Art Spander is one of the most decorated and prolific American sports writers ever. Across 56 years, he has covered 50 Masters Tournaments, 33 Wimbledons, 34 Final Fours, and attended or covered 63 consecutive Rose Bowls. This year he will attend his 40th Super Bowl, an event he started covering during his stint with the San Francisco Chronicle from 1965 to 1979, and through his current job writing for the San Francisco Examiner ever since.
Spander has done a lot, but that clout bought him no sympathy when, during Super Bowl Opening Night on Monday, he accidentally picked up the gray-green backpack of Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and walked away.
“You know how you land at the luggage area and they say, 'If any bags look the same?’ That's what happened,” Spander told SB Nation. “The good thing is I got my computer. He got his game plan. Neither bag was opened.”
It was purely an accident — media night is always frenzied, and mix-ups can easily happen — but during Super Bowl week of all weeks, especially with the New England Patriots involved, Spander was accused of acting as a spy for head coach Bill Belichick. Spander insisted that he had no ill intentions.
“Bill Belichick didn't pay me off. He doesn't even know who I am,” Spander said. “My favorite Belichick interview was after they lost to the Giants about five years ago, it was in Arizona for the Super Bowl, and he was about as sour as a lemon -- 'Yeah. No. They played well. We didn't play well.' So I'm certainly not going to be an advocate of his.”
Here’s what happened:
During media night, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn and select players were at podiums at the edge of the interview floor inside Minute Maid Park. The rest of team milled around the floor, and the assistant coaches sat in the stands. Spander stood behind Shanahan’s chair as the coach took questions from all sides. After about 12 minutes, Spander had gotten all the material he needed, so he picked up what he thought was his bag and went back to the media area.
Spander had Shanahan’s bag for about 25 minutes.
“And all of a sudden I'm getting these phone calls -- ringing, ringing, ringing -- one after another,” Spander said. “I don't know what's going on, and I see the number ‘703,’ which is the area code here, and I thought it was somebody trying to reach me from one of the papers, and I get this message talking about, 'come back to Kyle Shanahan.'
“I don't know what they're talking about. But I had my backpack with me, or I think it's mine. I walk back, and I see somebody from the Falcons go, 'There it is! You have it!' And I say, 'What?' And he says, 'Shanahan's backpack.' I said, 'Oh!’”
After the mix-up was resolved, Shanahan told Spander that the bag had all of his game plans in it. Spander told Shanahan, “'I don't care about the game plans, I'd be lost without my computer. That's more important to me than game plans.’”
Then, because he is a San Francisco writer after all, Spander asked Shanahan why he wasn’t already coaching the 49ers — “And he laughed. His Dad and I know each other.”
For the first time in a decades-long career covering countless stories, Spander became the story. Not only has his phone been ringing constantly, but Falcons fans replied to his tweet about the incident with some unkind words. Spander doesn’t care.
“Nothing fazes me. I covered Marilyn Monroe's funeral, I covered a riot in Los Angeles,” Spander said. “In other words, this is sports, fans are crazy, I understand that, they don't like what you write.”
Then he added: “I don't even know how to read a game plan.”
Kyle Shanahan had some magic in that backpack, didn't he?— Art Spander (@artspander) February 6, 2017