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Like much in a desert, fandom grows slowly

A shot of Phoenix, a city which has grown from 106,818 in 1950 to nearly 1.6 million today.

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A shot of Phoenix, a city which has grown from 106,818 in 1950 to nearly 1.6 million today.

PHOENIX

To fully understand the Miracle of the Desert, one must begin by gazing across the wasteland.

Nothing much grows here in the valley of the sun, certainly not football and certainly not passion. For miles, all you can see is the dirty brown of the scrub brushes and the football-colored Camelback Mountain.

Out there, somewhere, are the sun-bleached bones of past Cardinal teams, the scattered remains of broken coaches and busted draft picks. These days, they don't seem to matter so much.

These days, if you look hard enough, and if you wait long enough, you may see that rare Cardinals flag rippling from the window of a passing car.

Miracle of miracles, the Cardinals have made it to the other side.

Finally, the last team anyone expected to see has made it to the NFL's promised land.

"It's a miracle," said Mad Jack Corson, a longtime Cardinals fan. "Oh, my God, it's unbelievable."

"I think hell has run out of ice skates," Dustin Holmes said. "I think they need another shipment."

Perhaps you recognize the sound. It is the euphoria of unexpected success, the giddiness of fans who never really expected to feel these emotions. It is the anguished cry of relief from those who have spent decades explaining why they bothered to watch when there was nothing to see.

In Arizona, this is where you find the excitement, in the pent-up joy of the long-suffering fans who have resisted the scorn of three cities.

The Cardinals are in the Super Bowl. This is a bigger shock than when it happened with the Bucs, with the Bengals, with the Falcons. The Cardinals. This is a team that hasn't won a title since 1947 — the joke is that the owners, the Bidwills, tried winning once, and they didn't particularly care for it. This is a team that leads all NFL franchises in losses … by 105.

Even this year, no one saw the Cardinals coming. They gave up 35 points or more five times. They were only 3-7 outside of the weak NFC West. They lost four of their final six games. No wonder some analysts referred to the Cardinals as the worst team in playoff history.

Lately, the Cardinals have been a different team. They have given up almost 33 fewer yards per game. They are giving up six fewer points. And they have given Arizona a buzz it has not felt before.

When it comes to public displays, however, Phoenix is not a showy town. Downtown has not been painted red. The notion of banners or decorated cars doesn't seem to be a popular one. Except for the "Go Cards" billboard on Interstate 10, there isn't much to remind a visitor of the sudden success.

For instance, consider the popular sports bar owned by former Suns player Dan Majerle. It was 48 hours after the Cardinals upset the Eagles to qualify for their Super Bowl, and of the three-dozen fans there for karaoke night, not one was wearing a Cardinals cap. Perhaps no one sang By the Time I Get to Phoenix, either.

"This isn't that kind of town," Corson said. "People really are excited, trust me. This is our moment. But this isn't Chicago or Pittsburgh or Boston. People bring their allegiances with them. When it comes to sports, fans are fickle here."

Still, sports stores cannot keep up with the demand for merchandise. Outside the Cardinals facility, there is a steady stream of customers at the souvenir trailer. Soon, they were told, more T-shirts would arrive.

Nearby, standing on a sidewalk, was Driftwood Dan O'Day, strumming on his guitar and singing. "So hoist one to Coach Wiz, Kurt Warner and the boys, we're going to Tampa Bay to make some noise."

Cars blew their horns. Fans gathered. And O'Day, 57, kept playing.

"I played 'til my thumb bled," he said. "I'm on the job, and I'm bleeding Cardinal red."

You get the feeling that Mad Jack would approve of Driftwood Dan. Mad Jack, after all, is the guy who makes the large banner (8 by 12 feet, with 20-inch letters) that hangs in the south end zone of the field. "Shock the World," it said at the NFC title game.

Mad Jack can tell you about being a Cardinals fan. For 15 years, he has absorbed the jabs of co-workers. Once, he had the personalized license plate removed from his cars so other drivers "wouldn't treat me like I was an idiot." These days, he has a new one.

And still, he came. After all, no one calls him Sane Jack, do they?

"Yeah, I'm a little crazy," said Corson, who has one room dedicated as a "Cardinals' shrine" in his home. "I can say it.''

Even now, Corson says he tries to tell new fans what the old days were like. "I remember sitting in the (outhouse) that was Sun Devil Stadium when there were only 25,000 people in a 75,000-seat stadium, and the sun would reflect off the empty metal seats until they would blind me. My sneakers would melt. Man, it (stunk)."

Did Corson, 50, think he would live long enough to see this?

"Yeah," he said, "as long as I was going to live 'til I was 80."

Still, Corson would shell out money for season tickets, and he would buy jerseys, and he would buy jackets. And he never left.

"What else was I going to do?" he said. "Pull for another team? I can't even imagine that. Not even when we were the doormat of the league."

Or, as Holmes put it, "Bad football is better than no football."

Holmes, too, has hung around. Holmes, 37, goes by the moniker of Kid Stallyn, and yes, he is one of those fans who treats football games like Halloween parties. He wears a bright red suit and a floppy red hat that he thinks makes him look like Kid Rock. "I bought it at Pimpsuit.com," he said.

"This is what we always hoped for but never thought would happen," Holmes said. "Every year, we would drink the Cardinal Kool-Aid, but by midseason, we were talking about the draft. Every year, you could expect something bad to happen."

Think those guys are happy? Consider the case of Waldo Salazar. The Cardinals saved his life. And isn't a miracle incomplete until that happens?

Salazar, you see, watches the Cardinals by himself. Every Sunday, the grandkids come over, and Salazar goes upstairs, shuts the door and doesn't come out for three hours.

This year, however, his nephew, Gerry Benjamin, 59, scored tickets for the Falcons playoff game, and for the first time, Salazar went to a game. Ten minutes before kickoff, he had a coronary. He was saved by members of the Glendale Fire Rescue.

"If he had been home, he would have been alone for three hours," said Irene Salazar, his wife. "It was the perfect place for him to be. Going to the game saved his life. He was gone for 10 minutes. The way he says it is that the Cardinals are a part of his miracle, and he's a part of theirs."

Of course, when you are the Cardinals, the enemy is never far from the gate. Not far from the training facility is a small antique mall, Merchant Square. Inside, there is a hotdog stand, Pittsburgh Willie's. The owner, Randy Walters, is a huge Steelers fan … and a Cardinals season-ticket holder.

"The difference between Cardinal fans and Steelers fans," Walters, 55, said, "is that Cardinal fans are season, and Steelers fans are year-round."

"I always supported the (Cardinals) players," Walters said, "but I hate the Bidwills with a passion. They're scum. They never gave these people a product."

Now, they have one. On Walters' bar there are two jars, one with "Cardinals" on it and one with "Steelers." When Walters sells a hotdog, he puts a quarter in one jar or the other. The day's total? The Cardinals jar has $12, the Steelers has $2. At least the Cards are favored somewhere.

Soon, they are coming to town, Mad Jack and Driftwood Dan and Kid Stallyn or others like them. They are the fans who endured. They are the fans who would not go away.

Who knows? For them, perhaps there is another miracle in the Cards.

fast facts

Phoenix by the numbers

5th Rank among nation's most populous cities, with an estimated population of nearly 1.6 million in 2007 (up 34,941 from the previous year)

24 Percent of Phoenix residents age 25 and older with a bachelor's degree or higher (national average is 28 percent)

26 minutes, on average, it takes Phoenix residents to get to work

40 Percent of Phoenix residents age 5 and older who speak a language other than English at home

70TH Rank in population of Glendale, the Phoenix suburb where the Cardinals actually play (253,152)

$48,061 Median household income for Phoenix (national median: $50,740)

$246,600 Median home value of owner-occupied homes in Phoenix (national median: $194,300)

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

Like much in a desert, fandom grows slowly 01/24/09 [Last modified: Sunday, January 25, 2009 7:05am]

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