HOUSTON - I was aimlessly wandering downtown Houston the night before the Super Bowl, because that’s what you do when even emotions feel like work. I walked along the fencing surrounding Super Bowl Live, which is what the NFL called the carnival it threw all week. I didn’t think of going inside until I peeped in and saw that, just past the chainlink, puppies were wrestling on a miniature football field.
I lived in Houston for a week and I wish I could tell you what it was like. Downtown was a Super Bowl playpen that the city doesn’t deserve to be judged on. I drove all over town, but highways that have right-, left-, and middle-lane exits, and go from five, to three, to four, to two lanes without notice, induced so much tunnel-eyed anxiety in me that I didn’t really see what surrounded them.
All I know is that Houston seems like a really great place to host a Super Bowl. It’s big and open, and probably has more convention centers per capita than any city in the world. If it were any nicer it might lose what makes it so welcoming. It’s spacious and sprawling enough to fit all of its behemoth boom industries with room to spare. And all that makes it just about perfect for accommodating the sort of party that the NFL likes to throw.
Puppies gave my evening a purpose. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy. I had walked around the area of Super Bowl Live along Avenida de la Americas earlier in the week, and the crowds were heavy even then. They would only be worse on Super Bowl Eve, and I hadn’t realized until then that the setup extended several city blocks deep — the host committee bragged that the area of Super Bowl Live was approximately 13 football fields. To find the puppies, I would need to go to the furthest reach of the pen.
I’m small and squirrel-y, and really good at darting through crowds. When I started in, however, I didn’t know that moving would be physically impossible at times.
I got stuck in the middle of some luminescent Truffula trees. They were very pretty, but tough to enjoy when you’re getting shouldered. I’d say this is where tensions ran highest. It was a thoroughfare. People were either coming or going. Parents dragging overstimulated kids headed towards the exits past young, professional types dressed like Bud Light’s targeted demographic.
If your goal really is to cover the Super Bowl, I’m not sure that going to it is the best idea. The underdogs had never won a championship. Atlanta would have been the best place to document the genuine excitement or anxiety about what could have been the end of a 51-year drought. Or go to Boston and see in real time if even they, America’s most blessed fanbase of this century, doubted Tom Brady when the Patriots were down 25 points in the third quarter.
When you’re at the Super Bowl for a week, the only people you can talk to are the players and coaches, and they don’t always want to talk. Which is fine — they’re preparing for the biggest moments of their careers, doing just about anything else would be more productive for them — but it can sometimes feel like you’re doing the runaround for the runaround’s sake. It’s hard to tell who, exactly, you’re working for.
The Super Bowl is very good at blurring the line between ads and attractions. Past the electric grove are tents — just tents — and what’s in them isn’t really all that clear from the outside, or more sensical when you’re inside.
Here is lady twirling around some ropes. She is not an ad:
Here is a picture of a NASA return pod, which is cool as hell, but also shines a light on Houston’s history as the center of manned space excursions. It’s kind of an ad.
And here is a picture of a bunch of people staring at an architect’s model of the new Texas Medical Center. This is just people staring at an ad.
And that about sums up Super Bowl week: A very long walk looking at things you were never looking for.
Super Bowl Live cleared out past the tents. There were food trucks, then a big open lawn and a soundstage at the end of it. Past the wall of sound were just two things: Puppies, and a replica of the James Webb Space Telescope — what will be the most powerful space telescope ever launched.
It was odd seeing the two within a football’s throw each other. One was the embodiment of man’s blind quest to know more about its universe, whatever it may find. The other was its counterargument: Why? At the telescope, a woman handed me a pin and encourage me to take a selfie with it. Here is what that selfie looked like:
The telescope looks like an accordion with a space laser attached. It has been in development for more than 20 years. When it launches in 2018, the hope is that it will see the formation of the first galaxies.
Arriving at the Super Bowl feels foreign. It’s like waking up in a new bed for the first time. They hand you new credentials, and have you go through a rigorous security check, including a full pat-down. Get there early, and you can walk around the service tunnel beneath the stadium and see all the pre-game preparations firsthand. The stadium is free to peruse.
Seeing the field for the first time, empty and calm, is the most arresting moment of the entire week. Some fans took their seats five hours before kickoff. The man in the Julio Jones jersey below paid $2200 for his ticket.
View from the worst seat in the house pic.twitter.com/uUx92AncNJ— Louis Bien (@louisbien) February 5, 2017
He said, “but hey, I’m here.”
The biggest misconception about the Super Bowl is that the crowd is corporate and dull. True, it’s easier to get a ticket if you’re affluent, but the people who attend take the game seriously. Judging by the jerseys, almost no one goes to the game unaffiliated. They’re loud, too.
There’s a sound that you can only hear at a neutral site game. The boos of one half mix with the cheers of another and it creates a din, like the murmurings before the house lights go down before a play BUT EVERYBODY’S YELLING OH WOW THAT DOES SOUND LIKE A COOL PODCAST.
The game passes by quickly in three phases. First, the Patriots and Falcons poke at each other nervously for a quarter and nothing happens. Then the Falcons go up so big that the din quiets down and we all decide that This Is A Boring Game. The third phase begins the first time there is even an idea that the Patriots can come back. There are no sounds during this phase, or even temporal structure. You just emerge on the other side, and realize you’re buzzed.
The puppies are part of the Animal Planet Puppy Bowl Experience. It was harder to get up to the glass that surrounded the puppy football field that puppy football gets played on than to get to the front of a Brady press conference scrum. The crowd was much happier, too. Some people were happy and drunk, as you might be if you stopped at every beer stand from the front of Super Bowl Live to the back.
I watched two games of puppy football. The puppies are very bad at scoring points. A man in a Patriots jersey FaceTimed with his son, which begged the question why his son couldn’t come, and why his father hated him so much that he showed him all the puppies he could have been hanging out with. There was a trivia portion where the referee asked “which of the following is an animal mascot in the NFL” and a woman shouted “Bills!”, which was none of the options.
After the games, the puppy handlers would hold the puppies over the glass so that the crowd could pet them. Some of the puppies were be too scared and they got pulled back. The other puppies were indifferent at best but the crowd seized forward to touch them.
I grabbed a soft puppy paw and shook it. His handler told me that his name was Max. He had a button nose and brown eyes, and brown floppy ears. I don’t know his breed but he was fuzzy.