SB Nation

Jim Shepard | January 29, 2013

The greatest game

Eli, Brady, the Catch, and the American Aftermath

A lot of us have to deal with highs and lows as part of our everyday serving of whup-ass, when it comes to what life is handing us, and those of us who are parents are on a particular kind of roller coaster ride. The only thing I’ve experienced recently that matches the staggering heights and depths of affect associated with raising kids – imagine pitching off the top of Everest and into the Marianas Trench – was a trip, with my 10-year-old son, to not just the Super Bowl, but that Super Bowl: the one with Manning-to-Tyree that derailed the Patriots’ undefeated season; the one that Sports Illustrated in its recent coffee table book Football’s Greatest called the fifth-best game of all time.

My son Emmett (the middle child) has had a pretty charmed life when it comes to sports. His father, a Minnesota Vikings fan, has waited 44 fruitless years for his team to win it all; Emmett started following the Red Sox in 2004. He heard all season about how long it had been since his team had won a World Series, and then he watched them win it. He was 7 at that point, and we got him out of bed before the final out so he could see them celebrate. He became a Miami Heat fan when they drafted Dwyane Wade. You get the idea.

Naturally, then, he was excited but mostly took it in stride when an old student of mine who’d become friends with one of the more prominent sports agents offered us tickets to an Orioles game at Camden Yards. They weren’t just any tickets, either; they were front row on the third base line, right next to the visitors’ dugout. My old student and the agent, Ron Shapiro, would be coming, as well.

And here’s a good rule of thumb, for those of you lucky enough to score such seats: if you’re sitting in the front row next to the visitors’ dugout and you’re wearing the visitors’ cap, and you’re looking totally awestruck and adorable, you’re likely to be tossed a ball by either the pitcher coming in after his pregame warm-up or an outfielder having recorded the inning’s final out. Since Emmett’s little sister Lucy was also with us, we got both. Lucy’s stroke of luck was first; Emmett’s was second.

After we received the first real major league baseball from a real major league baseball player, we were all beside ourselves with joy. The second, late in the game, felt like an embarrassment of riches. But Emmett was thrilled: he’d watched his little sister get a ball, and now he had one, too. Behind him, a boy his age looked on at our family’s good fortune the way Oliver Twist looked at that bowl of gruel. I could see him catch Emmett’s eye. My wife and I watched an at-bat or two on the field while Emmett gazed at what he was holding.

And then he turned and asked the boy behind him if he wanted the ball.

The boy was floored, but no more than we were, and no more than Emmett was. He accepted the ball from Emmett and held it out in front of him like someone had handed him the world’s most fragile egg. Emmett, meanwhile, had turned back around to face the field with a What did I just do? look on his face.

"Are you sure you want to do that?" my wife asked him. He nodded, but his stricken expression was so affecting that we immediately rushed to tell him how wonderful a gesture it was. All our praise seemed to just save him from bursting into tears.

He watched the next inning in kind of a daze. The boy behind him kept thanking him, still holding the ball out in such a way that I began to wonder if his arms were getting tired.

And here’s the other thing that saved Emmett from tears, when our praise started to lose some of its effect: Ron Shapiro had noticed his gesture, as well, and said to him that that was one of the nicest things he had ever seen, and that because of it, he was issuing Emmett a standing invitation: whenever Emmett wanted to come down to Camden Yards to see the Sox, he was welcome.

So: Emmett has now started going almost every year. And our living room bookcase now holds six baseballs handed to us by one Red Sox or another. But wait: it gets better. Two years later, two days before the first Giants-Patriots Super Bowl in Phoenix in 2008, we got a call: Ron’s son-in-law, then Jets coach Eric Mangini, wasn’t using his tickets. Did we want to go?

she gave me a look and said, "Sweetie, it’s the Super Bowl"

Emmett was by then a huge Patriots fan, and this, of course, was to be the culmination of their up-to-that-point undefeated season. Did he want to go? Are you kidding me? But: did his Dad want to go? Well, that was a more complicated question. Besides the checkbook-staggering cost of the game tickets, Dad had to shell out for two roundtrip flights at the very last minute, which were, of course, as expensive as flying to Nome. Dad also had work on Monday, which meant they’d have to get the redeye back, leaving Phoenix at sometime around two in the morning. But when I mentioned these concerns to my wife, she gave me a look and said, "Sweetie, it’s the Super Bowl," exactly the way Bob Cratchit admonished his wife when she was unable to refrain from expressing some bitterness about Scrooge, "My dear, it’s Christmas Day."

Emmett wearing his new Randy Moss jersey before the game.

So we were in. That was it; we were going. Emmett layered on his Patriots paraphernalia, and his Dad, so that we might be spotted by relatives watching on TV, threw on his bright yellow Team Sweden hockey jersey – it’s a long story -- and off they went to the airport. The game was at University of Phoenix Stadium, and since there’s no university around it – the university has no intercollegiate sports program, and in fact the stadium’s name is applied only as a corporate sponsor (how perfect is that?) -- the building, which looks like a cross between the Metrodome and the mothership from Close Encounters of the Third Kind, sits in an expanse of desert 27 miles outside of town. Those are two of the details – expanse of desert, 27 miles from town – that you should keep in mind as this story proceeds.

We got a cab from the airport out to the stadium in plenty of time for Emmett to wander around the pre-game carnival set up for the visitors, a maze of attractions that formed a sort of a cross between the Pro Football Hall of Fame and a Chuck E Cheese’s: I got to see Adrian Peterson’s game jersey, and Emmett got to play lots of NFL Experience-type games. From there we made our way to his real heart’s desire, a Wal-Mart-sized Super Bowl Shop that, inside, was the way Macy’s would look during an everything-for-a-dollar sale: people had shopping carts mounded so high with jerseys and helmets and foam fingers that you couldn’t see who was pushing them. Except that everything was most definitely not a dollar. But even I wasn’t so cheap that I could refuse the look on Emmett’s face when he held up a special Randy Moss Commemorative Super Bowl Jersey, a steal at $129.99. We also got a $16 lanyard for his Super Bowl ticket. He layered both over what he was already wearing.

the next five hours had to provide the greatest contrast between exhilaration and frustration that I’ve experienced

What followed over the next five hours had to provide the greatest contrast between exhilaration and frustration that I’ve experienced on this earth. The website for Super Bowl visitors, which my wife had been prescient enough to check out before we left, cautioned us that because of security no knapsacks larger than 12 inches by 12 inches would be allowed into the stadium, and so we had brought along a knapsack of hers that was much smaller – about the size of a cantaloupe – to carry all of Emmett’s necessities: camera, iPod and headphones, etc. At the security checkpoint we discovered that no knapsacks or handbags of any size were being allowed in. What about the explicit statements to the contrary on the NFL’s own website? I wanted to know. No knapsacks or handbags of any size. What was she supposed to do with her handbag? a woman in front of me asked. Those manning the security checkpoint didn’t care, but it couldn’t enter the stadium. What we were supposed to do with the stuff in our bags? we wanted to know. Those manning the security checkpoint didn’t care, but it couldn’t enter the stadium. We were welcome to buy bags at the Super Bowl Shop. So everyone standing on line dumped everything out of whatever they were carrying and stuffed as much as they could into pockets and clutched the rest to their chests. And a huge pyramid of bags and knapsacks grew where we turnstiled into the stadium.

Even so, I couldn’t stay aggravated long. It turned out that our seats were on the 40-yard line, which was already thrilling news as far as Emmett was concerned. But one of the cherished memories of my life will always be that of watching him proceed down the correct aisle, once it was pointed out to him, and turn every few rows to ask me with his eyes: Here? only to see me shake my head. Because each time, my head shake meant No, we’re even closer, and each time his eyes got wider and we kept going. We ended up in row 18, so close that he could have thrown a rock and hit the center of the field. The Patriots had just come out for their warm-ups. Emmett had expressed the hope on the plane that he might see guys like Brady and Moss from not too far away. From here he could see their expressions. He could hear their chat.

Given whose seats we had, I’d been wondering if I’d be shoulder to shoulder with other NFL coaches, but I didn’t see any. There were plenty of ex-players and even Hall of Famers coming and going from the area, though: Doug Williams and Cris Collinsworth wandered by, chatting, as did Jerry Rice. Emmett, a big celebrity hound, was thrilled by that, too. Once the game started they disappeared, maybe to watch the game from the luxury boxes. That left some grade B celebrities around us: CNN anchors and that sort of thing.

Emmett has also never met a concession stand he didn’t like, so he wanted to visit a real Super Bowl concession stand, so we did: two chicken tenders and sodas, $42. We ate in our seats while various chaotic and noisy pregame crap went on on the field. Then, finally, the game started.

John Elway joins Matt Ufford in the SB Nation Studio to preview the Super Bowl and discuss his present role with the Broncos. View all videos on our NFL Channel

The reader will note that one of the other gifts from heaven into which Emmett lucked was the game itself, almost certainly the best of all of the 46 Super Bowls played so far. It was so well played, in fact, that even Emmett, all of 10-years-old, and seeing his first game live, could sense how good a game it was. There didn’t seem to be any blown assignments. Everyone knew his job and did it. The Patriots executed as smoothly as they ever did, with one major caveat: they were getting trampled by the Giants’ defensive line, which was hitting or getting hands in the face of Tom Brady on nearly every passing play. Brady’s solution, the dump-off to Wes Welker, worked all day long, but only moved them down the field in 4- and 5-yard increments, and after however many first downs that way, a sack would inevitably end the drive.

Meanwhile Emmett wasn’t the only one open-mouthed with awe. I’d seen NFL games live before, but not from that low or that close, and for me the revelation of the game at that proximity was the extent to which guys with that kind of size and speed shrank the field: I suddenly understood viscerally why it is that turning the corner in the NFL is so hard. I kept thinking to myself, this can’t be a regulation-sized field. It was like watching four of my friends try to play in a hallway.

It was also wonderful to be able to look at what I wanted to look at. On the Patriots’ go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter, Junior Seau, who’d waited so long for a championship, was so agonized with nerves that he wandered away from their bench and all the way past the pylon in the corner of the far end zone, and stood by himself, bending over and straightening up, bending over and straightening up.

By that point he already knew he was part of a classic

By that point he already knew he was part of a classic. Everyone around us did too. Strangers started telling each other what a privilege it was to be there, and that was before the fourth-quarter even began. There were loud and cocksure Giants fans in front of us and nearly as loud and equally cocksure Patriots fans alongside and behind us, and even they were exchanging high fives and admitting that both teams deserved to win as the quarter began. And then the truly once-in-a-lifetime unfolded, as everyone remembers: on that final drive, Manning Houdini’d away from what looked to be a certain sack and chucked it downfield, and then on top of that, Tyree went up and had his legs taken out from under him and even as he started to pinwheel he pinned the ball with one hand onto the top of his helmet, and proceeded to hold on to it. He held on to it with Rodney Harrison draped all over him and coming down with him, trying to wrench it free. Once the stadium had truly grasped what it had just seen, even the Patriots fans were shouting and back-slapping each other. We all knew we’d witnessed the equivalent of Franco Harris’ Immaculate Reception, except at the Super Bowl, and on the game’s most important drive. The whole sequence of events that finished the game was so amazing that Emmett, watching his favorite team’s undefeated season slip away, really only allowed himself about two minutes of sadness while looking on, after the final gun. And then while I watched he just brightened and brightened. (Of course it helped that he so loved the confetti that filled the space above us afterwards, and being able to actually see the Super Bowl trophy.) I had enough sense to let him work it through on his own, without cajoling. It also helped that one of the Patriots fans behind us was a boy his age who had realized that he had the Giants, 17-14, in his school’s pool, and that he now stood to win $700. Talk about mixed emotions. So Emmett, watching that kid negotiate the roller coaster of his responses, worked through his own ambivalence, and came out the other end thrilled for the kid, and, the more he thought about it, for himself. He finally turned to me after we’d watched the Giants’ celebration for however many minutes and said, "We just witnessed history." I felt like I was standing next to Walter Cronkite.

how much trouble would I have to go through to make this not worth it? I was about to find out

Ah, but if only the experience had ended there. I’d had an uneasy premonition upon my first glimpse of the stadium’s isolation on the ride in that getting a taxi out might be a little more of a challenge. It turned out that it was a challenge the way getting a helicopter ride during the fall of Saigon was a challenge. It had been such a thrill to see what a thrill the game had given Emmett (and of course, he was reacting to my happiness, as well, without fully registering that my happiness was mostly about him) that I had thought, standing there under all the confetti, Well, how much trouble would I have to go through to make this not worth it? I was about to find out.

We made our way down the stadium’s ramps to an exit as likely as any other and approached one of the many cheerful elderly that the city had signed up as volunteers to help visitors. They were outfitted in red vests with big buttons that urged the confused to bring them their questions. I asked a pair of volunteers the location of the taxi stand. Their faces fell, crestfallen, as though I’d asked for the location of the Monterey Aquarium. They didn’t know. Emmett and I found another exit and asked another pair of elderly volunteers. They didn’t know, either.

A third pair did know: the taxi stand was out their exit to the left. We thanked them and walked 50 yards around the outside of the stadium, but it was clear that there was nothing but desert ahead. I backtracked and returned to the pair, who apologized for their mistake and said that the taxi stand was on the opposite end of the stadium. Oh, and that there was no re-entry.

We had just come out this exit, I told them; they’d seen me. And we only came out this exit because they’d told us to. Were they really going to make us walk all the way around the stadium, now? They were.

Father and son, outside of the stadium, in the middle of nowhere.

We walked all the way around the stadium. At the other end some other elderly volunteers said that they didn’t know where their peers would have gotten such an odd notion, but that the taxi stand wasn’t here; it was back where we’d started. We walked back. Great tides of people around us were doing the same thing. It was apparent that a sizable part of the crowd had no idea how to get out of there.

There was a taxi stand, it turned out. So that was the good news. It was empty and deserted, though. That was the bad news. I finally found an NFL security guy who explained that taxis weren’t being allowed within a two mile ring of the stadium because of security issues. What security issues? I wanted to know. He looked at me like part of his job was dealing with imbeciles. How were people getting back to the city or the airport? I wanted to know. He said most had arranged for a private car in advance. I asked how we were supposed to know to do that, and he shrugged. I asked why that interesting detail about the taxis hadn’t been on the NFL’s Super Bowl website. He said he didn’t know what was or wasn’t on the Super Bowl website. I asked where we might get a taxi. He pointed to a smudge of red light on the horizon: that was a TGIF and a hotel. I could probably call a taxi from there. How far away was that? I asked him. He estimated about two miles.

Poor Emmett by this point was already beat from the trip and all the excitement and his two circumnavigations of the stadium, but, sensing that his Dad might be in state of mind that would land him in prison, volunteered that it didn’t seem that far. So off we went, hand in hand. We weren’t alone.

See, here’s the thing that the NFL clearly hadn’t figured on: yes, there were all kinds of corporate Masters of the Universe and wannabe Masters of the Universe that had reserved in advance their limos, but there were also a lot of 20 and 30-something guys – i-banker types -- from New York and Boston, and guys from New York and Boston always assume that they can get cabs. We were all converging on that one dumpy little restaurant and hotel, with many of us about to miss our flights, and even more of us in increasingly bad moods.

You can imagine how things went from there. Or maybe you can’t. The besieged doorman at the hotel informed everyone that the hotel ran no shuttles to the airport or anywhere else, and that as far as he could tell there was about a three hour wait for a taxi. Occasionally a taxi was spotted heading our way and was intercepted in the street by groups of guys who offered the drivers so much cash that the drivers just took their offers. One poor family that was first in line kept shouting into the distance, "That’s our cab! That’s our cab!" And the cabs pulled away with guys hanging out the windows. It really did look like those photos of people hanging from the landing skids of the helicopters in Saigon. We’d left the stadium at around eight, Phoenix time, and at eleven we were still at that hotel. I was begging every group that got a cab to let us on their laps and that we’d pay the fare. I started showing them Emmett, who by that point could barely stand. However many different groups said no. Some didn’t even answer me. At one point Emmett said to me, all bleary and teary, "So no one’s going to let us leave?"

Finally I told another group that Emmett had a fever. They looked him over and by that point it did seem plausible. So they said yes. We piled in with them and Emmett fell asleep across me before I even closed the door. We got to our gate at the airport with about 20 minutes to spare for a 2 a.m. flight.

Unsurprisingly, Emmett still talks about that night as one of the great experiences of his life. My wife always says to him, teasingly, "So how mad was Daddy?" when he talks about the postgame chaos. But he seems to have found both experiences useful, and I think I understand why. Because in some ways both experiences dropped him into the deep end of the pool, when it comes to providing him with a glimpse of the kinds of exhilarations and crises that this 21st century world has in store for his generation. And as his father, I want to be there to help him negotiate that world however I can. But whenever I worry that there’s only so much that we as parents can do, I remind myself: it wasn’t our idea that he give that kid the ball.

About the Author

Shepard

Jim Shepard was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and is the author of six novels, including most recently Project X, and four story collections, including the forthcoming You Think That's Bad (March 2011). His third collection, Like You'd Understand, Anyway, was a finalist for the National Book Award and won The Story Prize. Project X won the 2005 Library of Congress/Massachusetts Book Award for Fiction, as well as the ALEX Award from the American Library Association. His short fiction has appeared in, among other magazines, Harper's, McSweeney's, The Paris Review, The Atlantic Monthly, Esquire, DoubleTake, the New Yorker, Granta, Zoetrope: All-Story, and Playboy, and he was a columnist on film for the magazine The Believer. Four of his stories have been chosen for the Best American Short Stories and one for a Pushcart Prize. He's won an Artists' Grant from the Massachusetts Cultural Council and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He teaches at Williams College and lives in Williamstown with his wife Karen, his three children, and two beagles.

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