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Game Show

Life, Death, and Super Bowl XXXV Through the TV Eye

Helen Shortal
Helen Shortal
Helen Shortal
Helen Shortal
Helen Shortal
Helen Shortal
Helen Shortal

By Helen Shortal | Posted 2/7/2001

When you tell people you're going to the Super Bowl, no one ever asks why. Everyone knows why. Because "your" team made it all the way to the Big Game--the vicarious dream of a lifetime. Because football is a religion, and the Super Bowl is Mecca. Because it's the place to be, the ultimate tailgate party, the scene to end all scenes.

In my case, everyone is wrong.

The easy-to-explain reason why I have trekked to the last three Super Bowls is my freelance gig with technology magazines, which hire me to write behind-the-scenes features about the biggest broadcast of the year. The other reason is more singular: I have gone to the Super Bowl to wrestle with the angel of death.

In 1997, during rehearsals for the Super Bowl XXXI halftime show, stuntwoman Laura "Dinky" Patterson, a long-ago acquaintance of mine, fell to her death while practicing a bungee-jump stunt, the result of a crew member's carelessness. Her tragic fate had an eerie resonance for me, echoing the death of my college sweetheart, who'd been killed through a co-worker's negligence at his summer job back in 1981.

My primary response to my boyfriend's death was to flee--literally. I dropped out of college and ran away with the circus, becoming a showgirl for Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey. That's where I met Patterson, who was then a trapeze artist. Years later, when she too met an awful and easily preventable death, it broke through years of repression and denial. I began having weird panic attacks and Technicolor nightmares--swirling maelstroms of rage and love and death and the terrible things inside closed caskets. And whenever I happened across a football game on television, I recoiled, as if from an electric shock.

Eventually I realized I was being buffeted by a gale-force return of my long-buried trauma--that intensely secret anguish resurrected by this hideously public tragedy, a life sacrificed to the most frivolous of spectacles. I had someone else's life and death flashing before my eyes because I'd never been able to come to terms with my own.

For most of my life I'd done my level best to ignore football. I had no context for thinking about the Super Bowl beyond this awful death. To get beyond my obsession with that death, I figured, I had to forge some kind of positive connection with the Big Game. Since I wasn't the least bit inclined to learn about football itself, I started going after freelance assignments to report on the multibillion-dollar business of broadcasting the Super Bowl.

My first time was the 1999 match-up at Pro Player Stadium in Miami, where the Denver Broncos trounced the Atlanta Falcons. With the game itself a complete blowout, Super Bowl XXXIII was memorable mostly for its off-the-field public-relations disaster: the pregame arrest of a Falcons player who had solicited sex from an undercover cop.

Last year, as I left my home in suburban Dallas to head to Super Bowl XXXIV in Atlanta, I thought with a private giggle about the memos that were no doubt being circulated by the NFL: "Eyes only" directives for players from St. Louis and Tennessee about the importance of abstaining from sex for hire or any other potentially embarrassing or illegal behavior during Super Bowl week. Unfortunately, no one sent a memo to the other NFL stars in town for the game about steering clear of incriminating limo rides with knife-buying, party-animal thugs.

After five years away from my old hometown of Baltimore, it was surreal to read the news reports about the arrest and trial of Ray Lewis, the star of a lackluster team that didn't even exist when I moved away. In my Charm City, Hammerjacks still ruled off Russell Street and the most important raven was the one in the poem. The Baltimore Ravens were an abstract concept.

In the fall of 2000, I finally made peace with the specter that sent me to the Super Bowl in the first place, visiting the cemetery where my old boyfriend is buried in upstate New York. So I wasn't planning to go to Tampa for the XXXVth edition. But then I heard MTV was producing the halftime show--and that ought to make for some pretty good copy. And who should be taking the field but the now quite real Baltimore Ravens? I woke up one morning in mid-January and decided to scrounge up yet another set of assignments to cover the Super Bowl. I scoured the Internet for a cheap flight and managed to find a hotel room that had somehow escaped the notice of 100,000 football fans and their travel agents.

In my impulsiveness, at least, I was not alone. On the list of spur-of-the-moment last-minute travel destinations, the Super Bowl must rank No. 1. It's a one-day-only affair involving teams that aren't known until two weeks in advance, and once the pairing is set it sets in motion thousands of football fans who'll go to almost any length to see "their" team playing for the title. If they can't find a cheap flight, they get in their cars and drive hundreds of miles, to a sold-out event for which they don't have tickets, in a city where the hotels have been booked up months in advance. If you live within 50 miles of a Super Bowl site, people you haven't heard from in decades will show up on your front doorstep, hoping to crash on your couch. It's the damnedest thing.

I flew into Tampa International Airport the Wednesday before the game and was met by hordes of smiling volunteers decked out in Super Bowl polo shirts. They handed out beaded necklaces--like what you get at Mardi Gras, but even tackier. Turns out that Tampa holds an annual tourist party dubbed "Gasparilla," which this year had been moved up a week to to coincide with Super Bowl Saturday. The afternoon before the game, the Gasparilla parade would be wending its way through downtown Tampa, several miles south of the Raymond James Stadium, which locals call Ray Jay.

To picture Gasparilla, which celebrates an apocryphal tale of pirates landing in Tampa Bay, think Mardi Gras. Now add pirates. Drunken, neon pirates. Thousands of luridly unattractive, inebriated men dress in Day-Glo getups and parade en masse through the streets of Tampa.

With scandalous arrests at the last two Super Bowls, the Big Game had already established itself as ground zero for men behaving badly. But at Super Bowl XXXV, debauchery was gonna have itself a parade.

Most gamegoers wouldn't be arriving until Friday and Saturday, but by the time I got to town Super Bowl Week was in full swing for the media. I had already missed the big "Media Day" press conferences with the Ravens and the New York Giants, and the official Media Party at the Florida Aquarium, which featured the B-52's and the one thing held dear by journalists everywhere: an open bar.

Media types aren't the only ones who get here early. Among other things, the Super Bowl is a massive, week-long homecoming party for everyone who's ever been associated with the National Football League. Athlete sightings are par for the course, though to me football players are something akin to Stonehenge made flesh: massive, primordial, interchangeable as boulders.

In the elegant hotels that house the NFL's current and retired players, security and bouncers are omnipresent, though tastefully low-key. Don't expect to get any farther than the lobby. Don't even think about trying to use the elevator--any elevator. I can't imagine the Draconian security procedures at the hotels where the actual Super Bowl teams are staying. You couldn't pay me enough to try to crash that party--or to be a run-of-the-mill spectator at any of the week's official events.

Later that Wednesday, as I sat in Tampa rush-hour traffic about a mile from Ray Jay, I could already envision the hideous specter that would bedevil this year's visitors: the ghost of gridlock still to come. In Miami two years ago, tens of thousands of would-be partygoers headed for glamorous Super Bowl shindigs in South Beach--and spent their entire evenings stuck in traffic. If the Tampa highways were this stacked up midweek, Super Bowl XXXV threatened to be worse.

Fortunately, I'd long ago discovered an end-run that bypasses the crowds and hassles of mega-events such as this: the crew entrance. I don't cover the celebrities that everyone else clamors to profile; I report on the people and technologies that make celebrity happen. This means I can get on-site long before the crowds arrive and gather my story as spectators queue up in lines and parking lots. And I'm right in the middle of the action, hanging around with technical people--who I generally prefer to publicists, handlers, scenesters, bodyguards, and, well, celebrities. When I do see stars, it's at work behind the scenes rather than at parties and press conferences.

Three or four days before the game, security outside Ray Jay wasn't super-high--yet. I could talk my way onto a permitted parking lot. I could walk into the fenced-off broadcasters' compounds that had been erected outside the stadium, where I was issued a pregame, compound-only credential tag. But even as early as Wednesday, I couldn't walk into the stadium without an official NFL wristband, properly color-coded and dated. Fresh wristbands were issued each day from NFL compounds outside the stadium.

Security tightens as Sunday approaches. By Friday, guards are posted outside most of the compound entrances. If you can't talk your way past them, you call into the compound to procure a credential or an escort. By Saturday, security is round the clock, and talk isn't just cheap, it's worthless. No credential, no admission.

I've never seen anything locked down tighter than the Super Bowl on game day. Squadrons of guards stand watch at every gate, door, hallway, staircase, and elevator in the stadium. Ticket stubs and credentials are checked and rechecked whenever you attempt to move around the building.

On Sunday, Ray Jay's parking lots opened at 9 a.m., more than nine hours before the game, and there were plenty of people on hand that early. Some were there to savor the atmosphere, and some were desperately searching for the little pieces of paper that would get them into the stadium at 3 p.m., when the gates opened. By noon, the sidewalks around the stadium were crowded. By 2, they were mobbed.

At one point a beefy guy in a Ravens jersey asked me if I had any tickets to sell. I asked what he'd be willing to pay for the cheapest tickets, which had a face value of about $350. Five hundred bucks apiece, he said. I told him that wasn't gonna make it--which he already knew. He said he was hoping to nab two tickets for that price once the game was already underway.

I bestowed upon him my one nugget of insider lore: Fifteen minutes before kickoff, the will-call staff would start selling unclaimed tickets at face value. If you're late picking up those precious pieces of paper you'd already paid for by credit card, stadium staff will simply sell them again, to someone else who needs a ticket. Someone like me.

Yup. I was one of the hundreds of complete lunatics who had gone to Tampa without a ticket to the Big Game. My numbered work credential and wristbands were pregame only and they expired Saturday night. To get inside Ray Jay today, I needed a ticket or an official game-day credential. I'd come to Florida with no guarantee that I'd be able to get either--and with the knowledge that the editors at those technology magazines wanted more than my deathless prose. They wanted pictures of cameras and crews--pictures taken inside the stadium, on game day at the Super Bowl.

At last year's game, the first Super Bowl to be telecast in High Definition Television (HDTV) as well as standard television (known as NTSC), I'd managed to wangle my way into the stadium and even onto the field, to shoot pictures of camera operators running HDTV and NTSC cameras side by side--a sort of changing of the guard in U.S. broadcasting. But getting in again this year was far from a sure thing.

I'd already begun implementing Plan B. With every passing hour of Super Bowl week, the stadium looked more and more like it would on Sunday. So I'd get on the field at the beginning and the end of the day, to shoot rehearsals and run-throughs. These images would work in a pinch, though insiders could tell they weren't game-day pictures, since the grass was covered over with tarps.

That's how I'd wound up on-field around dusk on Thursday, as the full cast of the MTV halftime show took the stage for the first time. Like everyone else, I'd been expecting something big from MTV--but in the most fiendish corners of my imagination I couldn't have imagined Aerosmith doing a medley with Mary J. Blige, Nelly, Britney Spears, and 'N Sync. I doubt Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler could have either, until a few days earlier.

It was 40 degrees outside, and getting colder by the minute. Britney Spears, clad in a sweatshirt and jeans, pranced around sounding hoarse. Steven Tyler, clad in a multicolor patchwork leather getup, looked and sounded like Steven Tyler. The guys in 'N Sync did what the guys in manufactured boy bands do: They hopped around, singing and being extremely young and cute. Nelly, who I'd never heard before, was electrifying. I was freezing cold but would have cheerfully stayed there all night, except for that nasty announcement over the public-address system that "all nonessential personnel must clear the stadium at this time."

I went back to the CBS compound and watched the next few run-throughs of the halftime show from the engineering truck where a crew was testing the new EyeVision system--the ballyhooed instant-replay technology that captures its subject from more than 30 camera angles simultaneously. I could check out all the camera feeds and listen to the director (Beth McCarthy-Miller, who also does Saturday Night Live) as she called out rapid-fire camera shots and "pyro" cues, even though pyrotechnics weren't being rehearsed that evening.

Saturday was pyro day, along with final cast rehearsals for the pregame show, conducted with the taped accompaniment of headliners Sting and Styx. On and off throughout the morning, the signature wail of "Rox-anne" filtered out of the stadium and into the broadcast compounds, where I was interviewing people from CBS and NFL Films, the league's entertainment division. Inside the stadium, hundreds of girls who dream about the New York City Ballet and the Broadway stage were clad in Mylar leotards, waving red ribbons and shaking their booties to a tune about a sex worker. At erratic intervals, flame-pots spouted columns of fire and bursts of fireworks shot above the stadium walls--leaving burn marks on the sidelines, which were covered up with green paint on Sunday morning.

Around 5 p.m., to my utter amazement, a Stealth bomber started doing rehearsal flybys over Ray Jay. Sleek and dark and quiet, it was flying so low that I wanted to reach up and touch it. My loathing for the defense industry was momentarily and completely wiped out by one of its most expensive incarnations. The damned thing was insanely cool.

In the CBS trucks, people would check out the video feed of the camera rehearsing its Stealth shot to watch for the next flyby. As the plane approached, they'd rush from the trucks to get a look, then head back inside.

Those little time-outs were an indication that the end was finally near. The arduous process of preparing to broadcast Super Bowl XXXV was just about finished, and everything was under control. Things were so calm that crews were being released for the night, in time to eat dinner at a normal hour--unthinkable. Tests of EyeVision had gone so smoothly that CBS was planning to do something else unthinkable: put a bleeding-edge technology on the air for its very first time during a live sportscast seen around the world.

On Sunday morning, I got the news I'd been anxiously awaiting for days: NFL Films would allow me to spend some time on the field that afternoon, to shoot pictures of the on-air talent from international broadcast and satellite companies such as Japan's NHK. I'd be photographing the talent and crews on the sidelines as they shoot the pregame stand-ups that would kick off their sportscasts.

Between 3 and 5 p.m., NFL Films would be escorting pre-arranged groups of on-air personalities into Raymond James Stadium. One of my assignments focused on the Super Bowl coverage of a German media conglomerate, which was in the last group scheduled to take the field. A little after 4, an NFL Films staffer escorted me through at least a half-dozen checkpoints and into a concrete tunnel with daylight streaming through its other end. We walked toward the light and onto the field.

Holy cow. Even though I'd been in this position before, all I could think was, I'm on the field at the Super Bowl.

Here's what I wanted to do: stand there open-mouthed and take everything in. The packed stadium. The maniacs in the stands who'd covered their bodies with purple paint. Crews from NFL Films shooting 16mm footage from the sidelines. Hundreds of photographers in game-day vests lining the field. The incredible feeling of being at the epicenter of the biggest spectacle in the United States.

Here's what I did instead: fumbled with my cameras, acting brisk and blasé, as if being on the field at the Super Bowl was something I did every day.

First I sought out my photographic quarry, the on-air star from Germany's Sat 1, and took dozens of pictures of him with the video crew that was shooting his stand-up. When I was finished, I backed to the far edge of the sidelines and stood unobtrusively (I hoped) against the concrete wall of the stadium. I looked around, grinning like a little kid.

I turned my cameras on the other crews and talent who were working on the field. I got pictures of Spike Lee, who was directing a shoot on the sidelines. Better yet, as far as I was concerned, I got pictures of his highly regarded director of photgraphy, Ellen Kuras, cinematographer on Lee's Bamboozled and Summer of Sam, among other films. Sadly, I missed the moment when the on-air talent from MTV Japan knelt down and, for reasons I'll never understand, started licking the field--though I did hear someone nearby screech, "Ooooh, that's disgusting."

Then a huge roar went up from the crowd--which meant the players were taking the field and it was time for me to leave. I headed off toward the tunnel in the corner of the stadium, which took me through the concrete bowels of Ray Jay and back to the broadcast compounds outside.

As for The Game itself, my experience would be considered strictly anticlimactic by anyone but TV critics and engineers. I had assignments to write about the four major telecasts emanating from Ray Jay that night: the MTV coverage, the CBS broadcasts in high-definition and regular television, and the "world feed" NFL Films transmitted for international broadcasters, which stripped out the U.S. commercials and on-air commentators. So I spent most of Super Bowl XXXV watching different versions of the game on video monitors in trucks and trailers, and watching the hundreds of technicians and league personnel working on the broadcasts. Everything, including the EyeVision debut, went off without a hitch, in an atmosphere of professional calm that seemed almost eerie compared to the hysteria I'd been in the middle of just a few hours earlier.

From the window of a trailer in the NFL compound, I also watched disappointed Giants fans streaming out of the stadium during the fourth quarter. Until then, I hadn't realized how vastly they outnumbered the Ravens' cheering sections.

By morning, the racks of souvenir shops had been completely stripped of Giants paraphernalia. Super Bowl T-shirts were selling for half price and going fast. Folded stacks of Ravens shirts sat untouched on tabletops everywhere. The Super Bowl was just another remainder, marked down for season-end clearance--a lopsided game with an unpopular victor and an MVP considered too unsavory to get an invitation to Disney World.

In other words, Super Bowl XXXV was a televised bummer for about 800 million people in nearly 200 countries around the world. A disappointment to just about everyone, except the city of Baltimore, the crews working behind the scenes . . . and me.

For Mike Harms, 1960-1981

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