My eyes are bleary.
I am three hours and 200 miles away from finally returning home from eleven days on assignment in Houston. In the last two days I have slept ten hours, which is the same amount of time my co-workers and I have spent driving back to our station in Atlanta.
(As I write this, we still have three hours to go. Hello from Greenville, Ala., by the way …)
The Super Bowl is worth it.
I wrote last week how I had dreamed as a child of covering the Super Bowl, the undisputed biggest event in sports. My dreams had strayed as I grew, I wrote, but I still recognized in this trip the chance to fulfill this original one.
Now that I have, I find myself still trying to take it in.
In more than a week, I have covered nearly every corner of Houston to tell the stories of the Super Bowl. I interviewed players, fans, and celebrities; I attended events; I ate some of the best food of my life; and I stood at the center of the sports’ biggest week.
I did everything … except see the game itself.
Well, let me rephrase that: I saw the Super Bowl live, just not in person. I watched it not at NRG Stadium but adjacent to it, perched by a big-screen TV in an area called the “domestic compound”. I sat with roughly three dozen local news colleagues, mostly from Atlanta and Boston, in the same situation.
That situation? The NFL receives far too many requests to accommodate every media member who seeks to cover the Super Bowl. Of our eight-person crew, four received credentials that allowed them inside the stadium during the game. The rest of us were handed credentials with access to the field, locker room, and interview rooms … but only after the game.
That left us in the compound – at least through the first half and early third quarter. As our Atlanta Falcons built a 28-3 lead on the New England Patriots, we Atlanta reporters ate hot dogs and watched the game just as millions did at home. The only difference? We also spent time charging batteries and organizing equipment for what was coming next.
Midway through the third quarter, we all got the call.
We were told to gather and start walking toward the stadium, and we moved like a giant organism through the bus lot, stadium entry area, and a massive outdoor security checkpoint. Our gear received thorough inspections, including from a K-9, and we passed through a metal detector before finally continuing our walk.
We roamed past the NFL Shop, which appeared to be setting up Falcons championship apparel. We passed a few fans leaving early at the start of the fourth quarter. Mostly, though, we remained glued to our phones to keep an eye on the game, which the Patriots had begun to make close.
Then we arrived directly outside the door to the stadium; we would remain there until the end of the game. The NFL had set up monitors so we could at least watch what was happening.
And what was happening? The greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.
As the Patriots marched back on the scoreboard, the tension skyrocketed outside. The Boston media began chirping and getting cocky; the Atlanta media largely began biting our collective fingernails. When we had begun our walk, we were going over assignments for postgame coverage of a Falcons championship. By this point, though, we knew we would need to be ready for any number of outcomes.
We also knew, one way or another, this game would be historic: either the Falcons’ first Super Bowl crown or the NFL’s biggest Super Bowl collapse.
It wound up the latter.
The Patriots took the game to overtime and then scored an immediate OT touchdown to win Super Bowl LI, 34-28. Within minutes, our credentials kicked in, and we were allowed to enter the stadium and access anywhere we wanted. We stepped briefly on the field, only to be surrounded by the loudest swelling of boos I have ever heard.
Why so loud? The NFL commissioner had just taken the stage.
It was nearly disorienting, but my photographer and I quickly rerouted and went to the Falcons’ locker room to interview players. I spent plenty of time in my early career in NFL locker rooms, but I had never heard one this quiet. Players sat stunned, with the silence occasionally pierced by the sound of a Falcon’s hand slamming against his locker door.
We interviewed a half-dozen players and then went to the field for our live post-game show. The turf was smothered in confetti, and the giant screens shone the word “CHAMPIONS” alongside the Patriots logo.
It was surreal to see in person … as, I suppose, the game would have been.
I worked 19 hours that day, slept five, and then hit the road back to Atlanta. That’s where I am as I write this, and I at some point soon will undoubtedly reflect on the circus that is the Super Bowl.
For now, though, I can simply say this: being there lived up to the dream.