking out like buoys in the water.

Such a scene isn't unusual in Louisiana. It's just that it's typically witnessed up the road at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge after LSU has knocked off some Southeastern Conference rival, causing the students to stampede onto the field in search of goal posts.

Back in the quiet of the corner stands, a place where camcorders outnumbered media cameras three-to-one, the players could sit back, occasionally talk on cell phones, and watch from the comfort of the cushioned, high-backed chairs.

Few reporters and cameras came their way. They were close to the proceedings but distant, bemused but fascinated.

"I'm just seeing what's going on, observing it," said linebacker Brian Allen, glancing at the thousands crammed along the sideline.

And as a whole, the men in the stands couldn't have been happier.

"I'm not a big media mogul. I don't handle the media," starting defensive end Brian Young said, grasping one of the many hand-held video cameras players brandished. "I'm more of an introverted person."

Being introverted wasn't the issue for other Rams. When former NFL tackle and ESPN analyst Mark Schlereth wandered up to see tight end Jeff Robinson, the two University of Idaho alums came together in a rendition of their school's fight song.

Others played along when a duo from the Rosie O'Donnell Show walked up wearing St. Louis jerseys. One can only wonder if the Rams would have been so hospitable if they'd known the two wore Patriots jerseys during New England's media session.

But for backup quarterback Marc Bulger, a glance towards the field gave a glimpse into a future he dreams of, one where he is the starting quarterback in a Super Bowl. But for now, the first-year Ram appreciates the time that third-string anonymity provides, as he's seen a horde of reporters camp out at Warner's locker, located near his in the Rams' home locker room.

"He has no time to even go home and hang out with his family," Bulger said. "I'm going to enjoy this now, and hopefully I'll be back here when I'm actually playing, and I'll deal with it."

Some day, podiums might belong to those players in the stands. In fact, on career reputation, wide receiver Az-Zahir Hakim ought to be one of them, as he posted 1,138 all-purpose yards in 1999 and 1,223 in 2000, adding 14 touchdowns in that time span.

But this year, he struggled, posting just 374 yards receiving -- his lowest total since his rookie season. Worse, he fumbled seven times in the regular season.

"I didn't make enough plays," Hakim said. "You've gotta make plays to get a podium."

But in a season and a league of surprises, someday fortune may find these Rams not in the seats, but on the hot seat, answering question after question, unable to kick back, put their feet on the seat in front of them, and ponder the scene in front of their eyes.

All have their own methods of handling such a circumstance.

"I'd probably start stuttering," tight end Brandon Manumaleuna said. "I'd get a little nervous."

"I'll be the politically correct type," Bulger offered. "You wouldn't get anything good out of me and I'd be real boring."

"I'd be pretty much joking," practice-squad wideout Sherrod Gideon said.

But for Young, the underrated second-year defensive end, the experience at a podium wouldn't be like the view from the cheap seats.

"It'd probably be a pretty quiet podium, unless they've got a lot of questions ready to ask me," he said. "I'm not quick-witted, I just sit down and relax."

That's easy to do from the stands. But from behind a microphone? Someday, they may find out if it's possible to relax.

This time around at Media Day they could only watch from the stands -- contented about their status, but dreaming of grander days to come.

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