Turkeys Fly

Houston actually pulls off one crazy week

A dozen television cameras, 30 reporters and 15 or so public relations people are crowded into a room at the George R. Brown Convention Center. They're gathered to hear about former Chicago Bears coach Mike Ditka.

Specifically, his cock.

His rock-hard, throbbing, ready-for-action cock.

Halftime practice: Reaching for the stars while 
freezing their butts off.
Halftime practice: Reaching for the stars while freezing their butts off.
The media horde files down for an hour of interviews.
The media horde files down for an hour of interviews.

At least that's the mental image everyone is trying desperately to erase as Ditka takes the press conference podium to talk about the exciting benefits of Levitra, a Viagra competitor. As Ditka enthuses about the product -- being sure to mention in passing, just for the ladies, his nickname of "Iron Mike" -- it's all a bit too much.

But it's Super Bowl week in Houston, and so there is no such thing as Too Much.

Too Much is the order of the day. Too much hype and too much angst over the city's reputation, of course; but also too much fun and too much glowing from once-in-a-lifetime moments.

The Super Bowl hordes, such as they were, got out of the city as fast as they could. The media has moved on to the next story, Main Street clubs are being restored to their usual celebrity-free ways, and you can't walk downtown with an open beer in each hand anymore.

Houston is getting back to normal. But it likely won't ever be the same. You can't bring such a mammoth endeavor as the Super Bowl to the city without leaving marks. Whether it performs the image magic the city's boosters relentlessly predicted is unlikely, but ultimately irrelevant.

For a week Houston existed in some strange alternative universe filled with stars and attention and glitz. It can't be comprehensive, but here's one Super Bowl diary of that weird week.

Monday: Dreaming of the Big Time

A cold front has moved in and it's damn windy too, so the 600 guys and gals on the field at Texas Southern University are eager to warm up by moving around.

Perhaps too eager: They've just practiced rushing the stage for the pregame appearance of Aerosmith, a band that's been around longer than nearly everyone on that TSU field has been alive. The dancers have no problem jumping up and down enthusiastically to the taped song, but run into trouble at the point when Steve Tyler and the boys will break into the power ballad "Dream On."

They're supposed to let themselves slowly get swept up in the allegedly powerful magic of that creaky chestnut, holding back until they -- for reasons they can't even articulate -- blissfully raise their arms over their heads and in unison wave them back and forth. (Apparently Bic lighters don't fit in with the NFL image.)

But either the song's mojo is too strong or the weather's too cold, because no one's waiting the proper amount of time for inspiration.

"Don't put your hands up in the air at first," the loudspeaker blares out. "Because if you do that, it looks too staged."

The disembodied voice knows whereof it speaks. Choreographer Leslee Fitzmorris has put together the pregame and halftime shows for the past 19 Super Bowls.

There's only a week of practices before the big event, and Fitzmorris, a sassy New Orleans type who also runs cheerleader camps, knows it won't come easy. "It's one thing to get them to dance, it's another to get them to go where you want them to go when you want them to go there," she says.

The cold weather ain't helping. "I could do this in three practices if it was warm and we were out here in shorts," she says.

More than 3,000 dancers auditioned in October for a chance to be on the field at the Super Bowl. The cattle call at the University of Houston required hopefuls to learn a one-minute routine in a half-hour.

About 600 were chosen, including Natalie Cruz, 19, of San Antonio. "I wasn't going to try out, but I was with a friend and we woke up at noon and just said, 'We're gonna do it,' " she says. "We had to get here by four [p.m.], but we made it."

The English major at UT-San Antonio was one of only four people in her group of 122 to make the cut. And yes, she has heard of Aerosmith. She even likes them. "I love classic rock," she says.

It's not all kids on the field, though. Another dancer is Houstonian Mary Mata, who will soon turn 33. ("We have all ages from 15 to 45," Fitzmorris says.) Mata, a nurse, just loves to dance and has tried out for the Rockets Power Dancers. "My husband is jealous because I'm the one who'll be able to say that they touched the turf at the Super Bowl," she says.

While the routines are relatively simple -- as the world has learned by the time you're reading this, there's a heavy dose of Willie-and-Waylon country dancing -- the cold and the trick of performing on a football field as opposed to in a dance studio can take some getting used to.

But everyone's still starry-eyed about what they will be doing Sunday, and quietly hoping they'll show up, even briefly, on television broadcasts of the game seen around the world.

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