NEW ORLEANS — Eyes forward, pads off, lips pursed, ringed by minicams and sound booms, covered in a glaze of sweat, the black gunk under his eyes moistened by tears, Drew Bledsoe marches into the windowless press room at the Louisiana Superdome and climbs up to podium No. 8.
The New England Patriots quarterback, the highest paid member of the team, a player who's been dogged all season by critics who say he crumbles under pressure, a guy who's not even old enough to rent a car, has just thrown four interceptions in a 35-21 Super Bowl defeat broadcast to nearly one-quarter of the world's inhabitants.
He hasn't even scooted in his chair yet when the question comes. "What's going through your mind, Drew. How do you feel?"
"Optimism is hard to come by when you've just lost the Super Bowl," he says in a quaverless voice that suggests he might be able to sleep tonight. "Maybe once I get some separation from this, there'll be some optimism. But not right now."
It's difficult to blame him. In the insular world of professional football, where fortunes are bestowed and retracted over lunch meetings and the condition of a man's thumb can be the subject of thousands of column inches, Bledsoe's punctual turn in the postgame spotlight is an act of courage unimaginable to most of us.
But for all the agony it brings the losers, the Super Bowl is essentially a zero-sum game. Over in the Green Bay Packers locker room, Bledsoe's disappointment is another man's resurrection. Although Super Bowl XXXI exists only on videotape now, its legacy will color the lives of each participant in ways they may not fully comprehend.
"I always tell the players that what they do in this game is what they'll carry with them when they're my age," says Terry Bradshaw, the former Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback and Super Bowl alumnus. "When it's going on you don't have any idea how big it really is."
For some players, the life-altering power of the Super Bowl is immediate. Take Desmond Howard. In college at the University of Michigan, his talent as a wide receiver earned him the Heisman Trophy, which is annually presented to the game's top player.
But Howard's transition to the NFL proved nettlesome, and after short stints with the Washington Redskins and Jacksonville Jaguars he arrived at the Packers training camp last summer unsure if he'd make the team.
After earning a job as Green Bay's kick-return specialist, Howard has blossomed into the league's premier special-teams performer. His record-setting display Sunday, capped by a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, earned him the Super Bowl MVP award and muted every question he's ever been asked about a pattern of post-Heisman slumps.
"I never lost confidence in myself," he shrugs, slipping on one leg of his designer jeans. "The cream always rises to the top."
But Howard's tenure at the top could be fleeting. Next year, his talents will surely warrant more than his current $300,000 salary. It's uncertain, though, that Green Bay or any other top-flite team will offer him a superstar's pay unless he can develop his skills as a receiver.
But even if Howard does make it back to the Super Bowl, there's no guarantee that the experience will be nearly as meaningful as it was for Don Beebe. As a wide receiver for the Buffalo Bills, Beebe went to four Super Bowls and lost them all.
Desperate for a championship, Beebe set his sights on Green Bay, where he has helped this young team mature, and in doing so, become one of the only players with Buffalo roots to earn an NFL championship ring.
Buffalo quarterback Jim Kelly, who led the team through those four frustrating Super Bowls, was released at the end of this season and will be seeking a new team.
"When you go through turmoil and you're able to persevere, it's that much better because you know what it's like on the other side," Beebe says. "No one on this team has experienced what I have."
But for Beebe, it's not just a personal victory. Former Buffalo teammates sent him faxes before the Super Bowl, he says, wishing him well but also asking him to notch a win for all of them. Defeat, it turns out, can be even more defining than victory.
"I walked up to [Green Bay quarterback] Brett [Favre] on the last snap of the game and I said 'I've gotta have the ball,'" Beebe says, fighting back tears. "I ran over to my family and dedicated it to them, because I think that throughout those tough years, they hurt for me worse than I hurt for myself."
Later, down in the bowels of the Superdome, after most of the Patriots have shuffled glumly out to the team bus, Bledsoe sits on a locker-room bench, shirtless and solemn, wadding up strands of ankle tape and tossing them into a plastic wastebucket.
"I'm going to the Pro Bowl [all-star game] for a week," he says, "and then I'm going to drop off the face of the earth for about a month."
"This was not part of my postgame visualization."