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Saturday, February 5, 2011

An amazing Super Bowl experience

One of my favorite sayings of all-time is "even a blind squirrel finds a nut on occasion."

For the greatest professional sports moment in my career, I consider myself that lucky.

In August 2003, I had taken the job as a sports writer and associate editor at the Palatka Daily News in northeastern Florida sight unseen. I had been out of a job for 16 months and, hey, they liked me enough after two phone interviews to come down and take the job.

One of the nice perks about the job was that we had press passes to cover the Jacksonville Jaguars' home game. The first fall I was there, I got to cover at least four games, including the Jaguars' exciting 28-23 victory over Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts.

The next fall, though, was interesting. I got to see the Jaguars play six home games. At that point, I would split my time at Alltel Stadium with my boss, who got to do most of the home games of the Florida Gators at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

But the 2004 season was the one that culminated with the Super Bowl being held at Alltel, so we were paying very close attention to who was going to be in the big game. When it was official on January 23, 2005 that the New England Patriots would be looking for the first Super Bowl repeat since the Denver Broncos in 1999, I thought that was great.

Then I saw the opponent ... the Philadelphia Eagles. After three miserable NFC Championship game failures against the St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers, in that order, they had finally made it to the Super Bowl for the first time in 24 years, slaying Michael Vick and the Atlanta Falcons.

Two teams of interest that I knew of growing up in New Jersey -- the Patriots and the Eagles. A northeastern Super Bowl down on the First Coast.

But I was going to be watching the game from a sports bar or at least the comfort of my apartment if my girlfriend at the time had it her way. More on that later.

It was agreed upon that my boss would cover the Super Bowl. Though I had covered 10 Jaguars games over the last two years, he would do the game. Believe it or not, I was all right with that because he was there when Jacksonville was given the big game years earlier, so he had something to look forward to.

He made the arrangements for himself and for Allison, our backup photographer who now works in advertising, to cover the game.

But as the week leading up to Super Bowl Media Hype Week wore on, I started sensing my boss not feeling well. His coughing got louder. It got longer and became more often. He was definitely coming down with something, but he wasn't going to complain about being sick.

The weekend before the Super Bowl, I was in touch with Richard, my best buddy in Florida. Richard and I had seen Super Bowl XXXVIII, played in Houston the year before, at his local Hooters right off of I-75 in Ocala. We had a great time that night, but truth be told, I went out to the nearby Publix supermarket to get something at halftime and missed Janet Jackson's infamous peep show.

So Richard and I bantered about what we should do for this year's game. We really had no plan, but staying as far away from Jacksonville was definitely part of that plan.

A year before, I was living by myself for that Super Bowl. Two weeks after that Super Bowl, I met my girlfriend and four months later, we moved in together next door to the apartment I was living in. So one of the new rules about living with someone is to not be selfish and to take your significant other's advice on occasion.

"You're not going out on Super Bowl Sunday with all the drunks and amateurs partying that night," was her decree. "If you want to have Richard come over, I'll buy all the stuff and you guys can hang out."

I got lock-jawed at that moment. Hey, at least she cared enough to keep me in one piece.

Anyway, Media Hype Week was under way. And on the Tuesday before the big game, it is the day where the players and coaches meet the media. Naturally, my boss went, but got there late because he had an issue with his truck. He got what he needed that day, and came back to do his column on the event.

And he was still coughing long, loud and even more often through Wednesday.

At just before 11 a.m. Thursday, I get a phone call. It's Allison.

"Can you get down to the paper?" she said.

"Yeah I can. What's up?" I said, thinking something horrible must have happened to one of our employees.

Turns out my boss was demanded by his doctor to stay far away from work until he got better with his diagnosed pneumonia. My first thought was how horrible the timing for him to have this happen. I knew he was really looking forward to doing Jacksonville's first Super Bowl, so I felt bad for him.

Now Allison and I were having to go up to Jacksonville that afternoon to pick up my press credentials. But before I headed to the paper, I had to make one phone call.

"Hey hon, how are you doing? How's work?"

"All's good, how about you?"

"I'm doing good, hon. By the way, just to let you know, I'm not going to be home Sunday night. I'm going to Jacksonville to cover the Super Bowl."

"What?! What happened?"

Then I explained to her my boss' illness and that I would be taking his spot. She was excited and on that Sunday we'd probably be two ships passing in the night at best at home.

Once Allison got me at work, we headed up US-17 to Jacksonville's Prime Osborne Convention Center to go through the motions of having to get press credentials and explain to media coordinators that I was taking my boss' place. There was no backup plan, I find out there, and for the next 5-10 minutes, the two of us had to explain that he wasn't coming and I was taking his place. Media coordinators of big events aren't very thrilled when you replace someone with someone else at the last second. They like everything scripted, like when Bill Walsh put those first 15 plays down on his offensive sheet for a game.

Nonetheless, I had to take pictures and fill out forms and finally, I had my press credential. For the next hour, I got to walk around the convention center while all the media bigwigs were either conversing with other stars of football and sports, or, right next to me, Jim Rome is doing his daily afternoon radio show.

It suddenly hit me at that moment ... I was covering the biggest sporting event in America for 2005.

But reality was about to hit. Without my boss doing layout at work, I was handling the job of putting a paper out all by myself, which is far from a fun task when you have to take phone calls from coaches on their high school and college games that night. The next night, a district championship soccer match I would normally be at 37 miles away from the office in Pierson was something I couldn't go to because of the volume of work.

Call it a combination of elation and frustration.

But our trips to Jacksonville were not over yet. Allison and I had to go back up on Friday morning to pick up some more credentials and information for the game. In the interim, the two of us got to go to the Florida Theater where a press conference was being held for the remake of the movie The Longest Yard. On stage were Adam Sandler, Michael Irvin, Sean Salisbury, Bill Romanowski and Burt Reynolds, the star of the original version in 1974.

I asked Burt what the biggest difference between making the original Longest Yard and this version was.

"About a million dollars," he dead-panned. Classic Burt Reynolds response.

At the luncheon after the press conference, we were given goody bags that included a T-shirt for the upcoming movie, which I gave to my girlfriend. Even to this day, I can almost jokingly hear her say, "The Super Bowl came to Jacksonville, and all I got from the experience was this T-shirt."

I ran into some of the Philly media that was there, including my longtime buddy Tripp from Toms River, who was working the coverage of the game for the Philly station he was working at. We had not seen each other in almost six years, but since that day, we have kept in touch and he remains a good friend and Facebook pal.

By the time Allison and I left, it was about 3:30 and I had to go through the same motions of getting in from a long day at Jacksonville and laying out the four-page section by my lonesome again, which included a Saturday column on the 39 greatest moments in Super Bowl history and a 59-inch feature story I did on the incomparable Steve Sabol of NFL Films, who was coming to Jacksonville for the big game. Even though he was pressed for time, he gave me a great half-hour interview.

Got through that Friday night at work and stayed at home Saturday knowing Sunday was a big day.

On the day of the game, Sunday, February 6, 2005, I did not leave until just before 1 p.m. When going to a Jaguars game, you come off of I-95 and you are almost immediately met by traffic at the bridge leading to Bay Street and to the stadium. That lasts about 10 minutes, but you ultimately park and walk to the stadium from there.

On this day, I had to drive to that convention center again just off of I-95 where I would be met by a media bus picking us up at 2:45 p.m. And when I got on the bus, I started calling people I know to tell them where I was going.

One was my longtime best friend of nearly 30 years, Ted, who my girlfriend and I had just seen a month and a half earlier outside of Washington, D.C. I had not talked to him much since then. Ever since we were journalists/editors in high school in the early-to-mid 1980s and then at OCC between 1984-86, we always had this goal of covering something big in our lifetimes. He never got that opportunity to do so and ultimately switched professions.

He notices my cell phone number and answers, "Hey buddy, what's up?"

"Not much."

"You at the game?"

"Yeah ... we made it. I'm here."

"Well that's wonderful! I'm glad. Hope you have a great time there."

Moments later, we got off the bus to this mass of hysteria there for the game. But to get to the stadium, you have to go through not one, but two checkpoints. The world was a much difference place after 9/11, and understandably so on the biggest sports stage. Then I staked out the sights and hear the sounds. Walking in front of me was this tall dude, walking his stuff into the stadium on luggage rollers. It was ESPN's Steven A. Smith. And as I was going into the stadium, I looked to the right and saw a band playing in the parking lot.

The song being played was "Point Of Know Return." Then I looked closer. This wasn't a cover band ... this was really Kansas. I spotted Rich Williams and his eye patch from a distance, so I knew it was Kansas.

As I was taking the stairs up, I realized we would not be in our usual weather-protected indoor press box like at Jaguars games. They had the media keep climbing and climbing up to the upper deck and to a covered area that we were going to watch the game from. I swore that if we climbed any higher that either A) I was going to get a nose bleed or B) God was going to be talking to me personally. Good thing the weather had warmed up to 67 degrees by game time.

They left us a goody bag for the media and inside were various trinkets, including a small Sirius digital radio (For FM listening purposes, I still to this day don't understand why a satellite radio network would sponsor this. They could have been nice and given us an XM-like Inno to walk around neighborhoods with.)

But there was a list of stations in the Jacksonville area that would be covering the Super Bowl on the radio. One station had the Eagles' broadcast with Merrill Reese and Mike Quick. Another had the Patriots' broadcast with Gil Santos and Geno Cappelletti. And there was the Westwood One broadcast with Marv Albert and Boomer Esiason that I was listening to on and off during the game.

As I walked out to go to the bathroom before the opening kickoff, all I had to do was take in the sounds to know who the major rooting interest was. I heard so much "Go Eagles" and cussing, I swore I thought I was back in South Philly. The opposition had become the "hated Patriots."

The only person sitting around me covering the game that I recognized from covering the Jaguars all season was my friend Ron, who worked for a Georgia-based paper. We sat next to each other in awe at what was going on around us. If I looked down a few seats away from press row, I can see ESPN's Shelly Smith and Sal Paolantonio in seats watching the game.

With a very good game tied at 7 at halftime, the rest of the media and I settled in for what was to be an entertaining halftime show with Sir Paul McCartney, who was brought in as a more popular and "safer" choice after the so-called "younger acts" over the previous years had ruined the show, Jackson's "Nipplegate" episode being the last straw. The best concert I have ever seen was McCartney at Veterans Stadium in Philadelphia in 1990. This time, the show was four songs long, but ended in a rousing performance of "Hey Jude" that had everyone singing at the end.

He hadn't lost it in 15 years and still is great today.

Going into the final quarter, it was 14-all. Then the Patriots put a drive together and capped it with a Corey Dillon scoring run of 2 yards to make it 21-14. After the Eagles had to punt the ball away, the Patriots drove down the field with Tom Brady hitting eventual Super Bowl MVP Deion Branch with a 19-yard strike for a first down. A roughing-the-passer call on Corey Simon led to another first down and ultimately, Adam Vinatieri nailed a 22-yard field goal to make it 24-14 with 8:43 left.

Figured that was plenty of time for Donovan McNabb to do something. He started bringing the Eagles methodically down the field, but linebacker Tedy Bruschi intercepted him to end the threat. The Patriots had to punt it back, though, with 5:40 left in the game. And though they would pick up first downs, the clock kept running to the delight of Patriots fans and the disgust of the Eagles faithful.

It started dawning on me this wasn't looking or feeling right. I turned to Ron and asked him, "Does it feel like McNabb's taking forever to go down the field? There seems to be no urgency."

"It sure does," he answered back, mentioning the lack of a no-huddle offense.

The end of the drive came when McNabb hit Greg Lewis with a 30-yard post pattern to the back of the end zone with 1:55 to go to make it 24-21.

The Eagles went for the onside kick and failed to get it back, but stopped the Patriots on three runs, burning the remainder of their timeouts.

Then came a new hero -- punter Josh Miller, one of many people who could have been considered an MVP for the game. His punt was downed at the 4-yard line with 46 seconds to go. McNabb was going to need some breaks along the way for a David Akers field goal attempt to tie it.

But Rodney Harrison ended those thoughts by collecting his second interception of the game on the third play of the drive with 9 seconds left, sealing the Patriots' third Super Bowl in four years.

After the game, we didn't go into an immediate locker room. The coaches and players from both sides were set up at stations in chairs talking about the game. Terrell Owens, who caught eight passes and played the game despite fracturing his fibula a month earlier against the Dallas Cowboys, was answering questions, happy to have played in the game, but disappointed by the outcome ... and probably stewing over McNabb's clock management.

Eagles coach Andy Reid was having to answer questions afterward. But I got to ask questions to Patriots lineman Joe Andruzzi and Branch, basking in the afterglow of the win. I found Patriots offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, who was coaching his final game for Bill Belichick before moving on to take the Notre Dame coaching job. Weis was jovial and couldn't stop smiling. By the end of his session of questions, it was just me, him and ESPN's John Clayton doing Q&A.

A walk outside the tent where those interviews took place led to going back inside the stadium and to the Patriots locker room, where I had the chance to talk with the soon-to-be-retired Ted Johnson, Bruschi, Willie McGinnest, Harrison and Mike Vrabel, a linebacker who had the honor of catching a Brady touchdown pass.

In the midst of all these interviews, I ran into none other than Patriots owner Bob Kraft, a diehard Patriots fan who got the opportunity to own his favorite team and now bask in the glory of a third Super Bowl title.

"Nice to meet you Mr. Kraft."

"Nice to meet you," he answered back. Then he looked at my press credential. "Palatka? That's where the (Georgia-Pacific) plant is, right?"

"Yes, sir. About 45 minutes away from here."

I was very impressed. The man knows his business quite well.

I walked around the locker room and a swarm of reporters were around Brady. As I happen upon him, he's talking with President George W. Bush, smiling and joking with the man. Apparently that phone call never got old with Brady.

Not too far from Brady in the visiting locker room at Alltel (now EverBank Field) was Vinatieri, who was the hero of the two previous Super Bowl wins with game-winning kicks against the Rams and Panthers. Unlike the previous Super Bowls, he was alone, getting dressed to head out and celebrate the night with the team.

"Got a moment, Adam?"

"Sure," he said. Then he asks me, "Why don't you sit down?"

Journalists never get to sit in chairs to talk to athletes or coaches. We stand or kneel depending on the athlete standing or sitting at that point.

So I sat on the cubicle stand where Vinatieri was located just asking him questions. He was still happy to be a hero thanks to the field goal that made for the difference in the game. You could not ask for a much better gentleman than Vinatieri.

By the time all the hoopla and interviews were done, it was 11:50 p.m. It was a long night and it was just getting longer.

Back to the Prime Osborn Center to pick up some Super Bowl memorabilia, including weekend editions of the Boston Herald and Philadelphia Inquirer. I tore off a little bit of a banner that had the Super Bowl logo on it with the Roman numeral of the game and the bridge at the top that symbolized the city of Jacksonville. By the time I left Jacksonville, it was a quarter to 1 in the morning.

I called up my girlfriend to tell her about the whole experience. She said she was happy I got to go. She also told me she was working a 12-hour shift at her other job after finishing up her shift at her overnight job. I wouldn't see her until Tuesday.

I went home, jumped on the computer and typed out four stories on the game, doing two stories when I got home and two more when I woke up that late morning. Allison, who had some trouble getting her spot on photography row because of a press credential problem, ultimately did get in and snapped a shot that became our major front page art that night.

My boss, by the way, recovered from his illness later that week, and though understandably dejected over not doing the Super Bowl, he got to go to Arizona in 2007 and again to Miami in 2009 to cover the Florida Gators' two national championship football victories over Ohio State and Oklahoma, respectively.

Even though the Super Bowl fell into my lap just three days before the game and a lot of running around was required then, it was an experience I will never forget. I hope Jacksonville is lucky again to have another Super Bowl. They were great hosts.

And I hope I'm lucky to cover another Super Bowl sometime somewhere in the future.

Even if I play the role of that lucky, blind squirrel again.

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