INDIANAPOLIS – The narrow margin between career-defining victory and crushed-to-the-core defeat often comes down to no more than a couple of inches, an extra man on the field, a stick of butter slathered liberally onto a usually sure-handed receiver’s fingers.
While the difference between winning or losing may be razor-thin, it’s the diametrically opposite reactions to these two outcomes that provide the most stark assessment, and capture the true essence, of the moment.Describing the respective scenes in the New England Patriots’ and New York Giants’ locker-rooms following Sunday night’s 21-17 Big Blue triumph is a bit like comparing a wedding and a wake.The Patriots were off the field and into the showers within a lip-synced Madonna special of Tom Brady’s last-ditch hail-mary falling harmlessly onto the turf. The Giants, meanwhile, came jubilantly streaming onto the field, where they would remain for close to 45 minutes to joyously receive the Vince Lombardi Trophy.By the time I got through the throng of euphoric fans – I would estimate Giants’ groupies out-numbered Pats’ by a good 75-25 ratio – to the bustling sub-world deep in the bowels of Lukas Oil Stadium, New England coach Bill Belichick was just taking the podium for questions.In clipped, three-word answers that revolved around the same mantra of “we had chances, we didn’t execute,” Belichick (still hoodied, of course, and barely containing his death-ray stare) effectively conveyed his true feelings that he would rather eat his own intestines than having to sit here explaining how Eli Manning and Tom Coughlin had gotten the better of his club yet again.At least he was talking.Entering the Pats’ locker room was like entering a monastery of silent monks, albeit enormous, naked silent monks.Everyone with blank, lifeless look in their eyes, almost confused as if they were still not sure how their 17-9 second- half lead had evaporated.Rob Gronkowski in one corner next to Chad Ochocinco (still ridiculous!), each I’m sure wondering how they couldn’t contribute more with it all on the line.Danny Woodhead packing up his equipment and wordlessly giving it to the equipment manager for the last time.A few players noiselessly shaving, looking as if they were contemplating inflicting some self-damage with the razor.Jerod Mayo and Gerard Warren staring off into space in their boxers.The MHK painting given by the players to owner Robert Kraft in memory of his late wife, Myra, a rallying talisman of motivation for the team throughout the playoff run, resting on a lonely easel in the empty middle of the room.Everyone trying to take care of business and pack up their stuff so they could get out of this depressing setting as quickly as possible.And then there was Brady.The golden-boy QB was clearly taking the loss the hardest. The same fiery competitiveness that makes him one of the best was visibly eating him apart in discouragement and burning him up inside in muted-rage.Still in full uniform more than an hour after the game – seemingly unable to both physically and mentally bear removing his gear – Brady’s 6”4 frame slumped over in a chair with his head in his hands, in a world of his own.Head shaking and hair pulling, this was the unparalleled, unfiltered picture of defeat. A broken man, carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, and realizing it had all come crashing down.Mr. Kraft (of course, still immaculately dressed in a perfectly-pressed suit, tied and handkerchief) came over and put his arm over his quarterback’s shoulder and spent about 75 seconds whispering words of encouragement and belief into his ears.I can only imagine what was said, but Brady took it all in, gave his owner a tight squeeze, slowly began to undress and limped off to the showers to wash off a stench of defeat that water and soap likely had little effect on.Meanwhile, about 500 meters away, a party of all parties was breaking out. Not even the presence of renowned superslimy sports reporter Jim Gray could put a damper on this sheer moment of unbridled happiness.While many of the Giants had remained on the field with their families, friends and fans to soak in the championship feeling – not to mention the hordes of television and radio networks clamoring for interviews with the new kings of the world – the real epicenter of celebration was the New York locker-room.Closed to the media initially while the team enjoyed a private few minutes of glory, I managed to walk in with an oncrunches Jake Ballard just before Super Bowl MVP Eli Manning made his entrance to a raucous round of applause.Looking totally exhausted but with a super-satisfied smile plastered on his face, Eli was a paragon of professional peace, of reaching the pinnacle of achievement and having so much fun in the process.“I can’t describe how good this feels. I just have to make sure to bottle this up and enjoy it forever.”Hugs upon hugs and music and laughter and high-fiving and gleeful moments of shrieking and crying as the true sense of supremacy permeated through the room.Osi Umenyiora holding court, explaining how, compared to the Super Bowl victory over the Pats four-years earlier “it’s unbelievable, this time is sweeter because it’s number two. There’s really nothing like it. It’s a great, great, great time. We’re truly going to party now.”Former Giants star Michael Strahan made his way through the room, embracing all of his old teammates and expressing pride and happiness for them. Grammy-winning song-write and singer Seal joined into the festivities, explaining how “I am a frustrated athlete myself in many respects. I have become an extremely big football fan over the past few years, and it amazes me how much resiliency and dedication and talent it takes to get to this moment. These guys in this room deserve all the honor they get, because they earned it.”They certainly did.The outset of every season comes with so much promise. The ebb-and-flows of the four-month battle that is the NFL brings with it an importance to each moment that makes them feel like lifeor- death experiences. The hype factor, the endless coaching and analysis, the millions of people watching, the billions of dollars all play a role.But ultimately, it comes down to group of grown-up little boys out there playing a game to determine a winner or loser.Eventually the dust will settle and time will work its magic. The Patriots will regroup and rise again with a renewed passion, the Giants will deservedly bask in their moment but eventually realize that success, much more than its opposite, is rarely permanent and much harder to sustain.Agony and ecstasy are never as pronounced as they seem in the immediate.But for this night, don’t even try to tell that to either team.