Ever since I got back to Charlotte, people keep asking me the same question over and over again: How was your trip to the Super Bowl?
The easy answer is: “Great! I mean, it was exhausting and the game didn’t go the way I was expecting, but we had so much fun.”
And after doing this a dozen times, I realized these aren’t much different from the cliches athletes use all the time in pre- and post-game interviews. I might as well be saying “I took my assignments out there one story at a time,” or “I want to thank God for this opportunity.”
So to help paint a clearer picture of my seven days in northern California, I’ve picked 17 adjectives – one for each of the Panthers’ wins this season – that best describe my Super Bowl experience.
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1. Zany: At Super Bowl 50 Opening Night, some of the best journalists in the country tossed questions at Cam Newton and Peyton Manning alongside some of the worst – from a guy decked out as a leprechaun to a guy dressed as The Swedish Chef from “The Muppets.” I wrote a story about Opening Night that provided a glimpse at the wackiness, but you really would have had to see it to believe it.
2. Surreal: Several times during the weeklong run-up to the game, our large group of journalists would board several coach buses and make the trip from San Francisco to San Jose for various media events. To expedite the process, we got a full police escort. Most along the highway thought we were players, not journalists, so what you end up with is bizarre: Motorists putting lives at risk to take cellphone shots of buses full of people who make in a year what many NFLers make in a week.
3. Smoky: The smell of marijuana wafted from practically every street corner. At San Francisco’s CalTrain station Tuesday afternoon, we saw a police officer approach a young woman who was holding a joint. In North Carolina, this woman would be headed straight to jail; in California, where pot is legal, the cop politely asked her to smoke somewhere else. This is why Seth Rogen loves the Golden State.
4. Star-studded: Jerry Rice, Deion Sanders and Miss Universe (Pia Alonza Wurtzbach of the Philippines) were among the famous folks at Media Night. Chris Martin and his Coldplay bandmates were the stars of the halftime show press conference. On the red carpets at various parties: Ludacris, the guys from Fall Out Boy, Cuba Gooding Jr., 50 Cent, and NFL quarterbacks Drew Brees, Kirk Cousins and Teddy Bridgewater. And these are just celebs I personally spoke to or saw.
5. Absurd: Most over-the-top fete? Friday night’s Playboy Party, in a parking lot at AT&T Park, which was filled with people who’d spent $1,250 each to rub shoulders with half-naked (three-quarters-naked?) women wearing rabbit ears and tails. As I cruised the premises – with a media pass, not an actual ticket! – I kept thinking: A few stiff drinks and a Victoria’s Secret catalog would be much cheaper.
6. Breathtaking: There wasn’t much time for sightseeing. But one afternoon, I laced up my running shoes and ran the five miles and change from my hotel to the spot on the shoreline where you can’t get any closer to the Golden Gate Bridge without breaking the law. I stood on Fort Point with a stunning view of red metal against deep blue sky to my left, with a half-dozen daredevil surfers dodging rocks in the brutally cold water to my right. At that moment, I heard Jon Stewart’s voice in my head: “Here it is, your moment of Zen.”
7. Steep: As you may have heard, San Francisco’s got some hills. Hills you can only see the peak of by tilting your head aallllll the way back. As I ran back from the Golden Gate Bridge, there was no way to avoid them. So, ouch.
8. Depressing: There are so many homeless people in San Francisco that, on certain streets, it literally felt like I was knee-deep in them. That’s a problem in need of a solution.
9. Jubilant: When we dropped into the Roaring Riot’s day-before tailgate at BrewPublik, it felt like a victory party. The “Keep Pounding” chant seemed to start up every couple of minutes, there was rampant high-fiving and fist-bumping – everyone crammed into the joint seemed to be buzzing, and not just off the $10 beers. This was the most joyful bunch of fans I’d seen all season, and I was at Bank of America Stadium after both the Seahawks and Cardinals wins, so that’s saying something.
10. Ironic: The friendliest person I met in San Francisco, hands down, was a restaurant owner named Rusty Olson. Would it surprise you if I told you he has strong Carolina roots and that his restaurant is devoted to Carolina-style barbecue?
11. Tasty: Olson’s menu was delicious, but the delicacies at Saturday night’s Taste of the NFL fete inside The Cow Palace in Daly City served as the culinary highlights of the week. Special shout-out to Blake Hartwick (of Bonterra in Charlotte), who prepared finger-lickin’-good Springer Mountain Confit Chicken Wings for the affair; but our group’s favorite was Tampa chef Marty Blitz’s Olive Oil Pistachio Polenta Cake. Just typing those five words makes my mouth water.
12. Relentless: Because of the time difference, my Observer colleagues and I had to hit the ground running every day at around 7 a.m. to hit deadlines that came three hours earlier than they would have if the game had been on the East Coast. After filing our stories, we’d have a group dinner and then head to an evening function that would last sometimes till midnight. We went through this cycle six days in a row; on the seventh, we attended the Super Bowl.
13. Disconcerting: All around Levi’s Stadium on Super Bowl Sunday, there were city police, county police, state police, mounted police, motorcycle police, military police, undercover police. Snipers. Fully-automatic weapons. Armored vehicles. At first, it was unsettling, but I have to admit: Ultimately, I felt pretty darn safe.
14. Rousing: The exhilaration that came over me as I entered Levi’s Stadium on Sunday was similar to what I felt when I visited the Vatican a few years ago, or when I toed the line at the Boston Marathon in 2014, the year after the bombing. Also: During Lady Gaga’s splendid rendition of the national anthem, the Jumbotron cut to the shot of a group of U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The crowd immediately burst into cheers.
15. Frustrating: Would I call myself a big Panthers fan? Never. But was I expecting the team to win, and even kind of hoping it would, for the sake of the city? Absolutely. The feeling of watching the game from my seat in the Levi’s Stadium press box was similar to the feeling I might get if I had to read a very long email written, for no apparent reason, in all-caps.
16. Ugly: The faces of Panthers fans leaving Levi’s Stadium after the game (a game they’d spent thousands of dollars to attend) will haunt me for most of this off-season.
17. Amazing: Everything is amplified during Super Bowl Week. The crowds are bigger, the prices are bigger, the parties are bigger, the stakes are bigger, the highs are higher and the lows are lower. And despite the lows – despite any disappointment I might have felt about the outcome, despite the sympathy I had for every fan I saw in blue on Sunday – the highs I experienced last week were decidedly stratospheric.
In sports, there’s an old cliche athletes still spout on a regular basis, and that is: “I’m just happy to be here.” It’s basically bull. They’re never just happy to be there; they came to win.
But I could have made that statement at virtually any moment during Super Bowl Week, and it would have been 100 percent accurate.