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Heavy metal

Winning a title would seem to be enough, but there's nothing like one of these rings to get attention. That doesn't mean that it can't be lost, pawned or given to a Russian president.

February 03, 2007|Sam Farmer | Times Staff Writer

MIAMI — The call came at 2 a.m., jarring Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt from his sleep.

It was the sheriff of Amarillo, Texas. He said he had quarterback Roger Staubach in jail, arrested for being drunk and disorderly.

"Roger?" sputtered Brandt, knowing Staubach to be one of the most straight-arrow members of the team. "Are you sure? How do you know it's really him?"

But the sheriff had Staubach cold: The boozer was wearing his Super Bowl ring.

"I don't think that's Roger," Brandt said. "Check if he's a ring salesman and call me back."

Sure enough, the fellow behind bars was a ring peddler wearing his most impressive sample, one sure to turn every head in the bar.

"It's a badge of honor, an attention-getter," Brandt said. "If I'm on an airplane wearing mine, people will walk up the aisle to see it.

Players from this year's Super Bowl champion will each take home winner's shares of $73,000, but somewhere along the line -- there doesn't appear to have been a seminal moment -- winning "the ring" became a euphemism for every athlete's ultimate goal. Never mind that each ring is worth only a fraction of what a title is worth in bonuses.

In the NFL, the bling-bling is the thing.

Consider the oft-told tale of Phil Hong, a Purdue student, who in 2001 made an astounding discovery in his off-campus apartment while playing with his dog.

Fishing out a toy from under his beat-up brown couch, Hong retrieved something heavy and metal -- the diamond-encrusted Super Bowl ring of Chicago Bears great Walter Payton.

Although Payton had died two years earlier, the mystery of his missing ring had baffled his family since the mid-1990s. It was lost, according to numerous reports, when he was a volunteer assistant basketball coach at Hoffman Estates High outside Chicago.

In order to build trust among the players and teach them to take risks, Payton put the ring in their care. The players, in turn, set up a schedule allowing them each to take the ring home overnight.

Then, the worst. Nick Abruzzo, one of the players, lost the ring while it was in his care. That triggered a frantic search by team members and parents, but to no avail.

Hong was friends with Nick's younger brother, Joe, and got the sagging sofa from him, dragging it through three moves. Finally, the ring fell out of the torn fabric on the bottom, and Hong discovered it and promptly drove to Chicago to return it to Payton's widow, Connie.

Like Payton was, Lynn Swann is comfortable putting his Super Bowl rings -- he has four of them -- into the hands of starry-eyed kids. The former star receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who last year failed in his bid to become governor of Pennsylvania, typically takes a couple of rings with him when he makes public appearances. Invariably, they wind up on someone else's finger.

"I've given them away in parades," he said. "I'm campaigning and a kid would chase after me and say, 'Can I see your Super Bowl ring?' I'd take it off, I'd give it to him and I'd leave. Go off and do my thing ..."

An assistant was charged with staying behind to make sure it was returned.

"People are curious," Swann said. "A Super Bowl ring is hard to get, and how many people get a chance to hold one or put it on? Very often I'll give it to people and they'll put it on and take pictures with the ring on. Why wear a piece of jewelry that big if you didn't want people to see it? And if they see it, why not let them hold it?"

Holding it is one thing. Keeping it is another. But New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft knows all about that.

Two years ago, during a business meeting in Russia between American business executives and Vladimir V. Putin, Kraft removed his Super Bowl XXXIX ring and let the Russian president admire it.

But something was lost in translation -- namely, the ring.

Putin thought Kraft was giving it to him, putting the five-karat, $25,000 bauble on his finger and thanking his new friend for his generous gift.

A team spokesman said that Kraft, pleased that Putin liked it so much -- and perhaps wanting to avoid an international incident -- let him keep it, and ordered a replacement.

Vince Lombardi designed the first pro football championship ring for his 1965 Green Bay Packers a couple of years before the first Super Bowl. It was round with a single diamond, a ring as unpretentious as the coach. Each year, it seems, the bauble gets a bit bigger.

The Patriots' most recent keepsake, representing their third championship in four seasons, was the largest Super Bowl ring ever produced by Jostens, the Denton, Texas company that has designed 27 of the league's 40 rings. It weighs 4.06 ounces and features 124 diamonds set in white gold. On the crown is a depiction of three Lombardi Trophies. One New England player referred to it as a "three-bar-stool ring," meaning a person three seats away could make out its detail.

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