How I snuck into the Super Bowl
On the Wednesday before last year's Super Bowl, I was sitting at my desk in the office of a trucking magazine in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, slogging through another trucker story - maybe the one about the lung transplant or the guy who's driven 4 million safe miles or the trucker who used to play guitar for the Drifters - when I yawned and looked out the window at the horse pasture across Rice Mine Road. There was a beautiful black Tennessee Walker and the gentle incline of green and a row of leafless trees tickling the blue sky, but my eyes fell on the pasture, the field, and I could only think about sprinting across it, and I find it hard to think about running through a field without thinking about chasing something, and because I was born thousands of years after my hunting and gathering ancestors my prey is not an animal but an inflated pigskin, and my dreaming mind always sends my dreaming body long, and I'm galloping over clumps of grass and gliding up and down hills, bobbling a ball, tapping it, diving, catching, falling, rising, cutting, sprinting into the blissful freedom of open field...and then I had an idea.
The big game was right next door in Georgia, and there have to be truckers involved, so why not do a story on them? I marched down the hall and told my boss, "It would be cheap. I could drive there." I shrugged, already seeing her face contort into the little walnut that I could never crack. "It just seems like an opportunity we shouldn't pass up," I offered pacifically.
"We just did a story on hauling football, Donna's story on the Iowa Hawks truck, and football is football, it's all the same."
I tried to remain calm. "Football is not just football, Peggy. This is the Super Bowl. It is bigger than Christmas for a lot of people. Truckers would love to read about this."
I turned quietly and walked out with her big red mane still shaking out a refusal. But I knew even looking into the void of scrunched-up negation that was her face that there was a place where hope still existed, a place where I was still a kid and still excited to be alive. And I knew I would go to try to find it. Even if it meant losing my job.
I left a message on my boss-boss's voicemail, saying, "I'm sure you'll agree with me that this is a good story," made some calls to the Tennessee Titans and the St. Louis Rams, found out the Titans didn't use truckers and the Rams did, called the president of operations for the Rams, Kenny Sinbad, who was standing in baggage claim in Atlanta's Hartsfield Airport when he yelled "Sinbad" into his cell phone and told me to try to find him and the truckers the next day in the "Crownie Plaza Ravinia" hotel, but that it was crazy, everything was crazy, so no promises.
I found out that the deadline for getting press credentials had passed in November, so that I wouldn't be able to see the game. Maybe. One thing I've learned about this country is that you never know.
I left the office without anyone's permission and started driving on the icy I-20/59 toward Birmingham and on to Atlanta.
I found Sinbad Friday at three in the Ravinia lobby, chomping on a cigar and shepherding his four truckers around. I interviewed the truckers, who were having the times of their lives, and even talked to Ricky Proehl, the star of the moment for making the catch that put the Rams into the Super Bowl.
Though he was a ten-year veteran, Proehl was talking like a boy to his high school coach about the budding legend of his one-handed grab when I joined in the conversation. With no segue I asked him: "So what do you think of the truckers who haul for you guys?" He looked stunned, as if he'd been hit by a linebacker. A gaggle of worshippers fanning him and feeding him grapes and some guy's asking him about truck drivers. He actually answered kindly, if incoherently, before returning to the glory days.
Super Sunday finally arrived, after a weekend that felt like a week of Christmas Eves. I was staying with a cousin to save money, and she had said she'd set her alarm for nine, so I could get to the trucks at the Ravinia well before the 11 a.m. loading time.
But she floated into the kitchen and casually mentioned it was 10:30, that she had set her alarm on music and just integrated the music into her dreams, sorry. I said shit and scrambled into the shower, no washing of hair, deodorant or breakfast.
I pulled into a spot in front of the hotel and changed into my hightops because it was icy, then sprinted and slid to the front door, found my four truckers and stocky little Sinbad chomping on his stogy.
I got some good pictures of the truckers loading Gatorade onto the truck, then we all drove to the stadium together in a minivan following the rig. We pulled under the stadium, then hopped out of the van.
Suddenly no one would look at me anymore. "Yer on yer own now," Sinbad said out of the side of his mouth not holding the stogy.
Before I had too much of a chance to look bewildered, one of the truckers, a gentle grey-haired guy named Skip, said, "Come with us, just act like you're directing the truck."
And I walked into the stadium alongside the truck, making my vague pointing gestures as crisp as I could. But this is only Level One Mario Brothers.
Then I had to grab a couple dollies, stack them, and follow a trucker as he rolled them into the stadium.
I found myself in the Rams locker room. Bright blue-and-gold jerseys with mostly unfamiliar names, beautiful shiny dreamy helmets, almost the same as my first, the blue and white Rams helmet my uncle in L.A. had once brought me, the helmet I wore in the schoolyard playing football every day after school, even though no one else was wearing a helmet. It was the kind of helmet I always assumed I'd have on my lap as a grown man, contemplating my existence through its reflection in the locker room before an NFL game. Returning to my article, I thought what a good shot it would be to get a trucker standing in front of a hanging uniform-here was the guy who delivered it, after all. I said, "Hey Skip, can I get a shot of you." And the guy who'd been so sweet now wouldn't look at me and said in his terse Midwest: "We got ya in here, now yer on yer own."
He hurried past me and I just stood there for a minute, alone in one end of the Rams dressing room. There were a few kids on a bench on the other end of the room tossing a football in the air. Spiral.
Thinking I might be arrested, I sprint-walked out into the cold cement corridor, which was cluttered with officials and security, checking credentials of everyone who tried to get in to the section where I already was. By checking, I mean holding and reading, not just glancing. This corridor was the ring around the inner sanctum, which appeared increasingly impenetrable the more I looked around.
I picked up my pace and marched. No idea where, just marched, in a direction that turned out to be clockwise around the stadium. My adrenaline was pumping, probably more violently than the players out on the field taking their warmups.
I'll admit I'm no James Bond - I was twitching inside like a chicken. I knew I had to act soon or I'd lose all nerve. This hallway would kill me. So I followed someone toward a door that might have led somewhere and tried a line plunge after her, but a yellow-jacketed guard was waiting on the other side. "Credentials?"
I shrugged. "You can't get in without credentials," he said.
I kept marching. I did a whole lap around the basement of the Georgia Dome. I didn't know where to put my eyes every time I passed someone. I tried staring them down, then looking away at the TV monitors, the ground, straight ahead. I couldn't remember how a legitimate person might behave. I saw people looking at my chest, at the giant void where my credentials should have been dangling. My winter jacket was zipped up, though, so maybe they were thinking it was underneath. My head was doing the butterfly stroke, so I tried to settle down by looking at one of the TVs. I watched a civilian shank a million-dollar kick in a pre-game promotion. His wife watched the ball dribble off the tee and didn't even try to conceal her rage. I marched on, now I was back at the loading docks, and I stormed past the guards again, starting my second lap around the Dome.
This time I saw light off to the right, and behind two phalanxes of beefcake security guards, I saw it. The field. The ugly cement Astroturf. The 10-yard line. The red zone. I stopped and stared for a minute, while a guard looked at my barren chest. Some dude handed me a camera and said, "Get a picture of me with Steve Young? He's about to come out."
I peered around the corner, there was short fast Steve with his lifetime 96.8 quarterback rating stuffing his face from a banquet table before the pre-game show, which I realized from a glimpse of feet was being filmed on a platform directly above us. I started chatting with the two girls at the base of the platform stairs. One was a summer-camp girl, approachable, earthy, Buffy was her name.
We joked around, how she got a picture of Steve's ass, but her friend didn't trust me, eyeing my chest, and demanded to know what I was doing there, though eventually she accepted me with the truckers-story story. I put my arm around Steve, the highest-rated quarterback in the history of football, and dude got my picture with him. Steve told us he'd think about playing next year.
He took a piss in the women's Port-O-Potty before hopping up the stairs with Buffy gazing at his backside. Next was Chris Berman, hawking up a gargantuan loogie, which made Buffy wince, before going on air. He wouldn't stop for a picture. I left, took another lap around the stadium, tried the doors of the referees' room, the "radio/tech" room, all locked, all blocked.
Out of luck. I was ready to give up. Back at the loading docks, a woman stopped me and said, "Sir, please display your credentials at all times."
"O.K.," I said, trudging on in search of an exit. I found a door, but two guards wouldn't let me leave. "Credentials?" a guy asked.
"I came in with the truckers."
"You don't have credentials."
"They let you in without credentials?"
He turned to a female colleague and said, "Shows we're doing our job, huh?" He said to me: "Well, you better not leave, cuz you won't be able to get back in."
"I don't want to get back in. I want to leave, because I can't get into the stadium. I'm stuck between two worlds. I'm stuck in the hallways."
"Why don't you try the elevators?" he said.
"Right down there, just go on up."
I took his kind advice and tried, but a sign said, "Disabled Media Only," and a serious, white-shirt-and-tie guard stood there. I went back to my only hope and said, as if I were his little brother and he'd promised me I could get into the game, "There's a guard there, I can't get in."
"Yeah. There's no way."
"You think you could get me past him?"
"I do that, you get thrown out, I lose my job. Not good."
"That's not good," I said.
"Here, come with me." He took me back to the same spot, but the guard intimidated him just with his demeanor, and my friend said, "You're on your own pal." I squeezed his shoulder and said, "Thanks a lot, man." I meant it--he was the prison guard who slipped me a spoon to dig my way out of Alcatraz.
He left and I saw a huge group of photographers and someone shepherding them along. It's worth a shot, I said, jumping in line in front of about 50 of the most cynical bastards you'll ever find. Two guards at the front of the line checked credentials. When they were distracted, I jumped in front of them. Clear. Went up to the table, behind which two guys were giving out different colored jerseys, according to where on the field you were cleared to be. Red, green, yellow. The guy looked at me - "Credentials?"
"Uh, my buddy's got them, he's already on the field."
"Gotta have em."
"I gotta get in there," I said, shaking my head desperately.
"O.K., I'll go get him and be right back." I followed a couple of the photographers, vowing to just follow them onto the field whatever portal they went through, then just jump up into the seats from the field.
I listened to them huffing and puffing and bitching and whining, standard requirements of the photojournalist. "Are you fucking kidding me? Where the fuck are we going? Are you sure, are you absofuckinglutely sure? Are they puttting us on, how far do we have to go!? Come on!"
Finally they made a right turn and I said here we go. Fuck. It was the portal under the pre-game show. There was Buffy. There was no way I could be humiliated in front of these people I was just talking to. Plus there were about six guards reading every pass as if written in hieroglyphics.
I turned back. I was starving. I had had only one doughnut from the hotel lobby. I was tired and delirious. I was almost ready to leave again. Heading back to the loading docks, a linebacker-sized woman said, "Credentials?" She caught me off guard, I didn't have my story ready, I probably looked like a nervous 8-year-old with a quivering chin. "Uh, I don't have them. I came in with the truckers."
"Yeah," and I made a vague motion toward the docks and kept walking. It was getting to be too much. It's probably better on TV anyway. I'd tried everything, so I headed for the doors, my old friend the guard.
But on the way I saw a dingy dark hallway to the right. I had been ignoring the outer side of the hallway, assuming the inner ring was the one to penetrate. But I remembered the elevators, duh, were on the outer side, so I scurried down this hallway and saw five guys with some carts of trash. "Say man, can I get up to the lower concourse here?"
"Sure can." A finer yes was never spoken. I sat on one of the carts to hide from view. That damn elevator took a month.
"I think it's broken," one guy said, putting his ear up to it. "I don't even hear it buzzing." After a minute of silence, the drops of sweat chilling their way down my ribs, the guy next to me said, "My first day back at work in five days."
"Great day to come back," I said.
"Cold enough," he said. He showed no sign of knowing or caring there was a big event going on.
Another guy spotted my camera and said, "Take my picture!"
His friend teased him: "You don't even know what it's for!"
"I don't care, just take my picture." Everybody laughed. It was too dark for a picture though.
Dammit that elevator came! One guy pulled the strange vertical doors open, and I crammed on with the workers and the trash dumpsters, remember Luke Skywalker in that garb-pacter on the Deathstar? Up we went, like a snail on a tree, up up up, I glanced at the tired faces in the dim yellow light and waited for a security guard to bust me when the doors opened.
I held on till the upper concourse. One of the workers pulled the doors open--there was no guard. I took a picture of my new friend in the hallway light. He started chatting, but I knew we wouldn't connect. "You been partyin since you been here?"
"A little bit."
"Where'd you go last night?" he said.
"Place called the Lagniappe."
"La-na? O.K., that's cool, well you take care." Two humans loving each other from the banks of an unfordable river.
I marched on, sweet ecstasy, and I was home-fucking free. Wide open field. I hopped around the hallway for awhile, then realized I still had to get out to the seats to see the field.
I found a friendly usher, a Southern boy who said he was pulling for the Titans out of Southern solidarity. He let me take a seat, front row in the upper deck, good god in heaven a perfect view of everything, the giant monitor with endless reels of NFL Films shows about greatest bloopers of all time and shows about all the playoff teams' seasons, my Redskins included, it was bliss, and I didn't care how empty my stomach was.
Huge banners of all the performers who'd done super bowls hung from the ceiling, Willie Nelson, Tina Turner, flags of all the Super Bowls, the four of my Skins included. Ball boys tossing surprising spirals to each other on the field like we wannabes used to at halftime in high school games, and I imagined throwing a 50-yarder.
I brought some food back to my seat, a pretzel, a Super Dog, a turkey sandwich, a souvenir-cup Coke, good god blisssss. I turned around and directly behind me-out of the 72,000 possible seats--were the mothertruckin truckers, little Sinbad working his cigar, which almost plummeted from his wet lips when he saw me.
We looked at each other in horror. "How'd you get in?" he said. I think he thought I may have been magic, or a criminal, because a little later he goes, "Hey Brian! How'd you find out about us anyways?" I took great pictures of the truckers standing above the field (the senior ones-the junior ones were stuck behind an end zone post).
Eventually, of course, I got kicked out of my seat, so I stood the whole game, running from portal to portal with perfect views of wherever the action was, better views than people who paid $3,400 per ticket. I took a picture of old Celtics center Robert Parrish in the hallway, called him by his nickname--Chief. A hot dog worker jumped into the frame. Go ahead hot dog man! I'll send you damn copies. "Chief do you want your wife in the picture?" I asked.
Old Steelers great Franco Harris was sitting behind me from one of my perches. There was talk of Evander Holyfield, Jordan, Jennifer Lopez, Tyson. Soon, the Titans started mounting their comeback. On every play half the audience would stand and scream and half would sit. The next play they'd switch. I was screaming in mad delight at everything. When's the last time I'd been lost in a moment?
Standing there late in the fourth quarter with another pretzel, I didn't know that this game would have one of the best endings imaginable for a Super Bowl, with a Titans player stretching in vain for the end zone from the one-yard line on the game's last play, or that my car had already been towed from the Crowne Plaza Ravinia, or that I would react to that with near-indifference, or that I would stop on the drive home at a truckstop on the Alabama border and call the office and hear my colleague tell me, "You're the hero of the office, Brendan, and Peggy's walkin' around with her tail between her legs."
I was just there in the damn moment, listening to two black guys high-five each other as Tennessee quarterback McNair finished yet another impossible scramble, having driven 80 yards on the game's final drive, and as the team huddled up at the 10 for the last play of the season, these two guys, even more lost in the moment than I was, as surrounded by life as I always yearned to be, said softly, then crescendoing, "This is what it's all about. This is what it's all about. This is what it's all about!"
pictures Terry Colon