TEMPE, Ariz. — John Ford would know what to do with Super Bowl XXX, Raoul Walsh, any of the old-time Hollywood directors of action film.
It's a program western. Shootout at high noon. The good guy versus the bad guy. Wyatt Earp against Dodge City. John Wayne saving the fort. Tom Mix foiling the rustlers.
Sun Devil Stadium becomes the O.K. Corral. It's Tombstone, not Tempe. Boot Hill.
Forget those other guys, those linebackers, cornerbacks, safeties, punters, down linemen. Dress extras. Crowd shots. Sidekicks, not stars. The posse.
The main characters in this melodrama are the quarterbacks. This is their picture, their feud, their showdown on Main Street.
The guy with the star on his chest is clearly Troy Aikman, fittingly enough, of the Cowboys. The guy in the black hat is the city dude from the East, Neil O'Donnell, of the Steelers.
The Cowboys are supposed to be all clones of Gary Cooper or John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. The strong silent types.
Aikman is the only one who fits the bill. Gary Cooper incarnate. The modern replica of the frontier marshal.
Tall at 6 feet 4, strong at 228 pounds, unflappable, unexcitable, he is America's hero on America's team. He is as emotional as a wooden Indian, as dependable as sunrise.
He smiles, but not much. He talks, but not often and not for long. You figure he could be out on the trail for weeks alone with just his horse and the cattle and not mind it. You wouldn't want to get in a fight with him. You wouldn't want to get in a poker game with him, either.
He walks with the slow deliberation of a man who always has a purpose in mind, the John Wayne walk. The eyes are wary, aloof, the gaze level. He always looks ready. He was raised in the Old West--Henryetta, Okla.--where men were men. And women are glad of it.
Then, there's O'Donnell. He is not your trail-hand cowpoke. O'Donnell grew up in the wide- open spaces of Morristown, N.J., where often is heard a discouraging word and the skies were all cloudy all day. Neil talks, and smiles a lot, and the accents of the city are in his speech, the harsh twang of New York, not the soft burr of Texas. He never would sleep under the stars. He even said he found sleep difficult here because the pillows "are a little weak." Billy the Kid probably wouldn't know what a pillow was, but the deer and buffalo don't roam where O'Donnell grew up.
He did learn to take orders very well. He was the youngest of nine, and Papa O'Donnell was not interested in having a rebellious teenager on his hands.
"My dad didn't want to put up with a brat," he says. "He made that clear at the beginning. I was never a teenager. I was a full-grown adult."
The Super Bowl probably comes down to which of these guys draws first.
Aikman is going into this game with a free hand. He can pass the ball as far and as often as he wants. On first down, or, given Coach Barry Switzer, on fourth.
O'Donnell is on a team that talks all week long about "controlling the ball," i.e., hiding it from the Cowboys, keeping it for long periods of time, making first downs, not taking reckless chances. Patience. The Steelers haven't exactly handcuffed O'Donnell but they want the sure, short yards. They want to keep Aikman off the field.
Aikman is cleanshaven, O'Donnell has a scraggly beard. That used to be the tip-off on who was the good guy--along with the hat--in the old silent westerns.
So, O'Donnell comes off as the wild, rootless kid in town looking for trouble and Aikman is the marshal who will have to teach him respect. Unless the kid wants to die with his boots on.
It's sure-fire box-office stuff. Hollywood has been shooting this script one way or another since Bronco Billy Anderson made two-reelers.
Of course, there are subplots. Aikman and his head man, Switzer, are reliably rumored not to be speaking to each other, a perilous state of affairs.
"We have a professional relationship," Aikman coldly assents.
English translation: They hate each other. You get a picture of the coach telling an assistant, in Aikman's hearing range, "Tell Aikman to call the run," and the assistant relaying to the coach, "Aikman says he don't want to. He's going to pass." It's called dissension.
O'Donnell, for his part, has had difficulty convincing his brain trust that he should be the quarterback. He had to spend some time either playing behind or splitting the job with, of all people, Bubby Brister, which is kind of like losing the girl to Walter Brennan.
But they are on target for their big scene today. Showdown at Sun Devil.
"Places everybody! Lights! Camera! Action! Aikman, you come in from stage left. O'Donnell, look scared. Where's makeup? Put a little powder on Neil so he'll look pale. Bite your lip, Neil. Anybody got the ketchup bottle for blood?"
It'll be a wrap. Tradition calls for the fade-out showing Gary Cooper (read Aikman) riding back into town with bad guy Bruce Cabot (read O'Donnell) stumbling in the dirt behind him with his hands tied and fastened to the pommel in the sheriff's saddle.
But you know, we live in the era of adult westerns. Nowadays, the black hats win and Wyatt Earp hangs up his guns. It never played at the Bijou on Saturday afternoon with the guys, but it may have to in a Super Bowl with Roman numerals after it.