TAMPA, Fla. — It will forever be remembered as the COVID-19 Super Bowl.
That’s 19. Not XIX. The coronavirus, which has claimed the lives of more than 400,000 Americans, has no respect for Super Bowl tradition wrapped in Roman numerals.
Of course, it’s so different as we all knew it would be. It doesn’t take my perspective of covering 32 Super Bowls — or Tom Brady’s existence as a baller in 10 of these — to make that assessment.
This experience stands alone. And always will.
Just think of the circus that always kicks off Super Bowl week. Media Day. That’s when the zany characters come out of the woodworks. There was the “reporter” who wore a wedding dress and asked Brady to marry her. A guy dressed in a Superhero outfit. Another dressed as Mozart. Actor Kel Mitchell in his fast-food uniform from the 1990s comedy “Good Burger” trying to hand Matt Ryan a hamburger. Guillermo from “Jimmy Kimmel Live” asking Bill Belichick for a hug. And Downtown Julie Brown.
As a serious journalist, the oddball questions and the spectacle of Media Day typically annoyed me. And it was even worse when they started staging the thing with a house band — a lounge-act band at that — that brought the noise pollution that often drowned out whatever the participants said.
Boy, I missed that scene this time. I mean, it was just one day like that.
This week, Media Day was conducted virtually on Monday with a series of video conferences.
“Crazy Media Day,” Brady observed. “I’m sitting here in this empty room. Very different than the other nine experiences.”
Brady began his session by whipping out his iPhone and snapping a photo of the set-up in his Zoom room. Yeah, even the greatest Roman numeral winner ever wanted to capture a particular slice of Super Bowl 55 history. Funny thing: While the media could see Brady, he couldn’t see the people asking the questions. In some cases, though, he recognized the names and the voices.
“How come I don’t get to see them at all?” he said. “Why do I just get to see me? What’s up with that?”
Frank Clark could answer that.
“It’s weird,” the Chiefs defensive end said during his Media Day appearance.
That was the word of the week as the NFL capped its most unusual journey ever to a championship by pulling off a complete season in a pandemic. Super Bowl 55, with a record-low attendance of roughly 25,000 — including the 7,500 front-line healthcare workers given tickets to the game as guests of the NFL — was the fitting conclusion to a season that was wrapped by strict protocols, daily COVID-19 testing and games played inside one empty stadium after another.
Even with the COVID-19 threats and appropriate precautions, I saw way too many people not wearing masks — despite the mandate instituted by Tampa mayor Jane Castor — in the downtown areas where the crowds of people escalated as the week progressed. Hillsborough County, considered a “red zone” hot spot by the White House, has had more than 1,300 COVID-19 fatalities and more than 100,000 residents test positive for the coronavirus. Yet so many people (but thankfully, not all) frolicked around as if it were 2018, or as if masks were un-cool.
Personally, I followed Dr. Anthony Fauci’s advice and went with the “double mask” approach throughout the week. But there was this dominant thought as I surveyed the crowds that congregated for entertainment, activities and socializing in the downtown areas and nearby Ybor City, a hotbed for tourists: This is what Super-Spreader action looks like. And against a Super Bowl backdrop, no less.
The Chiefs didn’t arrive until Saturday, staying home to practice at their home facility to minimize COVID-19 risk. Despite that, they still had to sweat out the possibility that receiver Demarcus Robinson and Daniel Kilgore could miss the game after being placed on the COVID-19 list early in the week because, well … the barber cutting the players hair tested positive for the coronavirus.
And that wasn’t the only Super Bowl week distraction that the Chiefs encountered. Britt Reid, son of the coach Andy Reid and an assistant linebackers coach for the team, didn’t make the trip after being involved in a car crash on Thursday night that sent two young children to the hospital (one with life-threatening injuries) and is under investigation as an alcohol-related incident.
The Bucs, meanwhile, were at home all week too, having won three consecutive road playoff games to secure the right to become the first team to play the Super Bowl in their home stadium. Only in the 2020 season. Weird.
That was clearly my sentiment when I checked in on Wednesday to pick up my media credential.
Remember that classic movie, “I Am Legend,” where Will Smith is like the last man on Earth after a virus struck? That’s what it felt like strolling through the Media Center all week. It was a ghost town. Breezed right through the security checkpoint, even with them checking the COVID-19 e-questionnaire that I took on the app the NFL had us download and having my temperature scanned. When I arrived in the room to pick up the pass, there was no one in line. It took like 45 seconds.
Last year, the NFL issued more than 6,000 media credentials. This time, league reports the number at 2,353. I’m wondering: Where are these people?
They sure weren’t on Radio Row. Usually, that’s a hub of buzz during Super Bowl week, with current players from across the league, former players and coaches and assorted celebrities flowing through in a procession as more than 100 radio stations (last year’s number) set up remote posts to conduct interviews and live talk shows. This year, there were 33 stations signed on. And they were hardly all on Radio Row at the same time. No, the huge ballroom was rather empty.
The same can be said for the lobby of the NFL’s headquarters hotel, which is typically a hot spot. Again. Crickets. But the place was decorated well enough, with huge banners featuring the images of Brady and Patrick Mahomes on the outside.
Another event that reflected the times: Roger Goodell’s annual state of the NFL news conference. Usually, maybe as many as 1,000 people cram inside a huge ballroom for the Commissioner’s Q&A. This time, the event was held on an outdoor plaza at Amalie Arena (home of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning), with just 20 or so media invited to attend … and to remain socially-distanced. As a bonus, a double-feature was served. Goodell’s event was followed by NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith’s annual briefing. Usually, Goodell and Smith have press conferences on different days. Yet in the spirit that the two sides forged in order to establish the policies, procedures and protocols to pull off the season in the midst of a pandemic, they collaborated to stage the back-to-back press events.
“We’ve done a lot of things together this year,” Smith said. “I think we’ve learned that football can evolve. We’ve learned that we can move outside of our comfort level and work smarter.”
It’s a sign of the times, as is this Super Bowl.
Maybe, with Brady and Mahomes as the headliners, the game lives up to its billing and goes down as a classic.
Regardless, we’ll never forget it for all that it was at such a monumental time. It’s one for the history books.
I’ll always remember Super Bowl 36 in New Orleans in 2002, the first one after 9/11. It was the first one that Brady played in, but it is also remembered for ushering in a new era of security with a heavy presence that included a fortified perimeter around the Superdome. One of Tampa’s previous Super Bowls, 25 in 1991, came down to a thrilling finish. But it has an even more historic significance because of the patriotism that existed during the Gulf War, which was one more reason that Whitney Houston’s stirring rendition of the national anthem resonated.
Some Super Bowls left indelible footprints because of the significance of the games, like 3 in 1969 — the first one I remember watching as a kid — when Joe Namath led the Jets to a huge upset of the Colts that proved the AFL’s talent and brand of football was too legit. The first one I covered, 22 in 1988, meant so much to so many people. Thank you, Doug Williams. It marked the first time a Black quarterback started and won a Super Bowl, with a record-setting passing performance to boot.
The night Tony Dungy became the first Black coach to win a Super Bowl (41) was also the night that Prince played “Purple Rain” in the rain. But for my money, that halftime show still didn’t top Michael Jackson’s performance in Pasadena during the break in 27.
There was the first Super Bowl in a northern city (16, Pontiac, Michigan), a Big Apple Super Bowl (48) and a Super Bowl week that began with riots in the Overtown section of Miami (23). And no, I didn’t cover (or see) the first Super Bowl between the Chiefs and Packers at the L.A. Coliseum, in what was then called the AFL-NFL World Championship Game. But I heard about it. Weird by today’s standards, that the first Super Bowl aired on two networks — CBS and NBC.
But nothing ranks quite as unique as this COVID-19 Super Bowl. With masks required.
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