With the tension thicker than an offensive lineman's neck, the teams have gathered in their locker rooms. On the field, Tiny Tim is performing for the sellout crowd -- or at least someone who looks like Tiny Tim from the 1,375th row of the stadium. Back among the gladiators, it is time for last-minute details and emotional speeches. We take you there now.
''Gentlemen," said the coach, ''this is the day you have dreamed about since you played Pop Warner football. This is your chance for glory. You have worked too hard and too long to get here, so as we prepare for the ultimate competition, are there any questions about the game plan I have meticulously and tirelessly prepared?"
''Actually, I have one, Coach. I'm curious, why is it Super Bowl XL and not Super Bowl XXXX? Seems to me it should be clean and simple; an X is 10 and four X's would be 40. So, how come they tucked the L in there and just didn't toss down three more X's?"
Dumbfounded, the coach can only stare. Then, another hand is raised.
''You know, I wasn't going to bring this up, but since he asked the question, I'm baffled, too. On my watch, they use IIII to indicate the number four, but not IV, which is how they normally would represent four. Anyone know why?"
Silence -- but only for a moment.
''These goofy numbers have always driven me crazy, anyway," said another player, and by now the room was restless. Chatter was going on everywhere. ''Who invented Roman numerals, anyway?"
''The Greeks," said a voice.
''It wasn't the Greeks. I think the Vikings did," said a big guy who was busy putting on six rolls of tape.
''No wonder that team is so screwed up. Look at the number system they came up with."
''The Vikings didn't invent Roman numerals, helmet head. Julius Caesar did."
''The guy who invented that cool salad?"
''Didn't you learn anything in those four classes you went to in college? Some guy named Caesar Cardini invented the Caesar salad."
''Terrific, but it doesn't answer my question. Why is it XL and not XXXX?"
''L is 50 and the X in front of it means you take away 10. Get it? Fifty minus 10 is 40. If the X were behind the L, you would add it. So think about it, when the Super Bowl rolls around in 20 years and you're sitting at home, you'll see it as LX. Understand now?"
''But why wouldn't they just string together six X's? That would be 60, too, and it would get rid of the L."
''Hey, that's my shirt size. Six X's."
''What do you have against the L? It represents 50. And C is 100, D is 500, and M is 1,000."
''Imagine Super Bowl C? That sounds silly. X is macho. C sounds like such a sissy."
''Just wait until the 99th Super Bowl. Super Bowl IC? Everyone will think guys are in intensive care. Or they'll want to know who's in charge."
''You don't represent 99 by IC, encroachment breath. For 99, it would be XCIX. You can only put I before V's or X's."
''That's the way the Greeks wanted it."
''Will you stop it with the Greeks. They didn't invent the Roman numerals."
''Well, whoever invented them, I don't like them. I mean, if Super Bowl XL is 40 because you take 10 from 50, then why wasn't the 30th one Super Bowl XXL. You know, two X's taken from 50 equals 30?"
Finally, the coach had had it. He roared at his players. ''I've studied game film for 17 hours a day, coached you guys four hours a day, answered questions from a Nickelodeon reporter dressed up in a cape for two hours a day, and slept the other hour. We've gone over X's and O's all week and all you can think about is X's and L's and why they're in the order they are?"
There was silence. Then a lone voice from the back of the room said, ''We're sorry, Coach."
''Apology accepted. Now, before we go out there as a team of warriors, are there any questions?"
''Just one, Coach. I've never seen the Stones. Can I watch them at halftime?"
''The Stones? Playing at halftime? How cool is that?" said a teammate. ''I bet they were around when Roman numerals were invented."
''I don't know about that, but they did play at Julius Caesar's inauguration."
With that, the coach hung his head, tossed down the towel, and walked toward the field for Super Bowl XL. Or, if you prefer, Super Bowl XXXX.
I'd be willing to bet most football players could, actually, explain how Roman numerals work ... There's another rant, by the way, over at Sports Illustrated ... and another at the Pilot ...