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 / Updated  / Source: TODAY contributor
By Mike Celizic

When you’re a model, it doesn’t get any better than getting on the cover of the most-viewed magazine in America. And this year’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition cover girl isn’t one of those people who get so excited at good fortune they can’t find the words to describe it.

“I feel like the New Orleans Saints did Sunday night,” Brooklyn Decker told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira and Al Roker Tuesday in New York. “It’s the equivalent of a model winning the MVP of the Super Bowl.”

A big sports fan and the wife of American tennis star Andy Roddick, the 22-year-old Decker has been trying to crack the S.I. cover for five straight years now. It’s a huge deal to make the cover, a stage that turns a model into a superstar.

As for her husband, Decker said, “I think he basically takes the reins in the locker room for the next year or so. He has good bragging rights. He’s very proud.”

Beyond that, she said, is the career opportunity for her.

“He knows it’s a gold mine, and to see me succeed and to see each other succeed is really exciting,” she said of Roddick.

A person, not just a body
The reason the exposure is so great is because Sports Illustrated treats its models as people, introducing them and their personalities to the readers.

“It’s so good, because Sports Illustrated is [good] about putting a face with a name of the girl,” Decker explained. “It has your name on the cover, and no other magazine will do that. It’s wonderful.”

And making the cover isn’t easy. The magazine’s editors do not pick the cover girl in advance. Instead, they sort through nearly 100,000 pictures of the world’s most gorgeous models wearing the most revealing swimwear — a grueling task, most men would agree — to find the one picture that conveys sun and water and glowing good health.

In recent years, the cover models adopted sultry poses, but Decker bursts off this year’s cover in the blaze of a megawatt smile and a little yellow bikini that she’s half wearing while standing thigh-deep in the Indian Ocean.

The bottom of the suit is where it should be, but the top is hanging off her right shoulder. Doing the work the top should be doing are her arms, which are crossed across her chest as she smiles at the camera as sweetly as a homecoming queen.

Getting the big news
Decker did not learn she’d finally landed on the cover until Monday, when she went to what she thought was going to be a casting call.

“I was all gussied up to go, and I walk in and there’s all sorts of cameras and mics and everything and tons of blown-up pictures of myself all over,” Decker said.

Knowing that she’d finally won her Super Bowl, she totally lost it.

“I burst into tears like a child,” the blue-eyed blonde told Roker and Vieira.

Monday night, late-night viewers found out that she was on the cover during David Letterman’s monologue. After telling the audience to watch their monitors, Letterman ordered workers to drop a tarpaulin covering a huge billboard on 53rd Street and Broadway.

The tarp dropped to reveal a picture of newly elected Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown posing in the buff a number of years ago for Cosmo. But once that gag was milked, there was another unveiling — this time of the real Sports Illustrated cover declaring the tanned and smiling Decker, dressed in a smile and a yellow bikini, to be a “Perfect 10 in the Maldives.”

Harder than it looks
“I do not even remember taking that picture,” Decker confessed.

Image: Brooklyn Decker
Brooklyn Decker

Photo shoots for the magazine are long and grueling affairs, with models getting up well before dawn and working until sunset. Usually, she said, the shots taken late in the day are the ones that make the cover — and those are the ones that she remembers most. But this picture was taken early on the second morning of the multiday shoot and she forgot it as soon as it was taken.

“That’s what’s nice about it,” Decker said. “It’s one of those natural, nice, organic moments.”

Shortly after the unveiling of her Broadway billboard, Decker tweeted her delight to her fans: “THANK YOU EVERYONE!!! I Wish I could respond to every single one of you but thank you so much for your AMAZINGLY sweet tweets!”

Born in Ohio and named for a New York City borough, Decker grew up in North Carolina. As a kid, she told The Associated Press, she ran hurdles for the track team, played soccer and participated in competitive cheerleading. An avid University of North Carolina Tarheels fan, she has no great diet or exercise secret, she said, other than to be active and eat sensibly.

Supermodels walk the runway in elaborate lingerie at the 2009 Victoria’s Secret fashion show.

Decker did say, though, that because Sports Illustrated encourages a natural look — less makeup, toned muscles, a curvy shape — it’s easier to get a great photograph. “This celebrates the girls and their personalities. I think it’s why they get such beautiful pictures.”

State secretThis is Decker’s fifth straight year as a model in the swimsuit edition, so clearly, she had the right stuff to make the cover. It was just a matter of everything coming together.

Once the decision is made, it becomes a state secret until just before publication, with even the models kept in the dark. As the years have passed, the announcement of who made the cover has become a bigger production.

“I still don’t know the formula for the cover,” Decker said. “It’s luck, the perfect suit and perfect storm to get it.”

The perfect smile and the perfect hair and the perfect eyes and the perfect body also help.

But Decker was a star in her world by the time she was 18 and made her first appearance in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. Discovered in a mall in North Carolina, she’s been featured in Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, FHM and Glamour; done music videos with Jimmy Buffett; appeared on the TV show “Ugly Betty” and been a Victoria’s Secret model.

Love at first sightStill, making the cover of the Swimsuit Edition boosts her into another category of fame. Sports Illustrated says that the swimsuit issue is seen by more than 65 million Americans, including 40 percent of the nation’s adult males.

Slideshow

See supermodels sport sultry swimwear in some of the world’s most scenic locations, from India to the Maldives.

You would think that minimally clad supermodels would be enough of a sell by themselves, but the magazine takes no chances. All the models in this year’s swimsuit issue are headed to Las Vegas for a heavy weeklong schedule of publicity events, photo ops and autograph signings.

Cover shots have made superstars of many who have gone before her, from Cindy Crawford to Cheryl Tiegs to Kathy Ireland to Tyra Banks to Elle Macpherson to Heidi Klum.

Like millions of American men, tennis star Andy Roddick saw her picture and fell in love. Unlike millions of American men, Roddick, the top-ranked American male player, had the pull to track her down.

Roddick’s agent managed to get Decker’s number, and he called the 5-foot-9 beauty. They started dating in 2007, announced their engagement in 2008 and were married last April at Roddick’s home in Austin, Texas. He was 26; she was 21.

PEOPLE magazine reported that Roddick asked an English bloke he knew to sing at the wedding, and Elton John obliged.

The Associated Press contributed reporting to this story.