TEMPE, Ariz. – Joe Flacco moved through the crowds at the Kurt Warner Ultimate Football Experience on Saturday like Gulliver wading through the Lilliputians.
Clearly weary but never wavering, Flacco paused for autographs, stopped to snap every phone photo, chatted with children and smiled at every beaming face in this odd but enduring American fascination with celebrity.
“Life’s definitely been a little different,” said Flacco, who quarterbacked the Baltimore Ravens to a 34-31 victory over the San Francisco 49ers a little more than a month ago, earning Super Bowl MVP honors. “It changes your life forever. You’re being pulled in a lot more directions and the attention is much more noticeable.
“It’s definitely exhausting, but it’s all for a good reason, and I wouldn’t give it back for anything.”
Flacco has been in the headlines almost nonstop since that fate-altering game. He appeared on the David Letterman Show, he made the most publicized McDonald’s drive-through in history and he recently signed a six-year, $120.6 million contract that makes him the highest-grossing player in NFL history, although Maryland’s 51.98 percent marginal income tax rate will prevent him from taking home the most cash.
On Saturday at Warner’s annual event, Flacco joined a cast of NFL stars, past and present, including Warner, Larry Fitzgerald, Steve Young, Michael Irvin and Flacco’s Super Bowl-winning teammate Anquan Boldin, who chided Flacco for being “the world’s richest man” after signing that deal — a deal that has perhaps altered Boldin’s future with the Ravens.
“Ha! That’s good stuff,” said Flacco, when informed of Boldin’s comments regarding his gaudy salary. “It’s honestly stuff I don’t think about. It’s so surreal that you can’t really comprehend it.”
As has been noted, Flacco and the Ravens negotiated before last season in an attempt to forge a new contract but were never able to come to an agreement.
“I thought I was worth a little bit more, so once the season started, we didn’t want to talk anymore. There wasn’t a timetable forcing us like there was this year,” said Flacco, who admits it was a risk but one that paid off handsomely when he won the Super Bowl.
“Pretty crazy, huh?” he said.
When pressed for how he plans to spend his money, Flacco shrugged.
“I’m sure if you want to spend all that money, it would be very easy to spend all that money, but I have no idea. I don’t have things that I’m so into where I could go and blow it,” he said. “I’m probably going to get a house in Baltimore. I don’t have a house down there; I only rent down there. So I would say that’s the only thing on my mind.”
That includes next season, when Flacco will face increased expectations with a roster that will look vastly different from this season’s following the retirements of linebacker Ray Lewis and center Matt Birk, the apparent defection of Boldin, the release of guard Bobbie Williams and a dozen free agents, including safety Ed Reed, whose futures the Ravens are still contemplating.
“I understand there will be lots of turnover. That’s the nature of the NFL,” said Flacco, the 18th overall pick in the 2008 draft. “But we’re still at the point of enjoying it right now, trying to get some rest and just soak all this in.”
Flacco said it was difficult to comprehend what the AFC’s fourth-seeded Ravens were doing while it it was happening.
“I think you just go along for the ride,” he said. “When we beat Denver in Denver, we were definitely looking at each other going, ‘Wow, what was that?’ The whole week we were in New Orleans, it was tough not to sit back and enjoy it and just say, ‘We’re in the Super Bowl.’
“But once you get there, you realize how much you need to win that game to make people believe and to build your own belief.”
That belief will be tested in 2013 in a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately league. And the scrutiny will focus on Flacco because of his new contract.
“No question it creates greater expectations,” said Warner, former quarterback and current NFL analyst. “But I think that’s true for what Joe expects from himself as much as for what the fans or the media expect. The good thing is, he has the confidence now to know he can take a team to that level.”
That certainly wasn’t the perception heading into last season. If you had conducted a wide-sweeping poll asking for the NFL’s best quarterbacks, few outside of Baltimore, and perhaps few in Baltimore, would have added Flacco to that list. And there are still many who don’t believe Flacco is worth all that money.
“I don’t care,” Flacco said in a response that wasn’t petulant but rather that of a man who has heard the slights before, understands their basis and simply doesn’t agree. “I believe in who I am. I believe I’m pretty darn good. That’s why I’ve said it before when asked about it.
“It doesn’t really matter what people think, but there’s definitely a little bit of pride that goes into it — a little bit of wanting to prove my ability. Maybe people will start to realize it a little bit now.”