By Jonathan Gault
February 7, 2017
HOUSTON — I went to Super Bowl LI. It was a lot of fun. Weldon Johnson (aka my boss) asked me to write about it. So I did.
Obviously this isn’t a typical LetsRun.com story. I’m not going to be discussing running at all, and if that doesn’t interest you, I totally understand. See you later this week for the Millrose preview!
This story won’t feature any X’s or O’s breakdowns or behind-the-scenes stories about what Tom Brady said in the huddle on the final drive. I went to the Super Bowl as a fan, so that’s the perspective I’ll give you. And full disclosure: I’m a Patriots fan. So if that turns you off, stop reading now.
(Editor’s note: Great, 65% of people just stopped reading. The rest are upset with the sanctimonious Patriots fan pretending he cares what we think of him.)
The first thing to know is, if you’re a serious fan of one of the teams involved, a Super Bowl trip is irrevocably linked with the outcome of the game. Throughout the weekend, I tried to convince myself that this was not true. It’ll be great to spend a weekend with my family. It will be fun catching up with my friend in Austin. I’m checking off a massive bucket list item. But I couldn’t fully relax until after the game. Even as I was creating the memories, I couldn’t help thinking, Don’t become too attached to this one — it might trigger some bad game memories when you look back on it 10 years from now. I can’t pretend to know how Atlanta fans are feeling right now (though as someone who suffered through Super Bowl XLII, I have an idea), but my guess is if the Falcons had wound up blowing out the Patriots, I’d try everything I could to stop reminding myself of that fact.
But that uncertainty is the beauty of sports. It wouldn’t be any fun to go to a sporting event where the outcome is predetermined. When you become a dedicated fan of an NFL team, there’s a risk that your heart may be broken. Heck, with 32 NFL franchises, chances are your heart will be broken at some point. That’s part of the deal.
(Editor’s note: We really think Jon is being sincere here. A normal adult Boston sports fan would not even think he needs to remind his readers “your heart may be broken” at a sporting event. But Jon is not a normal Boston adult sports fan. He moved to America in 2001 from England. Since then the Patriots have made 11 AFC Championship Games, 7 Super Bowls, and won 5 of them. The Boston Red Sox have made 5 ALCS, 3 World Series and won all of them. The Boston Celtics have made 4 Conference Finals, 2 NBA Finals and won 1 NBA title. The Boston Bruins have made 2 Stanley Cup finals and won 1. 2006 and 2009 are the only years of Jon’s American existence he hasn’t had a team in a conference final.)
I went to the game with my mom, dad and sister. Our itinerary for the trip consisted of a de facto Tour de Texas. Because flights from Boston to Houston were outrageously expensive, we flew into and out of Dallas (four hours from Houston). And because hotels in Houston were outrageously expensive, we stayed in Austin (three hours from Dallas, three hours from Houston). As we drove to NRG Stadium on Super Bowl Sunday, I was nervous for the game. And then I thought to myself, If the Patriots lose, we’ll have to drive three hours back to Austin on Sunday night. And another three hours to Dallas on Monday. And then a three-hour flight back to Boston from an airport full of happy Falcons fans. None of that was particularly appealing, especially because I knew my dad would be in an even worse mood than me. But I tried to keep that out of my mind. Mostly, I was excited. I was going to the Super Bowl!
Because we had stayed outside the city all weekend, it never really felt like the Super Bowl until we got off the highway in Houston. Immediately, our car was surrounded by fans in football jerseys. The Barstool Sports bus drove by us. Every business within two blocks of the stadium was renting out its parking lot, some charging as much as $100. We pulled into the stadium’s Yellow Lot four and a half hours before kickoff, then headed toward the stadium.
I’ve always enjoyed the sights and smells of the parking lot on an NFL gameday, but this was something different entirely. For starters, there were two very different sets of fans hanging out in close proximity, Brady bros crushing beers a few feet away from Falcons fans blasting country music. The biggest difference between the Super Bowl and a normal NFL game, however, is the excitement. Everyone there knows they’re lucky — not just because their team is in the big game, but because they somehow got tickets, too. I didn’t hear any trash talk on my walk toward the entrance, only cheers. Patriots fans offered cries of support as I passed them. One group of tailgaters was even offering a free shot of Fireball to any Pats fan (I declined). Falcons fans were content to ignore me, instead yelling, “Rise up!” whenever they caught sight of a red jersey. The parking lots were full of happiness.
Once we entered the secure area outside the stadium, I was struck by the magnitude of the event: the security presence, the ubiquitous Super Bowl LI logos, the massive images of Tom Brady and Matt Ryan on the NRG Stadium exterior, the long lines and inflated prices ($6 for bottled water, $12 for a bottle of Bud Light). Fans of all colors, from two very different parts of the country, united by their shared love of sport and spectacle. It all felt very American.
We made our way to our seats about two and a half hours before kickoff, giving me time to catch up with Race Results Weekly’s Chris Lotsbom (like me, a diehard Pats fan who had made the trip to Houston) and my friend Dave (a Falcons fan). As the fans poured in, I began scouting out our section. How many Pats fans were nearby? Who would I high-five after big plays? We were in the final four seats in the back row of section 544, and as kickoff approached, all of the seats around us were occupied by Falcons fans or neutrals, save for the two directly to my left which were empty. As I departed for some snacks before kickoff, I hoped to be greeted by some blue jerseys upon my return.
In line, I struck up a conversation with the guy behind me. I don’t normally do this but, again, everyone at the Super Bowl is in a good mood before kickoff and I needed something to distract me from the overwhelmed concession worker who was preventing our line from moving an inch. He mentioned how he had several hundred dollars riding on the under (postscript: sorry bud!) and complained about the douchey Pats fans directly in front of us. I felt that was an unfair assumption even if, with their well-coiffed hair, expensive shoes and discussion of the stock market, they were the physical embodiment of entitled Boston fans. But my new friend had thought that one of them had cut in line, and to him, it was proof of every negative stereotype about Boston fans.
After what seemed like an eternity, I finally returned to my seat with my $14 nachos. Shortly thereafter, a couple in Falcons gear shuffled past me and plopped down into the seats to my left. We were officially surrounded.
“Man, I was really hoping you were going to be Patriots fans,” I told them.
As the game wore on, I came to believe that statement more and more. Through a scoreless first quarter, the atmosphere in our section was tense but cordial. But as the Falcons began piling up points in the second quarter, their fans grew more confident. Mostly, I didn’t mind the cheering, especially because many yelled loudly while Atlanta was on offense, something you shouldn’t do as it makes it more difficult for your team to hear its playcalls. In English soccer, they divide fans of the two teams into different sections for cup finals. That’s not the case with the Super Bowl, and with the resale market accounting for such a large percentage of ticket sales, it never will be. So I was prepared to deal with some supporters of the opposition. Even so, a couple of fans were beginning to gnaw on me. When Robert Alford returned a Tom Brady interception for an 82-yard touchdown, the guy to my left — let’s call him Cocky Falcons Fan — began shouting “It’s over! It’s over!”
As the Falcons padded their lead to 28-3, his ego continued to swell.
“We’re not the Steelers. Now you’re facing a real offense!” he yelled.
Cocky Falcons Fan never shouted anything directly at me, so I couldn’t take too much offense, even though my family and I were the only Patriots fans in his vocal radius. But it was no longer a friendly situation. I stared straight ahead whenever he said anything, refusing to be antagonized or provide him with further satisfaction. I was also growing to dislike the woman seated in front of my sister, whom I could not figure out. She was wearing a Joe Montana jersey and had come to the game with someone dressed in a John Elway jersey, who looked to be her son. But she cheered for the Falcons louder than anyone in our section, save for Cocky Falcons Fan. Any time a flag went against the Falcons, the refs and/or the Patriots were somehow cheating. It didn’t matter that we were so far away that there’s no way any of us could tell whether the call was legitimate (and that the video board never showed replays of penalties).
At that point, the game itself had been a miserable experience. I had traveled all the way from Boston only to see my team get blown out, to the delight of everyone else in my section and the rest of the country. At 21-0, I still held out some hope, but it was seriously fading at 28-3, where I was running through scenarios to figure out what, exactly, the Patriots had to do to win the game. I concluded that New England would almost certainly lose, but reminded myself of two facts.
If the Patriots win, it will be the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history.
We’ve got Tom Brady.
Afraid of having my words thrown back in my face later in the game, I refrained from making any brash statements during the early stages of the Pats’ comeback. Even once the Patriots narrowed the gap to 16 points, nominally a two-score game, I was cautious, knowing that they needed two two-point conversions just to tie. But I also knew the game wasn’t over and, emboldened by the early brashness of Cocky Falcons Fan, I began cheering more and more, abiding by two rules: 1) Cheer for the Patriots, not against the Falcons and 2) Don’t be an asshole. We were outnumbered, both in our section and the stadium overall, and I didn’t want to become Cocky Patriots Fan.
Anyone who watched the game knows what happened in the fourth quarter, so I won’t expand on it too much here (plus, if there are any Patriots haters reading this, I don’t want to rub it in). The Patriots rallied back. I reacted as you might imagine, with growing excitement for every big play. Danny Amendola’s game-tying two-point conversion changed my mindset from “the Pats have a chance to win” to “I like the Pats’ chances to win.” Cocky Falcons Fan barely said a peep from the end of the third quarter onward.
During the coin toss for overtime, I couldn’t hear referee Carl Cheffers, so I just paid attention to the Pats fans around me — easy to do as the re-energized New England fans were all standing while the dumbfounded Falcons fans slumped in their seats. The body language informed me that the Patriots had won the toss.
Then the Patriots won the game, and my entire family went insane, hugging each other, jumping up and down, yelling incoherently, something along the lines of:
Before the game, I had told my dad about potentially wanting to stay and watch the trophy presentation, even if Atlanta won. This might be my only Super Bowl, after all. But once the Patriots went down 28-3, I realized I wanted no part of that trophy presentation. And if I were a Falcons’ fan? You couldn’t have paid me to stick around and watch the Patriots receive that trophy. So I totally understood when the poor Falcons fans to our left shuffled by us quickly. A couple of them (not Cocky Falcons Fan) even offered a handshake and a “good game” — an extremely classy gesture that I won’t forget.
With the Falcons fans exiting the building, I pulled out my phone to snap some pictures with my family and FaceTime with my friends back home. Chris Lotsbom showed up and almost tackled me to the ground, embracing me in a bear hug of disbelief and joy. We had both come to the Super Bowl because we had never been to one and knew this might be our last chance to witness a Patriots victory. Watching your team win the Super Bowl in person is supposed to be the greatest experience any football fan can have, and Sunday night in Houston certainly lived up to the hype. And for the Patriots to do it in that fashion, after being down 25 points…well at this point, I still can’t quite believe it actually happened. I soaked in every moment.
Editor’s Weldon’s note: I hoped Jon enjoyed the game as it’s now the era of the Dallas Cowboys).