It’s been called the biggest sporting event in the world and the most overhyped event in human history. Having attended the last 23 of them, I can tell you the Super Bowl is all of that—and crazier. With the showdown set for tonight, here are a few sides of the Biggest of Big Games that you might not know.
No other sporting event commands media attendance for six days of practice. But for the Super Bowl, the interviews begin Monday night at the airport.
On Tuesday, thousands of reporters are herded into a football stadium for player interviews. On Wednesday and Thursday, it’s massive hotel ballroom breakfasts. At each gathering, the two teams’ most popular players are given podiums, their names on a sign, while lesser-known players sit under signs in the stands or at tables. Like shoppers, reporters roam from sign to sign, catching quotes. It’s sort of like the ancient Roman Forum, except no one there ever asked about the Flex Defense.
Sometimes, out of boredom, one unknown player will switch signs with another and answer as him. I doubt anyone notices. By that point, the questions and answers are pretty much the same.
Of course, come Sunday, Game Day, when you’d actually like to ask the players something pertinent? They are off-limits.
2. Knowledge Is Not A Prerequisite
I often think the only requirement for a Super Bowl press credential is a driver’s license. You see reporters who don’t speak English, reporters from country music stations, Comedy Central. I once stood by MTV’s “Downtown” Julie Brown as she asked a player how tight his pants were.
Stupid questions have a storied history at the Super Bowl. Someone once asked Tennessee lineman Joe Salave’a, “What’s your relationship with the football?” His response: “Strictly platonic.” Someone asked Denver quarterback John Elway if he planned to listen to Stevie Wonder sing during halftime. The insensitivity award still goes to the query made of Raiders QB Jim Plunkett: “Jim, is it your mother who’s blind and your father who’s deaf, or the other way around?”
Little wonder, then, that during the 1986 Super Bowl week, when everyone was asking Bears quarterback Jim McMahon about acupuncture treatments on his rear end, he spotted a news helicopter flying over a practice—and mooned it.
Just accommodating the media.
By the way, none of our questions mean we are on top of things. Remember the biggest Super Bowl malfunction ever? The Janet Jackson costume fiasco? It happened during halftime when we, the nation’s press corps, were mostly hovered over computers, analyzing the first-half action. I remember running to get a coffee and passing a single reporter, sitting alone by a TV set. He said, “I think Janet Jackson just flashed us.” I shrugged. We went back to our game stories.
And the next day, Janet was the only thing anyone talked about.
3. It’s Not The Football, It’s The Parties
I remember, years ago, when there were only a handful of Super Bowl parties. Now the parties are the Super Bowl. Big affairs start midweek, and the contest for the swankiest soiree is as intense as the gridiron battle. There are theme parties. “Leather and lace” parties. P. Diddy’s party. The Playboy party. Parties hosted by NBA stars or actors. Parties held on yachts, on rooftops, in converted warehouses. I remember going on a hayride at one party and seeing Bruce Willis sing at another. And I don’t get invited to the really good ones.
So competitive are these battling bashes that you usually pay to get into them, sometimes thousands of dollars—far more than for the game itself. Of course, if you are an A-list celebrity, you don’t pay to attend. They pay you.
But this reflects a larger truism of the Super Bowl: It is not a place for the common fan. In fact, such a huge percentage of attendees are high rollers, salesmen, valued customers or CEOs that when you listen to the crowd at the game, you often can’t tell whom people are rooting for. That’s because, for many of them, victory has already been achieved. They got in.
4. The Real World Intrudes
Despite the frequent sense that you have fallen down the rabbit hole, the fact is, real life doesn’t stop for the Super Bowl. This was never more true than in 1989, when, a day after my arrival in Miami, I found myself in the middle of a three-day race riot after a police officer fatally shot a black motorcyclist. And here we were, a bunch of sports reporters—just a few miles from the glamorous crowd—surrounded by police cars and angry citizens. How could both things co-exist in such proximity?
It’s a question often asked when the movable feast of the Super Bowl shoehorns into urban settings. After all, the celebration isn’t open to everyone. In Detroit in 2006, a weekend “Super Bowl party” was organized for the city’s homeless at a large shelter. While the gesture seemed benevolent, it was as much about clearing the streets of undesirables as it was about kindness.
5. It’s Rarely Whom You Expect
For a contest watched by nearly 100 million people in America alone, it is surprising how often the biggest stars do not rise to the spotlight, which instead is grabbed by less-likely heroes.
In 1971, Baltimore rookie Jim O’Brien, who barely made half his field goals all season, emerged as the hero with a final 32-yard kick to win the game. His big, tough, football nickname? “Bambi.”
In 1988, a little-used rookie named Timmy Smith got a surprise start for the Washington Redskins and ran for 204 yards. It set a Super Bowl record. Two years later, he was released. He never played another NFL game.
In 1996, a 12th-round Dallas draft pick named Larry Brown won the Super Bowl’s MVP award by making two interceptions of Pittsburgh’s Neil O’Donnell. Never mind that O’Donnell threw the ball right at him. Brown took the award, parlayed it into an eye-popping five-year, $12.5 million free-agent deal with Oakland—and never came close to that moment again.
But then, that’s the Super Bowl. Too rich. Too bloated. Six days of gluttonous buildup for one overhyped, out-of-proportion game. It’s coming around again tonight.
And I wouldn’t miss it.