Players repeatedly warned about temptations

HOUSTON -- Lawrence Taylor, always a big-game player, smiles.

The lime-green parakeets are chattering in the palm trees around the putting green at the Miami Beach Golf Club and the sun-toasted air couldn't feel finer, but a week ago the former Giants linebacker's thoughts were about 1,000 miles away.

"Man," says the former Giants linebacker, "I can't wait to get to Houston. The Super Bowl is a great, great time."

Taylor was looking forward to his role in the Lingerie Bowl -- a glorious pay-per-view pageant of backfields in motion -- and, hopefully, between 72 and 90 holes of golf. And maybe, just maybe, a party or two.

"There's a chance," Taylor says, "I'll find a few."

In his playing days, Taylor often put more effort into his pursuit of off-field happiness than his pre-game preparation. He'll be joined this weekend by hundreds of his peers, some who are playing for the New England Patriots or Carolina Panthers, others who are anticipating a well-earned postseason celebration.

The well-known NASA catchphrase "Houston, we have a problem," may take on an even darker meaning when Sunday dawns. It could well be the epitaph of Super Bowl XXXVIII. The sweet swell of excess can be found everywhere.

Stanley Wilson. Eugene Robinson. Barret Robbins. They were all casualties of the Super Bowl swirl.

Houston, it should be noted, has its own history with athletes and trouble. In 1986, four New York Mets players -- Ron Darling, Bob Ojeda, Rick Aguilera and Tim Teufel -- were arrested after an altercation with an off-duty policeman working as a security guard at a Houston night club. In 1990, Lakers forward James Worthy made headlines when he was charged with solicitation after summoning two undercover policewomen posing as prostitutes to his room.

There are plenty of high-end distractions in Houston; the restaurants and bars rate with those in any major city. And then there are the notorious strip clubs, some 30 to 40 venues with names like Lipstick's Cabaret Club, Centerfold's, Baby Dolls and Caligula 21. They are primed and ready for the incoming action.

"We expect it be explosive this weekend," said Mike Sparks, manager of the Fantasy Cabaret on the Gulf Freeway. "A lot of the (Houston) Texans players come in here. We even had a few guys from the Patriots a few months ago (for the Nov. 23 game)."

Has Sparks seen them this week?

"Not yet -- I'm surprised," he replied.

Sparks has made elaborate plans to draw partygoers. Devon Lee, a popular adult movie star, has been booked for the weekend.

"Saturday and Sunday will be huge," Sparks said. "The word's out that we're the hot spot for entertainment."

By Thursday, the limousines were starting to stream into the city filled with players ready to party. There are so many celebrities and high-rollers coming in, the local airport has had to scramble to accommodate the flood of private jets. The professionals -- a feature of every Super Bowl -- can be seen in the hotel lobbies around town.

Ty Law, the Patriots' peerless cornerback, has been through this before. Two years ago, the Patriots beat the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans. He has warned his younger teammates about the pitfalls of the pre-game buildup.

"The best thing I can tell them is don't get caught up in the hoopla, hype and the media," Law said on Sunday, when the team arrived from New England. "What did it take to get us here? If you get caught up in all of the distractions, you won't be able to go out there and perform.

"As soon as you land, you can see all of the things that can be a distraction. We are on a business trip. We have plenty of time to party and hang out with the in-crowd and everything when we are done playing."

Feeling the pressure

A year ago in San Diego, Barret Robbins was feeling the pressure of the biggest game of his career. The Oakland Raiders' 320-pound center did not handle it well. Robbins disappeared from the team's La Jolla hotel on Friday night. He missed a team meeting, a position meeting and the Saturday walk-through.

Robbins was reportedly seen drinking in a bar the day before Super Bowl XXXVII in San Diego area and weeping, worried that he was going to let everyone down. According to teammates, he talked about killing himself. When he returned to the team hotel on Saturday night, he was incoherent. He spent the day of the game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in a local hospital.

Robbins, who suffers from bipolar disorder, returned to the Raiders this past season.

"I had to dig deep to find motivation for a few months," he said. "Depression is a hard thing to kick. I stuck to my guns and believed I could do it. I did."

Patti Tolar is the coordinator of academic affairs for the psychology department at the University of Houston.

"Some people just can't handle stress," Tolar said. "And athletes are people, too. They wonder, 'What if I don't perform well? I'll lose friends -- and money.' The individual has a lot riding on it, but it's magnified by the fact that millions and millions of people around the world are watching.

"There can be self-harming behavior. 'If I'm sick or get caught doing something wrong, I won't have to play.' It's like kids trying to get out of a test. 'If I'm sick, I won't have to deal with it.' "

Cincinnati Bengals running back Stanley Wilson went on a cocaine binge the night before Super Bowl XXIII 15 years ago in Miami. The Bengals broke into his hotel room and discovered him incoherent in the bathroom, surrounded by the trappings of cocaine use. Wilson eventually left via a fire escape and disappeared. Wilson, who had five drug rehabilitations during his career, never played another NFL game.

Atlanta free safety Eugene Robinson was arrested for soliciting an undercover policewoman posing as a prostitute five years ago on Biscayne Boulevard in Miami. He offered her $40 for oral sex and spent a few hours in jail before getting out on bail. He played in the game, but was burned for an 80-yard touchdown by Denver receiver Rod Smith.

Robinson, now a radio analyst for the Carolina Panthers, did not return calls to his cell phone.

On the night after Super Bowl XXXIV, Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis was involved in a fracas in the upscale Buckhead section of Atlanta. He was charged with murder in the stabbing deaths of two men, Jacinth Baker and Richard Lollar, hours after the game but eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser charge after he agreed to testify against two associates. Baltimore was not playing in the game, but a year later Lewis was the MVP in the Ravens' 34-7 victory over the Giants in Super Bowl XXXV.

Most players who have played on the ultimate stage remember the night before vividly -- even years after the fact.

Washington quarterback Joe Theismann spent two hours talking on the phone with his friend, actor Burt Reynolds, then reviewed his game plan on the night before Super Bowl XVII in Pasadena. He slept from 11 to 4:30 in the morning but, all of a sudden, the little voices began to start.

"You're lying there in bed and it's 'What happens if they bring four guys from the outside?' " Theismann remembered. "You know, 'I wonder what the weather's going to be like? Are my shoes going to feel comfortable.'

"It's real quiet and your mind is running through a bunch of scenarios. You try not to think about the magnitude of it all, but you really can't help it."

Theismann, today an ESPN analyst, doesn't agree that Wilson, Robinson and Robbins acted out to avoid playing in the game.

"Why would they sabotage that moment?" Theismann asked. "I think players go with the same MO they've always done. Smoke a little dope the night before? Have a few drinks? Guys don't all of a sudden do something different. That was probably the routine in the regular season, and it just got out of hand.

"The little voices can do different things to different people. They prey on vulnerability."

Theismann makes another good point: The teams of Wilson and Robinson and Robbins all lost their Super Bowl games.

"There is an effect there, no matter what the teams said at the time," Theisman said. "Don't think for one minute that Barret Robbins not playing in the Super Bowl didn't make a huge difference -- it did."

This, of course, is what the Patriots and Panthers are trying to avoid.

One thing working against the two teams is the extra week of preparation the schedule has afforded. When the Patriots played the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI, the game was played in New Orleans. But even with the hurly burly sights and sounds of Bourbon Street close at hand, the Patriots -- 14-point underdogs -- were intent on game preparation because there was only one week between the championship game and the Super Bowl. And while a few players were spotted making the rounds in the French Quarter, New England prevailed, 20-17.

With two weeks this time, the Patriots were able to install most of their game plan back home in New England before heading down to Houston.

"We're down here for one reason," said Patriots head coach Bill Belichick. "I know there will be certain points of the week to be able to catch up with friends and family -- we can all do that. But that's not really why we're here. We're here for an important game against the Panthers.

"Anything other than that -- if it happens it happens -- but we're here to play Carolina."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com