By Bryan Burwell
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH
12/10/2006


The magic begins on a field far from the celebrated glare of Monday Night lights. It begins under the low-wattage glimmer of some craggy patch of grass and dirt, with little boys scooting across Pop Warner practice fields in shoulder pads far too big for their pint-sized bodies. The momentum builds as it moves across small towns and big cities, growing under the ethereal yellow mist of every teenage boy's Friday night high school football fantasies.

The glowing lights of football at night have always held a special allure to anyone who held even a mild infatuation with the gridiron. The sight of a colossal multimillion-dollar stadium aglow in the distance or for that matter, even a tiny, nondescript boys club field is the surest signal that the game's about to be transformed into a larger-than-life event.

"I still remember my first Monday night game," former New York Giants linebacker Carl Banks told me several years ago. "I remember driving up to Giants Stadium as a rookie and seeing the stadium lit up from two or three miles away. I got goosebumps and butterflies right then and there, and they didn't go away until after the game. Don't let any player ever tell you 'Monday Night Football' doesn't mean anything to him. If you hear a guy say that, tell him he's lying. Monday night is big. It's very big and don't let anyone ever tell you otherwise."

So the Very Big Show comes to town Monday night under the big top of the Edward Jones Dome.


So maybe it's not quite as big as it used to be, having moved from network television to the niche world of ESPN; so maybe the larger-than-life, love-him-or-hate-him character of Howard Cosell has been replaced by the entertaining trio of Mike Tirico, Joe Theismann and Tony Kornheiser; so maybe because the game is being played under a downtown roof, the only glow in the night will be the neon lights of commercialism that decorate the stadium's exterior.

But the game still carries a wallop when you're the only game on the tube. Reputations can still be made or ruined on "Monday Night Football." "This will be a tremendous challenge for this football team on the biggest stage in football, other than the Super Bowl and playoffs," said Torry Holt, the brilliant Rams receiver. "We'll either get embarrassed or we'll do some embarrassing."

Oh yes, the game still has some clout. The Rams are a struggling 5-7 team. An underdog in their own home against the 10-2 Bears. They have not been on national television all season. They are a team devoid of a national persona. They have been limited to brief highlights on the tail ends of sportscasts. They are a mystery. No, it's worse than that; they are a franchise lacking any national consequence.

"I know they have Steven Jackson. I know they have Torry Holt," Kornheiser said. "But who are they? After Mike Martz left, did their personality go with him?"

Well that's why the Rams need this game a lot more than the Bears. This is the larger-than-life stage that could tell everyone exactly who they are. This is the game that could transform Jackson from this well-kept secret into one of the best all-around football players on the planet. This is a game with Pro Bowl votes attached to it. This is a game with pride attached to it, because peers will be watching and evaluating.

This is also a game that could let people see whether the Rams are a green but growing work-in-progress under Scott Linehan's watchful eye, or if this is a team lost in football oblivion, and truly deserving of being there, too. After the embarrassment of last week's loss to sorry, no-account Arizona and Marc Bulger's emotional blast questioning some of his teammates' work ethic will this be a bounce-back game that will keep alive the team's faint playoff possibilities, or just another nail in the coffin?

So what sort of magic will Monday night hold for the Rams? "Monday Night Football" is the sort of game that can reveal to the world what you're truly made of, or expose you and all your warts and blemishes.

"We'll either get embarrassed or we'll do some embarrassing," as Holt so eloquently put it.

Either way, the football world will be watching.