Covering the Super Bowl isn’t all fun and games

by Gary Shelton on January 30, 2017 · 2 comments

in general, NFL, Tampa Bay Bucs

Monday, 4 a.m.

You arrived on Sunday, before the teams, before the media guides, before the newspapers from each of the participating cities got there.

You scouted out the media room, and you stood in line for your week's credential. This isn't the same as your game credential, mind you. Those won't be ready until Friday or so. This one, you needed for access to the workroom and admittance to the endless press conferences. You read the large grease board in the corner to see who arrived when, and what else might be on tap.

You made your way to the media workroom, where the familiar faces were starting to arrive. The big papers, and the hometown papers, were in the back, separated by heavy blue curtains into partitions the size of walk-in closets.

Eventually, when you have checked out the work environment — function before comfort — you make your way to your room. Invariably, it is tiny. We used to joke that the rooms are so small, they put the newspaper under the door one section at a time. So small, we said, that we are awakened by tiny men singing “hi-ho, hi-ho, it's off to work we go...”

You have arrived. You are at the Super Bowl. Again.

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Every wonder what its like? Ever imagine you're one of thousands of journalists trying to wedge a question, maybe two, in the direction of a game participant?

I covered 29 of these games. I got used to seeing San Francisco win. I got used to seeing Buffalo lose. I got used to the sound of drunken sportswriters warbling in the media lounge around a piano. It was my go-to event. I never covered any big event more, not the Final Four or the Masters or the College Championship.

I was there when Jim McMahon did his vaudeville act for the Bears, overshadowing the best defense I'd ever seen. But McMahon was a buffoon all week. I remember trying to convince Edwin Pope, who died last week, that McMahon was just a rebel, same as Joe Namath or Bobby Layne. But he wasn't. There was a meanness to McMahon. Fortunately, Edwin was smarter than I was — that never changed — and he wasn't fooled for a minute.

I was there for the characters who cared too much about other things: Stanley Wilson and Barrett Robbins and Eugene Robinson. I was there was the truly funny men: Shannon Sharpe and Warren Sapp and ex-Buffalo coach Chuck Dickerson. I was there for the great players: Joe Montana and Reggie White and Emmitt Smith.

The Super Bowl is an odd event. It is so packed that you never feel you can do great work. I suspect that a great many of us — writers who love pro football — would just as soon stay home. But you reach a level in the journalism game where you feel you are supposed to be at the Super Bowl. And so you go, and you put up with the inconvenience of it.

Oh, and the busses. At the Super Bowl, there are endless busses. Busses that circle the traffic so they are careful not to arrive too soon. Busses where writers are packed shoulder-to-shoulder. Busses where one guy is always talking too loud. Busses to the press conference, and away from the press conferences.

On Sunday, one team or other usually arrives. They don't have to be there until Monday, but some want to get their cliches down pat, so they show up early. The coach and a half-dozen players show up. They sit at tables with their names in front, even though they are all famous men by the time they get here. When Dallas came, on Sunday, owner Jerry Jones walked into the room and wondered “where is my table.” He was informed he didn't have one. He got one. And the bluster began.

On Monday, the second team usually arrives. There isn't much going on during the day, so you would scan the guides and go over your week's plan. Later, the same drill follows. A coach and a half-dozen players. Cameras poke at your back. A guy with a tape recorder tries to use your shoulder to prop up his arm. If you're lucky, someone you're writing about shows up at this introductory press conferences. If not, you write anyway.

Tuesday is the most idiotic day in sports. They refer to it as “media day,” but the truth is, it's not really about the media. It's about the morons in costume. Pick-boy, from Nickelodeon. The reporter in the bride's dress — a darn nice guy, if you ask me. Deion Sanders. Every player sits in front of the microphone answering softball questions. There is always the “what kind of animal would you be” kind of silliness. Beth Littleford once asked Mark Chmura if he was a tight end who had a tight end. My favorite was when Tennessee defensive end Javon Kearse sat at a podium one year. He had a huge cross dangling from his neck, big enough to go in a church. The reporter said “I see you're wearing a cross. What's the significance of that?” Well, 2000 or so years ago, in Bethlehem...”

One of the best stories involves the late, great Shelby Strother (who worked at the Times before I did) and a friend of both of ours named Tom Archdeacon. Arch was looking for someone different to write, and Shelby said, “Well, you could always write about Tony Lilly and the bear trap?” “What bear trap?” So Shelby told him the story, that Lilly – a defensive back for the Broncos – was hunting, and he stepped in a bear trap. He couldn't get it off, no matter how hard he tried. Nightfall came, and he grew concerned he might have to cut off his own foot to survive. Fortunately, someone found him. So Arch goes up to Tony's microphone the next day, and he waits out the crowd. Finally, he asks Tony if he has more appreciation for the game after the bear trap. “What bear trap?” “The one you were caught in?” “Excuse me.” Finally, Arch realized he had been had. He looked into the stands, and there was Shelby, laughing his head off.

You get an hour per team session. It isn't as long as it sounds, because you can never get a flow going with your questions. You ask one, and you try for 10 minutes to ask another. But you do it.Then it's back to the busses.

Wednesday, you do your interviews at the team hotels (when Denver lost to Seattle, they were on a boat. It was difficult to tell if you were sick of the swaying or what the teams were saying.) The stars are still on podiums, but you can get quite a lot of work done bouncing from table to table, talking to a former local, seeking out an assistant coach.

It was on a Wednesday when I got Jeff Dellenbach, the Packer, to tell stories about Brett Favre's wicked sense of humor. Not a bad story. It was on a Wednesday I talked to Tedy Bruschi and a family who he had touched. I called the family, and it made for a nice piece.

Thursday is more of the same. A lot of writers skip Thursday, because they've had enough time with the athletes. There are also dozens upon dozens of quote sheets, with almost every player being recorded at some point.

When Denver beat Atlanta in their Super Bowl, the star of the week was Shannon Sharpe. Atlanta defensive back Ray Buchanan wore a dog collar to his press conference. Sharpe suggested he brought it from home. When his press conference was over, Sharpe did a victory lap around the interview room. He knew he had been good.

The year Indy beat Lovie Smith's Chicago Bears, I was doing a Sunday piece on Rex Grossman. I knew Rex a bit from his days at Florida, and I waited out the crowd. Finally, I asked Rex about playing in Chicago where not even reaching the Super Bowl was good enough. He let the fans have it. He said you have to keep in mind that none of them know your profession like you do. He talked about his frustrations. Finally, I walked away, feeling like I had a pretty good story in my notebook.

The next day, I woke up, and that story was all over the Chicago media. I had forgotten there were TV's on every podium. The writers had simply watched it on TV and written down what Rex was saying. I was devastated. I thought I had something to myself, and I didn't. I ended up following my own story. Damn it.

During the week, there are also press conferencea, like the one where Terry Bradshaw suggested John Elway had been babied. There are entertainment press conferences (Prince's was the best ever; he simply played three songs with his band). But I'm a Springsteen-Petty guy, so those were entertaining. I'll never forget the voice of ageless Lee Remmel announcing “in the main interview room...Salt and Peppa...”

Friday at the Super Bowl is a busy, busy day. You had the commissioner's press conference in the morning, and then you had to write for Saturday, and invariably for Sunday, too. And if there is another story you want, this is when you get it.

When the Bucs were in the Super Bowl, I went to John Lynch's high school and his neighborhood. When the Colts had been in the Super Bowl, I had done a story on the Rams' Marshall Faulk, and I wrote the sentence “he went to sleep every night with the sound of gun shots in the distance.” Writing the piece on Lynch, I wrote this “he went to sleep every night with the sound of golf shots in the distance.” Lynch always joked about overcoming wealth.

A friend of mine visited Jerome Bettis' high school in Detroit when the Steelers played Seattle. From the moment we walked through the metal detectors, it was a different sort of experience.

Saturday is a light day. You finish your Sunday work. You keep an eye out on the Hall of Fame voting if there is a story you might be interested in. (In the years when Sapp and Derrick Brooks were elected, there was a column to be written.)

I miss a lot on Hall of Fame predictions. The guys I would select usually aren't held in high enough regard by the voters. That's fair.

Sunday is game day. It's one more time to the bus, then you get dropped at the stadium and have to wind your way through and an endless security line. There are bomb-sniffing dogs and metal checkpoints. There is the main press box (I made it 29 times) and an auxiliary press box.

The game has been ridiculed for not being very good, but in recent years, it's been better.

So you write against impossible deadlines. In the Doug Williams' Super Bowl, when he led Washington past Denver, I had to be in at the start of the third quarter. Fortunately, you could do it. Only a guy whose deadline was an hour later wrote something similar to my story. Guess who got fussed at? Yeah, it was me.

Think about it. I spent 29 weeks of my life at this game. Lawrence Taylor gave me a hard time. Marshawn Lynch wouldn't talk to me. Ray Lewis acted like he was the victim. Otis Wilson's son kicked me in the groin while I interviewed him. I heard the real question asked of Doug Williams: No, it wasn't “how long have you been a black quarterback; it was “obviously, you've been a black quarterback all your life, when did it start to matter?” Even Doug remembers that one wrong.

After a while, the games run together. Montana and Manning and Elway and Aikman. Smith and Davis and Bettis and Anderson.

Good game. Good way to spend a career?

Super? Not always, but often enough.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Jim Willson January 30, 2017 at 7:19 pm

Great column Gary….thanks.

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Rick Martin January 30, 2017 at 6:00 am

Enjoyable read. When I was a kid, I played a lot of sports, but I didn’t want to be an athlete: I was too small. But I was the sports writer for my high school newspaper and I thought about pursuing journalism for a couple of semesters. I know it was a pipe dream (like every kid wants to be an astronaut). Again, thanks for sharing your experience in today’s column.

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