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The Tortuous Tale Of a Super-Bowl T

I was in the supermarket Monday morning after the New England Patriots beat the Miami Dolphins. "Squish the Fish" was the slogan for that game. It was January 1986; the Patriots were headed for Super Bowl XX and the Chicago Bears.

"Smoke the Bears." It came to me out of the air, as if written on the "Fryers, $1.99 per pound" sign. That's it! "Smoke the Bears." The slogan. Now, how could I cash in on it? Make T-shirts, I thought. Thousands of them. Make $2 per shirt. Reinvest. Quit my engineering job. Buy a silk-screen print machine. Millionaire by 30.

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I told a graphic-designer friend what I wanted. "Something maybe with a campfire, maybe a Patriot wearing a three-cornered hat with a bear on a spit. Maybe you can work in William [the Refrigerator] Perry." He was the Bears' 304-pound rookie defensive lineman.

That night she showed me her design: a refrigerator melting like an ice cube with flames below it and a puff of smoke encircling The Slogan: "Smoke the Bears." "Let's go with it," I said.

A nearby sporting-goods store had a T-shirt print shop behind it. For $10 a shirt you could have 24 shirts printed. The price went down as you ordered more. I ordered 1,500 at $3.23 apiece: 400 XL, 400 L, 400 M, and 300 assorted children's sizes. Half of them red shirts, half blue shirts, with white lettering.

"You don't want this many," the man who ran the shop said. "Start with a couple of dozen and see if they sell."

"No," I said. "This is it, my big entrepreneurial debut. I've gotta go for it in a big way."

"OK, but we'll only make 750. See if they sell. You don't want to be eating shirts for dinner."

Wednesday morning, 12 boxes of T-shirts filled my studio apartment. What have I done? How am I going to move all this merchandise?

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Answer: in the subway. Every morning at Government Center, workers stream out like bees from 6:30 to 9:30. "Heh heh," they said. A little mirth on the faces of cold office workers.

"Look at the boy selling the shirts!" a tourist said. (I was well out of college by then.)

Some people didn't get it.

By the end of that first morning, three people had plunked down $8 for a shirt. Only 747 to go. Actually, 450 to break even, then it would be pure profit. I did a rough calculation. Three shirts per day, times eight business days until the Super Bowl equals 24 shirts. I needed to develop multiple marketing outlets.

The Store 24 near me put them in the window and took 10 on consignment. The T-shirt print shop took 10, but by Friday hadn't sold one. "People like color," the man said. "Your shirt's too plain."

"Plain like a black-and-white movie, an art film," I said.

I needed media attention. Thursday morning, I took shirts to two radio stations and The Boston Globe. The Globe guy couldn't take a free one; he said it would compromise his journalistic integrity. One of the DJs thought I wanted to interview him, not the other way around.

I needed to make my slogan the slogan of choice. The early front-runner was "Berry the Bears." Sure, it had alliteration and a play on words: Raymond Berry (the Pats' coach) and "bury." But "berry" (a) is not a verb, and (b) is a cute fruit. "Smoke" is better. You can smoke bear meat. You can "smoke" someone if you run a race and leave him in the dust. "Smoke the Bears" should triumph.

Friday night was a Patriots' rally. I should sell at least a hundred, I thought. Two friends and I held up the shirts and chanted The Slogan. "Go back to business school!" jeered several onlookers.

Sunday night, one week to go. It was raining. I delivered 10 shirts for $50 to a church friend who planned to sell them to her piano students. Down to 650 shirts.

On Monday I went to Providence, R.I., to test the market there. I'd been overseeing boiler repairs in the schools there and had gotten to know a lot of the teachers. A phys. ed. instructor took 10 and sold them by the next day.

One of the school department's glaziers had an idea for a T-shirt for the Bears: a big bear pulling a Liberty Bell apart. He'd made a crayon sketch. I hired another artist and had a T-shirt on the presses Tuesday morning. Now I'd hedged the market. Whoever won, I was covered.

The Thursday before the game there was a going-away rally for the Pats in Foxborough, Mass. All the TV networks were there. Coach Berry signed several of my shirts for "the Collector's Edition" line. So did Andre Tippett and Steve Grogan.

As a Boston TV station interviewed Berry, I handed out T-shirts to everyone behind him. This is just the kind of exposure The Slogan needs, I thought. On "The Six O'Clock News," 15 or 20 Pats fans waved the shirts as Berry pontificated.

By Super Bowl Eve I was down to about 600 shirts. Plus 200 of the Bear pulling the Liberty Bell apart. There's only one way to move these shirts now: Get them to New Orleans.

In the days of People Express, it was cheaper to fly myself with the shirts as baggage than to express the shirts to the souvenir-store owner my boss knew in New Orleans. Trouble was, you can't get a seat to New Orleans the day before the Super Bowl. I had to fly to Jacksonville, Fla., and rent a car.

MY flight arrived at 4 a.m. Sunday morning. I ran to the rental-car desk. "Do you have anything that goes kind of - fast?"

"Well, we do have a red Firebird. It's cheaper than the mid-size."

I took it, and found that driving fast before dawn is fun. With a Massachusetts driver's license in the deep South, though, I also knew I could be in trouble. The South is Bears country.

Blue lights flashed behind me west of Pensacola, Fla.

"I'm sorry, officer," I said. "I'm trying to get to the Super Bowl before game time so I can sell these shirts. By the way, would you like one?"

"Weyull, we'd just lahk to git yuh thayer in wun piece," he said. "Thank you kahndly for the shirt." He still gave me a ticket.

At 11 a.m. in New Orleans, my boss's friend's souvenir shop is packed with shirts, caps, pennants, hats. "I'm sorry," she said. "The box of shirts you sent me didn't sell. It's too late. Better luck next time."

I was crestfallen. The game was about to start. I had 600 shirts, only $700 in revenues, and costs that were dipping way into my savings. What to do?

Get out of New Orleans.

Back to People Express, to the Newark, N.J., hub, and on to Chicago. My hedging strategy might pay off. The score was 44 to 10, Bears. There will be victory celebrations and a new market in the Windy City.

At the victory celebration on Tuesday, though, Chicagoans just didn't get it.

"Look at the boy selling shirts!" said someone on the escalator at Grant Park station. Even with my magic- markered explanation of the imagery, no shirts sold. Bears quarterback Jim McMahon waved from the snowy podium by the Picasso sculpture on City Hall plaza.

"The pehrty's over, pehl," said a seasoned T-shirt vendor as he walked by. "Start thinkin' about baseball."

I flew back to Boston.

Eleven years later, I own a consulting business. I did not make a T-shirt for this Sunday's game. But I did have The Slogan: "Can the Packers."

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