August 23, 2006 - The uniform and the person wearing it startled me.
And we're not talking about the sporty red Adidas jumpsuit Fidel Castro has been wearing while recovering in the hospital.
Rather, sitting next to me early last week in a downtown restaurant was a guy wearing the third Arizona Cardinals jersey I had seen that day. All three bore the name of Anquan Boldin, the redbird's wide receiver.
You see, back in Northern New Jersey - where on cold Sunday afternoons I was weaned on New York Jets football - guys (un)fashionably don team jerseys until their guts wear holes in them. You can't swing a stadium foot-long without hitting one of these overfed men.
Things are different in Arizona.
Spotting Cardinal jerseys in public is almost as rare as spotting actual cardinals in Phoenix. But public-displays of Cardinal memorabilia didn't end there, it continued throughout the week with sightings of license plates, hats, T-shirts and more jerseys.
Could it be possible? Is Cardinal Nation finally rife with life?
My first investigation into this outbreak of Cardinal fever took me to the hallway outside the football equipment room at Ironwood Ridge High School - jersey day for the freshmen team.
In between the squabbling, bartering, posturing and cutting in line for their favorite numbers, the pint-sized players willingly gave up their favorite teams. Of all the players queried, a little more than half of them admitted to being Cardinal fans. The rest were enamored with an eclectic collection of teams, such as the Browns, Chiefs, Eagles, Patriots, Raiders, Rams and the most popular of them all, the world champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
Kodiac Gamble doesn't bet on the Chicago Bears. The former Steelers fan and Ironwood Ridge freshman has converted to Cardinal Nation.
"Now I am, since they got good players," said Gamble, while impatiently waiting in line for Nighthawk jersey No. 21, when asked if he's a Cardinal fan.
Kids say the darnedest things. But there is some truth to Gamble's wisdom. After decades of futility and watching quality players exit the desert instead of arriving, there seems to be a glimmer of hope that professional football can thrive in Arizona. This is due in large part to the organization's off-season additions of dynamic players, such as running back Edgerrin James and rookie quarterback Matt Leinart, to an already exciting core of young game breakers.
Add to the mix a new state-of-the-art stadium debuting this year, and people begin to freely admit they are Cardinal fans.
But that's not enough to sway this heartache-tested Jets fan.
Needing further evidence, on Sunday I accompanied two of my favorite ladies - my lovely fiancïÂ¿½ Dana and her mother Linda - to Glendale for an afternoon of gawking at the brand new Cardinal Stadium.
On Aug. 19 and 20 the Cardinals held an open house for curious fans to come in to rifle through the club's belongings, eat its food and overstay their welcome.
And I must say, Cardinal Nation just may have a fighting shot at staying alive.
Pro: There's a nice vibe to the stadium, unlike at Sun Devil Stadium, the team's former home, which had a college feel to it with bench seats and way too many of them. The stadium is replete with the team's colors and even its mascot - displayed prominently throughout the concourses - seems to have a harder edge to it.
Con: The parking lot was a bit of a disaster scene. Word is traffic backed up along Glendale Ave for more than an hour prior to the team's exhibition opener against the Steelers on Aug. 12. For the open house, security guided cars on a long and pointless drive around the lot. It's still pre-season; this one can still be ironed out.
Pro: Team officials have incorporated a local appeal without being too corny. One attraction on a concourse displays the team photos by year of past high school state football champions. The interior design also features breath-taking images courtesy of Arizona Highways Magazine.
Con: On the second level there is one door to squeeze a couple of hundred fans through. This was a nightmare getting out of during the open house; I wonder what it will be like when the Cardinal fans attempt to make a mass exodus should things go south on the field.
Pro: Aside from the stadium's exterior design - some say it looks like a giant silver barrel cactus, others think it resembles a marshmallow - the stadium is the first in North America to feature a roll-in, roll-out turf. The portable sod sits behind the stadium, weighs 18.9 million pounds and takes 65 minutes to roll into place. Take that retractable roof, which this stadium also has.
In the next 18 months, this stadium will practically become the gridiron Mecca for championship football, hosting its first Fiesta Bowl on Jan. 1, 2007, and first BCS Championship game a week later. The following year Super Bowl XLII will come to town.
The best part is, for once, Cardinal fever will get a chance to grow. Arizonans will see more Cardinal games on TV this season thanks to finally being able to sellout a home game.
The NFL blacks out games if the stadium isn't sold out at least 72 hours in advance. According to a San Francisco Chronicle article, the Cardinals lead the league with 71 black outs in the last 10 years, 18 more than the next closest team, the Oakland Raiders.
With broader television exposure, you won't need the shine of a new stadium to sway you into the red. Besides being located 133 miles from Catalina Foothills High School, the organization reports that all of this year's games have, in fact, sold out.
They may not be Super Bowl ready but for once the Cardinals seem to be heading in the right direction. Cardinal Nation has a pulse.