What’s it really like to be a part of the Super Bowl -- the biggest one-game sporting event in the world? We go deep with eight NFL legends to find out.<>
ILLUSTRATIONS BY ANDY POTTS
During Super Bowl week, players and coaches on the two teams work diligently to keep their routines as regular as possible. They practice on the same days as usual, congregate at roughly the same times, and abide by the same rules. In short, it’s a week like any other.
Except it’s not.
In theory, players prep for the Super Bowl just as they would for a Week Eight clash against a division foe. In reality, things tend to be a little more complicated.
Few players arrive home during the run-up to Week Eight, for example, to find a procession of groupies, autograph hounds, and “long-lost cousins” clamoring for their time. There’s no designated media day for Week Eight during which players are ambushed by ESPN pundits and undermedicated members of the YouTube nation alike.
Super Bowl week is, all past participants agree, a uniquely intense experience, one that’s two parts business and one part carnival. Yet much of it remains a mystery to all but those who have been a part of the spectacle. What, precisely, do players, coaches, and executives do during their seven or eight days in the host city, anyway? Eight NFL legends who have been there give us an oral history of Super Bowl week -- the glories, the headaches, and, yes, even the encounters with former Saturday Night Live cast members.
Travel day is usually either Sunday or Monday. After mandatory treatment for injured players and meetings that focus as much on administrative/ organizational details as they do on Xs and Os, the players bus en masse to the airport. Upon arrival in the host city, there’s more treatment and another meeting. The New York Giants, winners of last season’s Super Bowl XLII, had neither an imposed curfew nor a bed check during their first night in Phoenix last January.
Howie Long: They really keep you on a schedule. Athletes are kind of like plants: You take them out of their environment and they wilt. But that first day is still like stepping off the dock, not knowing whether the water is 48 degrees or 68 or 85.
Ron Wolf: Everything’s laid out for you. You know where you’re going to practice, when, and how much time you’re allotted. It’s rare that you’re caught off guard.
Mike Ditka: I had one job: Don’t let all the hoopla get to the players. Sometimes with a young team, that’s almost impossible, but we had great leaders who policed themselves.
Harry Carson: It was all new to me, because I had promised myself that I wouldn’t go to a Super Bowl until I was part of a team that earned the right to go. So when I got there, I looked at it as a business trip.
Warren Sapp: We didn’t get the week off between the [conference] championship game and the Super Bowl, so we had to get right down to business. I ran the show. I told [Tampa Bay coach Jon] Gruden, “I’m in charge. Everybody will be accounted for; I promise you that.”
It’s the semidreaded media day, on which hordes of reporters besiege the two teams to determine, definitely and with metronomic precision, who wears boxers and who wears briefs. The action all goes down at the game site, where the team photo is snapped after the masses depart. The Giants freed their players late that afternoon, requiring them to return to the hotel by one a.m. for the first of the week’s bed checks.
Terrell Davis: I had the dream scenario -- my first Super Bowl in the town where I grew up. Getting off that airplane, you couldn’t knock the grin off my face. Then I saw all the microphones, and I was like, “Uh-oh.”
Long: In 1983, the year I went, you had three major networks, and ESPN was four years old. Media day was nothing like the mass of humanity you have there now. Even after media day, there’s no place that isn’t miked or doesn’t have a camera.
Phil Simms: The NFL is year-round in the media, so obviously the Super Bowl is 24-7 for a good seven or eight days. Everybody knows what to expect.
Sapp: All you can do is try and have fun with it. Me, I couldn’t wait. Ever since college, I’ve been the quote machine. I liked this. I wanted to hear what everybody was thinking. I wanted to go up to [ESPN personality] Tony Kornheiser, all serious with my quarterback killer eyes, but then say, “Hey, what’s up, homey?”
Ditka: You have to remind the players that the media is your friend, but it’s not your friend. If you do something out of line, they’ll print it.
The schedule intensifies at this point, with a full day of practice, treatment, more practice, mandatory meetings, media sessions, and more practice. On Wednesday night, the Super Bowl–week extracurricular activities kick into gear.
Carson: The Super Bowl is a corporate party. During the week, you see the other guys you beat along the way. They’re all there, making money doing corporate functions, shaking hands, rubbing elbows. It’s great work if you can get it.
Davis: The Maxim party is always good. The Playboy party is usually good. Everything else is hit or miss.
Wolf: My best friend in football is Bill Parcells, which was tough [in 1997] since we were playing him. But even the coaches can get out for an hour or two. We had dinner late [Wednesday] night, and nobody said a word to us -- including Dan Aykroyd, who was at the next table.
Rod Woodson: People talk about the parties, but the most underrated experience is all the little gifts you get. Every night we came in from practice, in our rooms we’d have a new bag full of something -- DVDs, camcorders, all sorts of stuff. That doesn’t happen in Week 10.
Long: On Wednesday, we had an 11 p.m. curfew, and I based my timing on the Monday/ Tuesday traffic. That was a mistake. At 10:58, I left my car in the valet line and sprinted through the lobby. I barely made the elevator. Fortunately, the coach started the bed check on the other side of the hall.
Thursday marks the start of the long weekend for corporate bigwigs, fans, scalpers, and related hangers-on. For the players, the pressure intensifies. While team management permits the players to hit the town after six p.m., it also tightens the leash: The Giants, for example, had their bed check pushed up from one a.m. to midnight.
Ditka: It was tough. We were in New Orleans, which is only one of the greatest party cities in America. I’m not saying everybody was in bed at nine o’clock, but the players got focused in a hurry.
Woodson: You can’t push too hard. On a Thursday during the regular season, you’re done at 5:30 or six o’clock. You don’t stay up until midnight watching film. It’s like with any test: If you overstudy, you’ll get diminishing returns.
Simms: Nobody’s under the illusion you’ll go out there and have a big party. One more week of survival -- that’s how I viewed it. Early in the week, a bunch of us went to the movie theater across from the hotel and saw Platoon. That was as wild as it got.
Long: The ways the teams are secured and sequestered toward the end of the week, it’s like a jury pool: Don’t talk to anyone. Got it?
Carson: Whether or not you had fun up until this point, fun time was over. We went into seclusion. We said goodbye to our family members.
On Friday, the practices and film sessions wind down for the players and coaches who will be suiting up on Sunday. At the same time, friends and family arrive in town, so the distractions begin to multiply.
Davis: Everybody wants something from you. If you’re a single guy, you have to deal with the girls -- which is not necessarily a bad thing. They’re in the hotel lounge waiting for you at the end of the day. The fans are great, but it takes a lot of energy to go anywhere that’s packed with fans.
Sapp: Honestly? The biggest distraction at the Super Bowl is managing your tickets. I spent every day counting tickets. I gave out something like 50, 55 of them.
Ditka: Our one famous headache was when a helicopter was flying over our practice and [quarterback Jim] McMahon mooned it. That was just Jim being Jim; he didn’t mean anything malicious. As a coach, you don’t like it. What bothered me was that it might have been looked at as a reflection on everybody -- the team, the coaches, the city of Chicago.
Carson: Everybody wants to get next to you. Women you don’t know are trying to reach you through the hotel operator. People are handing you notes. They portray themselves as long-lost friends. Lots of guys had aliases, like Mickey Mouse.
Long: I’d check in as Charlton Heston, El Cid, John Wayne, or Bobby Orr. I was pretty consistent.
Davis: I’d use Jamal E. Pennington, which sounds like somebody who’s all distinguished -- a suit on, a pipe in his hand. That’s my alter ego [laughs].
Simms: I went to dinner with Billy Crystal -- that was my one big celebrity moment. I remember telling Billy what we were going to do in the game. He asked me pointed questions, and I gave him answers: “The first play is going to be a play-action pass, a 20-yard completion to Lionel Manuel.” On Sunday, he told that to the people he was sitting with in the stands, and then we did the play. The rest of the game, everybody kept asking him, “What’s going to happen next?”
Saturday is the day to tie up all the loose ends. There’s a mandatory team dinner. There’s a chapel/ mass. There’s a scheduled mid-evening snack. The big winner in all this? Probably whoever gets the biggest cut of the hotel-room pay-per-view revenue.
Wolf: I sometimes think that everybody forgets about the game. There are so many other things involved. By Saturday, it’s like, let’s get on with it.
Sapp: We’d always practice our two-minute offense at the end of the week. So last thing before the game, we come out, and guess who’s playing quarterback? The little fellow from Dayton, Ohio, Johnny Gruden. My friend, you’ve never seen such chaos. He’s calling out audibles, acting like Rich Gannon [the quarterback the Bucs were set to face the next day]. First play, we pick his pass off and run it the other way. He looked at me and growled.
Woodson: Every week during the regular season, on Saturday I’d have apple pie à la mode with chocolate ice cream. So that’s what I had on Saturday night before the Super Bowl. Routine helps control the excitement.
Players eat. They make their way to the stadium. They stretch. They play.
Long: I always took a cab to the game with Lyle Alzado, but this time, we got stuck in traffic. Lyle got so angry, we stopped the cab and walked the last quarter mile to the stadium. We were pretty exposed. We got a number of comments on the way in, as you might imagine.
Sapp: When we walked into the locker room on Sunday, we placed our clothing in plastic, put our stuff in garbage bags. We didn’t know that somebody would do it for us -- that’s how ignorant we were. What did we know about Champagne showers?
Carson: At the start of the game, you’re so jacked that you cannot feel parts of your body. You cannot underestimate the adrenaline that you experience. The thing I was most nervous about was doing the introduction and not falling. I’d worked so hard to be there. I didn’t want to stumble when everybody was watching.
Davis: It messes with you, man. I was so excited that I screwed up my routine in the locker room and forgot to take my migraine medication. I missed a whole quarter of the game because of that.
Long: Once you walk on the field -- the coin is flipped and the ball is kicked off -- that’s the only thing that’s truly normal about a Super Bowl. That’s your environment. That’s what you’re used to.
Long: I wish I’d taken more time to enjoy the moment, to essentially take a Polaroid of the moment in my mind. And I wish I’d saved my jersey. We had an equipment man who had a lucrative side business selling those things.
Ditka: My one regret is that Walter [Payton] didn’t score a touchdown, which was my oversight more than anything. The game was my focus, not the individuals playing. Most of the time, that’s good, but in this case, it was bad.
Woodson: After we beat the Giants [in Super Bowl XXXV], I realized how badly my family wanted it. Your wife and kids, your parents who took you to all the Little League and high school games -- the Super Bowl is the ultimate for them too.
Wolf: I got to do pretty much everything I wanted to do, within reason. Let’s face it: The game is in the hands of the coaches and players. The rest of us, we like to think we’re important, but we’re not.
Our Super Lineup
A linebacker for the New York Giants from 1976 to 1988 and a captain of the team that defeated the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXI. He was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2006.
A running back for the Denver Broncos from 1995 to 2002 and the engine that powered the offenses that won Super Bowl XXXII (in which he was the MVP) and Super Bowl XXXIII. He works as an analyst on the NFL Network’s NFL Total Access.
A tight end on the Super Bowl VI champion Dallas Cowboys team and the head coach of the Super Bowl XX champion, the Chicago Bears. Ditka was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1988 and currently appears on ESPN’s Sunday NFL Countdown and on Westwood One’s NFL radio broadcasts.
A defensive end for the Oakland/Los Angeles Raiders from 1981 to 1993 and a key contributor to the defense that dominated the Redskins in Super Bowl XVIII. Long was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2000 and has appeared on FOX NFL Sunday since its debut in 1994.
A defensive tackle for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1995 to 2003) and the Oakland Raiders (2004 to 2007) and a leader of the defense that led the Bucs to victory over the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII. He currently appears as an analyst on the NFL Network and on Showtime’s Inside the NFL, and he proved astonishingly agile for a 300-pound individual during his stint on Dancing With the Stars.
The quarterback for the New York Giants from 1979 to 1993 and the MVP of Super Bowl XXI. He is the lead game analyst for CBS’s NFL broadcasts and an analyst on Showtime’s Inside the NFL.
The executive vice president and general manager of the Green Bay Packers from November 1991 to June 2001, a stretch during which the team went 92–52 and reached two Super Bowls, defeating the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXI and losing to the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXXII. He’s now retired.
A cornerback for the Pittsburgh Steelers (1987 to 1996), the San Francisco 49ers (1997), the Baltimore Ravens (1998 to 2001), and the Oakland Raiders (2002 to 2003) who played in Super Bowls XXX, XXXV, and XXXVII. He currently appears as an analyst on the NFL Network’s NFL Total Access.
Recipe for Success
Want to know how to win a Super Bowl? You might start by copying the New York Giants’ official team schedule, Generously shared by team vice president of communications Pat Hanlon. It was so effective that the underdog Giants beat the New England Patriots 17–14 in last year’s big game.
8 a.m. Treatment (mandatory)
8:15 a.m. to 9 a.m. Breakfast (mandatory)
8:15 a.m. to 9 a.m. Check baggage
9 a.m. to 10:15 a.m. Meetings
11 a.m. and 11:15 a.m. Buses depart stadium for airport
12 p.m. Depart Newark Liberty International Airport for Phoenix, Arizona
3:15 p.m. Arrive in Phoenix, Arizona
4 p.m. Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort & Spa
6 p.m. Treatment (mandatory)
7 p.m. Team meeting
8 a.m. Treatment (mandatory)
8:15 a.m. to 9:15 a.m. Breakfast (mandatory)
9:15 a.m.Buses depart for Cardinals practice facility
10 a.m. Buses depart practice facility for University of Phoenix Stadium
11 a.m. Media day and team picture
1 p.m. Buses depart stadium for practice facility
2:15 p.m. Buses return to hotel
d;"10:15 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.
12:35 p.m. to 2:45 p.m.
3:50 p.m. to 5:20 p.m.
5:20 p.m. to 6 p.m.
10:15 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.
12:35 p.m. to 2:45 p.m.
3:50 p.m. to 5:20 p.m.
5:20 p.m. to 6 p.m.
FEBRUARY 1 8:30 a.m.
10:30 a.m. to 12:40 p.m.
1:25 p.m. to 2:45 p.m.
3:15 p.m. to 3:45 p.m.
9:30 a.m. to 11:20 a.m.
11:30 a.m. to 12:15 p.m. Practice