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SUPER BOWL week is a wonderful time. Once each year it provides an opportunity to rehash the wit and wisdom of Duane Thomas, a self-made strange person and former Dallas Cowboy.

Thomas, an excellent athlete, worked hard at being distant and detached. Many writers dismissed him with the old line, "The guy doesn't say much, but when he does say something he doesn't say much."

At least once, just before the Cowboys met the Baltimore Colts on Super Sunday V in Miami, he got profound.

"If the Super Bowl is the ultimate game," he mused, "how come they're going to play another one next year?"

If Duane were still around he might rephrase the question and ask:

"If the Super Bowl is the ultimate game, how come Joe Montana can make more than three times as much money playing Atlanta in the middle of November than he can playing Denver in The Big One in January?"

Last year, when the San Francisco 49ers defeated Cincinnati in Super Bowl XXIII, Montana collected $36,000. With an annual salary close to $2 million, his regular-season game check is around $120,000.

If the 49ers lose to the Denver Broncos on Sunday, then the Super payoff becomes even more demeaning. Last year's losers got $18,000.

There has been no change in the players' share of the Super pot since 1983. At that time the one-size-fits-all ticket price was $40. This year it is $125. Yet the players' rewards remain the same as they were seven years ago -- $36,000 for the winners, $18,000 for the losers.

That would be the thrill of a lifetime for the average working stiff, but, in the eerie world of sports finance, it is a long way from ultimate.

No, this is not a plea for more money for athletes who already are overpaid. I think they ought to cap salaries at about $500,000 and cut ticket prices in half. Then they should reduce the amount of money squeezed out of the TV networks, which in turn squeeze advertisers, who then complete the gouge cycle by squeezing consumers.

What this is, is me wondering how important some superstars and medium stars think it is to make it to the Super Bowl.

The question applies to baseball's World Series, the NBA playoffs and any other competition involving people who collect big sums of money without the added hassle of winning championships.

Please, don't blather about the pride that drives all athletes. That line is used over and over by sportscasters trying to pump up everything from meaningless All-Star mill-arounds to celebrity junk sports.

If pride were all that universal, coaches of struggling National Football League teams wouldn't have to worry about the run-for-the-bus games at the end of each season.

Certainly, Montana and the 49ers think it's important to reach and win the Super Bowl. But how about all those other guys who are ready to play one week and the next week mail in their contributions to the team effort?

Just call me a sentimental softie, but the first Super Bowl still is my favorite. Ticket prices were $8, $10 and $12 and you could knock on Bart Starr's door in the Green Bay Packers' motel in Santa Barbara any evening that week and chat. You could visit Paul Hornung's room, too, but nobody would be in it.

The winners got $15,000, and needed it. The moral of the story:

Everybody had more fun before salaries, ticket prices and egos went ballistic.

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